You notice them as you walk around the city, red splashes of paint in an almost florid pattern, constant reminders that Sarajevo was bombarded with mortar shells during the siege.
When I was a kid, my abiding memory of the Balkan wars is watching NATO planes taking off from unknown airbases safe from the comfort of my living room. Except it is not comfortable because when you are young, you do not understand war and even a war a thousand miles away scares you. I could never have hoped to understand the complexities of the war but I remember Sarajevo. The city left an impression on my young mind and as time went on I knew that I would one day visit this city that seemed to make a habit of standing at the crossroads of 20th Century history
A few years ago we decided to take a road trip through Bosnia and Herzegovina for a few days, stopping along the way in Sarajevo and Mostar. We loaded the car in Zagreb and headed east towards the border crossing into Bosnia and Herzegovina.
After almost six hours of driving we were starting to enter the outskirts of Sarajevo and the first thing that you notice is the hills where the Republika Srpska army laid siege to the city for 1425 days.
We stayed in a hotel on the outskirts of the city called the Hotel Radon Plaza which offered great views across to the city and up to the mountains from the rooftop restaurant.
Our drive into the city from the hotel took us along what used to be the most notable sniper alley (Ulica Zmaja od Bosne).
On each side of the road you could see buildings still pot-marked by the unmistakable signature of mortar rounds. The infamous Holiday Inn hotel is still standing and looks exactly as it did from the evening news beamed into my living room during the siege. The grey skies only added to the sense of danger of this long, wide street that is synonymous with fear and death.
To do justice to a city bursting with recent history we decided to do a walking tour that was hosted by the university and completely free. Despite the biting cold, the tour brought home what life was like in during the siege. We were taken to the market where, on the floor, you can see splodges of blood-red paint that represent where bombs fell during the siege, a stark reminder that despite the snipers in the hills above the people of Sarajevo still had to try to go about their business since there was no way out of the city.
The tour then took us back even further in time. Every school child is taught that the spark that ultimately lit the fuse to the First World War was the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. We stood on the spot where Gavrilo Princip shot the Archduke and his wife Sophia and thus triggered the events that led to the First World War.
Today there is a just a small plaque commemorating the location of the assassination which is easy to miss but standing on them and reflecting on the event and the fact that the assassination nearly failed you cannot help but wonder about an alternative history.
After the tour we dived into one of the many coffee houses in Sarajevo with the tour guide where she spoke at length about the problems still facing Sarajevo. Whilst the threat of a bullet from the hills is gone, the city and the country as a whole remain divided and hungover from the wars of independence from Yugoslavia.
After the coffee we were immediately transported back to grim reality in the museum commemorating the massacre at Srebrenica. It was an affecting experience and with thoughts of the First World War in my mind it was yet another example of a terrible waste of human life. The museum didn’t pull any punches and placed much of the blame for massacre on the lack of protection from Western countries. The Serbs were able to carry out the massacre under the nose of UN peacekeepers. I am in no doubt that it was clear ethnic cleansing and a lesson that we should have learned from the Holocaust.
Sarajevo is like no city I have ever been to. It is a living museum with every building still stressed by the siege. Thankfully, although scarred by its recent history, this is still a living and breathing city and the people are extremely welcoming. I am pretty sure we even had coffee in someone’s living room that doubled as a café. If you like strong Turkish coffee then Sarajevo will keep you happy.
We spent our time in the city wandering the cobbled streets of the city centre and taking breaks drinking strong Turkish coffee and the best potato Burek outside of Tomica’s flat in Zagreb. The city sprawls outwards from Baščaršija, colloquially known as Pigeon Square. As it sprawls you will we pass a Christian church, a synagogue and a mosque all sharing the same breathing space which highlights the unique location of Sarajevo on the border of eastern and western traditions. In fact, there is even a line in the ground where you can straddle both the east and the west.
After a couple of days in Sarajevo we packed up the car and headed south towards Mostar. On the drive down the scenery was spectacular as we were enclaved by mountains and lakes of the most sapphire blue. As tradition dictates we stopped for food in a restaurant that drew us in with lamb turning on a spit outside. The Croatian contingent in the car wanted to see if it could compete with their (unofficial) national dish.
We arrived late into Mostar and after unpacking the car and filling our bellies once more (eating great food is just part of the deal in this part of the world) we walked the cobbled streets in the dark. Lit up in the dark I got my first view of the Old Bridge, Stari Most. The city itself is named after the people that used to guard this bridge.
Although the original bridge was destroyed in 1993 by Croatian forces due to its “strategic” importance it has been lovingly restored to its former glory using the similar materials and in some cases original bricks fished from the cold river below. In the cold of November, it was hard to imagine the groups of locals jumping off the bridge into the cold below.
The city was completely dead at this time of night and wandering the narrow, cobbled stones the city felt like it had not been touched by modernity.
The next morning we again wandered the streets and bought some souvenirs before loading up the car for the long drive back to Zagreb. On the way we passed a sign for Medjugorje, a favourite spot for seeing the Virgin Mary if you are that way inclined. I am not so we drove on into the dark and back into Croatia.
For anyone with even a passing interest in the twentieth century a stay in Sarajevo will ignite the imagination. It is an extraordinarily evocative place with wonderful people who have endured what most of us can’t even begin to imagine.