I arrived in Sarajevo, off a overnight bus from Montenegro, early on a Sunday morning. Having had to catch a taxi from the bus station on the outskirts into central Sarajevo, I was dropped off at the Latin Bridge, just near the spot where Franz Ferdinand and Sofia, his wife, were assassinated in 1914 – the infamous event that set off the hell on earth that was to be the First World War.
I went in search of the place I wanted to stay at. In the heart of the old town, Kod Keme is a guesthouse carefully fashioned from two old apartments (amazingly still within the budget section of places to stay) and run by an overtly cheerful lady with an Australian accent, though there seemed something sad about her. My room was enchanting – great thick walls with a curved window that looked out onto one of the narrow cobbled streets of the old Turkish quarter. I booked in for a whole two nights (as opposed to my usual one), as I wanted to spend some time in Sarajevo. Having published an academic book on post-war urban redevelopment and heritage conservation, Sarajevo was of definite interest to me. So, I dumped my bag and set off to explore.
Sarajevo is still under repair. It takes a long time for a city and its people to recover from war; the physical rebuilding will take at very least a decade, most usually several, and the collective psychological recovery will take at least a generation, especially in the case of internecine war. As is well known, when Yugoslavia viciously tore itself apart in the early 1990s, Bosnia i Herzegovina had the misfortune to be sandwiched between two ethno-nationalistic aggressors – Croatia and Serbia – who planned to divide up Bosnia between them. Sarajevo, as Bosnia i Herzegovina’s capital, was high on the hit list. Furthermore, Sarajevo is the kind of place ethno-nationalists hate – a city that is historically cosmopolitan to its core and home to people of a variety of religious persuasions and ethnicities and all getting on together, including intermarrying. It’s no coincidence that during the long and horrific Siege of Sarajevo between April 1992 and February 1996, the longest running siege of a city in modern times, that the Serbian forces surrounding the city deliberately shelled both the National Museum and the National Library in an attempt to destroy the historical evidence of such co-existence. There is quite a famous story regarding the BBC reporter Kate Adie. In September 1992, she interviewed Serbian gunners on the hillside overlooking that part of Sarajevo, wanting to know why they kept shelling the Holiday Inn when they knew all the foreign correspondents where holed up there. Apparently the commanding officer apologised profusely and explained they were aiming at the National Museum behind it.
My first stop (after breakfast and coffee) was then the National Museum, a lovely old purpose-built building surrounding a peaceful garden and full of fascinating classical material – Roman and Illyrain – amongst other things. In the ethnographic wing the interior of a nineteenth century Ottoman family house has been reconstructed. Those wooden fronted-buildings usually with a screened first-floor balcony that you see surviving in the Balkans, Syria and Lebanon, and Turkey, though quite often dilapidated, are from the Ottoman era. Having seen them from the outside, it was quite a treat to see what one may have looked like on the inside – much of the material was salvaged from original houses. Despite the meticulous post-war restoration, the museum is now strapped for cash so if you are in Sarajevo, go and visit it, it’s well worth it.
In comparison to the love and care put into the National Museum’s restoration, across the road the History Museum of Bosnia i Herzegovina is another story altogether. Before visiting that, however, I couldn’t possibly miss the Tito Café underneath the museum, so stopped for an espresso. This café is entirely dedicated to Marshall Tito – full of photographs and other memorabilia but strangely dark with an intellectual, faux or otherwise I couldn’t say, feel about the place. I half expected the pair at the neighbouring table to start up a conversation on existentialism or something.
Fortified by my coffee, I made my way into the History Museum, buying a ticket from a pair squashed into a glass ticket booth drinking tea. The History Museum is housed in a very run down 1970s flat-roofed building. It is run down both due to lack of funding and because it was shelled during the Siege and has therefore been deliberately kept like that as a reminder. Unlike the National Museum’s traditionally neutral portrayal of the glorious past, the History Museum is much more political. Firstly it presents a clear case for Bosnia’s existence since medieval times at least – it is important for a nation so recently threatened with annihilation to demonstrate the historical evidence of existence. Over half of the exhibition space was, however, given over to the Siege of Sarajevo. Some 12,000 people, including 1500 children were killed or went missing, and 56,000 people including about 15,000 children were injured, out of a pre-war population of about 435,000. The Siege was only lifted with the signing of the Dayton Agreement. While neutrally presented, the photographs, the blood-stained and personal belongings, the detailing of the horrors of it and how people survived, were enough to bring tears to the eyes on occasion. On the other hand, people’s resistance and acts of heroism in such situations is truly inspiring, and there were plenty of examples of these as well.
Of course the consequences of the Siege are still very much in evidence all over Sarajevo: there are large cemeteries across the city full of white headstones, all with tell-tale similar dates of death and many so young; the National Library is still being repaired, along with other buildings and there are some buildings that are still derelict. Abandoned properties in the Balkans take on a whole different air when one realises that they may be abandoned because their owners were killed or had to flee, never to return, during the wars of the 1990s and no one has since laid claim to them. Many buildings in Sarajevo still bear those characteristic pock-mark scars caused by shelling and bullets.
In need of some light relief, and because I’d forgotten to have lunch, I wandered back towards the carefully restored and very lovely old Turkish quarter for some coffee and cake. The range and deliciousness of cakes and pastries available throughout the Balkans is mind-boggling, but particularly so in the old Turkish quarter of Sarajevo; it was all I could do to randomly point at a chocolate concoction and wait until the waitress delivered a larger-than-life slice of it to my table. Delicious!
The other thing that needed to be done was discovering how I was going to get to Mostar, where I planned to go next. I wandered over to the bus and train station but ran into difficulties as my phrase book, in its wisdom, had failed to include the vital ‘Departures’/ ‘Departures To’ and ‘Arrivals’ / ‘Arrivals From’ in Serbo-Croat. I could decipher the train timetable, not so with the bus timetable. Thankfully a helpful person at the information desk spoke enough English to tell me that there was a daily 9am bus to Mostar with no need to get a ticket in advance.
Sarajevo is built in a valley – on the military defence front, a disaster as it is easily surrounded, but otherwise a beautiful location. Its long history – there is evidence for settlement here since prehistoric times –its occupation and development, in particular by the Ottomans and the Austrians, and co-existing Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions mean it has some wonderful architecture and even a handful of conserved archaeological sites to peer into. As someone who has a particular fondness for random bits of odd information, I was interested to learn that Sarajevo was in fact the first European city to have a full-time, dawn-to-dusk, tram line and only the second city in the world to have an electric tramline when it began operation in 1885. The Austrians built it as a trial in advance of putting one into Vienna. Sarajevo still has trams but preferring to walk, I didn’t take one, and set out to climb up one of the streets that took me above the city and up to towards the city gates. There was an exhibition in one of the towers on Alija Izetbegović, Bosnia’s first president when the country separated from Yugoslavia, who struggled valiantly to keep his country together during the wars that engulfed the region, remaining in Sarajevo throughout the siege. A security guard had to unlock the room for me and then paced around the creaky wooden floorboards impatiently but I wasn’t going to be deterred from going through the small but fascinating exhibition that finished with Izetbegović’s huge and sad funeral in 2003.
From there, the security guard let me out through a side gate so I could carry on up and along to the Yellow Tower from where there is a splendid view west across Sarajevo. While I was up there admiring the view but also contemplating the horrors the city had suffered, a call to prayer went out from some of the mosques, giving the city a brief but almost unbearable air of poignancy.
From my viewpoint, the roof of the National Library was obvious, and it was clear that work on its restoration had restarted, funded in part by Turkey, Austria and the EU. Amazingly, despite the fact that it is a building site, there was also an exhibition on in there and I was able to get in and wander round the ground floor at least, stepping over fallen columns and lose stone, and getting out of the way of the builders, while looking up to watch them working on the new glass dome. It was originally built during the period of the Austrian-Hungarian empire in the 1890s as the City Hall and is a curious combination of architectural styles, predominantly a kind of neo-Moorish style. On the night of the 25-26th August 1992, it was shelled with heavy artillery and incendiary bombs by Serbian forces, resulting in the building being completely burnt out, sustaining serious structural damage, and destroying virtually all of the primary archive of Bosnia’s history. Restoration is slow – it is a major undertaking for an historical building so extensively damaged – and costly, predicted to be €13 million. There is a firmly worded plaque in English on the outside that says it all.
By this time it was drizzling and it seemed fitting that I pay a visit to a large bookshop I’d noticed near where I was staying. I should have known better, of course, because while I have an almost pathological hatred of shopping, bookshops are another matter and it is hard for me not to come out with something. They had a good range of English language books and in the end I came out clutching ‘Sarajevo Throughout The History’ (yes, a Bosnian book translated as evident straight away by the European-wide problem with the English definite article), justifying the purchase as being for my research, but wondering how an earth I was going to get it into my bag.
Next day I was departing for Mostar; for all the repair and recovery still going on in Sarajevo, the city was to seem positively healed compared to Mostar, as I was to discover.
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Author: Caroline Sandes