Friday, December 16, 2011

A city with a story: Sarajevo

Walk along Sarajevo's streets and you'll probably come across a hole in the footpath filled in with red paint.  These "Sarajevo roses" signify that somebody was killed in that very spot, usually by some kind of artillery.  It's a pretty poignant reminder of the 1990's war but residents and visitors alike are also reminded by the piles of rubble, pockmarked facades of buildings and memorials to the dead.  Despite, or even because of the battle scars, Sarajevo is an interesting and intriguing city and if you stand on top of one of the hills overlooking the valley where the city lies, it’s pretty beautiful as well.

Those same hills were used by Serbian forces to indiscriminately destroy the city and kill its people.  In 1992, as the Serbian-controlled Yugoslav army was retreating from fighting in Slovenia, they surrounded the city of Sarajevo (for more on the trigger for war see my previous blog).  According to my local Bosnian guide, Skender, who was all of about 8 when the conflict started, the army was there under the guise that they were conducting routine training exercises in the hills and the people of Sarajevo believed the ruse.  That was until the army besieged the city in preparation for an invasion that was supposed to take just five days.  In the suburbs of Sarajevo, radical Serbs who had been convinced to join Slobodan Milosevic’s cause for a unified Serbian state, took up arms and began killing their neighbours who they had lived peacefully with for years previously, or took to the hills to join the Serbian-controlled army.  The people of Sarajevo weren’t going to give up the city without a fight and fight they did, for the next three years.  Confusingly, many Serbs who had lived happily in Sarajevo for most or all of their lives fought on the Bosnian side, for an independent Bosnian state.  At least this is the Bosnian version of the story but talk to a Serbian and you might hear a different story altogether.   
The city was almost completely surrounded by Serbian forces, except for a small strip of land that radiated out from the airport, which was controlled by the UN.  From their positions in the hills, Serbian snipers could easily pick off civilians walking the streets of the city.  The most notorious street, which is pretty much the busiest thoroughfare in Sarajevo even today, became known as "sniper alley".  You can stand on the surrounding hills today and see how easily it would have been for the snipers to shoot anyone walking along that street and standing on “sniper alley”, you get an idea of how vulnerable someone walking along the street might have felt.  By day, many people lived in their basements during the siege.  Remarkably there were also plenty of people who still went about their daily business.  A young guy I spoke to explained that his mother refused to stay holed up in the basement for fear of going crazy.  She continued going to work in the old part of the city, which meant walking for kilometres along a street parallel to Sniper Alley to get there each day.
During the siege there was no easy way to get food, soldiers and other goods in and out of the city. To solve the problem, the Bosnian forces commandeered a house in the small strip of land they controlled and another building in the city, and set about hand digging an 800 metre tunnel underneath the airport to link both sides.  The Serbs eventually cottoned-on to what was going on but couldn’t stop it.  The tunnel proved to be a lifeline and has been turned into a tourist attraction, albeit you can only walk through 20 metres of the tunnel because the aviation authorities had some problems with the thought of thousands of tourists traipsing through a tunnel under the city’s main runways.   The house was hit many times by Serb artillery but the owner would simply go out each night and patch it back up until the next time.  The same family still lives in the house today and the elderly lady who once helped provide the Bosnian forces with food and water when they were using the tunnel, still hobbles around the backyard of the house-come-tunnel museum.

After standing by and watching for three years, NATO eventually bombed Serb positions around Sarajevo and the war came to a pretty abrupt end.  Some people I spoke to who fought on the Bosnian side feel bitter that it took so long for the international community to act and that by the time they finally did, Bosnian forces actually had the upper hand and were close to “winning” the war.
However, the same people will acknowledge that there was never going to be a “winner” or a “loser” in the war.  Fifteen years on, the economy is in dire straits, unemployment is through the roof, the government is corrupt and the bureaucracy huge.  One of the saddest things is that in a country where once it was readily acceptable for Bosniaks (Muslims), Serbs (Orthodox) and Croats (Catholics)to  intermarry, there are now fractures between these groups.  The country is also divided into two regions as the result of an agreement struck after the war.  One region is referred to as Bosnia and Herzegovina and the other, the Republic of Serbs.  As the name implies, in the Republic of Serbska a majority Serbs live and this region also uses the Cyrillic alphabet. 
Despite all this, the Bosnian people are the warmest and friendliest I’ve encountered on my trip so far.  My friend and I were sitting in a local restaurant having eaten an amazing dinner (more red meat and bread thank you very much) when the waiter arrived at our table with two bowls of ice cream with figs and a carafe of wine we hadn’t ordered.  He ushered to a 60-something year old man sitting in the corner drinking with his friends and we exchanged a smile and a thank you.  A random act of kindness from a stranger, something rarely encountered but always appreciated, especially when you're a long way from home.

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