Updated: May 7, 2022
A Legacy of War
When I think of Sarajevo, I will think of the calls of the imams echoing through the valley as the sun sets. I will think of the beautiful, neglected buildings from the days of empire. I will think of the extraordinary warmth and hospitality of its people.
It's these things I most want you to know about Sarajevo. I want to urge people to come here, to see the city as I have. But the war is inescapable; its shadow hangs over everything. The divide between ethnic Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) and Bosnian Serb Christians is written into the very fabric of the country. Those old Austro-Hungarian buildings are riddled with bullet holes and bruised by shrapnel. The people, wrenched apart during the war, live reunited but separate, wrestling with old wounds.
The legacy is poverty, legislative paralysis, a sense of hopelessness and fear of new conflict. Chronic distrust of the political system breeds new nationalism, threatening to break anew the fragile bonds holding the country together.
It wasn't always this way. The people of Sarajevo speak proudly of their centuries-old history of Bosnians, Serbs and Croats, Muslims, Christians and Jews living alongside one another harmoniously.
Tragically, this diversity made Bosnia the country with the most to lose from a violent breakup of Yugoslavia. This was proved in quite unimaginable terms: a horrifying five-year long siege under constant bombardment and sniper fire, a genocide of 8000 men and boys at Srebrenica that shocked the world and shamed the UN's inaction.
Since those dark days, and the West's belated intervention to bring conflict to an end, Sarajevo has embarked on a vast project of renovation and renewal. Some of its most prized cultural and religious buildings, heavily damaged during the war, have been painstakingly and beautifully restored. New commercial centres and tower blocks have popped up in the west of the city. Today's Sarajevo is a safe, bustling, warm and welcoming place, clinging stubbornly to the architectural richness and religious diversity that earned it the moniker "the Jerusalem of Europe."
It's quite possible to spend a happy week in Sarajevo enjoying this richness, sampling the excellent local food, taking in the stunning views from the surrounding mountains, playing with the huge population of friendly local cats. There's so much to discover historically that predates the Bosnian War: the remnants of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, the site of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that sparked the First World War, the locations of the 1984 Winter Olympics held in and around the city.
There are many opportunities, though, to go deeper into the history of the recent conflict and to talk to those affected. I worried about asking too many questions, fearful of opening old wounds. In fact, the opposite was true. I found people to be remarkably frank and open, and I often thought I detected a sense of urgency in their voices as well, for their stories to be heard and understood beyond Bosnia's borders.
I spent two days with former soldiers on the Bosniak side. They're not hard to find; the conflict made unlikely soliders by necessity. The first I met, a man in his early fifties, lost his brother in the war and survived two attempts on his life, the second of which came perilously close to succeeding. I found him thoughtful and admirably even-handed, acknowledging atrocities on the Bosnian side, too. He works now as a tour guide, taking visitors on trips around his old Sarajevo neighbourhood near the front line, where the tower blocks still bear the scars of the fierce fighting that took place.
He took us down Nikole Tešanovića, a residential street that appears perfectly normal until you look closely. On each side of the road, two identical accommodation blocks face one another. He pointed out the street signs. On one side, everything is written in Bosnian; on the other, in the cyrillic text of Serbian.
This peculiar sight is the result of the partition agreed at the Dayton Accords in 1995, granting near-autonomy to Bosnian-Serb dominanted areas. These zones make up the Republika Srpska, comprising a very deliberate 49% of Bosnia & Herzegovina's landmass. It's an open border, but with different authorities and local government on each side. Co-operation between different sides ranges from the dysfunctional to the non-existent.
Next came the hastily-built tunnel that ran under the runway at Sarajevo airport. Used to ferry food, arms and the injured, it was the only safe passage from besieged Sarajevo to Bosnian-controlled territory. "Before that," our guide said, "we used to sprint across the runway while they shot at us."
The second former soldier we met was an engineer before the war. He hadn't expected himself to be called into combat in his forties, but considered it the only way of protecting his family. He drove us two hours east, through the beautiful Bosnian countryside, to Srebenica. Most of the journey took us through Republika Srpska, and it soon became clear that the scars of war were not limited to Sarajevo. He pointed to the abandoned houses littered through the villages we passed. "These homes would have belonged to Bosniaks who were driven out," he remarked, almost casually.
As a rare Bosniak-majority settlement in an otherwise Serb-dominated part of the country, Srebrenica was in acute danger early on in the conflict. Its population swelled by ethnic cleansing in the area, it was besieged by Serbian forces before being declared a UN safe area in 1993: "free from any armed attack or any other hostile act." How hollow these words ring today.
We shuffled numbly together through the vast burial ground, through the nondescript factory building that became the final holding area for Bosnian men and boys awaiting execution. We saw the UN base onsite where peacekeepers from the Netherlands failed to prevent the atrocities to follow. I was horrified to discover later that the famous anti-Bosnian grafitti immortalised by artist Sejla Kameric (see below right), was scrawled here not by the forces of Ratko Mladić, but by Dutch soldiers.
In Srebrenica, we meet Begija. Having survived the war as a girl, she trained in the sciences and now teaches at one of the local schools. Every so often, she also opens her home to visitors, greeting them with warm hospitality and impossible quantities of delicious home cooking. We ate and chatted, and as teachers compared notes about working during the pandemic.
As the meal came to an end, the conversation turned to the dark days of the war and the tragedy with which Srebrenica will always be associated. She wanted people to come, she told us, from all different parts of the world, because what took place here cannot be allowed to happen again. Her initial shyness had melted away, replaced by a resolve and sincerity that felt remarkably moving.
As for our guide, his animosity towards the other side seemed barely dented by the passing of time. His bitterness is perhaps unsurprising given escalating tensions between the two sides. The current Bosnian Serb presidential seat is held by Milorad Dodik ("Worse than Karadžić, worse than Mladić," he spits), an incendiary and obstructionist politician who has described the massacre as a "fabricated myth" and banned schools in the Republika Srpska from teaching it to children. Incredibly, Srebrenica's own mayor has been quoted denying the genocide that took place here.
I spent the next morning in Sarajevo with Emir, a young musician I met through the new Social Cultural Centre (more on that soon). He's had to think outside the box to make ends meet here. He found a job with a German company for which he can work remotely, thanks to his language skills. Where he found gaps in the Sarajevo live music scene, he volunteered alongside friends to organise events and invite international artists. He is fiercely non-judgemental and is deeply discomfited by the efforts of nationalists to drive a wedge between those who have shared this city for centuries.
Emir's generation is the first with no memory of war to enter into a society still reeling from its consequences. It faces terrible hardship and a chronic lack of opportunity. How it responds will have profound implications for the country's future. Emir's desire for divides to be bridged and old wounds to heal is typical of the young people I spoke to, but he warns of increasingly influential social media figures threatening to perpetuate the old divisions and inspire new mistrust and animosity.
I spent my final evening in Sarajevo among the coffee shops, the tourists, the cigarette smoke and the smog. I stopped by my favourite falafel place, warmed by the sunset, as stray cats leapt between the rooftops above my head. I reflected on all that I had learned and seen here, amidst an easy calm that felt almost miraculous.
Though the legacy of war is all around, writing about it now feels almost like a betrayal of the many Bosnians I met who are desperate for their country to break free of its associations. They were generous and honest enough to share their memories of the conflict and its aftermath, but above all they wanted me to write about their country's beauty and to inspire others to see it for themselves. I hope that I have done this much, too. For who that has truly seen Bosnia, to appreciate it as so much more than a place of war and suffering, could bear to see the mistakes of the past repeated?