SARAJEVO HAS ONLY BEEN on my radar for a short time. One day a few years ago, at an old, very boring job, I had a habit of Wikipedia-ing random cities around the world that I knew little about. When I searched for Sarajevo, two bits of information stuck in my head.
1) It hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics (I was one-and-a-half when this happened), and
2) The city is dotted with imprints of mortar shell explosion that look strangely like roses, called Sarajevo Roses, which are small memorials to the victims of the 1992-1995 military siege. Many of them have been filled with red cement to denote the site of an attack that left more than one person dead.
It’s that kind of subtle recognition of the past that put Sarajevo toward the top of my must-visit list.
I entered Bosnia-Herzegovina from Croatia. Just as we passed the border, the terrain turned to lush, forested mountains crowding on top of flat lakes with houses perched up the hillsides. I didn’t know what to expect, but whatever it was, this exceeded it. The only downside to this incredible landscape is that an estimated one million land mines are still in Bosnian territory, so venturing into the wilderness here requires careful consultation and the advice of a knowledgeable guide. That said, there are plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy. But I was heading to the heart of the country, Sarajevo.
First things first, I wandered around the streets—a mix of cafe-lined cosmopolitan streets and a cobble-stoned Turkish Quarter. I took a walk down Sniper Alley in front of the Holiday Inn, where foreign journalists camped out during the war. The road in front, a main artery through the city, was a primary target of Serbian snipers in the surrounding hills. Across the street, the History Museum has an interesting exhibit on the war with a collection of photos and artifacts. What struck me most was the photos were in colour, and the kids in them were wearing the same kind of clothes I wore in the early-90s. The difference is that I wore them while playing in my backyard, while these kids wore them as they burrowed in their mothers’ arms, as they were dashed across open streets hoping to get to the other side alive.
Obviously, wars are still being fought but you’d hope these sort of devastating human acts are the stuff of days gone by, “back when we didn’t know any better,” or back, at least, when photos were black and white.
But despite recent war activity, the city is alive and well. That night, a few other hostellers and I headed out to a nearby university bar for its weekly salsa night. I had no idea Bosnians had such a thing for salsa but they were good. So good we couldn’t stay for too long for fear of being discovered as absolutely miserable dancers. But it was inspiring to know that while these young 20-somethings have witnessed war in their streets, they now spend Monday nights salsa dancing.
I also visited the Tunnel Museum, 12 kilometres outside of the city. The Bosnians built a tunnel from the city to the garage of a family home on the other side of the airport—to what was considered safe territory. The tunnel was primarily used for transporting goods and running electricity and gas lines into the city. The Serbs knew there was a tunnel, but they didn’t know where. Then, without knowing what was actually going on there, Serbs killed nine people outside the house waiting to get in the tunnel. The house still stands but shows shrapnel and bullet wounds. You can still see two Sarajevo Roses, though not filled with red cement, on the front patio.
Later, I dabbled in some traditional Balkan food—a cevapi, which is small sausage-like nuggets in spongy pita-like bread. Cevapi is nothing terribly complex and not much to look at but it’s hard to walk by one of the many cevapi restaurants and not give it a go. For my overnight train ride to Ljubljana, Slovenia, I stocked up on burek, a spiral of spinach-and-feta-stuffed phyllo pastry that puts spanakopita to shame.
But before I left I had one last look around the city centre for one of these fabled red Sarajevo Roses. I wandered through the market that was the site of the war’s largest massacre, which killed 68 people, and still functions as a market today. I warded off calls of “Madam! Madam! Banani! Banani!!! BANANI!” as I scoured the ground. Nothing. I had just decided to toss in the towel and head back to the hostel when I glanced to my left and saw a red splash in the middle of the road. It looked like a perfectly symmetrical design from a spirograph kit or, more eerily, like a carefully designed blood splatter. Locals coming home from the market or from work walked past it without a glance. On the wall, an easy-to-miss plaque lists the names of the people killed in this particular attack.
It’s this kind of quiet reminder—the uncovered scars on the city’s streets, buildings and people—that gets neatly tucked in beside the laughter and liveliness of Sarajevans today. They pride themselves on being a multicultural bunch. Within a few blocks you’ll find a mosque, a Serb-Orthodox church, a cathedral and a synagogue, all quietly nestled into their surroundings, unassumingly going about their business. The previous night, as I waited for my dinner to cook in the hostel kitchen, a Muslim call to prayer wafted in the third-storey open window, followed almost immediately by the sound of a full brass band playing “Hey Jude” in the street.
So add Sarajevo to the list of cities that have knocked my socks off. Sarajevans won’t forget their past. As a matter of fact they really want to share it with you, but in the meantime they’ll be dancing. Really well.