One of my classes last semester covered politics in the Balkans, and I was particularly fascinated by the break-up wars of the former Yugoslavia. I wrote a term paper on the post-war situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina and was excited to get back (after spending about 12 hours there last fall) and see how much of a discrepancy there was between my research and the actual situation in Sarajevo.
After we met our apartment host at the Holiday Inn (a huge yellow can’t miss building built for the 1984 Olympics) the problems I wrote about became apparent. The route from the landmark hotel to our apartment should have been really fast, except that there was a protest by the Parliament building which forced us to take a more confusing, roundabout route. The Bosnians were protesting the government’s failure to assign national identity numbers to newborns for the last six months. The situation came to a head when a baby requiring urgent medical treatment in Italy couldn’t leave the country because it didn’t have a passport. The numbers weren’t issued because of disagreement between the Bosnian entity and the Repbulik Srpska (the two major legal entities that comprise the country of BH) about how to assign the numbers. So while the politicians failed to reach a compromise, the demonstrations grew larger. My paper argued that the constitution’s primary focus on ethnic representation almost guaranteed an ineffective government incapable of ruling. Unfortunately, tons of small issues like the identity numbers show that this is still the case.
After showing us the ins and outs of the apartment our host brought us up to some hills above the city so we could learn the overall layout. We also got some of his perspective of the war and the current political state. He’s a Bosniak, but prefers not to mention his identity. This, as well as a desire to move past the war and get on with life, was prevalent amongst all of the younger people that we met.
There are so many reminders in the city of the war (from 1992-1995, mostly while I was in high school) throughout the city that it takes real fortitude and optimism to move forward. The Holiday Inn, where we met our host, is also where the war started. Serbian politicos staying there started firing from its roof on Bosniaks demonstrating for independence.
The main road running through Sarajevo was called Sniper’s Alley, since the Serbs controlled the hills on one side and would try to pick off people. One guy joked that Bosnians drive so fast and crazily now because during the siege, their lives depended on it!
We ate dinner at the Sarajevo Brewery, where the beer and food is especially good. The dark brew is only sold at the brewery and definitely worth a stop! During the siege, the brewery was the only facility that produced drinking water. Otherwise, Sarajevo residents risked sniper fire to get water from springs or dug through underground pipes to find a viable tap.
“Sarajevo roses” mark spots where three or more people were murdered during the siege. Red paint fills bullet holes and shell craters on the city’s sidewalks, buildings, and roads to memorialize the victims. Last year, to commemorate the 20th anniversary, over 11000 red chairs, representing every man, woman or child killed, were lined up on one of the main streets. As a visitor to Sarajevo, the war is fascinating, but I can imagine that for a resident its constant reminders become tiresome.
I really admired our guide to the Airport Tunnel for her ability to relive the war experience on a daily basis for tourists like us. Along with giving us the basic history of the war, she pointed out the sites along the way from Old Town to the tunnel museum. On the way back, she freely answered all of our groups’ questions about living through the war. I asked about daily life under the siege. As a child, she attended school in the basement of the apartment building. Over the years, she was able to carry bigger and bigger bottles of water up the many flights of stairs to her family’s apartment. When she and her mother finally escaped the siege through the tunnel, she carried a heavy pack on her back the whole way.
Although we only walked through about 20 meters of the tunnel, with the help of the artifacts at the museum, and a video of footage from the war, we got a real feel for the siege. It was 1425 days – longer than the siege on Leningrad in WWII. The people lived without water, gas, or electricity and under constant threat of sniper attack. To go through the tunnel, you had to obtain permission from the military or civilian authorities, which sometimes took up to six months. And even if you managed to get out of Sarajevo, the tunnel was only the first step. Next you had to somehow get through the mountains in the middle of the night, and on to Montenegro or Croatia (when it wasn’t fighting its own skirmishes).
The best part of our stay in Sarajevo, however, was hanging out with my amazing friend Maja. I met her in Turkish class in Ankara last summer and loved her contagious playfulness and spirit. She took us to her friend’s cafe, out for cevap (very similiar to Turkish kebab), and for the best chicken sandwich in the world (this was my second tasting, and I can confirm that it’s still amazing!). On our last night we joined her and her friends at a cafe to watch the Bosnia-Latvia football match (that’s soccer for my American friends). At first, the mood was tense as nobody knew what would happen, but elation quickly set in as Bosnia scored goal after goal for a final score of 5-0! With each goal scored, the whole cafe celebrated, and we heard people up and down the street singing and carrying on. I just shook my head with my awesome new hat, courtesy of Maja.