I had long had a slightly morbid sense of Sarajevo being war-torn, wrecked, pulled apart by gunfire and shrapnel and blood, since haunting images had burned themselves onto my brain when I was ten years old.
The reality was an exotic, interesting, stunningly beautiful and solid-feeling city which was tentatively beginning to attract tourists eager to see the change in this ex-Yugoslav country.
Leaving the sobering, wonderful, powerful Siege of Sarajevo exhibition at the Historical Museum of Bosnia & Herzegovina having sobbed in the toilets for fifteen minutes, I realised how my trip to Sarajevo – and indeed other Balkan areas – had originally been about me connecting up the horrors I had seen on TV with the new ex-Yugoslav countries.
That was a bit of an overstatement; I had only seen pictures, heard shelling on the BBC News broadcasts, aged ten. The scars are still present on many buildings, and websites like this one from The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/picturegalleries/worldnews/9270205/Pictures-of-Sarajevo-15-years-ago-and-today-show-how-the-city-has-changed.html show the extent to which the city has changed. On the streets now, ‘Sarajevan Roses’, red paint, fill in part of the craters of shelled areas where people died as a reminder to never forget.
Never forgetting is not hard. I stayed with Azur, 26, Bosniak, beautiful sad eyes reflecting the war he’d seen. He’d said, matter-of-factly, that his area didn’t have snipers, only bombs.
I kept having to remind myself that he’d lived through a war, and I remember the first time he mentioned it. His face was impassive, and he talked about bombing, screams and snipers as though they were trips to the supermarket, even joking on occasion. During the war, he was the age of many of the children in photo on the blog post I found by Gallivance at http://gallivance.net/2013/08/26/the-indomitable-spirit-of-sarajevos-children/ and it suddenly struck me that this boy sitting in front of me smiling his slightly self-effacing grin had seen more humanity – and painful inhumanity – than I probably ever would. He once said during my four-day stay with him, that it was ‘okay for him in Tuzla’ (two hours outside Sarajevo) because at least he could go outside.
”There was only shelling there, not snipers. We got woken up at 7am, not 5am like they did in Sarajevo”, he smiled, making reference to the snipers using time tactics to stop the population of the city getting enough sleep. I looked at Azur’s eyes and they were not laughing. I thought there were so many questions I would ask someone who has seen so much, but they died on my tongue.
He is not a practising Muslim, similar to many Bosniaks. Religion, he says, is different in Bosnia to in many countries, and religion for many Sarajevans is just one thing amongst many that they consider part of their culture. They are respectful of it, in all its forms, as they are of their country. But Azur wants to move to Germany. He thinks nationalism is still so rife that there could be another war as his eyes look the jaded feeling he tries to suppress. Yet he has a deep love for his city, under the scar-stretched mind-tissue.
He speaks of it as ‘beautiful’, then catches himself, ‘but you should try living here for five years…’
Whatever Sarajevo’s problems are now, Azur’s description of it as ‘beautiful’ fits well. Surrounded by steep, wooded hills, once so deadly, the valley now is peaceful, with dotted houses rising out of its river-flooded bottom.
The centre of the old quarter, the Baŝĉarŝija Turkish area, is full of places of worship, Ottoman-style architecture and artisan craftspeople.
Within just a few minutes’ stroll are an Orthodox church, a Catholic cathedral, the wonderful Gaza Huzram Bey mosque and the jazzy, cool Jewish synagogue, also symbolic of Sarajevo’s mixed heritage and integrated peoples. It was Ramadan when I went to the city, and calls to prayer echoed around the hills from numerous minarets, imams seemingly competing for worshippers. In the Gaza Huzram Bey mosque, as people settled down and began to gather for lunchtime prayer, two men carried a large rug through the crowd; another chatted on his mobile phone. Still others were contemplative. It was a wonderful, human spectacle: a microcosm of personality types and, dare I say it, of society itself. And it felt good to observe it as though I was invisible, an outsider looking in.
Sarajevo mixes up its architecture, too. There are Austro-Hungarian buildings, Soviet blocks, Ottoman-style in winding alleyways…
But perhaps the best thing for me about Sarajevo was the after-dark buzz, when whole families come to eat out in the simple pavement cafés which line the streets, munching on ćevapčići (a kind of sausage-shaped meatball) or burek (a meat-filled pastry) and salad; chips and meats. The buzz seems itself to be hopeful, as though the Sarajevan people are pushing forward; forging new pathways through their wounded past to a better future.
If you can, build in a trip to Sarajevo. Go out of your way. Visit the Tunnel Museum and take a walking tour through the streets. Live its history, through the Siege exhibition at the Historical Museum of BiH and talk to its people so that we, too, will never forget.