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Mixed Emotions in Sarajevo

I was fifteen years old when I first heard of Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. The city was the host of the 1984 Winter Olympics, and I was at an age where I was getting really interested in world geography, not to mention skiing. Bill Johnson, controversial as he was,  was my hero of those olympics, winning the gold in the men’s downhill, but it was this mysterious land halfway across the planet that really captured my attention that winter. I remember tuning in each evening with my family to watch the events, but I also distinctly remember many of the images ABC was bringing to our living room of this exotic city set within these majestic mountains. I remember pouring through our family encyclopedia and atlas to learn more about this spectacular place. I was fascinated with Sarajevo, and I’d venture to guess that I shared that fascination with many, many others all over the globe. Sarajevo had successfully parlayed it’s moment in the Olympic spotlight into becoming a destination for travelers worldwide, and the citizens of this great city had a lot to be proud of.

The state of the Olympic bobsled track today. It still gets used for training the national team.

I was a political science major at the University of Oregon when the Siege of Sarajevo began in 1992. In the year previous to that I had helped to organize a student organization in which our chief role was to protest and bring awareness about the Persian Gulf War. I was heavily involved in grassroots peace politics at that time, and I was acutely aware of what was happening in the crumbling communist state that we knew as Yugoslavia. I took part in numerous benefits and student initiatives to bring awareness to the tragedy that was unfolding in the Balkans, but for the most part it felt like to me that most Americans were turning a blind eye, especially our government. It was a horrifically grueling 1,425 day period for Sarajevo, and it was heartbreaking to see a once triumphant city and it’s people brought to their knees by an enemy bent on hate and ethnic cleansing. It was also a relief when the International community finally stepped up to help facilitate an end to that war in 1995 with the Dayton Agreement, and by early ’96, Serb forces pulled out of Sarajevo completely.

Mountains of Bosnia

Fast forward twenty-one years later to find Haruka and I driving through the rugged mountains of Bosnia and Herzegovina in a rental car under the smoky haze of regional forest fires. My emotions were a bit jumbled as we made our approach toward the city. On the one hand there was this heavy-hearted nervousness brought on by memories of helplessly watching from a great distance as a people and a place that I greatly admired got pummeled into a bloody mess for four long years. On the other hand was this palpable excitement of visiting this gorgeous city and some of its citizens who stared death in the face and came out the other side, not unscathed, but still standing.

Former Olympic medal podium. During the siege, this was used as an execution platform. The bullet holes have been cemented over and it has been repainted.

Before we got into town we took a little side trip to Igman, which was the ski jumping site for the ’84 Olympics. Even though the area still gets used for skiing in the winter and the chairlift runs in the summer for tourists, the jumps are completely dilapidated and no longer in use. I could be wrong, but I’d guess that most former Olympic sites still have functioning ski jumps. This was our first glimpse into how the region is still in the midst of a post-war rebuilding effort. When we got off the chairlift at the top to take a walk around, a worker approached us and was extremely adamant that we not walk in the woods at all, and that we stay within his sight, because of the potential for stepping on a landmine. There was a very serious edge in his voice, which kind of took the fun out of walking around up there to enjoy the view, but we certainly couldn’t fault the guy. It was apparent in that moment that these people are living with a very different reality than I could ever fathom based on my life experiences.

Olympic ski jumping site.

As we got into town and started to interact with the locals, the first thing we noticed was a very gentle friendliness and a genuine willingness to help us enjoy our stay. However, a bit below the surface, we could also sense a weariness in most people… like something had sucked them dry and no amount of mountain spring water could ever fully quench them. Despite that, they all seem to be aware that they’ve been given a second lease on life and they’re not going to let that slip away for anything. The city itself is quite cosmopolitan, and at first glance the infrastructure is tight, the houses are super clean, the buildings and streets look new. As we delved a bit deeper and really explored the nooks and crannies of the city, there were still plenty of reminders of darker days, but reconstruction projects are abundant and you get the sense that these people are on a mission.

Skyline of Sarajevo

There’s no way to simply explain the Bosnian war or the siege of Sarajevo, and certainly not in the limiting space of a blog entry. I’ve provided links throughout this post if you care to dig deeper into the inner workings of this complex situation. To say it’s complicated would be a major understatement. Our Airbnb host, Edo, who was born and raised in Sarajevo, and fought on the side of the Bosniaks to defend the city during the siege told us that he didn’t then, still doesn’t and probably never will  understand how and why all of that happened. To make a very long story short, the area that comprises current day Bosnia and Herzogovina is mostly made up of three different ethnic groups. There are Croats, who tend to be mostly Catholic, and their numbers are generally concentrated in the  western part of the country. In the Eastern part of the nation there are large concentrations of Serbians, who tend to be Eastern Orthodox Christian. Mashed up in the middle are the Muslim-adhering Bosniaks, who descended from the Ottoman Empire of Turkey.

One of several massive cemeteries in the city.

As the communist nation of Yugoslavia began to collapse the early 90’s, the Serbians were looking to expand their borders beyond what was traditionally known as Serbia, and into other areas where ethnic serbs were living. This meant that a great deal of Bosnia and Herzegovina was being targeted. The Bosnian Serb Army formed, and in conjunction with the Yugoslavian National Army, based in Serbia, launched a full-scale offensive on the Muslim Bosniaks in Bosnia. Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić and others in the Yugoslavian National Army would be convicted of war crimes as it was established that the conflict was genocidal in nature, with ethnic cleansing being it’s chief objective. Former Serbian president Slobodan Milošević died in prison while on trial for charges of genocidal war crimes.  The siege of Sarajevo was perhaps the cornerstone of the Serbian offensive, as it was the largest city and cultural center of the Bosniaks.

Danger! Landmines!

Most Sarajevans felt that an attack on the city was highly unlikely, and were thus caught off-guard when the Bosnian Serb Army took over by force, the hilltops and ridges surrounding Sarajevo in attempt to cut the city off from the rest of the world. The Bosniaks did not yet have an army in place to defend itself, and the citizens had very little in the way of weapons or artillery, so those early days of the siege were particularly brutal as the Serbians used their military might to shell the city relentlessly. The rest of the world was very little help to them in the early days of the siege, and they were only able to survive due to their miraculous ability to control a narrow corridor south of the city that connected them to the rest of Bosnia. That in itself wasn’t quite enough, as the access to that corridor was over the airport runway, which was exposed to snipers, and running supplies across it was like a death wish. Within a few months, the Bosniaks built a tunnel under the runway that allowed them to move food, arms and supplies into the city. Edo informed us that the citizens of Sarajevo would’ve never survived the four-year siege without that tunnel. NATO’s involvement starting in 1994 was also a critical factor in Sarajevo not being taken by the Serbs.

A section of the ‘Tunnel of Hope’.

We don’t normally do guided tours, but we opted to take the ‘Tunnel of Hope’ tour,  which turned out to be a great decision. Our twenty-four year old guide, Lele was born during the siege, so while he didn’t have any firsthand memories of the war, he had a deep knowledge of the history here, and his take on the siege as well as his view of the current situation in Bosnia was quite powerful. While the people of this city still bear a very painful scar, the feelings across ethnic lines are far from black and white. Lele mentioned several times throughout his tour that his best friend is an ethnic Serb, and while he definitely has a problem with the actions of the Serbian army in the early 90’s, he bears no hard feelings toward the Serbian people whatsoever. After hearing his stories of death, destruction and rape committed against his people, we were incredibly moved by the forgiveness he holds in his heart.

House at one end of the ‘Tunnel of Hope’ that now serves as a museum. The red markings on the pavement are known as a ‘Sarajevo Rose’. Mortar strikes caused divots like this all over the city, which were filled in with red resin to serve as a reminder of what happened here.

I wondered if perhaps Lele’s willingness to forgive comes easier because he has no memories of the actual atrocities that occurred. Later I had a chance to ask Edo about how Bosniaks get along with Serbians now, and his answer was quite surprising. He told us that of the soldiers in his battalion, 20% were Croatians and 30% were Serbians, and that the Bosniaks never would’ve been able to hold their position in Sarajevo if not for the heroic efforts of the Serbians and Croatians that defended the city alongside the Bosniaks. He wondered aloud that given those circumstances, how could he and other Bosniaks hold prejudice toward Serbs or any other ethnic group. I’m sure some Bosniaks still feel pretty bitter toward the Serbs, but the general feeling that I get is that Bosniaks understand that the cycles of hate and bigotry need to be broken in order to achieve the everlasting peace they seek.

Edo reckons that Sarajevo is 90% rebuilt now and in prime position to thrive as a destination for tourists from all over the world. Indeed, the tourism infrastructure is developed enough to make for a very comfortable stay here, and although security is no issue at all (as long as we don’t wander off the beaten paths), there are still relatively few travelers coming here. This makes Sarajevo a reasonably inexpensive and hassle-free destination to visit in Europe.

Eternal Flame that burns in the city center

Curiously, Lele isn’t as optimistic about the future of Sarajevo, as he sees many Bosniaks of his generation leaving the city for better jobs throughout Europe. He also questions the political stability of the region going into the future, but we were extremely moved by his determination to stay in his country and stick by his people to see this city through its course, for better or worse. He feels that it is his generation that will be the key to making Bosnia and Herzegovina a model for how cultures can thrive in peace and prosperity.

He understandably questions whether or not the rest of the world has Bosnia and Herzegovina’s back, but I think that we citizens and travelers of the world have the ability to make a big difference in this country’s future. By routing our travels through Bosnia and Herzegovina, and spending some time with these bright, beautiful and resilient people, and yes, throwing down some money here and there as well, we can make a legitimate contribution toward bringing this country full circle back to its former glory and beyond.

Sunset over Sarajevo



2 thoughts on “Mixed Emotions in Sarajevo

  1. A sobering look at the juxtaposition of sports and war. It occurs to me that they are two versions of competition, one harmless and the other lethal. Hardly surprising that religion lurks behind the carnage. I like your prescription for healing.


    1. Thank you Camille. In many cases sport can be that common thread that can join different cultures together and circumvent the ugliness of political and religious conflict. In Sarajevo’s case, the conflict, in many ways obliterated the legacy of the ’84 Olympics, but perhaps in time this city will be once again be known as a center for friendly competition rather than a site of brutal war.


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