The pedestrianized Ferhadija Street, where this woman is selling flowers, cuts through the Baščaršija market area and is the shopping heart of Sarajevo, for both locals and visitors. The street is infamous for a mortar attack in 1992 that killed 26 people and wounded 108 as they were waiting in line to buy bread.
Sarajevo – Long Read

Longing for peace to last

Photo by Peter Erik Forsberg

Sarajevo – Long Read Longing for peace to last

Gavin Haines
Gavin Haines Travel Writer

It is possible to host a party in the middle of a warzone. It is just not very practical. The main issue is whether your guests will show up, and by that I do not mean whether they will have accepted a better offer elsewhere or decided to stay at home and watch TV. I mean, will they get to your place in one piece or will they become another casualty of war on the way? Then there are the practical issues. When your local supermarket is a smouldering ruin, where do you find enough booze to get everyone drunk? And how do you power the sound system when there is no electricity?

Hamdija Hasanovic developed novel solutions to problems like these. He grew up in downtown Sarajevo at the height of the Bosnian War (1992-1995). In those days he had long hair, a youthful swagger and a healthy disregard for anything that got in the way of a good party. “If you want to have a party you need music – right? – and for that we needed electricity,” he says, as we shelter from the rain at the Sarajevo Tunnel Museum. “But we didn’t have electricity in our homes, so we stole it from the police station. Sometimes we stole it from the post office or the hospital.”

He describes how he siphoned off the electricity in technical information wasted on someone as impractical as me. “Really, I don’t think it was stealing,” says the former soldier, now a volunteer at the museum. “There was a war on, but I wasn’t dead and I wanted to live my life. So we had parties and football matches and went to the theatre; plays were normally by candlelight.”

It was this spirit, this absolute defiance in the face of adversity that saved Sarajevo. Ask the policemen whose electricity Hamdija siphoned off for his own use and they would probably now agree that it was not theft. It was essential for morale and kept people’s hope alive.

The only way in and out of the city

The Tunnel Museum is all about hope. In fact, its nickname is “tunnel of hope,” which is a befitting name. Burrowed beneath the runway at Sarajevo International Airport, this secret, subterranean passage was the only way in and out of the city during the infamous Siege of Sarajevo, when Serbian forces surrounded the Bosnian capital and bombarded it continuously for nearly four years. If it was not raining missiles, it was pouring.

Hamdija made the journey through the tunnel twice to collect supplies from the Bosnian Free Territory on the other side of the airport. “All the time I ask myself why I came back? On the other side it was safer and they had Coca-Cola, bananas and chocolate,” he says. “People said I was stupid to go back to Sarajevo, so why did I do it? Maybe it was the love of my city.”

We walk down some stairs and into a small, bunker-like room where old ammunition boxes have found new lives as seats. They have been arranged in front of an old television, which is playing a documentary about the siege. Footage shows buildings alight, people cowering from gunfire and victims bleeding. It makes for uneasy viewing.

Yet it triggers fleeting memories from my youth, of sitting in front of my own television with my dad to watch news reports from Sarajevo when the city was a synonym for suffering. Back then the breakup of Yugoslavia and the wars that followed were beyond the understanding of my young mind. Indeed the complex, ethno-political nature of the conflict still leaves many perplexed today.

A man who has seen too much.

Joining me inside the bunker, perched on one of the boxes, is a man who I estimate to be in his late 60s. He might be younger, war ages people, and his kind eyes betray a haunted past. He looks like a man who has seen too much. It turns out he was a policeman during the war. “Our job was to protect people, keep people from the streets and write reports about what was happening,” he says, shaking his head. “It was a nightmare – all night and all day, it was unselective firing. There are no words to describe it.”

Giving his name only as Samil, he describes how, during the siege, people from Serbia came to Sarajevo on their days off to help bomb the city. “It was like a sport for them,” he says, still shaking his head. The documentary takes on a cheerier tone, showing footage of local men constructing the tunnel. They whistle songs, puff on cigarettes and laugh at private jokes, mining humour from the depths of despair. “Thousands of people came through the tunnel with supplies – food, clothing, everything,” explains Samil, as we watch footage of a man emerging from the passageway with a goat.

He tells me that cigarettes were hard currency in those days. Even at the height of the siege, the Sarajevo Tobacco Factory kept production going and cigarettes were used by citizens of the city to procure supplies on the “other side.” As the documentary draws to a close he makes a hasty departure, bidding me farewell with a handshake and a pursed smile. I wonder why he came here to re-live those awful memories. Did he think it would be cathartic?

I exit the bunker and take a walk through the short section of tunnel that is open to the public. I imagine the citizens of Sarajevo filing through here with overloaded wheelbarrows and reluctant goats, essential supplies that would, for a while, help them cling onto what remained of their shattered lives. That was 20 years ago and, mercifully, time has been a great healer. The city, put forward as European Capital of Culture in 2014, has been largely restored to its pre-war aesthetic. While that is hardly a cause for celebration in austere out-of-town tenement estates, a hangover from the Yugoslav days, it is good news for the old town.

It triggered the slaughter of World War I

All but annihilated during the seige, as everything else in Sarajevo was, the historic center has been returned to its former splendor, a restoration that was considered as good as complete with the reopening of City Hall in May 2014. This neo-Moorish building was built in 1896, when the Balkan region was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A grand and imposing structure, it was the last place Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, visited before he and his wife were assassinated in 1914.

“The assassin was a Serbian called Gavrilo Princip,” says Samra, a local historian I am introduced to. “He was part of a group of nationalists and they had one mission: to rebel against Austro-Hungarian rule.” His actions, which went well beyond mere rebellion, had cataclysmic consequences for the rest of the world. Exactly a month after Princip assassinated Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia, an act of aggression that triggered the slaughter of World War I during which nearly ten million soldiers and almost seven million civilians died.

Samra takes me to the spot where Princip fired those fatal shots. The street excites the imagination and lends a certain resonance to the tour. Standing in the road I envisage alternative scenarios; Princip’s gun misfiring, Franz surviving. Would that have prevented WWI? If so there would have been no WWII or Cold War. No baby boom or space race. No Vietnam or Summer of Love. No me. No you.

This, then, is a place where the world changed forever, a crossroads in history where humanity took a different path. Yet the simple, stone plaque commemorating this event seems abject in its ability to grasp the magnitude of that day. It reads, prosaically: “From this place on 28 June 1914, Gavrilo Princip assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie.” It turns out, that fateful day was also their wedding anniversary.

We call them Sarajevo Roses

The coffee shop from which Princip emerged to shoot Franz Ferdinand is now the Museum of Sarajevo. Instead of hot beverages, it serves up a history of the city between 1878 and 1914; a brief but eventful epoch in which Sarajevo was absorbed by the Ottoman Empire and then conquered by Austria-Hungary.

The museum is closed, so Samra and I delve further into the old town. Some buildings here still have bullet holes in their walls, while pavements bear chilling scars from mortar blasts. In a poignant memorial to victims of these strikes, the authorities have filled in the blast marks with red resin. “It represents the blood of those killed by the mortars,” says Samra. “We call them Sarajevo Roses.”

We amble through the old town to Gazi Husrev- beg Mosque, where the call to prayer echoes from the minaret. It is an evocative reminder that we are at a cultural crossroads. “People call Sarajevo the European Jerusalem because of the closeness of different religious buildings,” says Samra. “We have Orthodox churches, mosques, synagogues and a roman catholic cathedral all very close together.

“We were part of two empires, the Ottoman from the east and the Austro-Hungarian from the west, and both of those empires brought their own influences,” she adds. “The legacy of those empires lives on in everything from religion to architecture.”

Ferhadija Street is the literal junction between in this east-meets-west city. It is Samra’s favourite street in Sarajevo because this is where neoclassical architecture from Austro-Hungarian period meets the Islamic Ottoman architecture. Look one way and you could be in the Middle East; the other and it could be Vienna. Nearly.

Coffee is a cornerstone of life here

Personally, I prefer the Ottoman part of town, which is home to wonderful independent restaurants and shops selling anything from copper coffee sets, an essential in any Bosnian household, to Iranian carpets and Arabian lamps. Samra points to a display of empty mortar casings which have been turned into vulgar souvenirs. “We don’t like these,” he says. “It’s tasteless."

We end our tour in one of Sarajevo’s ubiquitous coffee shops. Coffee is a cornerstone of life here; “It is to Bosnia what tea is to the English,” says Samra. The smoking ban has not reached these parts yet and the air is thick with smoke, as it is in the rest of Sarajevo’s countless bars and cafés.

Over coffee we chat about the Bosnian football team qualifying for Brazil 2014, the squad’s first-ever World Cup. I ask whether the team’s achievement has helped unite a nation that has been famously fractured. “It has to an extent,” says Samra. “Our team is multinational and multiethnic which is really good, but to say everyone is supporting Bosnia is not true.”

As we talk football I notice small groups of tourists walking past the windows. When I was here a decade ago, foreigners were few and far between – the war was all too fresh in the collective conscious – but now there seems to be many visitors. “Some people still think it’s not safe or that we still have a war on, but despite that tourism is increasing,” says Samra. “In 2013 we had more tourists than when we hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics, which is great considering the lack of marketing.”

After my walking tour with Samra, I jump in a taxi and head for the hills surrounding Sarajevo. These green peaks offer beautiful panoramas of the city, but they are haunted, not by ghosts, but by the legacy of Serbian forces, who positioned themselves here during the siege. As we drive up winding mountain roads, the taxi driver makes the shape of a gun with his hands and pretends to fire on the city below. "You understand?" he asks, shuddering at the memories. I nod.

“Boom,” he says. “You understand?”

These hills were also witness to happier times. During the 1984 Olympics, the slopes were alive with competitors, spectators and the world’s media. Vestiges of the Games remain, including the bobsleigh run which is where the taxi driver and I part company. He bids me farewell with a warning not to stray off the paths because of landmines. “Boom,” he says. “You understand?” I nod. The authorities say the mines have been cleared now but I take no chances and stick to the forest trails, peeling off them only to walk down the abandoned concrete run.

In 1984 this course was a theater of sporting history. That is hard to believe now. Since those glory years it has been used as target practice by Serbian gunmen, as a canvas by street artists and as a host for flora and fauna. Nowadays the bobsled course attracts hikers, photographers and twitchers, who use the lofty run to admire the bountiful local birdlife. On my hike through the pines I spot jays, woodpeckers and raptors, which glide on thermals above.

As the forest thins and Sarajevo comes into view, I survey the skyline. My eyes are drawn to the city’s sole skyscraper, which glistens in the sun. Opened in 2008, the Avaz Twist Tower is the headquarters of the Dnevni Avaz newspaper group and I have been told there is a bar at the top. It is my next stop.

The horror is hard to comprehend

I walk back to Sarajevo, through the charming, hillside suburb of Bistrik, along the banks of the Miljacka River and past a group of young Sarajevans playing giant chess in a leafy park. With blisters forming on my feet I jump in a taxi, which drives past the iconic Holiday Inn, a gregarious yellow building that hosted the world’s media throughout the Bosnian War. The hotel is on “sniper alley,” a nickname given to Vojvode Putnika during the conflict. “When I had to drive along here I did it at night with no lights on and I drove fast,” explains my driver, Haladina. “Many people were killed on this road by the snipers, including children.” The horror is hard to comprehend.

We pass the shiny malls in the new town and arrive at the tower, a brash modern building that completely jars with the bombed-out train station next door. Sure enough, there is a bar at the very top where I order a pint of the local poison, Sarajevska Pivara. It is a lively joint that attracts a young crowd, who share stories over alarming quantities of cigarettes and endless cups of coffee. From my bar stool I watch as the Balkan breeze blows away the clouds to reveal a sweeping view of the city. I head to the platform outside for a better look and watch as Sarajevo basks in the setting sun.

Below me, trams meander around the streets, trees sway in the breeze and terracotta roofs glow in the final rays of the day. The city is peaceful. Peaceful and pretty. It is hard to believe it was ever anything but.

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