A Travellerspoint blog

Heartbreaking Sarajevo.

After two days in Mostar we travelled north by bus to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the scene of the world's most famous assassination, and the longest siege in modern history.

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The journey was spectacularly scenic, much of it through a mountainous gorge alongside the Neretva River. It was a smooth and easy ride, and like everything in BiH very cheap. As we approached Sarajevo we went through a long tunnel and experienced the reverse of the climate change we enjoyed travelling from the interior of Croatia to the coast! Although it was sunny and warm when we arrived in Sarajevo, by late afternoon we were rummaging in our packs for those sweaters we have hardly worn since this journey started! Sadly, we have to realize that our long, long summer might be drawing to a close! Here's our first view of Sarajevo, old and new in one eyeful!

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Our generous host was there to meet us on arrival, which was a good thing as the street he lived on was too small to show up on google maps! Nihad is about 30 years old and lives in a house that has been in his family for generations.

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The right-hand side is perhaps 200-300 years old, now showing the scars of the homeland war; while the left-hand side was rebuilt after WWII having taken a direct hit from the allies!

In the courtyard they had built, or maybe converted from a stable, two tiny apartments to rent out.

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We were only about 7 mins walk from the heart of old town Sarajevo with its jumble of wooden shops selling all things Turkish-Bosnian alongside every kind of soccer paraphernalia!

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This street is Coppersmith Street and there were others devoted to leather, pottery and so on.

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All of this liberally sprinkled with mosques - we passed THREE and a madrassa, or Islamic school, just on the short walk between our digs and the old town, where there were several more!

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Bosniaks in Sarajevo are more conservative than those in Mostar and many women wear the hijab, the younger ones looking incredibly chic and fashionable. The influence of 400 years of Ottoman rule that brought Islam to half of today's Bosnian population is a large part of what makes Sarajevo so different from other European capitals. We particularly noticed the old Ottoman cemeteries with their turban-topped gravestones!

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As you walk west through old town there is actually a line across the road marking the end of the old and the beginning of the "new" part of town - you can see the difference here, looking east into the old, Turkish, part of Sarajevo

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........and looking west into the new, Austrian part!

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In just 40 years of Habsburg rule, the architects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire introduced European big-city architecture in an attempt to modernize the city. One of their architects, actually a Czech, designed city hall with a distinctly Moorish look that had nothing to do with any of the predominant cultures, but isn't it gorgeous?

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In a later incarnation it became the National Library and thus a target for the Serbian troops of the Yugoslav army during the homeland war, who reduced it to rubble. It has only recently reopened.

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It took us a couple of hours on Monday when we arrived, and all of Tuesday just to explore the downtown area, both old and new, destroyed and repaired.

We dipped into markets and places of worship, saw monuments and museums, enjoyed our favourite Balkan snack, burek....

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..........and refreshing freshly squeezed pomegranate juice..........

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While marveling at the ancient trams still used by Sarajevo's commuters!

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Of course top priority was the famous corner where Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophia were gunned down 100 years ago with "the shot heard around the world" which precipitated WWI. Here it is, now a museum with its best exhibits in the windows! And the ducal couple with their soon-to-be-orphaned children.

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Which brings me to more recent events, the Siege of Sarajevo from 1992 to 1995, the longest siege in modern history, is still all too evident, and certainly not forgotten by those who lived through it. For more than 3 years over 300,000 Bosnians of all stripes were held captive in their own city, surrounded by Serbian troops of the Yugoslav army shelling and shooting. Even Serbs who wanted nothing more than to live peacefully in their own city were not immune to the violence. This main street became known as "Sniper Alley", seen here showing the advantage the Yugoslav army had with the hills being so close to the city.

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10,000 people died, including 1600 children. Here's a particularly poignant memorial to the children of Sarajevo; built to resemble an unfinished sand castle, surrounded by the footprints of their surviving siblings, with all the victims' names on rotating spindles to one side.

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Sarajevo's position in a long valley surrounded by hills made it an easy place to cut off from the rest of the world. Here's a map showing how the troops were positioned, with "free Bosnia" in the southwest corner (labelled Igman).

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The airport was held by the UN and used for humanitarian aid, like EU donated "mystery meat" and even cans of New Brunswick herring, as seen in this display of market goods in the historical museum.

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Also above, a reconstruction of how the average apartment dweller had to live during the siege, in one room, facing away from the shooting, with a makeshift wood-burning stove for heat.

The museum also had a display of photographs by a Scottish photographer who took pictures of damaged buildings right after the siege ended, then returned 15 years later to the same locations to photograph them again. The mustard-coloured one is the Holiday Inn where troops opened fire on unarmed protestors just before the siege began; it was later used to house foreign journalists.

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Of course there are still many waiting to be demolished or fixed up, right alongside the newly restored.

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The army's first targets were communications and utilities, so Sarajevans went without any communication with the outside world and long periods with no electricity or gas. The Serb forces got within 50 metres of the river, meaning that this riverfront street is one of the only streets still lined with trees because it was too dangerous to go there to scrounge for firewood; most other parks were stripped bare over the long cold winters, after which people resorted to burning their furniture in order to stay warm.

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Here are two other memorials, the red wall at the back of the market bears the names of 110 victims of shelling while trying to buy food to feed their families and the other lists the names of 26 who died while waiting to buy bread.

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All over the city there are blast holes that mark where shells landed. They have been filled with red resin and are called "Sarajevo roses".

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It was these incidents of targeting innocent civilians that finally caught the attention of the international community and prompted the NATO air strikes that led to the end of the siege, and the war.

If you're interested in reading a child's account of the siege, Zlata's Diary by Zlata Filipovic, was written when she was 11 and has been compared to Anne Frank's Diary. You can probably find it in your local school library!

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There are so many heartbreaking stories of how brave the people of Sarajevo were during those 1300 days of terror, and here's one more. If you look again at the map of the city and its surrounding troops, you'll see a blue dotted line across the airport. This was the tunnel, built by coal mine engineers in 1993 as a life-line between the city and the outside world.....or at least to a mountain pass to the outside world!

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There is a small museum at the outer end of it, where we were able to walk through a short portion of this half-mile tunnel and see a video and various exhibits. Even though the aggressors knew about the tunnel they could not shell it, because it went under the UN held runway. instead they just targeted each end, but the brave operators carried on their daily work of getting through supplies. Here's how close this end was to the runway.

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Next door is a small souvenir shop where we ended up asking for a taxi to get back (this museum is in a tiny hamlet quite a long way from the city proper). It turns out that the man who owns the little shop in his front porch was very instrumental in the working of the tunnel, making thousands of trips in his old truck over the mountain pass, at night, with no lights, to bring supplies. He showed us another video (mainly featuring him!) took us to see an important bridge and the position of the front line, and generally talked our ears off!

The slopes around the city are now a patchwork of cemeteries .......

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While driving us out to the airport, our host, Nihad, talked to us about his war experience. His family, consisting of his younger brother and parents and himself, went through the first 2 months of fighting, then caught the last flight carrying civilians out of the city! They had ONE suitcase, thinking that they would go home in a few weeks or perhaps a month or two. After a spell in Macedonia they were admitted to Sweden, one of the only countries accepting Bosnian refugees. He talked about how traumatic it was leaving his grandmother and great aunt and having no way to contact them. Also living first in a tent, then in army barracks with all kinds of people he didn't know, all refugees. His family was just like ours; he had to leave behind his Commodore 64, his home, his friends, his activities, everything he cared about, all the things our own children had, and he is just the same age as they are. And it wasn't as if they were being attacked by enemies from another country, these were their countrymen, their neighbours. Unimaginable.

Sarajevo was a heartbreaking eye-opener. For most Canadians the Balkan war has been largely forgotten from the days when it was a faraway occurrence that we watched on the news. In Sarajevo people are still recovering.

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Posted by Twink's blog 12:21 Archived in Bosnia And Herzegovina

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Veronica you have given a wonderful snapshot into the recent history of Sarajevo. Perhaps you have found your new vocation as a travel writer!

by Brough

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