A Brief History of Sarajevo

I don’t know why I have always been enchanted by Sarajevo.  I seem to have known about Sarajevo in the back of my mind forever.  But if you’d asked me before this summer to give you some small detail about the city, I don’t know if I could have.

It is a city older than old.  The meeting point of East and West.  Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Yugoslavian and now Bosnian.  One of the first places in the world to have trams.  The place where WW1 started.  An Olympic city.  A phoenix that rose from the ashes of a horrific war and a barbaric 4-year siege just twenty years ago.  Home to some of the friendliest people in the world and easily the best cevapcici.

“Oh…Sarajevo.  That’s…interesting.  Why there?” asked almost everyone when I told them where we were headed for Christmas holidays.  “Where is that again?”  was the next question.  The former Yugoslavia is a bit of a blur for many Canadians.  But after reading The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway, I was moved by the story of human resistance and resilience and knew that I needed to see this place.

I asked Bob if he’d ever go back.  He served twice there – in 2001 and again in 2003 – like most in the Canadian Forces.  And while it’s been 13 years since he’d been there, he still talks about it as if it were yesterday.  He still talks about cevapi (the ubiquitous and delicious lamb sausage on pita bread with onions and sometimes fresh cheese).  He still talks about his patrols and playing soccer with the children, handing out their lunches to the locals in war-weary villages.  When I asked him about going, he replied as if he had only been waiting for me to ask.  “I have to go back.  I drank water from the Old Town.”  Sarajevo legend says that if you drink water from the Old Town, you will always return.

We bought our tickets the next weekend, the last weekend in August.

Bob and I arrived in Sarajevo on Monday, December 28th at 9:30 pm.  The bus from Mostar had crawled through the fog for the last half an hour of our journey.  We snagged a cab at the bus station and gave the address of our Airbnb apartment.  Though he spoke no English, the cab driver had a pleasant and joking manner as he pulled up onto the sidewalk to drop us off.  It was fairly late, we were really tired and the building was dark and graffiti-ed, with a broken door left ajar to the stairwell.  The fog, so thick you could hardly see across the street, was unsettling and surreal.

I left Bob and his gimpy ankle at the bottom of the stairs and I headed up to the sixth floor, where our apartment was, to meet our host and make sure we were in fact in the right spot.  The neutral wallpaper was torn in places and some of the windows in the stairwell were graffiti-ed and I was immediately taken back to my time in post-communist Russia.  The seeming lack of maintenance on the building may have put some people off but I also noticed that while the public part of the stairwell was run down, each individual door was well maintained, painted and had lovely decorative accents.  These were homes of real people.  And this is why I love Airbnb.

I finally made it (huffing and puffing) to the top floor and knocked on the door.  Our host met me and I explained that my husband was still downstairs and the both of us headed back down to get him and the luggage.  And then we headed up the stairs again.  (OMG.)  Our host led us through a door that led to a rooftop terrace and showed us to his apartment, accessible only from the roof.  I will describe it more in another post about our Airbnb experience (a fabulous experience and don’t think I will ever go back to staying in hotels).

We were so excited when we booked this apartment because of the view from its rooftop.  But unfortunately with the fog, we couldn’t see anything except ghostly streetlights.  Our host, Gorcin, said that fog is usual in Sarajevo in the winter for four or five days.  But it was going on a month now.  Unrelenting fog.  If you are travelling to Sarajevo in the winter, be warned.

We asked if there was a market nearby because we were starving and Gorcin said he would drive us. As awesome as that was, we were both a little worried that we’d never find our way back in the fog because we couldn’t see any landmarks and I had no data plan for GPS on my phone.  But as we were walking to his car, he noticed that an Italian restaurant just around the corner from the apartment was open.  We went in and Gorcin was gracious enough to do the intro for my gluten allergy and we sat down.  Then he asked if he could join us as he was a bit hungry.  We were happy to have him join us and introduce us to his city and his country.  A perfect start to our stay and we would later discover that this openness and authenticity was very indicative of the people of Sarajevo.

After an absolutely wonderful dinner – pizza for Bob and my new favourite meal, Bosnian moussaka – we said goodbye to our host and headed back to the apartment.  Since it was only a one minute walk away, we did not get lost.  We got in, took our shoes off, put our bags down, and immediately crashed.  Completely and totally.  The bed in that apartment was the most comfortable thing I have ever slept on.  And the blankets were thick duvets, the kind I fell in love with in Russia.  I was asleep before the lights went out.  And we slept until 9 am the next morning.

When I awoke, Bob still asleep, I put my sweater and shoes on, opened the apartment door and wandered onto the terrace.  The fog was still here.  No view to speak of except the lovely cloud we were in.  The smell again brought me back to Russia.  Smog.  Pollution.  Diesel.  Fossil fuels.  The smells of countries far less advantaged than we are.  Across the street, barely visible through the fog was my first glimpse of the surrounding buildings.

I admit, this was a little shocking.  I had imagined that I would somehow have to search for the war, that everything would be new and the traces of the war would be hidden or memorialized somehow.  But no.  I stared at these buildings, right in front of me, with their massive billboards lining their mossy, dilapidated walls, and their empty and overgrown doorways and I reflected on their history.  The war was only 20 years ago and there is very little money coming into Bosnia for repairs nowadays.  Whose buildings were they?  If there is no one to claim them or pay for them, then they will sit and crumble through time.  Then I noticed the tree growing on the second floor of one of them and I felt hope.  And I relaxed into the city.  And whispered into the beckoning fog, “I am here, Sarajevo.  Tell me your story.”

Sarajevo has been around almost forever.  There seems to have always been some sort of structure and civilization in this valley but it wasn’t until the Ottomans occupied it in the 15th century that it was built up into a city and it has remained the metropolitan hub of culture, politics and finance in the Balkans since.  The Ottomans introduced Islam, built mosques, schools, fountains (Sarajevans are incredibly proud of their clean water), even a brewery.  Yep, the Ottomans were so chill and progressive they not only made a brewery, they also built an Orthodox cathedral for the miniscule percentage of Orthodox Christians that were living in Sarajevo at the end of the 19th century.  Even today, though the vast majority of the population is Bosniak (Muslim), there are drinks served in every restaurant, many women don’t wear anything over their heads and the streets are still packed with shoppers while the call to prayer sounds in the background.  The people of Sarajevo are extremely proud of their inclusive and relaxed atmosphere that has been one of their trademarks from the beginning.  Knowing this makes “the last war” (as they call it) even more tragic.

When the Austro-Hungarians took over, they started building those large ornately-decorated buildings, with rounded corners and bright colours.  They brought Western European progress – trams, the Latin alphabet and many modernizations in factories and living.

Then in 1914, a young Nationalist named Gavrilo Princip shot the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and so started World War 1.  Sarajevo escaped much of the destruction as most of the battles took place in Serbia, near Belgrade.

After WW1, the area became the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and for the first time in history, under its own rule.  Marshall Tito was a dictator but was seen as a “charming” one in the eyes of former Yugoslavians.  He was typical of a communist dictator in that he suppressed human rights but he was also a little more welcoming of Western ideas, he stood up to Stalin and he was very inclusive of all Yugoslavian ethnicities.  According to the Bosnians we spoke with, he is remembered with a certain nostalgia, many people commenting that life was better then.  The pinnacle of this period was when Sarajevo won the bid for the 1984 Winter Olympics.  Tourism boomed, the economy soared and life was “good”.

After Tito’s death in 1980, nationalism started to rear its ugly head.  Yugoslavia was a union of many different ethnicities – Macedonian, Albanian, Serbian, Bosniak, Croat, Slovenian, Hungarian and Montenegrin – with inclusive policies regarding race and religion (Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox, and Jewish).  One community could have a different place of worship on every corner.  A Bosniak (Muslim) might marry a Serb (Orthodox) and their neighbours might be Croat (Catholic) and everyone got along.  Sarajevo even had a large Jewish community in it until WW2.  But without Tito holding everyone together, certain leaders of different ethnicities started wanting more power or more land, or saying that because a place was inhabited by mostly one group, it should be independent.  And so on.

When nationalities started declaring independence in the early 1990’s, the disagreements became all-encompassing and vicious.  And so began the Balkans War.  The city of Sarajevo was besieged for four long years.  Sadly, the pride of Sarajevo – the surrounding mountains that once held Olympic ski runs, ski jumping and bobsled – were turned into its curse – over 400 sniper holds.  The city was surrounded by snipers and no one got  in or out of the city until the Tunnel of Hope was built.  Thousands died from starvation, exposure, mortar shells , or sniper fire.  But the city prevailed and the people rebuilt.

The city now is a thriving, vibrant, exciting and extremely safe city (considering it is the largest city in the Balkans with 400 000 citizens in Sarajevo proper and up to 800 000 in the whole region).  The younger generations are optimistic despite an outrageous unemployment rate of 65%.  The mid-generations are doing the best they can, trying to build the economy, staying in Sarajevo instead of leaving for more stable economies.  The older generations are happy to have their families around them.  The people of Sarajevo love this city and those that lived through the war trust that in time, everything will just keep getting better.  As our tour guide said, “When you are burning doors for heat and there are no more windows in the city, you know you are at the bottom and there is nowhere to go but up.”

Now I know why Bob still talks about it.  This city is a lesson in humility; showing us the worst we could do to another human and the very best that we can become.  The greatest failures and the most profound victories of the human soul.

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