In the foreground, a mosque. In the background, the spire of a Catholic church.
This is Sarajevo.
Sarajevo is my favorite sort of town: buzzing with dynamic street life, culturally rich and simultaneously traditional and forward-thinking. Trams are gliding by, the traffic is not that crazy and the architecture ranges from Ottoman to Viennese. Drool-inducing (if meat heavy) street food is and coffee that needs to be savored slowly is readily available.
The best part is Sarajevo’s diverse religious heritage.
For example: this synagogue, built in 1581. After being expelled from Spain in the 15th century, many Sephardic Jews migrated to Sarajevo. They spoke Ladino—a Judeo-Spanish language—and to this day the Rabbis of Sarajevo greet each other with “Buenos dias” The ruling Ottomans tolerated the Jews (no doubt in part because they paid heavy taxes) and did not force them to live in ghettos. Sadly, most of the Jews were killed in the Holocaust, though a small community remains.
A short walk away is the old Serbian Orthodox Church, c. early 1500’s but with 5th or 6th century foundations. Architecturally, it has a lot in common with the old synagogue, which points to a cross-fertilization of religious practices as far back as 500 years ago.
Nearby we explored the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, built in 1530. The Austrian-Hungarian empire was respectful of Islam and as a result, this was the first mosque in the world to be wired for electricity. The clock tower is part of the mosque complex and has a 24 hour cycle so that the faithful can use it to identify prayer times. (HOB, a nerdy devotee of 24 hour clocks, highly approves.)
Another quick walk took us to Sarajevo Cathedral, a fun mix of styles–let’s call it Viennese flavored neo-Gothic-Romaesque with an unexpected Moorish interior.
And finally, just outside of the cathedral, our visit to Sarajevo took on a quite different tone, when we visited Gallery 11/07/95. Gallery 11/07/95 is museum-style permanent exhibition memorializing the 8,372 victims of the Srebrenica genocide in July of 1995. Viewing the exhibit and accompanying films was a punishing experience: let’s just say that conceptualizing the systematic, well-planned murder of thousands of Bosnian Muslims, only 20 years ago, is beyond horrible. I can’t tell you that the exhibit is “good” because the subject matter is so appalling, but I would tell you that it’s necessary.
That’s the thing with Sarajevo—I wanted to embrace its culture and religious diversity, but kept running into this:
These so-called Sarajevo roses (imprints from mortar shell bomb explosions filled with red resin) are “blooming” throughout the city.
I avoid war tourism (when we went to Normandy HOB and I spent the entire time looking at architecture, gawping at an 11th century tapestry and eating Camembert, ignoring the D-Day beaches.) While perhaps it’s unwise to pretend war doesn’t exist, I think that focusing on conflict ghettoizes a culture and deflects attention from more positive qualities and shortchanges humanist achievement.
Though how could we walk the streets of Sarajevo and ignore the bombed buildings all around us?
Many buildings still reveal pock-marked scars from dispersed shrapnel. Why? Because Sarajevo was under siege by the Bosnian Serb Army, who fired an average of 300 rounds into the town every day from April 1992 through February of 1996.
Our final day in Sarajevo was spent in the company of Amir, a journalist, tour guide and life-long Sarajevo resident. Amir lived in Sarajevo throughout the siege, which started on his 19th birthday. Amir was living with his family in the outskirts of Sarajevo when the violence began. His step brother was taken away to a concentration camp and his family only learned of his fate a few years ago, when dna evidence identified his remains—Amir’s family received his skull (containing two bullet holes) to bury. The remaining family members managed to sneak into a “safer” part of Sarajevo with the help of a sympathetic Serbian neighbor. Amir’s father was shot and died of blood loss from a lack of medical attention and his grandmother suffered a heart attack and also died because no one around them had enough gas to drive her to the hospital.
Amir actually dug his own grandmother’s grave, a necessity given the huge amount of people killed during the siege. The siege dead are mostly buried in public parks since citizens couldn’t access normal graveyards without a serious danger of being shot by snipers.
I’ll never really know what it’s like to live under siege, but here’s what I understand from speaking with Amir and from reading first hand accounts: there was no heat, little access to food and water, media was cut off and no one was ever safe, not even at home. What supplies the residents of Sarajevo obtained were reached through a tunnel running underneath the airport. The Bosnian Serb Army deliberately targeted cultural sights: they destroyed the libraries of Sarajevo with their priceless ancient collections and city records and bombed mosques, churches and museums. Cut off from the rest of the world, they continued to put on theatrical performances, play in bands, and throw parties, with everyone pitching in with what they had to offer, whether a skill or with spare supplies. When they did have occasional access to radio broadcasts, the people of Sarajevo were appalled by the blatantly false propaganda reports, for example, that they were raping Serbian women on the streets and feeding them to the lions in the zoo.
Printed on the ticket stock from the Srebrenica exhibition is the phrase “You are my witness”. But what if I don’t want to be a witness? If I just want to visit a cosmopolitan city, tour religious architecture and snack on savory street foods, to be a tourist without confronting the horror of genocide, of stories of living under siege, of cultural treasures destroyed? Sarajevo has called me to action, but I’m not certain of what action I should take. Whatever the call, I am certain that my resources are inadequate, that I am not up to the task.
We returned to a United States rife with islamophobia. In our absence, the leading Republican presidential candidate called for American Muslims to carry id cards. People I know, even people I respect and love, are making alarmingly anti-Islamic and racist comments. My jaw dropped when a social media acquaintance casually suggested the USA drop a nuclear weapon on Mecca. Two people so far have denied the existence of the Siege of Sarajevo (one of them the director of a Chicago non-profit). I fear this the sort of talk that dehumanizes people, that leads to holocausts and genocides.
As we walked around Sarajevo with Amir, I was impressed most of all with his optimism, humor and continued commitment to the religious and ethnic diversity of Sarajevo. Amir was careful to say that many Serbians suffered along with him in the siege, and that the war crimes against Bosnian Muslims were perpetrated only by Serbian nationalist extremists, not regular Serbian citizens. This is a message he tasked us with spreading at home as well. When Amir asked us why we choose to visit the Balkans, we told him it was because of all the Bosnians, Serbians and Croatians we know in Chicago. As we shook hands and departed, he said “Tell your Balkan friends that despite what they hear in the news, we’re all still getting along fine in Sarajevo, we’re still friends.”
I sincerely hope this true—in Sarajevo as well as at home in Chicago, in all of the US. I desire it deeply…but I have my doubts.
How we got to Sarajevo: bus from Mostar.
Where we slept: Apartment Center. Price: €23.20 for a double. Recommended: highly.