When you picture the city of Sarajevo in the country of Bosnia and Hercegovina, you probably remember the infamous siege of Bosnian forces in the early 1990s. The siege lasted 44 months and devastated Sarajevo. Now almost 20 years later, Sarajevo is still recovering from the very recent siege. The tourism industry has become an increasingly important part of the economy, as more and more publications have been raving about Sarajevo.
I did not know exactly what to expect, but I was surely surprised when I arrived at 10pm. I walked from the bus station and immediately saw the city’s tallest building, the Avaz Twist Tower, a modern skyscraper that could easily be in Chicago or Singapore. Walking down its wide boulevard (nicknamed Sniper Alley during the siege), I passed western shops like Mango and McDonalds, all in modern western style buildings. At first glance, the city was nothing special and I started to wonder why I had left Dubrovnik to visit such an ordinary looking place. I quickly brushed away these thoughts and kept walking with an open mind.
The next morning, I went for a walk along the main pedestrian street, Ferhadija. Walking east, I arrived at a point where everything changed. A painted white strip on the street stated, “Meeting of cultures where East meets West.” This couldn’t be truer. Look west and you see 8 story buildings with banks and international stores. Look East, and you see one story wooden houses, a clock tower with Arabic numbers on it, a cobblestone street, and the city’s first mosque. This area, called Baščaršija, is like a small slice of Istanbul. This point where East meets West became my favorite part of the city, as the change is so drastic and so sudden.
Continuing down Saraci, you find tourist shops, small alleyways, more cobblestone streets, small restaurants serving cebapi (pronounced che-bah-pi), tripe soup, and other Bosnian foods. You’ll also find an indoor bazaar, where local vendors have been selling anything and everything since the Ottoman Empire times. Go even further west and you’ll run into the Moorish former City Hall, a building in downtown Sarajevo that could be in the middle of a city in MoroccoHead south towards the river and you’ll run into the Latin Bridge, where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated which, in turn, started World War I.
Vijecnica (City Hall)
The former City Hall was destroyed during the Siege of Sarajevo, as the Serbs targeted important cultural buildings. At the time, it was also the National Library, and over 2,000,000 books and documents were destroyed in the burning of the building. The building was renovated and actually was just recently finished this year. It is now a beautiful building that houses an exhibition about the history of Sarajevo from 1914 to 2014. The cost of the museum was about $2 and was a good read to understand the last 100 years in the city.
The most powerful part of visiting Sarajevo was the free tour. Our guide, Miram, is a 29 year old girl who grew up in a town outside of Sarajevo. Not only was she knowledgeable about Bosnia’s long history of being controlled by outsiders, including the Ottomans and the Austro-Hungarians, but she also recounted her experience during the Siege of Sarajevo. She wasn’t even 10 yet when the Serbs started their ruthless bombing. She remembers going to school for two hours in the morning from 8am until 10am, a relatively safer time to go because the daily bombing never started until late morning. After 10am, she would spend the rest of her day in their basement. The goal of every day was to survive, and the basement gave her and her family a relatively safe place to be as the grenades rained down on their village. Miram spoke about the food rations they were given. Because they were unable to farm and were cut off from any other countries, most of their food was provided by humanitarian organizations. The mush they were given was one of the worst things she has ever tasted, and it was essentially the only thing available for almost four years. She heard a rumor that the food they were given was leftover from WWII, a mere 50 years later. Almost every bite would have a dead worm along with it.
The most shocking of her story was how she explained the sound of the firing of a grenade. After the initial “bang” of the launch, she would then hear the grenade in the air, much like the sound of an airplane. After this, they would never know where the grenade was heading, so they would wait and listen to the sound of it dropping. Then the following explosion would follow. She got so used to this sound that the exact sound is still vivid in her mind. The fact that she is just two years older than me shows how recent this was. While I was riding my bike up to the swimming pool on a hot summer day, she was sprinting from school and back to avoid grenade explosions in her town.
She had one close call. On her way home from school, she was about two blocks away from her home. She heard that all too familiar sound of the grenade being launched from a distance. And she froze. She had no idea if it was best to go back, forward, or stay where she was at. She then heard the sound of her mother screaming for her to run to the house. Luckily, she arrived safely. However, she saw the damage later on of the grenade in the exact same spot where she had frozen up.
On the tour, she pointed out several places where buildings were damaged by grenades, including the cathedral. On the sidewalk just a few feet from the cathedral is an indent from the exploded grenade, which is now painted red to honor those who died in this time. On the side of the cathedral walls are damaged parts which weren’t repaired in order to remember this time and those who passed away. Throughout the city, there are many places where you can see bullet holes in buildings and other damage. It’s all very recent and still fresh in the minds of Bosnians.
Tunnel of Hope
The Tunnel of Hope lies about 10 miles outside of Sarajevo, right by the airport. The tunnel was a key passageway which provided access for Sarajevo to the rest of the country. Food, weapons, and other supplies were brought into the city through this half-mile underground tunnel, which goes under the airport. The tunnel was constructed in 1993 and was very important to the livelihood of Sarajevo. Without this, it’s very possible that Sarajevo would’ve fallen and Serbia would have taken Bosnia.
Getting to the tunnel isn’t the easiest thing to do if not on a guided tour, but I had met a Brazilian guy on my tour who had rented a car and was heading out to the Tunnel of Hope. He offered for me to join him, as well as a Canadian and an Australian.
We arrived to a two story house, the disguise for the tunnel which was built underneath. We had a local guy, whose name I can’t remember, guide us through the exhibit. He was about 40 years old and was very passionate while talking about the Siege of Sarajevo. The most interesting part is how he described those four years as the most horrible but also the most beautiful years of his life. Like me, you may be confused on this and how it could be in any way described as beautiful.
He explained, “In that time, we were all together. It didn’t matter if you were Muslim, Orthodox, Catholic, or Jewish. We were all Bosnians.” He said that that was the only time that he could go into anyone’s house with no questions asked. Nowadays, he doesn’t even know his neighbor. He was very proud to say that he is a survivor of this time, something that holds Bosnians close.
The only part of the tunnel that can be visited is about 75 feet long. It was only a few feet wide and I needed to bend down a bit to walk through. The fact that this was a lifeline for Bosnia makes it an incredible place, extremely important for the country’s people.
Sarajevo is known for its jazz music. Unfortunately, I just missed their big jazz festival in November. However, I took the opportunity to spend one evening at a jazz club located just one block from my hostel. For the cover fee of just $3, I was able to watch the Sarajevo Jazz Guerilla Band the small, quaint venue of The Monument, along with several people from my hostel. Being so famous in Sarajevo, seeing a live jazz show was a great way to spend an evening.
I had taken the bus from Dubrovnik, Croatia, to Sarejevo. This turned out to be one of the most annoying border crossings I’ve ever had. I was on a bus of about 25 people, sitting by a guy from New Zealand who I had met in Dubrovnik. The border patrol took our passports and then returned to ask the Kiwi and I to bring our stuff with them. We were taken into a small room, as three border patrol guards starting searching our bags and asking if we had any drugs. I guess we seemed like the common young traveling guys who would smuggle drugs across the border. Unfortunately for me, to save space, I had taken out ibuprofen from the plastic bottle and put it inside a small Ziploc bag. You can imagine their first thoughts as they found this. Because of this, they started asking more questions and searching more thoroughly, even asking me to drop my pants to make sure I had nothing hidden in this region. When I said I don’t smoke marijuana, he asked why not. I simply responded, “Well, because it’s illegal.” I don’t think he could believe that we wouldn’t have anything on us. Afterwards, they let me go and I happily packed up my stuff and got back on the bus.
Like I said, I was surprised by Sarajevo. The meeting of East and West was very prevalent. I also ate way too much cebapi (sausages with pita bread and raw onion). No wonder why tourism is increase substantially every year in Sarajevo.