Everything's Coming Up Sarajevo Roses

numinous adj. Describing an experience that makes you fearful yet fascinated, overwhelmed yet inspired.

 I don’t even know where to start on Sarajevo but I’ll put it in terms that help me to conceptualize it. You know when you read a book or watch a film or documentary that is just so overwhelmingly inspiring and horrifying and thought provoking all at the same time? That was Sarajevo for me. Despite my wonderful experience in Mostar, I was again nervous about Sarajevo, but mostly because my bus was coming in late at night to an infamously sketchy station quite far from the Old Town where my hostel was. If I could just make it from the bus station to the hostel, I would be fine. And while I sat on that late night bus, running over my plan to take a tram in my head and telling myself all would be well and that I could probably take out anyway by swinging around and hitting them with my pack, I was once again surprised by the utter kindness of the people there. A woman who had been sitting a couple rows ahead of me on the bus suddenly got up and sat in the seat next to me. She smiled and in perfect English said, “Look I know you’re probably perfectly capable of taking care of yourself but I live in Sarajevo and I know this bus station can be a little bit scary so I’d like to help you get where you’re going.” I told her the name of my hostel and coincidentally, she also lived in Old Town near where it was located. She invited me to take a taxi with her and I happily agreed. As the bus rolled into Sarajevo, we introduced ourselves. Her name was Emina though she was Bosnian, she had actually lived in America, in Atlanta the New York City, for almost twenty years before moving back to Sarajevo. The minute we got off the bus, we climbed in one of the many taxis that always frequent bus stations and she instructed him right to my hostel, something I would have been incapable of doing with my nonexistent knowledge of the language. Though I insisted on paying for the taxi, she wouldn’t allow it. “I have a job! You don’t,” she told me before handing me her business card and telling me to call her if I needed absolutely anything. As I waved while the taxi drove away, I shook my head in disbelief at the sheer generosity of the people there. Perhaps the cities in Bosnia are scarred and run down, but for all aesthetic beauty it may lack, it makes up for in beautiful kindness of its people. For all my fears of Bosnia and all the warnings I had been given, I had never in my life encountered such widespread kindness and I was never so happy to have my misconceptions proven wrong.

Upon walking into Hostel Story, I was instantly bombard with the sweet musty smell of shisha and the sight of hookahs of all shapes and sizes lining the wall. There’s something you don’t see everyday. My later wanderings past numerous hookah bars would confirm that it is a very common pass time in Sarajevo. While I admit to occasionally partaking in the act of smoking hookah among friends back home, something about the idea of smoking it on an apparatus that has been in God knows how many peoples’ mouths is just something that doesn’t sound too appealing to me. Just the room for me, thanks. Yet again, I was placed in an entirely empty bunk room as I began to question whether these hostels in Eastern Europe ever filled to capacity. But I was also not about to complain about being able to sleep and get dressed in peace without having to pay extra for the privacy.

The next day was the only day I really had to see Sarajevo since I would be leaving early the following morning and I had a lot to see. My first destination was Sarajevo’s Stari Grad, or Old Town as a reminder from my last post. On my way in, who did I bump into but Emina, the woman who had taken care of the taxi for me last night. We both laughed at the coincidence but it was actually perfect timing because I was not entirely sure how to get to the bus station the following day, a different one from the one I had arrived at, this one even further away (also confusing referred to as Sarajevo East despite being in the southwest corner of the city). No one I had asked so far that morning had been in the least bit helpful. “There’s another bus station?” the receptionist at my hostel had oh so helpfully asked. “You just take a regular bus,” the lady at the tourist office told me, apparently unaware that buses didn’t start running until long after my bus was set to leave. Emina, however, once again saved my life. “Oh a trolley bus will be perfect for you! They start running early and all you need to do is hop on the 103 and get off at the last stop. The bus station is just straight down the street from there.” She even showed me right where the stop was to get on just across the Latin Bridge (where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot) and again reminded me to call if I need anything. I’ve said how I am not a religious person but if ever I have believed there was an angel sent to watch over me, I believed Emina was it.

After having answered that question and sorted out the logistics of the next stage of my journey, I felt much more at ease and was all set to devote all my attention and focus to Sarajevo. When I visit cities I’m a bit like a bird, and not just because I gravitate toward free food, but mostly because I am easily drawn by shiny trinkets and bright colored bits and bobs. That’s why I love these Old Town parts of cities because the streets are lined with various trinket stands and hole-in-the-wall shops containing all sorts of treasures. I spent a great deal of my morning just looking at everything Sarajevo was selling and there I could feel the authenticity of it all. It wasn’t like Italy where you had Asian stores trying to sell “genuine” Italian leather bag or anywhere else where most of the souvenirs are mass produced then imported in. As you walk down the streets in Sarajevo, you hear the constant clinking of artisans hammering away on metal plates to craft the things they sell. You can see people sitting on the curb next to their shop tooling away at leather or painting famous city landmarks onto simple stones. Everything there is real, beautiful things made by the hands of those who once suffered so much, and that perhaps is why I even splurged a little and bought myself a couple things like a Bosnian leather wallet and a bullet keychain engraved right in front of me with the word “Sarajevo”. I hadn’t originally intended on making the latter purchase but after I got talking to the young girl in the shop, probably not extraordinarily older than myself, she mentioned how most of the bullet crafts you see were special because “they show how something beautiful can be made from something terrible”. And that, I thought, summed up Sarajevo as a whole: beautiful people who endured the unthinkable and still manage to smile as evidence that life goes on. Bosnia represents simultaneously the best and worst of humanity.

I realize I’ve been talking in very vague terms about what these people endured. For those of who are not well versed on recent Eastern Europe history, as I wasn’t before taking this trip, here’s a brief background of what happened in Bosnia. Most modern Eastern European counties were actually all combined into the Yugoslavic empire, a communist regime, prior to the 1990s. As communism began to decline in the decades before that, however, Yugoslavia grew unstable but it wasn’t July 25, 1991, when both Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence from Yugoslavia that the wars began. Bosnia did not declare independence until February 29, 1992 after an overwhelming 70% vote in favor. Bosnia is essentially comprised of three different ethnic groups: the Croats (Catholic Bosnians), the Bosniaks (Muslim Bosnians), and the Serbs (Bosnians whose loyalty lay with Yugoslavia and the 30% who did not vote in favor of independence). Their declaration of independence angered the Bosnian Serbs and in just over a month, on April 6, all out war broke out in Sarajevo at a protest at the Parliament building.

Almost immediately, Sarajevo’s army base, which was unfortunately compromised of Serbs was withdrawn to fight against Bosnian independence, leaving Sarajevo itself almost entirely defenseless. The Serbain army took advantage of this weakness and surrounded the capital city, placing it under what would become nearly a four year siege, one of the longest known to modern warfare. The next four years for Sarajevo were a hell on earth. The Serbian army took position in the mountains surrounding the city making it entirely impossible to get supplies in or people out. On top of that, they assaulted the city daily, not in any strategic way to target military or political posts, but random ruthless shelling that killed mostly innocent citizens. The constant danger, the constant attacks, became a form of both psychological and literal warfare. After the war, it was calculated that an average of 330 shells were dropped on Sarajevo EVERY DAY for 1,425 days, the highest number being 3,777 dropped on July 22, 1993. Just imagine that for a second. Imagine four years of constantly wondering if your house was going to be next, knowing and fearing that your fate could rest on an entirely random decision to push a button. In America we like to overuse the word terrorism so much that it has run out of meaning in many respects but THAT is true terrorism.

And the assaults weren’t the only danger to the citizens. It wasn’t long before they began to run out of food and water. The Bosnian army, locked outside Sarajevo, decided something had to be done. They strategically began construction on a underground passage that ran right under the Sarajevo airport, which was considered UN territory and thus untouchable by the Serbian forces (unless they wanted a whole different storm on their hands). After only four months and four days, the 800 meter long tunnel was completed and provided an access route between Sarajevo and the small funnel of Bosnian territory between Serbian troops. Yet the tunnel was still dangerous as its exit point was a house volunteered by a woman whose son was fighting the war. This house lay outside the protected UN territory and once out of the tunnel, escapees still needed to run 2km before being safely in Bosnian territory. Some died right as they emerged into daylight, indicated by the multiple Sarajevo Roses right around the exit point. These Sarajevo Roses are impact marks on concrete that have been painted red to symbolize where bombs were dropped that killed one or more people. I couldn’t help but think they were tragically beautiful.

After three years, things remained the static and no outside help came, but Sarajevo at least was able to withstand the constant barrage thanks to the tunnel and the increased amount of Bosnian troops to defend the city. Then in 1995, two events happened that changed the tide of the war. Outside Sarajevo in a town called Srebrenica, an “ethnic cleansing” aka genocide of over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys occurred wiping out most the male population in the town in a few short days. And in Sarajevo, a bomb was dropped on the marketplace killing 67 people and injuring many more. Suddenly, the world seemed to realize that citizens were paying the price for political decisions (good of them to finally notice after three whole years) and NATO stepped in with a series of aerial attacks that dealt an ultimately fatal blow to the Serbian forces. In December 1995, the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed bringing an end to the war, though continued random attacks on Sarajevo made it so the siege was not declared officially over until February 29, 1996. In the end, the siege of Sarajevo claimed the lives of 11,541 people, 1,100 of whom were children. And that’s not even taking into account the rest of the country’s casualties.

All of this I learned on a private tour I took around the city that was well worth the 25€ I paid for it. This tour took me past the open air marketplace where people once again shop for their fruits and vegetables, now without the fear of being bombed. Yet it ensures those days are not forgotten. The back wall of this market is red and engraved with the names of everyone who died there on that day. From there, we drove down Sniper Alley, a main thoroughfare lined with apartments and other citizen housing so named because it was considering the most dangerous and heavily attacked area in the city. And every single building was riddled with bullet holes. It’s important to understand, these were houses of citizens, not military buildings, not even political ones. Homes. Along this stretch, we passed the bright yellow Holiday Inn that acted as the home of several American journalists stuck there for the duration of the siege. From there, we drove out to the tunnel’s exit point, the still standing house of the Kolar family which the sons have now turned into a museum. I was happy to find out their mother, the incredibly brave woman who risked her life and home to help the citizens of Sarajevo, was still alive and living peacefully in a new home.

As part of the museum, I was able to watch a collection of video, live footage from both the tunnel and the city during the siege. Seeing live video of the destruction was shocking and a bit dizzying. The scenes and setting seemed disconnected to me from the expectation I think many people hold of war. Those of us who come from highly westernized nations who have never seen war first hand really have no idea what it’s actually like. When we think war we think desert plains of Iraq or jungle of Vietnam, remote and uncivilized. It’s a visual schema our minds are psychologically programmed to recall. Because of that, we don’t ever connect war to cities and our only even possible conception of what that looks like is the September 11 attacks, and look how much that horrified us and sent America into a mental tail spin from which we are still recovering. Not to underplay the tragedy of 9/11 in any way, but what I saw on that screen was that times a thousand. Buildings everywhere consumed with flame, collapsing in on themselves as bombs took out support structures, people running for their lives, streets littered with rubble and chunks of pavement, football fields converted into cemeteries out of lack of space in the sanctioned ones. I wasn’t quite sure which was more horrifying: the images to the fact that I had never had any idea such an event took place (thank you American education system). For the first time in my life, I realized the true extent to my privilege, which is something I think Americans in general tend to underestimate.

After the sobering video, I actually descended into the tunnel and walked a 50 meter stint (the only bit of it left open) in the 1 meter wide, 1.6 meter tall passage. I am not a tall person by any means and even I had to stoop to walk through it. I can only image tall soldiers doing do while carting artillery and heavy bags of supplies. They actually had a sample bag you could try to life representing the average weight of what people carried through those tunnels. That bag made Nellie seem positively light.

From the tunnel, we drove up the mountain which was now difficult to see as the peaceful forested land I generally associate with mountains. All I could picture was the Serbian troops laying in wait as we drove by buildings reduced to rubble. But eventually we reached the old Bobsled track of the 1984 Winter Olympics held in Sarajevo. The track, too, was dealt a great deal of damage during the war as shown by the scorched cement on the outside and occasional sections completely blasted away. But the inside of the track was still in relatively good shape and has in fact turned into a canvas of bright colored graffiti coming in all colors and skill level spanning all down its length. Apparently an annual graffiti festival is actually held on the track. Graffiti tends to come with a lot of bad associations but I view it as a potentially beautiful form of art. Sure, you’ll always have vandals who take spray paint cans and write immature obscenities on the side of a building but true graffiti is beautiful and deep, conveying important messages and ideas in a way accessible to all people. The bobsled track was proof of that and had my tour guide not been waiting for me in the van, I would have walked the entire length of the track just soaking in every bit of it.

From bits I had talked with people through my day, I noticed people in Sarajevo seemed bitter that things like the Bobsled track had not been rebuilt but it seemed to me as though they had made a lot of progress in 20 years. After seeing footage and photographs, I was able to see just how complete and total the destruction of Sarajevo was. By the end of those four years, it was a flame scorched ghost of a city, worn down in structure and spirit. It seemed to me that much of the bitterness I had observed and picked up on over the great number of still destroyed buildings was a bit unfair. From what it was twenty years ago, Sarajevo has made amazing progress. So what if the gondola up to the bobsled track isn’t rebuilt? The fact remains that Sarajevo is on its feet again after enduring the unthinkable and in many ways is more stable than other areas of Bosnia. Unlike Mostar, which is still so divided within itself, Sarajevo is known to be one of the most integrated palaces in the country. Even before the war, it was known as the Modern Jerusalem because of its racial and religious tolerance unusual during that time.  Today, there is a line between the east and west sides of the city known as the Meeting of Cultures.  It’s become tradition to take a photo from each side to symbolize the blurring of boundaries.

Yet there is one aspect of modern Bosnia which mind boggles me the more I think about it. On the way to the bobsled track, I was quizzing my tour guide on all possible facets of modern Bosnia life, their education system, their economy, their political system. What I found out in regards to the latter was shocking. While the Dayton Agreement was wholly necessary in that it ended a brutal and heartless war that should never have even been fought, it was made under very strict conditions still in place today. To begin, Bosnia essentially split in two at the end of the war: the Federation Of Bosnia and Herzegovina, those who fought for independence, and the Republic of SRPSKA, which still identifies more as Serbian. The two exist as two separate entities, with separate fire and police forces, in one country with one army, separated by only imaginary borders. One kilometer south of Sarajevo, we actually drove across one such imaginary border into Republic of SRPSKA territory, as signified by signs written in both Latin and Cyrillic font and businesses named after Serbian cities such as the Beograd Hotel.

But the terms of the Agreement get weirder still. Because there were three ethnic forces at play in the war, the Dayton Agreement mandated that they all have equal representation in the government. Which is why Bosnia has three presidents, one from each group, who rule for eight months at a time before switching to the next president. If you’re worried about a Republican president screwing up everything Obama has accomplished in the last eight years, just imagine how easy it would be completely reverse any progress made in Bosnia. I fail to see how absolutely anything is accomplished under such a system and any stagnation the country seems to be facing is no doubt a result of that system precisely. Like certain pieces of legislation in America that are no longer necessary and in fact detrimental (cough, cough, Patriot Act) perhaps it’s time for Bosnia to take a closer look at what might be most effective for everyone.

The next morning I got up early and hopped on a trolley bus to the bus station. As much as I loved Bosnia, I was also glad to be leaving it. In many ways, it is an emotionally exhausting place to be. Seeing the bullet holes everywhere is this constant reminder of the dark potential of a war obsessed humanity. It’s not quite the third world but it’s as close as I’ve ever come. Bosnia sits under the weight of cruelty and disregard for human life that no amount of renovation and rebuilding can ever entirely atone for or erase and it weighs on a person. But these are the kinds of places that people need to travel to, to learn about, to recognize their privilege. Everyone instantly flocks to countries like Italy and France and while they are wonderful places with an abundance of culture, learning experiences in their own right, Eastern Europe is just so far removed from Americanization that it’s important to see. I walked away from Bosnia as a better person with a greater concept of the world at large. There I got a taste of what it means to be truly human, in all its glory and all its gore.  And one day, I hope to go back.  There is fountain outside a mosque aIn Sarajevo and it is said if one drinks from the fountain, they are fated to return to Bosnia.  I filled my water bottle several times.