The more I wander the old town, walk along and cross the river, ride my bike through the surrounding hillside neighborhoods, the more I try to get a sense of Sarajevo. I wonder about its glorious past as a cosmopolitan city, and of its slow decay, and now, its stumbling resurgence. The victors write history, as the saying goes. In Sarajevo and the Balkans, I’m not sure who is victorious and who is not. And perhaps this is why history here is so clouded and confusing.
I probe, ponder and struggle to understand.
Mark and I join a morning walking tour of the city center. Our guide, Neno, grew up here during the war. He speaks fast, is quick with numbers and statistics, and passionate, and yet realistic as he speaks of Sarajevo’s past and possible future.
We start on the steps of the National Theatre and then move to the Orthodox Cathedral, Synagogue, Latin Bridge and beyond. I feel that the two-hour walk could extend to four hours as the most interesting part of the tour for me, is the one-on-one time walking between sights where Mark and I dig deeper with penetrating questions.
Unlike Croatia, which is Catholic, and Serbia which is Christian Orthodox, the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina includes both groups plus a large population of Muslims. As Neno explains, “we share the same passport, same language, and we enjoy the same food, the only difference is religion.”
Neno tells us he is not religious, nor is his mother. Yet he quizzes his Mom about why she celebrates Muslim holidays. “She does not go to Mosque. She does not wear a headscarf, but she,” he explains. “Mom tells me because she likes to make baklava.” As he figures, many people like the tradition and the coming together of family and friends on such holidays. “Like Christmas,” he figures, “many like the dinner, presents, and tradition.”
Those that are more devout to their Christian or Muslim religious practices today he surmises, are so because so many people lost family members in the war. Neno has only one sister, and his family was fortunate to not lose anyone in the war. But many friends did. Those who found solace from loss found it through their religion.
We wander past a building painted in bright colors, but architecturally it seems awkward, Neno tells us “this is the ugliest building in Sarajevo” The government built it for housing athletes for the 1984 Olympics. Today, it still preserves the same color scheme.
We wander to the Sarajevo Brewery (Sarajevska pivara), founded in 1864, and the only European brewery whose production was uninterrupted during the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. In 1907, the brewery grew to become the largest brewery in the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Many locals will tell you that the beer from the brewery tastes so good because of the water. The Sarajevo Brewery is built on top of a natural spring flowing with fresh mountain water. During the siege of Sarajevo, bombing destroyed the city’s infrastructure. The brewery opened its doors and springs to residents who would sometimes travel over an hour in brutal winter cold to fill up jugs with water.
The brewery became a target for the Yugoslav National Army backed Bosnian Serbs who shelled the building, killing many and damaging the structure. But the brewery kept brewing beer and providing water from its springs. Today it’s thriving and has a museum touting its over 150-year history in Sarajevo. Most recently it began marketing bottled water, “Lejla” sourced from its springs. It reminds us of and celebrates its history and the resilience of its neighbors.
Though the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was short lived in Sarajevo, its influence lingers. The tram network and the architecture that stands out among the socialist-era concrete block buildings scattered throughout the city. Especially interesting is the fantastical neo-Moorish facade of the 1898 Vijećnica, the Sarajevo City Hall. It was bombed and caught fire during the 1990s siege, but thanks to a restoration plan, it reopened in 2014 after years of reconstruction.
Later that night after imbibing in that fresh spring water brewed beer at Sarajevska brewery, Mark and I close a local bar and are entertained by traveling minstrels performing Elvis tunes. An odd end to our time in Sarajevo.
On my way out of town, I find my way around the Sarajevo Airport to see the Sarajevo Tunnel of Hope. My GPS is worthless, but thanks to locals I wind my way around a small neighborhood before coming upon a house where underneath lies remnants of a tunnel that safely ushered locals out of the city from the crazy siege that crippled the place for almost four years. Most important, the tunnel became a means to provide city defenders with weaponry—bypassing the international arms embargo.
The tunnel linked two Bosnian held territories cut off by Bosnian Serbs. It served as a communication channel between Bosnian and Bosnian-allied forces in Sarajevo and outside territories. It supplied the Bosnian troops with supplies, including food, fuel, newspapers, and weapons.
Today the museum under the local house is a blunt reminder of the atrocities of the war, but also the hope and tenacity of locals determined to survive and maintain independence.
Only by circumstance, I like many of my fellow Americans who have not served in our armed forces have lived for the past fifty years free of war. We are numb to it, and only experience the madness through the media. I feel numb, and lucky when I encounter sites like the tunnel of hope. I wonder, what would I do; what would I be doing today; where would I be if I lived through a desperate conflict like those here in Sarajevo.
I can only wonder. For now, I know the lives of my family, friends, and colleagues have been fortunate.
Here is where shared experiences inspire more questions. I can only imagine.