Spooked in Sarajevo

Spooked in Sarajevo

A broad man, well over 6ft, is standing confidently in front of us, his thick gold chain glimmering in the moonlight. His body is blocking out the street lights, and his tight leather jacket compliments his dark turtle-neck skivvy in a real I’m-part-of-the-mob kind of way.

“Where you going girls?” he asks with an uneasy smile.

The three of us have just stepped off a night bus from Budapest. The man is our first glimpse of Sarajevo, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. None of us have been to Sarajevo before and we haven’t so much as Googled it.

In 1992, Bosnia and Herzegovina declared its independence from the former Yugoslavia. By 1995, the year I was born, the war that followed had taken an estimated of 100,000 lives. It was the worst act of genocide since the Nazi regime. The war is long gone, but there are still hints of it across Sarajevo.

And here we are. Three 20-something-year-old women, standing right in the middle of a city whose pride was quite literally blown apart, with no idea what we’re doing. We meet a German guy on our bus, Ivo. He hasn’t yet booked accommodation, so we suggest he comes with us.

The broad man strides toward us, from a pack of leather-jacket-skivvy-wearers, through a thick cloud of cigarette smoke. He wants to offer us a ride in his unmarked taxi. Tired and broken (we just spent eight debaucherous days at Sziget festival), we’re in no mood to consider alternative options. His price is about 10 Euros for each of us. It seems more legit than walking.

Before we have time to speak, a chuckle comes from Ivo, that damn German backpacker.

“That’s too much,” he laughs. “I looked it up. It only takes 10 minutes to get into the city.”

The broad man shifts his gaze from us and shoots fiery daggers toward Ivo.

“If it takes 10 minutes, I’ll give you the fucking ride for free,” he guffaws back. More psychotic than funny, they’re the only ones laughing. I shift my head back and forth, watching the battle of who has the bigger balls unfold.

Ivo says he’s going to walk. With a fear of being left alone with the gangster in his unmarked taxi, we follow along. The streets of Sarajevo seem quiet. There are a few people creeping around in the low-lying fog, and there doesn’t seem to be any glows of joy coming from the nearby bars. Ivo was right – our hostel is just a short walk.

We step into a long narrow room with posters on the walls that seem like they were pinned up in the ’80s; the dark-mustard colour is reflective of 6AUD/night dorm prices. After booking in for two nights, we’re told in a thick Bosnian accent: “He will show you to your room.”

The man walks past us and into the street. Dressed in a two-piece Adidas tracksuit, he also seems to fit the mob aesthetic. His tall slender body is hunched over, making his thick, seemingly expensive chain clap against his pointy collarbones as he walks. He silently takes us down the street to an unmarked steel grate, unlocks it, and shows us in.

The room is old and it feels like it would be safer hiding valuables under our pillows than in the lockers. It’s a cool night but suddenly I’m stressed and sweating. I’m beginning to feel that I’m in over my head. We’ve been dancing to the sounds of Sia, in Hungary, and swimming through the familiar waters of Spain, thinking we can do anything. But Sarajevo is proving we aren’t up for a challenge.

We make a quick decision to get the fuck out, so in the morning, we refund our second night. After jumping on a train in the wrong direction, we finally get in a taxi, shutting the doors as he takes off. But we arrive at the station five minutes late. The next bus isn’t for six hours. Sarajevo is begging us to give her a real chance, but we’re too beaten to comply. We waddle around the bus station the entire time. Instead of heading on a walking tour, or visiting the abandoned bob-sled track of the ’84 Olympics, we leave.

The problems we’d blamed on Sarajevo could have happened in any city; granted, we’d lost our souls at Sziget before arriving. The abundance of repair Sarajevo and its people have had to undergo would make anyone, at times, defeated and intolerant. Their recovery has only been as short as my time on earth. And these scars are still healing.

At this point, I fucking hate Sarajevo. But it’s not Sarajevo’s fault. I’m vaguely aware of its problems, but I never gave it a chance. Not even 24-hours. Maybe I should have Googled it before I arrived.

I’ll return to Sarajevo, but probably on a day bus next time.

Cover by Tiago Dos Santos