Bosnia & Herzegovina – Sarajevo

-Warning, this post contains descriptions of war and violence-

While in Sarajevo I went on a city outskirts tour, a city walking tour, and a walking tour specifically about the siege, so my information is mostly from my guides, as well as what I’ve read on my own. 

Most of this post will be about the Siege of Sarajevo. When Tito died, Yugoslavia began to break apart. The first to go was Slovenia, and after a 10 day war they were successful in gaining their independence. Next was Croatia, which had a more violent and a longer conflict before they too gained independence. Then there was Bosnia and Herzegovina. At the time, the ethnic composition (for the three largest groups) was 43% Bosniaks, 31% Serbs, and 17% Croats. In comparison, at the time Slovenia was 88% Slovene with the next largest group being Croats at under 3%. Bosnia and Herzegovina was the most ethnically diverse of the Yugoslav countries, and perhaps that is why its independence was the most difficult to obtain. 

One of my guides said that there were a lot of stupid people, and a few evil ones, and that’s enough for a war.

Sarajevo is where I had my first Bosnian coffee, and I immediately loved it and searched for Bosnian coffee every day of my visit.

This is a WW2 eternal flame war memorial. Sarajevo is truly a meeting of cultures, and in a very short distance you can find a mosque, an Orthodox​ church, a Catholic church, and a Synagogue. During WW2, Muslim families would take Jewish people in and give them Muslim clothes to hide them, which of course meant death for all involved if they were found. There are many stories of coexistence and cooperation in Sarajevo. 

This was the road my hostel was on.

On my first day, I signed up for a tour that took me to the sights on the outskirts of the city. It was an amazing tour, and the tone was set early. We were driving through a market when our guide told us that it was hit by a mortar shell that killed 68 people and injured 144 others.

At the beginning of the conflict before the siege began, Serbs were told to evacuate the city by the oncoming Serb forces. Many of these Serbs then relayed the message to their Bosniak and Croat friends and neighbours and warned them to leave. My guide assured me that not all Serbs are bad, and didn’t seem to hold any prejudice against them as a whole. Another guide later told me that most people’s attitudes are largely based on their experiences in the war, but I didn’t encounter any overt discrimination or hatred. 

The Siege of Sarajevo by the Army of the Republika Srpska lasted 1,425 days, from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996 and was the longest siege in modern warfare. 

Our first stop was one of the remaining Ottoman fortresses in the city, the Yellow Bastion, where we sat and got our first explanations on the background of the war. 

We then drove up to the White Fortress, also Ottoman.

We climbed through that window to get a view of the city.

After enjoying the view we climbed back through the window and went to a local restaurant for Burek, which is a pastry filled with meat, cheese, or spinach.

We then drove to the Tunnel of Hope. During the siege, Sarajevo was completely surrounded by Serbian forces with the exception of the airport, which was held by the UN. Part of the agreement that allowed the UN to claim the airport was that they wouldn’t allow anyone out, so Sarajevo was still cut off. The Tunnel of Hope was constructed underneath the airport connecting Sarajevo to Bosnian held territory on the other side, and it allowed food, supplies, and weapons to be sent in to Sarajevo as well as allowing people to escape through it. 

The entrance to the tunnel was next to this house, and is now the site of a museum about the tunnel. 

There was a video about the construction and use of the tunnel that our guide said he would sit out because in his words “I saw it live.” 

Outside there was a section that showed different types of landmines. 

Kids in Bosnia and Herzegovina learn about them in school because they are still a huge problem in the country. Our guide was young during the war, and soon after the war ended one of his best friends stepped on a landmine and lost his leg. He said he hoped for the existence of hell for the sake of the person who invented landmines.

The museum had pieces that showed the ingenuity of Sarajevans during the war, such as this generator made from a car engine. 

Inside there are various things that were used in the war, including weapons and uniforms. At one point our guide pointed to the ground at this tail of a shell.

This killed people. 

After the war, kids made a game of collecting the tails of shells. Sarajevo was shelled an average of 329 times per day, so there were plenty to collect. 

Sarajevo was not attacked using planes, since the Serbian army was careful not to show how much of an advantage they had. There was a list in the museum comparing the difference in arsenal between the two sides, as well as this display case containing guns from both sides. 

We then began our drive up to the abandoned bobsled track from the 1984 Olympics. I thought we were high up at the White Fortress.

On the way up we passed former sniper’s nests. During the siege signs became common on streets that said “warning, sniper,” and people would wait to cross behind a vehicle or just make a run for it. 

Of the sniper’s many victims, 54 were children. That means that at least 54 times, a sniper had a child in their scope and made the choice to pull the trigger. 

Our guide dropped us off at the top of the bobsled track and told us he’d meet us part way down.

This was a really cool walk, and something I thought I would be doing in Sarajevo!

He then brought us to the ruins of a hotel.

On the way back we stopped at the second largest Jewish Cemetery in Europe, which was the site of fighting amongst the graves during the war. 

My first day in Sarajevo was a big one.

The next day I did some exploring myself before going on a free walking tour of the city. 

One thing I was looking forward to seeing was the location of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination. Luckily it’s where the tour started.

It was cool standing in such an important place. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was visiting Sarajevo and was shot by Gavrilo Princip, which sparked World War 1.

Walking through town, you come across many mosques. 

We walked to the centre of the old town where the Ottoman fountain known as the Sebilj is.

This clocktower houses a lunar clock, and uses Arabic numerals.

Just down the street from the mosque, there’s this Orthodox Church.

After the tour I ventured back into the old town to find coffee.

I really liked the old town. There were coppersmiths making Bosnian coffee sets and other souvenirs.

There is a line in the city called the Meeting of Cultures. If you look one way it looks like you’re in Vienna, and the other way looks like Istanbul. These three pictures were taken from the same spot.

This is the Catholic Church. It was originally going to be fancier since the architect wanted to make it like Notre Dame, but the head of the church at the time decided to build it like this and spend the leftover money on building an orphanage.

In front of the church is something called a Sarajevo Rose, and they are common throughout the city.

The Sarajevo Roses are scars from mortar shells where one or more people were killed that were symbolically painted red. It’s sad and strange to walk down a busy city street and see one of these, knowing what it represents. 

One aspect of travel I love is how unpredictable other people make it. I was sitting in a café one afternoon, which is to say that it was the afternoon one day, when I was approached by another traveler. Usually I’m the one going up to people, so this was a nice change. He was a Danish guy named Jeppe, and we immediately got along very well. We talked for hours about music, (he knew Steely Dan!), and explored the city together.

We went to a museum about the war, which contained pictures and objects from the siege. One picture was titled “mother runs with child across a street under sniper fire.” These were moments where it was nice to have someone else to express my thoughts to.

 The next day, Jeppe introduced me to Kathleen, an Australian whom he had met on a tour the other day. The three of us went on a city tour that was just about the siege, which was fascinating. The three of us ended up meeting each evening for the remainder of our time in Sarajevo for dinner or coffee and tea, and the time we spent together is definitely a highlight of my trip!

Sarajevo has its own Romeo and Juliet story. During the siege, Admira Ismić, a Bosniak, and Boško Brkić, a Bosnian Serb, had made arrangements to leave the city. They were told there would be a ceasefire one day, and with the required money to be allowed out, headed towards the city border. As they crossed the Vrbanja Bridge, Boško was shot by a sniper. As he died on the bridge, Admira ran to him and was also shot by a sniper. They died in each others arms, and became a symbol of the siege. 

It became clear from all of the tours and stories that the spirit of the people was never crushed. The mother of our war tour guide kept working her government job throughout the war, and would put on her makeup and high heels before walking to work past signs warning of snipers. People like her refused to be defeated. 

I was told that some of the rations given by the UN to the people of Sarajevo were leftovers from the Vietnam War. Of course​, it’s food that’s supposed to last forever, but it all tastes terrible. A sarcastic thank you to the UN was recently built in the form of this statue to canned beef.

The three of us finished the day with Turkish tea and Bosnian coffee. I mentioned that I was thinking of buying a Bosnian coffee set, and Jeppe and Kathleen pressured me into actually doing it, which I’m thankful for. The next day, I shipped home one of the few souvenirs of my trip: a handmade copper Bosnian coffee set.

This is the Sarajevo city hall. It was burned down at the beginning of the siege, and most of the books inside containing the history of the country and people were lost. What was saved was due to the efforts of people who ran into the burning building to recover any books they could get their hands on. Not only were they running into the fire, but the snipers were shooting them as they did.

Jeppe, Kathleen, and I spent our last night in Sarajevo​ getting dinner at the House of Spite. 

This house used to be on the other side of the river. The government wanted to build the city hall where the house was but the owner refused to sell his house. When asked what it would take, he said that if they moved it brick by brick to the other side exactly as it is then he’d accept.

So they did. It’s now a restaurant.

Sarajevo was a good place to have friends to see in the evening. There is so much hope and sadness, it’s good to have someone there to appreciate it with.

I debated how I wanted to end this post, and I decided to finish with something incredibly sad because the people of Sarajevo are still dealing with the very real costs of such a recent conflict. I thought it best to recognise what can’t be brought back no matter how much the city recovers.

This is the memorial to the 1,500 children who died in the siege.

It represents a mother shielding her child. Do you want to know what the base is made of?

It’s made of melted down shrapnel and shells that killed children. 

There’s so much more I want to say, but I know I cannot do justice to a city like Sarajevo. It was an amazing place. Bosnia and Herzegovina holds a special place in my heart. 

6 thoughts on “Bosnia & Herzegovina – Sarajevo

  1. Dear Owen, You write so beautifully. What an amazing journey. I don’t have to tell you I am weeping at the Mother shielding her precious child. Your Mom was a special Mother and would have done anything for you two. Her teachings to you are her way of protecting you and Maddy.

    Steely Dan abroad….how cool is that. One of my favourite bands and saw them in Ottawa.

    I have enjoyed your tales so much Owen. It takes a lot to travel as extensively as you have done. Well done.

    Your Dad is also one interesting cat …I truly enjoyed getting to know him as well. I am blessed knowing your family. It’s neat how your Mom and Grandma were friends with my Auntie and cousins in childhood. The MacKenzies.

    I still don’t understand the strife there unless ethnic cleansing is the simple answer…..such tragedy and horror. Mankind…..some times the two words don’t seem to fit together. You can spread your kindness Owen. It helps.

    Thank you for sharing your journey. Love Andrea