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Living and Breathing – Sarajevo, Bosnia

Living and Breathing

Sarajevo, Bosnia

The beautiful old town of Sarajevo
The beautiful old town of Sarajevo
From 1992 to 1995, Sarajevo was, literally, a warzone. It was completely surrounded by Serbian troops, who relentlessy shelled the city. Snipers picked off civilians as they tried to go about their lives. The majority of the city had no electricity, and water was extremely scarce. The only way in or out of the city was through the airport, which was under UN jurisdiction. To get to the airport, residents had to chance it by running across an open field, where many where shot by Serbian snipers. Those who did make it to the airport were turned back by UN troops, under the guise that by leaving, the residents were contributing to the ethnic cleansing the Serbs were attempting.

For almost four years the city existed like this, a soundtrack of constant gun fire and the explosions of artillery shells playing to citizens slowly going mad, risking their lives any time they left the house.

The footprint of this war is starkly visible as you walk the streets of Sarajevo. The city is surrounded on all sides by beautiful tree covered mountains, with houses scattered up the sides. During the war, those hills were full of Serbian snipers. Buildings wear bullet holes like a kid has freckles. Almost every building is scarred by bullet holes and hits from artillery shells. Small holes in the footpath from artillery shells have been filled with a rose coloured wax, a reminder of the blood that was spilt, and sometimes plaques carrying the names of those killed by the attack are displayed close by.

Not far from our hostel was the old Bosnian parliament building. It is now a 20 storey concrete shell, burnt out, charcoal coloured, huge craters showing on its outer walls where it was relentlessly attacked by Serbian troops. As the sun set on our first night there, the pink shades of the sky shone straight through the abandoned building, lines of pink bursting out of the greyness. Sarajevo has forgiven, but it certainly will not forget.

After we had settled into our hostel, Bec and I took the short walk to the centre of the city. Not even ten minutes after leaving, we bumped into Sallie and Fiona, a pair of sisters we had hung out with in Korcula, Croatia, a few days earlier. I’d heard stories like that from other travellers, that even in large cities, you will inevitably run into the same people over and over. I’m not sure I really believed it at the time, but yes, it does happen. We walked with Sal and Fi from the centre of town, the new town, into the old part of the city, which Bec and I didn’t even know existed. The main street turns from a modern looking European city, with pubs, clothing stores, and food vendors, into an old cobbled laneway, with narrow, low, tiled-roof buildings lining the sides, selling old antique wares, and cheap and tasty Bosnian food. We walked past a couple of mosques, a sign of the large Bosnian Muslim population in the city. We also saw a few t-shirts with the slogan ‘I’m Muslim. Don’t Panic.’ Somehow, through the carnage and the horror, the city has kept its sense of humour.

During the four year seige, in order to get food, water, and much needed medical supplies into the city from the airport, Bosnian engineers built an 800 meter long tunnel, just 1 meter wide, and 1.6 meters high, that ran from an outer suburban house to the airport. Almost 3000 people a day, hunched over people with heavy bags of supplies on their backs, would trudge through the tunnel, often with a few inches of water sloshing around their feet. Today, most of the tunnel has collapsed, but a 25 meter stretch remains intact at the house, which has been turned into a small museum. Sal and Fi told us about a tour run by their hostel that would take us out to the tunnel and museum, and also stop at the Jewish cemetery on a hill just North of the city centre. This cemetery was the closest that the front line ever came to the city, only 150-200 meters from the centre of town. It was here that Serbian snipers picked off the majority of their targets, and led to the main road near the Bosnian Parliament being renamed Sniper Alley.

We piled into the minibus for the tour, and began driving to the outskirts of town. It was a bleak day. Low clouds hung around the mountains, as if down on their knees worshipping the land rising before them. Mist floated through the air, leaving everything damp. We drove up a muddy, pot-holed road, and stopped in front of a non-descript house. It’s outer walls were pock-marked, like an acne-scarred face.

We went inside, and were shown a twenty minute video about the war and tunnel. The tv was an old Technicolor, the sort your Grandma had back in the 80′s, and the video was on a scratchy old VHS cassette. There was no narration, no music. At first, just the images of war in the city; car bombs going off as people walked down the street. Missiles almost floating through the night sky; an orange dart lighting up the darkness, and slamming into a building. Cars screaming down Sniper Alley at 100 mph, dodging the burning car shells containing dead bodies that had not yet been retrieved. People hanging off their balconies, trying to escape the fire that raged within the building. Then, footage of the tunnel construction, men in camouflage gear, carrying massive machine guns, running along a trench, then into the tunnel at the back of the house. Images I believe I will never forget.

This was all only ten years ago.

We went down into the tunnel, ducking our heads so as not to whack ourselves on the wooden beams running across. Even in just 25 metres, the feeling of claustrophobia was noticable. 800 metres of this could turn you crazy.

To the Jewish cemetary we drove, stopping to look over the city, as the Serbian snipers had done so ten years earlier. Then, we drove to the south of the city, and up to the lookout that promised to show us ‘all of Sarajevo’. As we climbed higher, the clouds huddled around us, and our view of Sarajevo became a look into nothingness. Oh well.

It didn’t matter. My interest in this place had sparked. I didn’t want to be ignorant anymore. I wanted to know how the city lived through the siege, how did people survive for 4 years, surrounded by the black stench of death. I went looking for a book, and found one of the most gut wrenching books I could imagine. Fools Rush In, by Bill Carter, an American traveller who was drawn to Sarajevo after he suffered a personal tragedy. There he lives, and befriends members of the local arts community; artists, musicians, people still living their lives as best they can – a stark contrast to the images of death, of old ladies carrying sticks on their back crying for lost ones, that were the common pictures of international news crews at the time.

The book pushed my heart down to the pit of my stomach, and tears up behind my eyes. The pages ripped my fingers as I turned them.

I sat in our hostel, surrounded by wet clothes hanging from string, window open to let in the cool fresh air, Bec laying on the bed not far away. Reading about the war, about buildings that read about the ethnicity of the city, a Muslim prayer chant began in a mosque not far away.

The sound swam across the darkening sky, pausing to take in a breath, then continuing on its way. It wafted in through the open window, seeking out my years like a cartoon smell does nostrils. I was frozen, hypnotised, mesmerised by the sound. Truly, it was one of the most beautiful sounds I have heard.

James Joyce once wrote, ‘History is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake’. Sarajevo’s history is a nightmare. But it has awoken. It lives and breathes, sings and dances. People smile, and laugh together in the coffee shops, at the fruit stands, and in the bars.

I love this city.

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