Sarajevo: where east meets west

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Sarajevo is a patchwork city. In a single street one can move seamlessly from Ottoman bazaars to Hapsburg boulevards to concrete communist-era apartment blocks. In the space of just a few hundred meters you can find mosques, synagogues and Catholic and orthodox churches. This is a city with a history that is as rich as it is turbulent. Admittedly, Sarajevo does not hand itself to you on a plate; the siege in the ‘90s means corruption is rife, roads are not always paved and tourist information is negligible. However, behind the cracks in the pavements and bullet holes in the walls lies a truly wonderful city that will open itself up to you if you are willing to give it the chance. Here is why I fell in love with Sarajevo.

We drive to Sarajevo up the country’s main highway; it’s indescribably beautiful. Steep fir-covered mountains fold back on each other sharply, and rocky outcrops and narrow valleys create a landscape that would be at home in any geological textbook. At the foot of the mountains flows a river whose waters are so rich they are not blue but a jewel-like aquamarine. To call it picture-perfect would be an injustice to the landscape’s alpine grandeur.  We drive for miles through this majestic, rolling landscape and yet it never gets boring. If you are going to Sarajevo, drive. Believe me, you will not regret it. At this point, however, I feel obliged to include some sort of safety warning: Bosnia’s roads are notoriously twisty, and dangerous driving seems to be the closest thing to a national sport. Native drivers love to overtake at a speed, most especially in dark tunnels and around blind corners. In my ageing campervan, both its brakes and my nerves are severely tested.

57983_10201966630793587_1937748575_nHaving survived the drive, we beeline for Baščaršija Square at the heart of the city. The buildings are low and crammed together, with oriental roofs and hidden courtyards. Filled with amazing smells, Persian rugs and little market stalls, Sarajevo’s old town is more like a scene from Aladdin than anything one would commonly associate with an ex communist-bloc city. You can find quite literally anything, from handmade leather shoes to ornate bronze coffee pots to ashtrays with Marshal Tito’s face on them. It’s also a great place to pick up a bite to eat. If you happen to visit during Ramadan, try to find a restaurant that offers an Iftar menu, where after sunset you will be treated to vast feasts for not much more than the price of your average coffee and sandwich. Unless visiting a mosque, there is no need to worry about being out of place or improperly dressed for such an occasion. Islam in Bosnia is relatively liberal. With all the bad press we see hear in Britain about the supposed oppressive nature of Islam, it was refreshing to see hijab-clad girls sitting at cafés, laughing and smoking freely, as though visiting a Parisian bistro.

The food is tasty, if not particularly good for you. Bosnians are partial to anything fried, encased in pasty, made from dubious pieces of meats and served with generous helping of beer and potatoes. As a Scot, hailing from the nation that invented haggis, deep fried Mars Bar and Pizza Crunch, I can somewhat relate. Personal favourites include Burek, a delicious pastry concoction filled with meat, cheese or spinach; Ćevapi kebabs; and strangest of all, a curiously moorish fizzy drink made from puréed corn, the name of which I have yet to discover. You are strongly advised not to consume a single calorie in the weeks preceding your trip to Bosnia and to book an intensive fitness course upon your return.

Unfortunately, it would be impossible to write about Sarajevo without mentioning the horrors of the Yugoslav wars. After the death of Marshall Tito in 1980, communist Yugoslavia began to collapse in on itself, as semi-autonomous nations demanded their independence and conflict was struck along ethnic lines. Slovenia managed to break away without trouble. In Croatia, conflict, though damaging, was short and the effects were not particularly long sustained. However, Bosnia, by far the most ethnically mixed of all the former Yugoslav states, faced much more difficulty. Desperate to stop any more states from breaking away, Serbia responded to Bosnia Herzegovina’s declaration of independence with violence. Between 1992 and 1996, Sarajevo endured the longest siege in modern warfare and the city and its inhabitants was systematically and ruthlessly targeted by shelling and sniper fire from forces positioned on the surrounding hills. Food was scare and clean water a luxury. The scars of this war are still obvious, and much of Bosnia Herzegovina still exists in near poverty. Bullet holes still pepper the walls of apartment blocks and rubble can be found in central streets.

I would encourage all to visit the Gallery 11/07/95, dedicated to the victims and survivors of the infamous Srebrenica massacre, the single most bloody act of genocide in Europe since the Second World War. It is a sobering experience, as you listen to interviews from eyewitnesses and the families of victims. Photographs of graffiti bears stand witness to the racial slurs of Dutch peacekeepers stationed at Srebrenica. You literally cringe with shame when you realise the lack of humanity with which they must have viewed those taking refuge within their ‘peace camp’. I must be at pains to stress, however, that the Dutch should not be blamed for what happened at Srebrenica, and I can’t help but wonder if our own troops would have acted any differently.

Just a few metres outside the exhibition I am shown a ‘Sarajevo Rose,’ which can be found all over the city. After the war, citizens filled the holes in the pavements left by shells and sniper fire with red resin, creating beautiful yet haunting memorials to the places where innocents were killed. This rose marks the spot where eight Catholic nuns were shot by Serbians snipers on Christmas Eve. I have been to Nuremburg, where Hitler staged his vast anti-Semitic rallies, and to Tiananmen Square, where hundreds were killed by an oppressive government, yet nowhere have I felt so close to conflict as Sarajevo.

However, what is most striking about the city is its people. Never have I been anywhere where the people conduct themselves with such warmth and dignity. Though the lingering effects of the siege cannot be ignored, Sarajevans are keen to change their image as one of a war-torn city. At one point I stumble upon a tiny café in a neglected, tumbledown square; here I am offered coffee by a local tailor, who despite speaking very little English is at pains to tell me of his life in Sarajevo. “Yes the war was awful,” he tells me, “but there is so much more to Sarajevo.”

At the point where east meets west, where communism meets capitalism and where troubled past meets hopeful future, to call the city dynamic would be a colossal understatement. Sarajevo has opened my eyes to a world I could have never imagined, and for that I am eternally grateful.

Photo: Caitie Bugler

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