A Daisy Through Concrete: Sarajevo 25 Years On
“If you survived 1993, nothing else matters. There is no such thing as problems.”
– Faruk Osmanovic, Sarajevo siege survivor
Steeped in a rich valley of green lies a quaint, vibrant city whose scars are fading fast – a higgledy piggledy mass of cobbled streets where Catholic churches, Jewish synagogues and Islamic mosques sit peacefully alongside each other. Sarajevo is, and always has been, a melting pot of cultures, and no amount of conflict will ever change that. Like a phoenix from the ashes, this war child has emerged from its unspeakable past a survivor.
As soon as the morning sun licks the sky, the city comes alive. Locals flock to street corners to sip Bosnian coffee on low stools, lazily dipping sugar cubes into the muddy liquid and sucking on their sweetness. There is no rush, no urgency: unlike in the west, coffee is drunk for pleasure, not necessity. Because when you spend nearly four years living day by day, never even making plans for the following week for fear it may not come, every moment is one to be savoured.
When the evening comes, Sarajevo throbs with chatter and music as people alternate Western-influenced dishes with exotic Eastern desserts. It’s not until dawn that pubs finally call last drinks – an offer usually accepted by laughing policemen and security guards finishing up their night shifts. Just a stone’s throw away from the capital are icy rivers ideal for rafting, primeval forests great for hiking and steep mountains perfect – and perfectly safe – for skiing or mountain biking. Even the shells of buildings – relics from the siege – hold haunting beauty, such as the overgrown bobsled track from the 1984 Winter Olympics, which provides an epic canvas for keen graphers.
Despite all this, many Australians respond to the possibility of a visit to Sarajevo with surprise, disbelief and quite frankly, wanton ignorance.
“There’s a war on in Bosnia,” one friend assured me confidently.
“Why the hell would you want to go there?” asked another.
Beyond the azure waters of the Mediterranean, it seems that much of Eastern Europe holds little appeal for a nation with inhabitants who think Kuta is their capital. For some, this makes Bosnia and Herzegovina even more appealing, as for the most part, it attracts a breed of tourist looking to gain something more from the Balkans than an STD at yacht week.
It is almost unfathomable to think that 25 years ago, the city’s citizens couldn’t even leave their doorsteps without fear of being gunned down. In 1992, Bosnia decided to follow Slovenia and Croatia’s lead and declare its independence from the patchwork country that was Yugoslavia. In response, Serb nationalists formed an army, and under the guidance of Slobodan Miloševic, placed Sarajevo under siege. The mountains cradling the city provided a perfect shelter and vantage point for swarms of snipers, who cut off the electricity and food supply and rained a constant stream of mortar on whoever dared roam the streets.
Remnants of the siege still exist. Although much of the damage has been repaired – a sign of a nation determined to move forward – sprays of bullet holes are visible in many buildings. The upper hills of Trebević are completely safe (as is anywhere that was controlled by one of the sides during the siege, despite what you may hear), but some of the lower parts – where the frontlines were – are questionable, and there remains a danger that unexploded land mines are still buried in certain spots. Just three weeks ago, a bulldozer hit a landmine in a spot it had already cleared the previous day. Whispers that it had been planted overnight circulated, but as willing as they are to discuss the siege, Sarajevo’s locals do not like to dwell on what may or may not be.
In fact, they do not like to dwell at all.
“My cousin was born in 1994 in the middle of the siege,” explains Faruk, who was just 13 when it started and ended up losing 15 family members. “She was two months premature. If we could find two litres of petrol to fire the generator and power the incubator, she would live. My uncle and my father turned the city upside down, dodging bullets, searching and bartering all day. They found three-and-a-half litres. Her lungs started working the next day. My cousin just celebrated her 24th birthday. I told her how lucky she was to be alive. She laughed at me. ‘Shut up old man. I need to find a dress to wear tonight.’”
Sarajevo is truly one of Europe’s finest gems. Don’t let the world forget the siege, but don’t let it be all that is remembered.