TRAVEL: By Eric Mackenzie-Lamb
SARAJEVO, REPUBLIC OF BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA:
One of the first questions that most people ask me, whenever I mention this fascinating and, to many, still mysterious country, isn’t “How would I get there?”, but , rather, “Where is it, exactly?”
Which isn’t surprising, considering that this small Balkan country, only about the size of West Virginia, is a world apart from what most conventional tourists heading to Europe would expect? So different, in fact, that even seasoned travelers are often the first to admit that, just when they thought they’d seen it all, there’s a whole new perspective to contemplate.
Unfortunately, in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, that perspective isn’t always pleasant. Even attempting to describe the region’s turbulent history would fill volumes. In fact, the difficulties in doing so are reflected in the word Balkanization, a term often used to describe ethnic, religious, or political conflicts which usually result in the ultimate breakup of a nation state into smaller entities hostile to each other.
In the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which declared its own independence in April, 1992, the breakup of the former Yugoslavia led to a bitter civil war in which the Serbs used their superior military resources to attack Bosniak Muslim and Croat communities, all with the goal of creating what they called a “Greater Serbia”. (The infamous massacre of almost 8000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica is considered the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II.) Although the war affected not only Bosnia and Herzegovina, but the entire region, this country paid an especially terrible price. In Sarajevo alone, it was estimated that over 5,000 innocent civilians, including at least 1500 children, were killed during the longest siege of any city in modern military history-1,452 days. Even attempting to cross a street or stand on one’s own balcony could be fatal. By the time the siege had ended, a horrifying 51 percent of children in Sarajevo had seen someone killed. More than 18,000 Serbian troops were positioned in the hills overlooking the city, armed with mortars, tanks, anti-aircraft guns, rocket launchers, and artillery. But what induced the greatest fear in the population were the snipers. It was, literally, like shooting fish in a bowl. The bloody conflict finally came to an end after NATO forces intervened to stop the escalating genocide-much too late, according to many-which eventually led to a truce under the Dayton Accords.
So much for the downbeat part of this article. Let’s move on.
On this occasion, my first visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina, I’d driven across the border from Croatia on my trusted BMW motorcycle. Back in Croatia, with its network of modern, well-maintained highways, driving had been almost effortless; here, it was very different, requiring one’s constant attention. Most roads were narrow and winding-over mountains, across high plateaus, and, in places, through thick forests of beech and spruce. In some areas, especially in higher elevations, the landscapes were stunningly beautiful, like something you’d see in the pages of National Geographic. Sometimes I didn’t see a single human habitation for almost an hour; then, coming down the valleys, it was one village after another. What was especially interesting, I thought, was the number of horse-drawn carts on the roads, often driven by children who weren’t even in their teens. There were farms of all sizes and shapes (though mostly small), many with faded wooden barns with massive, hand-hewn beams which looked as if they’d been there for centuries. ( And probably had been ) In some villages, there wasn’t a single tractor, truck, or car to be seen. It was almost like going back in time.
And then, coming into a larger village, I saw my first mosque. Today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina, I knew, had been part of the Ottoman Empire for over four hundred years, right up to 1878. The country itself had been inhabited since Neolithic times, conquered by Rome as early as 9 AD, and later ruled by the Byzantine Empire under Justinian. Christianity had arrived as early as the First Century. After the Ottomans came the Austro-Hungarians. Still later, the troops of Hitler and Mussolini And then Tito and his partisans With all these back and forth over the centuries, perhaps it wasn’t surprising that Sarajevo, my next destination, was the only European city which had a mosque, an Orthodox Christian church, a Jewish synagogue, and a Catholic church-all in the same neighborhood. (Which is why Sarajevo is known as the Jerusalem of Europe).
It wasn’t until just before nightfall that I finally arrived in Sarajevo. After a long and exhausting day on two wheels, all I could think of was a hot shower, a decent dinner, and a comfortable bed for the night.
For once, I was extremely lucky. The Hotel Bristol, which I had just happened to spot while driving along the banks of the Miljatska River toward the city center, had one room remaining.
The Bristol turned out to be one of the best hotels I’ve ever stayed in, before or since. Attention to detail was amazing, as was the friendliness of its staff. So much so, that I couldn’t imagine not spending another night or two. Yet the room rates were incredibly affordable, a fraction of what one would have paid for the same standard in other parts of Europe. I’d never, ever expected to find this in Sarajevo. But, as I was about to discover, this would be only the first of many surprises.
The next morning, while chatting over breakfast with the German manager, I learned that the hotel was actually owned by a Saudi businessman. The same owner, explained the manager, had spent vast sums of money on its restoration after the war had ended.
It was only later, walking along the adjacent streets and seeing the bullet holes and shell marks on the walls of practically every building, that I began to appreciate what he’d been up against.
Making my way along the river’s embankment, I eventually came to an arched stone bridge. Here, I realized, was yet another prominent landmark of European history: the Latin Bridge, where Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and his wife SOFIA were assassinated in their horse-drawn carriage by Gavrilo Prinzip in the summer of 1914-an act which effectively sparked the First World War. (For history buffs, there’s also a nearby museum dedicated to the event).
Also noteworthy-and perhaps paradoxical-is the fact that, although the Internet didn’t effectively reach here until 1996, Sarajevo could boast of having the first electric tram in Europe- and only the second in the world, after San Francisco-in 1885.
Another unusual attraction which Sarajevo has to offer visitors is the Tunnel Museum. The actual tunnel itself, about a thousand yards long and dug by hand while the city was under intense bombardment, threads its way beneath Sarajevo’s airport-which was controlled by the UN throughout the siege-and served as the only escape route for untold thousands of residents, many of them wounded or elderly. The tunnel was also a lifeline for incoming supplies, including food, medicines, and drinking water, as well as troop reinforcements and vital military supplies. The Bosnian defenders even installed an oil pipeline through the tunnel, along with electric and telephone cables, thus enabling the beleaguered city to communicate with the outside world. Records indicate that, on any one day, between three and four thousand persons and an average of thirty tons of freight passed through this tunnel.
Over the following days, as I continued to explore this fascinating and colorful city, I began to realize just how far Sarajevo and its inhabitants had come since those dark days of the late 1990’s. Today, sidewalk cafés teem with customers, young and old, many of them tourists. The sounds of the city are everywhere: from Beethoven and Strauss to Hip-Hop in the shops, to live street musicians on the streets, to calls to prayer from the minarets of nearby mosques. Boutiques and souvenir ships are everywhere, too, along with art galleries large and small, as are the bars and restaurants. (Bosnian food, in case you’re wondering, is delicious. So is the wine). As for flowers, they’re in almost every window, in parks, around fountains and monuments, and outside churches and mosques. (Sadly, there are also hundreds of “Sarajevo Roses” painted on sidewalks and streets to commemorate where someone was killed during the city’s siege).
And the list doesn’t end there. The Bosnia National Museum contains the Sarajevo Haggadah, the oldest known Sephardic Jewish manuscript in the world, dating back to around 1350. Then you have the Museum of Literature and Theatre Arts, as well as the Ars Aevi Museum of Contemporary Art.
And if this isn’t enough culture for you, Sarajevo offers no less than four different festivals throughout the year: the Film Festival; the Winter Festival; the International Music Festival; and-not to be missed-the Sarajevo Jazz Festival. (One of the city’s most poignant events was when Zubin Mehta conducted the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Mozart’s Requiem- not in a concert hall, but in the bombed shell of what had once been Sarajevo’s magnificent public library).
When I finally left this magical city, I felt that I’d learned many things. Not only had it been a very special personal experience; the word Overcome now held a new meaning for me.
I will be back, Sarajevo.