Nearly two decades after being held hostage to the longest siege in history, Sarajevo is welcoming tourists. But it takes more than a guidebook to peel back its layers
Before me is a piece of cake. It is a Sachertorte, the classic Viennese pastry. Next to it, a copper demitasse (fildzan) brimming with thick coffee, poured over a cube of sugar, and served with a wobbly piece of Turkish delight. The service is dour, which is to say communist, and the interiors sparkling and modern, the aftermath of renovation.
I am at the Hotel Europe in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and it is just as Dževad Karahasan, the most significant Bosnian writer of his generation, said it would be.
In his elegiac book of essays, Sarajevo, Exodus Of A City, he writes: “The Hotel Europa is...the physical and semantic centre of Sarajevo. Bearing elements of both the East and of Central Europe, this hotel is like a prism that gathers within itself the diffuse rays of what Sarajevo truly is. [...] Hence one goes to the Hotel Europa for a cake or an ice-cream, not because of the cakes (which are, to be honest, much better elsewhere), but because of the Hotel Europa, where Sarajevo can be felt with one’s fingertips, where it can be smelled and sensed. […] To know Sarajevo means to need to go to the Hotel Europa quite regularly."
I want to know Sarajevo, so I sit surveying the clues on my table, and those outside the tall windows of this 133-year-old hotel, trying to gather its meanings, the between-the-lines stuff as it were, of all that I had read in Karahasan’s essays on the city he lived in, loved, and had to leave.
But this is Sarajevo, where lines always blur and east is never just east, nor west west, and so, in between and all around, stand buildings in the peculiar pseudo-Moorish style. It’s “pseudo" because the style is mongrel, introduced by the new masters who wanted to promote a Bosnian identity without letting it be too Ottoman, creating an “Islamic architecture of European fantasy". You keep going west, towards Novo Sarajevo, the new town, and soon the period is communist, the country is Yugoslavia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina just one of its six socialist republics. All the extravagance of the Ottoman empire and the Habsburg monarchy evaporates and only concrete apartment blocks, dreary and flat in that Soviet style typical of the 1950s through the 1980s (Khrushchyovka), line the streets. Again, Sarajevo is never one thing, so you find many of these buildings decorated in a later style, from the 1990s now, 1992-95 to be precise, distinctive in their use of bullet holes and mortar damage as running motifs.
There is a point in the old town of Bašcaršija (pronounced bus-charshiya, grand bazaar) which, for the benefit of tourists, has been marked with the words “Sarajevo Meeting of Cultures". It is immensely popular as a selfie spot because when you face west, the scene behind you is Ottoman; turn east, and you have Europe as a backdrop. But for all its touristic appeal, Bašcaršija is no longer the “city centre" it was during the 15th century; that title now belongs to Marindvor, and it is in this neighbourhood that the real “meeting of cultures" (and histories) takes place today.
Next to it, the Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I look up, and through the gap between the SCC and the Executive Council Building, I can see the hillside dotted with white headstones. It is the Old Jewish Cemetery, the largest in Europe after the one in Prague, a reminder of the city’s Jewish residents, who first arrived in the 16th century from Spain, fleeing the Inquisition.
I turn my back to it and I see Sniper Alley—considered the most dangerous place to be in during the Siege of Sarajevo (April 1992-February 1996)—and, at its head, the hotel Holiday Inn. Originally built for the 1984 Winter Olympics, it became iconic during the Bosnian war for being the only operational hotel the world’s press could stay in and report from.
When Karahasan described Sarajevo as an “internal city", meaning a centre that carries within it all that is around it, I had thought it poetic licence. In Marindvor, it is made literal: “Everything that is possible in the world existed in Sarajevo—distilled, reduced to its nucleus."
And it’s not just the buildings. Sarajevo is the “Jerusalem of Europe", a city that for at least half a millennium has found a mahala for everyone to live in, “like rays spread around a focal point": Vratnik for the Muslims; Latinluk for the Catholics; Tashlihan for the Eastern Orthodox; Byelave for the Jews.
Neira, my guide on a walking tour of the city, took me to the Emperor’s Mosque on the bund along the Milyatska, and asked me to listen. It was noon and the azaan had just rung out clear into the mountains but the sound was polyphonic. “It’s the cathedral," she explains, pointing across the river to the direction where its bells pealed.
In the early days of the siege, a foreign journalist asked Karahasan how he managed to live without running water. Narrating his reply to him, he writes, “and then I tried to explain that it is more important to save Sarajevo and the possibility of four religions and four peoples living there together, than to be concerned with having enough water."
Like Neira, Karahasan is always at pains to point out that Sarajevo is unique in the extent to which languages, faiths, cultures, and peoples coexist within its compact space. He argues that even the sprawling Ottoman empire, with its mix of many regions and ethnicities, did not have a city as small as Sarajevo that contained such diversity. “Perhaps that can also explain why," he writes, “Bosnia had a special status within the empire, and why it was an autonomous pashaluk (province). The singularity of Bosnian cultural system demanded special political status." That singularity is what was at stake in April 1992, when the ethnic Serbs of Bosnia, and the Serbians of the Yugoslav People’s Army, surrounded Sarajevo.
Karahasan wrote his book in 1993, a year into a siege that would drag on for three more bitter cold winters without wood or warm water, and far many more bullets than pieces of bread. But that was nearly 20 years ago and today “Times of Misfortune" is simply the name of the most popular guided tour offered in the city by tourist agencies. As an experience, it is not unlike going on any other history tour. On the Sarajevo Assassination Tour, for example, they take you to the Latin Bridge and point to the place where Gavrilo Princip killed Franz Ferdinand and started the whole ruckus leading up to World War I.
There is one difference though. In the tours about the siege, the guides are old enough to have been involved in the fighting. Nermine, who took me to the Sarajevo War Tunnel—the only way in and out of the city during the siege—worked as a Bosnian special forces soldier. When he talks of the children killed, his voice catches; it climbs, the disgust palpable, when he speaks of the rapes. I ask him if it feels therapeutic or traumatic, to have to repeat all this every day to callous tourists, to not have the luxury to forget because he needs the money and there are no other jobs. It is both, he says, after giving it some thought. “Only one time, I was shaken very badly. A tourist asked me—‘Nermine, did you kill anyone?’"
But it makes you wonder. How long before the most recent war too fades from living memory, how long before younger tour guides have to mug up the numbers and the details from a book or a website, just as guides today do when talking of older wars that this city has been witness to.
Like most tourists who arrive in Bosnia, I wasn’t sure what to expect from a country that I only knew from the news, and from Karahasan’s essays. I was 12 years old when the Bosnian War started, and I remember sitting in front of my television watching grainy images of old women with headscarves knotted under their chin running down hillsides, dragging little children by their wrists or carrying them in their arms, the voice-over going on about Slobodan Miloševic and Bill Clinton and Nato and the UN. And then I never heard of Bosnia again, till I picked up Karahasan’s book and thought of making this journey.
So it feels a bit surreal to think that this is that place I heard about and read of—this, this beautiful valley hugged by mountains that goes about its business, warmly welcoming tourists, feeding them plate after plate of burek and zeljanica, traditional Bosnian pies, and cevapi, kebabs stuffed into an outsized pita, nearly the national dish, plying them with interminable pints of Sarajevska beer or, if they prefer, shot glasses brimming with rakije and hits of the hubbly bubbly, dragging them away to dance afterwards.
It is a 7-hour ride to Sarajevo and it gets dark by 10pm, the clear skies filling with stars. This was the week before Bayram (Eid) and the whole city was lit up when we finally arrived at about midnight, its streets bustling with iftari crowds, the smell of freshly baked bread wafting from the pekaras (bakeries). It is peacetime in Sarajevo.
In Sarajevo, everyone likes to say “there is a war here every 50 years". The math is a bit off but it roughly holds, right back to the Russo-Turkish War of 1828. They say it with a shrug, as though war was a power cut and one had to be resigned to it.
The fault lines exist all right, standing by ready to shake things up when it is time. Bosnia, even today, is held together by the thinnest of threads, made in Dayton, Ohio, US, which imagined a peace accord that is so complex that only the reality beats it in messiness. The “country" is really two, or three if you like. There are two distinct “entities": the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, comprising mostly Bosniak Muslims and Bosnian Croats, and the Republika Srpska, where Bosnian Serbs are the majority. There is no president, only a presidency with three members—one representing the Serbs, one the Croats, and another the Bosniaks—with the chair rotating every eight months. Croat nationalism in the Herzegovina region is always on a simmer, Republika Srpska has parallel diplomatic relations with Serbia, and no one community is particularly fond of the others. In short, it is a mess.
Yet it holds, and if Balkan history is to be trusted, the next war is still 30 years away. For now, as a destination, Bosnia is everything a traveller can hope for. The landscape is gorgeous, its mountains tall and handsome but not inaccessible. I made a day of driving to the highest village in Bosnia (Lukomir) to picnic on the peaks that overlook the spectacular Rakitnica canyon, and to drink coffee with the last of the semi-nomadic Bosniaks who live there, spending their summer days whittling maplewood to make ladles and knitting dyed wool into socks for the winter.
I scraped my knees walking through the old-growth forests of Perucica—one of the last two in Europe—and swam in a pristine lake the shape of a heart (Trnovacko lake), both part of Bosnia’s oldest national park (Sutjeska). In the Herzegovina region, there is the beautiful Stari Most bridge in Mostar, destroyed in the war and then restored, where local divers, for a couple of Bosnian marks, will jump off its edge so you can take a photo; a few miles further towards the Adriatic coast is the village of Medjugorje, a tourist magnet ever since the Virgin Mary was rumoured to have made appearances. There is white-water rafting on the Neretva, a cliff-diving world series in Mostar, and inexpensive skiing in Bjelašnica, where it is possible to slide down the same ski trails as Olympians did in the 1984 Winter Games.
And, in Sarajevo itself, there is the hotchpotch of history, the buzz of cobblestoned Bašcaršija, and the picturesque views of the city from hilltops you can walk up to.
I meet Emir Hasagic, 20, on the bus back from Mostar to Sarajevo. He studies computer engineering at the University of Mostar. His age interested me greatly because I was finally meeting someone who hadn’t seen the war, who had no memories of it at all. We chat; he is curious about me, my travels, what I do. He tells me he wants to go for a holiday to Greece, but first he needs to find a job—“maybe a receptionist, or a waiter"—so he can save up. The unemployment rate in Bosnia is more than 40%, probably higher among the youth. Emir says he wants to travel the world; with some hesitation he asks me if India is really very dirty. He is politically conscious and, like everyone else, hates the government; they are criminally corrupt. He is full of passion when he speaks of the mass demonstrations in 2014, labelled in the Balkan press as “Bosnian Spring". When I ask him about the war, he shrugs and says there is a war here every 50 years.
“So, when the next war comes, will you stay and fight, or leave?" I ask him. I was being flippant, but he answers immediately, as though he had thought about it many times. “I wanted to stay and fight, but my father said it would be foolish." Emir’s father was a guerrilla fighter, treading treacherous enemy territory daily to plant landmines. He tells me that his father often wonders what he risked his life for; the old man thinks the current leaders have destroyed the country with their personal greed.
“Behind lowered eyelashes I saw Sarajevo, so much ruined and so much loved—loved as never before—rising up from the earth, taking off and flying away, somewhere beyond, where everything is gentle and tranquil. It flew toward the deepest recesses of reality, where it can be loved and dreamed about, and from where it can shine back upon us, rich in meaning, like a beckoning destination."
Karahasan wrote these final lines not as a romantic but as a hopeless man. He was comparing the historical longing of the Jewish people for Jerusalem, and remembering the words of a friend who told him “it is stupid to renounce a two-thousand–year-long dream, to renounce one’s identity, for the sake of a certain number of buildings that make up the real city of Jerusalem". And so he asks himself, “Does it mean that Sarajevo as I know it and love it does not exist anymore?"
To Karahasan, writing under the most ferocious attacks on his city and standing on the brink of a life in exile, Sarajevo was slowly, inexorably, moving towards that mythical space where cities like Jerusalem reside. The deepest recesses of reality, where they can be loved and dreamed about, and from where they can shine upon us, rich in meaning, like a beckoning destination.
Sarajevo is still that city, so much ruined and so much loved, but it is no myth, nor dream. It exists, and with Karahasan as my guide, I have seen it.
The cheapest way to get to Sarajevo is through Dubai, thanks to a non-stop Dubai-Sarajevo Flydubai connection. Alternatively, connect to Sarajevo via Vienna (Austrian Airlines) or Belgrade (Air Serbia).
Hotel Europe for a slice of history, Hostel Franz Ferdinand for a backpacker vibe, and Airbnb accommodation for a stay up in the ‘mahalas’.
‘Burek’ and ‘zeljanica’, the first stuffed with meat and onion, the latter with spinach and cheese; ‘cevapi’ and ‘sacher’. Drink at least 20 cups of coffee to be considered normal.
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