Our eighth day in Bosnia was largely a travelling day, driving north to Sarajevo and finding our apartment.
After an arrival complicated by not having a phone to contact our host, we managed to get settle down by mid afternoon. A bit shaken up by three days of off-roading, we decided to have a rest of the afternoon.
That evening, we left the apartment to work out where we were, and stopped off at a shop for food and drink for tea, and washing powder so we finally had some clean clothes! Our first impressions were of a busy little city, but not suddenly more developed than the likes of Mostar. Old trolley cars are still used, and very busy, among the more modern trams and whilst structural damage to the city isn’t as obvious as in Mostar, there are still a number of bullet ridden buildings and footpaths marked with ‘Sarajevo Roses’, grenade and artillery damage on the pavements painted red to mark where someone had lost their lives.
A Sarajevo rose, depicting where someone had lost their life during the Siege of Sarajevo
Sarajevo is arguably the most significant European city in modern times, and even those who don’t know where it is, or why they’ve heard of it, are still like to have done. Sarajevo’s recent history is tainted by a distinct lack of luck to say the least. The Latin Bridge in Sarajevo was the location of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which directly caused the First World War. More recently, in 1992 the ‘Siege of Sarajevo’ began which cut off the city and its residents from the outside world and subjected them to sniper and artillery attacks on a daily basis for almost four years. Nowadays it is considerably more peaceful, and hopefully the dark days are long behind this incredibly city and its people, and it can begin to rebuild towards the future it deserves.
“What was the ‘Siege of Sarajevo’?”
The siege of Sarajevo was the encirclement of the city by the Yugoslav Army from the 5th April 1992 to 29th February 1996, a duration of almost 4 years, the longest city siege in modern times. During this time the city and its residents were almost completely cut off from the outside world, and were subject to indiscriminate daily shelling and sniping fire from the enemy forces on the surrounding mountains. Thousands of innocent lives were lost, and infrastructure, culture and heritage was damaged and destroyed. It wasn’t until intervention from the United Nations, and the United States who drew up and enforced the Dayton Agreement that the siege ended.
Our first full day in Sarajevo involved being picked up at our apartment for a ‘war tour’. Our host was a young man, Edin, who was born in the city during the siege. Edin drove us through the centre of Sarajevo, through ‘snipers alley’, a dual carriage way which was impassable doing the war due to the presence of snipers on the surrounding mountains. We passed the famous Holiday Inn, a large yellow building which “gives discounts on the south facing rooms”, a local joke referring to its position facing the hills. This was actually one of the safer places to be during the siege as it housed journalists, at that time something of a safe role in a war zone.
We drove out of the city centre and to the Tunnel of Hope. The tunnel, hidden under a regular house in a normal, if somewhat damaged neighbourhood, was built by locals during the siege under the runway of Sarajevo airport to allow for supplies to be brought in and out of the city. The house itself is now a museum, a small part of the tunnel can be seen (around 50 meters of the near kilometre long tunnel) as well as details on the siege, old landmines and shells and other treasures found and left after the war.
It was here we learnt more of Bosnia’s love of smoking. A taboo and ‘filthy habit’ in the west, there are no restrictions on smoking in public places and prices are at least five times cheaper than in the UK. In fact, Edin told us that around 80% of Bosnian’s smoke and it has deeper roots in Bosnian culture than that. During the siege, Sarajevo was still able to produce cigarettes and used them, on mass, as a form of currency to deal with those outside of the city to bring in supplies, food, drink and luxuries such as alcohol and weapons. Who says smoking’s bad for you?
We then went around the city to see the snipers points on the hills around Sarajevo, including those at the old Jewish cemetery as well as the sports stadiums and remains of the setup for the 1984 Winter Olympics, still a proud memory for the Sarajevo people. We finished off at the yellow fortress overlooking the city, a point that locals visit to see sunset and celebrate the breaking of fast during Ramadan.
After our tour we sought out the recently reopened cable car up the Trebevic mountain. Destroyed during the siege, it has been put back into commission by a businessman with links to the country. The cable car is a surprisingly long journey, around ten minutes each way, and when we went there wasn’t particularly busy. The mountain itself offers beautiful panoramic views of the city and although the mountain itself is still mined and sticking to the paths is a must, there are some beautiful lookout points.
Also on the mountain is the 1984 Winter Olympic bobsleigh track. A surreal concrete circuit running for a couple of kilometres down the side of the mountain which is completely open to be walked down (or cycled!) or followed by the adjacent path. Damaged and covered in graffiti, old and new as well as being reclaimed by the surrounding trees, plants, black squirrels and small geckos, it’s not the easiest walk but a truly surreal and unique experience.
Taking the cable car back down to the old town, we visited the famous marketplace and fountain as we sought out a few souvenirs and a place to eat. Busy and narrow, but also extremely welcoming and colourful, we ate before heading back to our apartment to prepare for the following day.
That night we were treated to yet another epic thunder and lightning storm before we turned in for the night.
Our second full day in Sarajevo had us head down towards the old town to visit the city hall, Vijecnica. A public building originally built in 1896, also open as a museum both to its own reconstruction after being destroyed during the Siege of Sarajevo, and of the history of Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Sarajevo from 1914 to the present day. The building itself is an incredible piece of architecture, painstakingly restored to its original design that was destroyed, along with millions of books and records in 1992, and reopened in 2014. A stones throw away, the appropriately named House of Spite sits across the river. The story goes that the House of Spite sat on the location of where the city hall is now and its original owner was paid recompense as well as having his house rebuilt to its original design on the other side of the river, at the governments’ expense, in order to allow for the original hall to be built in 1896.
After walking back through the old town market, seeing a young man who was doing copper-work and engraving and picking up a few trinkets, we grabbed some lunch before heading into another museum.
This museum was called the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide, and is not censored or for the feint of heart. The horrors of the siege, concentration camps across Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the torture and horror forced upon innocent men, women and children are detailed in accounts along with photographs of the injured, killed and other atrocities. It is a warts and all viewing of what happened during the war, and it deserves as many people as possible to see what happened at this awful time. That said, it is not something for the children. BBC journalist Jeremy Bowen’s documentary ‘Unfinished Business’ was running on a loop, a must watch for anyone with an interest in the war or war reporting in general (the video is embedded below but please note, some may find it upsetting).
‘Unfinished Business’ – reporting from Jeremy Bowen and the BBC during the height of the Mostar siege
Following this, we decided to seek out the Avaz Twist Tower skyscraper on the other side of the city to get a view of the city as a whole. A modern development that looks like it’s been plucked from London, we sat and watched Formula One with a coffee before making our way back down.
On the way back to our apartment we crossed the Bridge of Love, the Romeo and Juliet bridge, a romantic name but yet another tragic story from the 90’s conflict. A bridge whereby a young couple, one Bosnian, one Serb, were shot dead by sniper fire during the siege and their bodies left together, irretrievable for a number of days. A testament to the indiscriminate nature of the attacks on the city and how nobody, regardless of colour, creed, age or threat, was safe from the conflict.
Our final morning in Sarajevo took us to the zoo. Still under construction, or reconstruction, very cheap to enter and clearly limited in its resources, it is actually a wonderful place to walk around for a couple of hours, and certainly seems to have attractions to keep kids happy. Among the animals, we saw our first bear, lions along with the staple attractions of zebras, kangaroos and meerkats. There were a few reminders of the differences to home, the wolf looked somewhat stir-crazy and it wasn’t the first time we saw a peacock in a cage rather than roaming free, but for the most part the animals looked healthy and well cared for. Like seemingly everywhere in Bosnia-Herzegovina, even the zoo suffered during the war, as can be seen by reading this article in the New York Times in 1992.
We sat down for a bite to eat before getting back in our car and making our way north towards Jajce.
by Tom McBeth and Natasha Bryan
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