After leaving Sarajevo this morning, I am currently sitting on a train heading to Mostar and trying to process the last ten days I spent attending the Srebrenica Summer University program. When I first arrived in Sarajevo ten days ago, I was immediately won over by the charming cobblestone streets of its old town, filled with tin-makers, craftman, beautiful glassware, and numerous cafes with tables that spill outside. A multicultural, multireligious oasis for centuries, Sarajevo became synonymous with hell in the 1990s during the breakup of Yugoslavia and the ensuing seige of the city by the Serb forces. At first glance, one might never suspect that this historic cultural capital, where east meets west, was completely in flames only a short 20 something years ago. But a scratch below the surface reveals a bloody past that the country is still reeling from.
My first impression of Sarajevo came from visiting Bascarsija; the historical center of the city with a Mosque and city hall at its center. Walking through the narrow lanes, one feels as if they have been transported back in time and are constantly reminded of the Ottoman takeover of this region in the 15th century. The streets stretching out from the Mosque and the iconic water tower are constantly filled with people of all nationalities and religions, leisurely strolling and shopping, or enjoying a Turkish coffee or tea while sitting outside.
During the 1990s, these streets, where people now linger while eating icecream or smoking Hookah, were bombarded with Serb shelling and sniper fire from the surrounding hillsides as the Bosnian Serb Army, supported by President Malosevic in neighboring Serbia tried to take control of the city on April 5th, 1992. Although some commentaries might try to portray the conflict that took place in the Balkans during the 1990s as a Civil War between warring ethnicities and religions, a more accurate portrayal would reveal it as an attack on Bosnian Muslims from Serbian nationalists. The ensuing human rights violations and attempts at “ethnic cleansing” make the events of the early 1990s another dark mark on humanity and the history of Europe.
We started the program with two lectures held at the National Museum of Bosnian History, one of which was from an engaging professor from Germany who took us on a small walking tour of the surrounding area to give us a better understanding of what happened in Sarajevo during those three years where it was under constant attack from Serbian nationalists.
After the citizens of Bosnia voted for independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, the Serbian nationalists, who wanted to put large swaths of land under Serbian control, attacked the city from the surrounding hills. Although there were tanks and snipers all around the city, the citizens of Sarajevo protested this attack by marching through the streets, risking their lives to demonstrate that they wanted to remain an inclusive nation that included Bosniacks (Bosnian Muslims) Croats, and Serbs. Risking thier lives, the people of Sarajevo persevered for the following three years, completely cut off from food, water, and military supplies thanks to a United Nations arms embargo on Yugoslavia. Everyday, the surrounding Serbian army would fire over 3,000 shells down into the streets as well as constant sniper fire, making it a risk just to go out for food or water, and creating a human rights crisis that most of the world ignored.
Our professor walked us over to the river and explained that on one side, the Serbian tanks and snipers controlled the highlands, while down below, on the other side of the river and in the heart of the city center, a small Bosnian resistance force formed, and held out, not allowing the city to be occupied by Serbian forces. However, because the Serbs could not take control of the city, they took revenge by trying to destroy it. Although physically this was a success, the one thing the Serbs could not destroy was the spirit of the citizens of Sarajevo. Even though food, fuel, and water were extremely hard to come by during the siege, those living in the city still partook in activities that demonstrated their humanity. For example, every year during the seige, the city would conduct a Miss Sarajevo pageant where local women would dress up. Artists and filmakers also resisted by producing movies and posters that expressed to the world the urgent situation taking place in the city, simultaneously pleading for international intervention.
It would take more than posters and artwork however to survive during those three terrifying and horrific years. Citizens of Sarajevo also found resourceful ways to utilize basic equipment and turn everyday items into energy producing mechanisms.
Places like sniper alley, where those trying to survive had to run out to get food or water, under the constant threat and reality of sniper fire, reveal the not so distant past where those Bosnians who were Muslim were targeted, and in many cases killed. Although official numbers vary, most agree that there were at least 100,000 deaths during the years between 1992 and 1995. Repeated calls for international intervention from the United Nations did not lead to military aid however, but rather food and other resources being brought in through a tunnel system created near the airport, which the United Nations had taken control back from the Serb nationalists. Through this system, fuel, food, and water could be airdropped into the city and transported to the center, without citizens coming under attack from the constant sniper fire and shelling from the hills.
Although there was aid from the United Nations in terms of getting resources to the people of Sarajevo, there were/are still many who feel as if the international community failed Bosnia and Sarajevo during these years, mocking the United Nations attempt at aid with the following monument.
The Seige of Sarajevo was eventually lifted in February of 1995, after three very long and bloody years where war and armed conflict throughout the region continually targeted unarmed civilians and villagers, particularly of Muslim decent and background. With the signing of the Dayton Agreement in 1995, the independent nation-state of Bosnia-Herzegovina was fully created and recognized with varying regions that are still divided along ethnic lines. Many say the political situation here is still tense, as the memories of the war and the atrocities associated with it are still very much present through the country, and particularly throughout Sarajevo. Yet, the spirit of the city continues to thrive, as evidenced by the “Roses of Sarajevo”; memorial markers throughout the city that tranformed the damaged marks of shellings, and colored them with red, making them appear as roses throughout the city, thereby memorializing and representing the blood of those who lost their lives from being shelled.
If I had only come to Sarajevo for a day or two, I would likely only have fond memories of the beautiful Ottoman architecture, the enchanting streets, the fantastic food, and the great shopping with local craftsman.
Yet, after visiting Srebrenica and participating in the three day Peace March to commemorate the genocide that took place there in 1995 (more on this in my next post), my last two nights in Sarejevo inflicted on me a confusing feeling of both joy and sorrow. The joy comes from the fact that the city has rapidly rebuilt itself, and continues to do so, named as one of the top-travel destinations in the region in recent years. The sorrow, quite obviously, comes from the realization that just a few short years ago, these beautiful buildings were burning , these charming streets were filled with body parts, and the serene river which I found so endearing on my first night in the city was essentially a graveyard, once filled with dead, floating bodies. It is quite difficult to enjoy the charms of this enchanting city when one thinks about the history that lies just below, yet it is also a sign of hope for humanity that Sarajevo continues to thrive as a center for multi-culturalism today, particularly in a political climate that is still uneasy. One can only hope that the political divisions that tore this region apart in the 1990s will serve as a deterrent for future conflicts, and that the city of Sarajevo will once again strive as a place where all ethnicities and religions can exist in reconciliation, side by side; serving as a model for the rest of the world.