Welcome to Sarajevo

…is a movie I want to see (to excuse the likely copyright infringement of this post title).

Sarajevo was one of my most eagerly anticipated stops on this trip, though I couldn’t even tell you exactly why in concrete terms. I think it was just the various references I’d heard: the assassination of Franz Ferdinand (I was really into my Great War elective in 7th grade), the Olympics, the vague snippets of the Bosnian War and the siege that I knew/remembered. Colleagues from Bulgaria who had visited listed it among their favorites. I had no idea what it looked like or what the vibe was like, but I was excited.

Sarajevo has not disappointed. We are leaving later this morning for Mostar, but I would happily stay here longer and just wander, endlessly. It is the city and the country that we have researched the most in depth out of curiosity and fascination (granted, this may be partly because we had more time here to spend reading Wikipedia entries in our airbnb place), and it is one of the European cities I have been most intrigued by. I want to try to relay a little bit of the impression the city has made on me in just two days, though pictures and words don’t compare to the living, breathing experience.

Sarajevo is often referred to as the place where East meets West, and while this is a cliché phrase, it is truer here than any place I’ve ever been. There is a spot in the city (outside the north entrance of the covered market) where you can look to the west and see, basically, Vienna…

…and to the east and see Istanbul:

Even the Catholic and Orthodox cathedrals have Turkish/Muslim influences in the interior (this is the Orthodox only; we weren’t allowed to take photos inside the Catholic church):

It is visually, architecturally stunning. But both the eastern and western sides of the city are visibly war-pocked.


Bombed out building, Sarajevo


A “Sarajevo Rose,” the red resin poured into the crater left by a mortar shell that killed someone.

It’s absolutely unbelievable to stand in the city today and realize that the siege was just 20 years ago. Seems like on almost every corner there’s a memorial of some kind. People my age who pass me on the street today were children then; their classmates and family members died in it. We drove through eastern Bosnia and the Drina river valley on the way here, not realizing until afterwards that the gorgeous natural scenery and tiny villages that we admired on our way through had witnessed some of the worst bloodshed and ethnic cleansing activities two decades ago.


Little did I know, either, what the real significance of these signs were that we passed periodically as we crossed the divided region:


Eerie to sign-post, almost advertise, the name and territory of the entity that committed genocide against the Bosniaks (literally their next-door neighbors, then and now) during the war. Is it a statement of pride? Defiance? A warning? All of the above?

Our guide on the free walking tour (who was excellent – check him out if you’re in town!) explained to us a little bit about how the divided country works, and we read more about it afterwards (thank you, Wikipedia). I lost count of the number of times I said, “This is crazy!” Three presidents (a Bosniak, a Serb, and a Croat) forming a “Presidency” with an elected “chair of the Presidency” that rotates every 8 months within the 4-year term. A foreign “High Representative” who supposedly oversees everything and has the power to dismiss anyone he wants–a one-man (well, and his affiliated office) checks-and-balances system. A foreign-designed flag because the different sides couldn’t agree. License plates that only use shared letters in the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets to avoid vandalism and crime. Public healthcare that doesn’t work in the other region. Two completely separate and autonomous education systems (undoubtedly teaching very different versions of history).

The result (or some of them, anyway)? 45% unemployment (and something like 63% among the youth), beggars everywhere (including people who seem to be fairly average, middle-aged or even younger citizens, not just children and the elderly/disabled), funding for restorations and cultural support coming in from external sources, and increasingly conservative and possibly radicalized religious expression. The National Museum, which houses the 14th century Sephardic haggadah that was saved from the Nazis by Muslims, is closed indefinitely due to lack of funds.


What’s the difference between bombing and burning the National Library during wartime and shuttering the National Museum during peacetime?

And yet, this city is teeming with life, in a way that is not ignorant or dismissive of the past but seems to be almost in resistance to it. There is a great energy in Sarajevo, embodied by our vivacious 28-year-old tour guide who is the child of a Serbian father who stayed to defend the city and a Bosniak mother, and who grew up during the siege. You look around and think about the history of the city and see what otherwise seem to be average, everyday people walking past the physical scars left all around them, and you can see—you can feel—how Sarajevans made it through and how they may very well just continue to make it through, no matter what happens.

There is an indomitable spirit about this place and a huge variety of people walking down the street side by side: foreigners, veterans in uniform, young men in uniform, Bosniaks in full-on burkas, Bosniaks and Serbs and Croats in what we call “Balkan dress code,” i.e., lots of skin. (The people-watching is incredible.) A jewelry shop attendant went inside to retrieve a few coins from her purse for a middle-aged man who was begging at the door. The burek shop waiter blocked the little Roma girl from entering the store but chopped up a burek into small pieces wrapped in a napkin for her to take into the street to share with her sister. The market that was bombed in 1994, finally catapulting NATO into action, is in full swing today:


Men still gather in the park to play spectator-sport chess and heckle each other mercilessly.

People are friendly, everyone who works downtown speaks English (more than the usual even in a tourist area for Eastern Europe—certainly more than in Bulgaria—and possibly, we speculated, because English-speakers have an additional skill and an advantage in a competitive labor market), customer service is good, there are fixed prices at the market shops and no harassment as you walk by, strangers are courteous to each other and even chatty on the trams, quite unlike the often gloomy, stoic Bulgarians.

In two days, Sarajevo has seemed to me simultaneously the embodiment of a completely unsustainable and untenable political/economic system, and also possibly the greatest city on earth.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s