Worldwide with Wee-Cheng #39: Sarajevo & Mostar, Bosnia-Herzogovina: Paradise Lost and Recovering, Part I – Sarajevo & Mostar, B

#38: Sarajevo & Mostar, Bosnia-Herzogovina: Paradise Lost and Recovering, Part I

12 July 2002

Imagine a mini-Istanbul with all its Ottoman minarets, throw in some Catholic spires and Orthodox domes, and then dump the whole mixture into a snowcapped Swiss Alpine valley – the result is Sarajevo. Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina (“BiH”). Host of the 1984 Winter Olympics. The place where Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, thus sparking off the WWI. And a heroic city under a horrifying 3-year-siege in the last decade of the 20th C.

I arrived in Sarajevo after a train journey from Banja Luka, capital of Republika Srpska (“RS”), the Serbian part of BiH. Although officially part of the same country, the people of RS and its Bosniak-Croat counterpart of the south (Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina or “FBiH”) seldom cross that invisible border. People who board the train tend to get off before it reaches the border, which used to be the ceasefire line of the Serbs and Bosniak-Croat regions. Only foreigners like me do the whole journey. The memories of the year were too painful. Too many have died, and many do not want to be reminded of the past.

The train was driven with a RS Railway engine head and served by a RS conductor, complete with the double-headed eagle logo of the North. At Doboj junction near to the FBiH border, the engine car was replaced with a BiH Railways of FBiH and a conductor from the BiH Railways. A few years ago, there were soldiers on the border of the two entities. That has since been removed. Now the more observant ones would notice the sudden appearance of mosques once the border is crossed. There aren’t any mosques in RS; they have all been blown up, complete with the destruction of cemeteries and all sorts of monuments, so as to ensure no one would remember that the north once had other ethnic groups.

First built as a market town by the Turks, Sarajevo quickly became the center of this land. Beautiful Aladdin-like mosques rose above its skies, together with churches of the Catholic and Orthodox faiths. People of diverse groups mingled in its many cafes and restaurants – loud Turkish pop everywhere and the aroma of strong Turkish coffee. As you stroll westwards along the river, you enter the Austro-Hungarian part of the town, built during the 30 years of the Austrian-Hungarian rule – the elegance of Central Europe, nice little squares, the first public tram service in Europe, and some of the beautiful people living anywhere on Earth.

The city lies in a valley surrounded by mountains almost Alpine in appearance. On sunny days, light and cloud shadows constantly modeled and remodeled the ridges and dips of the pine covered mountains. Nearby were the skiing resorts that played host to the Winter Olympics. Old Sarajevo also used to be the cultural hub and Hollywood of former Yugoslavia. This was the center of literature, performance arts and 20th C. culture par excellence. All these were wiped away on 5 April 1992, when Serbian snipers attacked peace marchers from Holiday Inn. Immediately the city found itself surrounded by Serbian artillery, mortar and all sorts of weaponry of Europe’s fourth-largest army, from the very mountaintops that gave the city its beauty and wonderful ski spots – these tools of death dropped a rain of destruction on this amazing city, strangling its inhabitants and promising nothing but servitude on its multi-ethnic fabric. From then on till 1995, the city became the by-word for extraordinary courage and endurance, and for strength and resilience. This was the Balkan Leningrad, the city under prolonged siege, the suffering one.

“Each person in Sarajevo is very close to an ideal microbiotician, a real role-model for the health-conscious, diet-troubled West� People are healthy, in spite of everything, for no one eats animal fat anymore, nor meat, nor cheese – meals are made without eggs, without milk, onions, meat, vegetables. We eat a precious mix of wild imagination.”

– Sarajevo Survival Guide

I walked along that beautiful boulevard stretching from the Airport to the heart of the Old Town. Merely a decade ago, this was known worldwide as the Sniper’s Alley, where Serbian snipers aimed at the grandma out looking for bread now that pension was non-existent, the 4-year-old rushing out from his flat for a football that had gone out of the window, or the daddy who was just looking for some wood to make winter more endurable for his children. Thousands died this way, doing the simplest tasks of everyday life. But calling that avenue the Sniper’s Alley is a misnomer. The whole of Sarajevo was a huge sniper’s alley, for the entire city lies in a slender valley along the river, and any gunner on top of the mountains could reach anyone, anywhere.

“Running – that is the favourite sport, practiced by everyone in Sarajevo. All crossroads are run through as are all the dangerous neighbourhoods. One runs with stolen wood, to the line where others are standing. Something is on sale, and you will know it only when you join the line.”
– Sarajevo Survival Guide

The city’s two main cemeteries lie in the Serbian-controlled territory, and so the dead were buried in the city’s beautiful urban parks instead. As I strolled in Sarajevo’s beautiful Ottoman and Austrian parks that once played host to generations of lovers, poets and writers, the numerous tombs dating from 1992 to 1995 reminded me of the city’s enormous suffering. Eventually even the city parks were not enough for the dead. They decided to use the Olympic stadium too. I popped by the Kosevo Stadium, where the 1984 Winter Olympics had its opening and closing ceremonies. The striking number of tombs in its football field almost melted me into tears. The skyscrapers in the foreground – even these were without windows (which had been blown out by Serbian forces) – the city’s mosques and churches, symbols of its multiethnic nature – plus all the amazingly irrelevant residential buildings – all combine to make this scene surreal. Imagine NYC’s Central Park full of tombs, or London’s Hyde Park with crosses and crescents.

I took a bus towards the western suburbs, passing the offices of the newspaper Oslobodjenje, whose entire complex had been destroyed by god-knows-how-many missiles, with twisted iron and huge boulders of debris around its collapsed floors. Yet, the paper continued to be published almost everyday, from its basement. It shrank from a broadsheet like the Times and the Washington Post, to a mini-A4 sheet, with 8, and then 4 pages. Sarajevo wanted to speak to the world, even during the war. Sarajevo refused to be silent. Its silence would imply defeat by the criminal intent of its enemies.

In the far suburbs near the Airport, I visited the famous Tunnel of Sarajevo, where the Bosnians built a tunnel linking itself with the rest of the world, under the runway which the UN had occupied but agreed with the Serbs never to allow it be used by the Bosnians. From this narrow 1.5 m wide pipeline of life, Sarajevans received news of the life and death of family, sent out the injured, got their supplies, dispatched the injured and brought in arms to fight their enemies.

Despite all, Sarajevo has rebuilt and is continuing to rebuild itself. The Old Town is now as new as ever, with its numerous cafes and atmospheric houses and mansions, as well as a growing number of backpackers arriving in this magical city. The fantasy-palatial National Library, the most beautiful building of all Bosnia, remained in ruins after the Serbs bombed it on the first day of the war, dispatched to history more than 1 million books and manuscripts of 1000 years of Bosnian culture and civilization. It is being rebuilt, like many other monuments in the city. Sarajevo is rising again, like phoenix from fire.