Sunday, 27 February 2011

Sarajevo: 1992-1995. In memoriam.

After spending a day in Zagreb, I took off for Sarajevo. I wasn't really sure what to expect... Obviously first time in the city and first time in Bosnia i Herzegovina. What one notices right upon entering the country is that there is  a further 20/30 year slide versus neighbouring Croatia. For starters, the train compartment I was in (6 person seating space), which only counted myself and two other people, began to fill up with cigarette smoke right as we crossed the border. Although there was a clear and internationally-understood sign (for its graphical representation) advising that smoking was forbidden, probably because we were on a Croatian train, my two travelling companions began to hit off cigarette after cigarette. You can only imagine for a guy who doesn't smoke how much fun it was! The train ride was rather long (c. 10 hours) which meant I spent the whole day travelling... mostly reading (btw, I am now done Kerouac's "On the road" - truly brilliant literature - finished it tonight in the train from Podgorica (Montenegro) to Belgrade, which is where I am at the moment. For those of you interested in reading up on Kerouac and the Beat Generation here are a couple of links - - will now be moving on to Malcom X's autobiography for the rest of my trip). The train ride from Zagreb to Sarajevo was rather uneventful. Due to language barriers, any attempt to communicate with my fellow compartment mates was rapidly aborted and ended with a few smiles and each of us turning to our own thing.

I arrived in Sarajevo at c. 7pm local time and was greeted upon arrival by one of the employees of the hostel I was due to stay at. Very nice of them to come and pick me up... as otherwise would have been a tough and long walk in the cold and snow. Could have managed but after a 10-hour train ride, it felt like a treat! The hostel ended up being quite far from downtown, and the train station for that matter, but given that the city is quite small, distances ended up being quite manageable. Given that it turned out that I was the only guest during my first night at the hostel in Sarajevo, the hostel's management was extremely welcoming and friendly. They provided me with invaluable tips and insights so that I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in their home town. So friendly that the hostel manager paid for my trolley-bus (a weird hybrid between tram and bus ride on the way into town the next morning and offered to show me around as that was his day-off. Thanked him but decided to explore the city on my own, thus rejecting insider and local guidance but could at least go at my own pace and follow my desired (and improvised) routes. The morning began rather early... well at least the first wake-up was at 5.45am as I was woken up by the prayers emitted by the nearby mosque. I imagine these were rather intended for the local muslim population, but what the heck... I managed to stay in bed for another 2 hours but was up and running, with my camera in hand by 9am.

Spent the whole day, as has become so frequent, wandering around the city. I have to admit that Sarajevo has been, thus far, the city that has most impressed me. Not so much as a result of its beauty, its welcoming atmosphere or its local customs, but rather because of the undeniable and quite palpable recent historical legacy. For it was under 20 years ago (1992-1995) when the city was surrounded by the Republika Sprska (one of the two Federations in today's Bosnia Herzegovina, of which the majority of the population is Croat or Serb - the other one being the Federation of Bosnia i Herzegovina, here most of the population, Bosniaks, are muslim) and the Yugoslav People's Army military forces for about 3 years... in what has become known as the Siege of Sarajevo ( It is truly incredible to walk down the streets of what many view as the Jerusalem of the West, given that the ethnic mix in the city is very much spread across various groups and religious beliefs (Muslims account for c. 50%; Orthodox Serbs for c. 25%; Catholic Croats for c. 7% - the remainder being spread amongst various groups, including Sephardi Jews, who found in Sarajevo and BiH as a whole a home after they were expelled from Spain in the 15th century). It is not uncommon to walk 100m meters and pass by a mosque, a catholic church and an orthodox church... all on the same street. But yet, as with many cities where such peculiarly rich ethnic mixes, the cohabitation has not always been subtle and harmonious. For one can feel that the city is still trying to come to terms with its most recent history, one of destruction, one of hatred and one of thousands of civilian casualties. I was particularly shocked when I found myself in two different spots of the city. One of these was the Kocavi cementary (pic below), which is dedicated to the martyrs of the 1992-1995 siege and from where one has breathtaking views of the city and the other was the "Sniper Alley", which is the main boulevard leading into downtown Sarajevo and which, during the war, was exposed to the Serb snipers positioned in the nearby hills of outer Sarajevo and which became infamously dangerous to cross during the war for civilians ( The thought that all that took place right before the international community's and the EU's eyes for such a long period of time, and so recently too ( although not so recently that I could remember much of the coverage of it) is absolutely incredible... In any case, Sarajevo, and Bosnia i Herzegovina as a whole, have a real chance in these peaceful cohabitation times to come out stronger and more united than ever - and leave these dreadful episodes of their recent history behind them for good.

Fun fact of the day: Did you know that the Sarajevo tram was the first operational tramway system in Europe, which began operating in 1885 as a test for the Vienna tramway system (n.b. back in the day Sarajevo was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire - think of 1914 and the Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, which took place in Sarajevo) and the second in the world, after Frisco.

Next post report on Mostar and Dubrovnik... stay tuned!

My hostel in Belgrade has a very decent internet connection so can actually upload pics with the post for once!