We’re all still friends in Sarajevo


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.


  1. Sarajevooo…. !! I wish i could be there

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope to return soon!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. ❤ great post, thank you for sharing your adventure!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading Alicia!


  3. Reblogged this on Hakan Kutluyu®du and commented:
    I Like the Way in Sarajevo

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Hakan!


  4. Thank you for sharing, I have never been to the Balkans, maybe more of us should go, it looks very interesting, also very thought provoking.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you would enjoy the truly outstanding geography (and take much better pictures than me!)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. LOL thank you, yes I have heard how beautiful the area is, maybe one day 🙂


  5. Wonderful post. You are such an adventurous and thoughtful traveler–an inspiration.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Claudia–I’m really enjoying your posts from Italy as well.

      I am afraid of flying and HOB is afraid of heights, so I always feel like a bit of an imposter when people call us adventurous, but thank you for the compliment!


  6. A sobering account indeed and I am sure that anyone having a similar experience to yours could not help but feel affected by the tragic stories that yes, took place in the turn of the twenty first century. How could man be so inhumane to another man? I have Bosnian muslim and non muslim friends and whilst they are now settled in their adopted nations, they feel so petrified that this could happen again that it has turned them against welcoming other refugees. Thank you so much for your post. We should never forget these lessons.


    1. You are correct that the inhumanity to other men is the most sobering aspect and I’m sorry to hear that you know Bosnians who are not welcoming other refugees. It seems like one of the primary reactions the Bosnians who suffered during the siege (and those who lost their loved ones through genocide) is how could the international community sit by and let this happen?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes absolutely. This damily suffer ed through all of those terrible times, made it to safety as refugees and then immigrated to Australia. Now they are safe and comfortable but inside have a terrible fear of this happening again (this time in their adopted country Australia ) this is the legacy of living through conflict. It has given them little empathy for others in a similar situation, sadly.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. amiannforino · · Reply

    A place with so much pain and history. Thank you for sharing and reminding me to be aware of all that takes place in other countries.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for you thoughtful comment, amiannforino. I find it helps me to have a personal connection with people to better understand their situation and history—statistics are just…..statistics


  8. Great post Matti. Your posts always make me want to visit for myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey thanks–and that’s the point. Whenever possible. go see for yourself. 🙂


  9. When we went to Normandy last year, we did visit the D-Day beaches and we also visited the Dachau concentration camp when we were in Munich a few months ago. Horrifying, sobering stuff for sure, but like your visit to Sarajevo, I think it’s hard to ignore the history of a place simply because it’s dark. I was too young in the 90s to have any sort of idea about what was going on with the Serbian conflict, so thank you for exposing me to yet another part of the world I’ve been ignorant towards!


    1. Thanks for your comment, Erin. I agree that it’s important to visit places like Auschwitz and Dachau though I admit I feel unable to handle the horror of it all. I was sort of aware of what was going on in the siege of Sarajevo in the 90’s but I remember thinking it was more like a civil war, while the man we spoke with described a situation where the Bosnian Serb Army massively outgunned the muslim population, and that there was an embargo to keep the Bosnian muslims from having arms to defend themselves. There seems to be a lot of ambivalence towards the UN’s role, which is complicated for me to understand, so I’d be happy to hear from anyone with a first hand experience.


      1. Surprisingly, Dachau wasn’t that horrific at all. Of course, I knew what happened there, and that knowledge made the place horrifying in and of itself, but the actual museum/memorial? It was….almost…clinical and….detached. There were several displays that seemed to try to convey that life in the concentration camps wasn’t THAT bad. Did you know that the German government also used the barracks as temporary housing in the 60’s? And that the town of Dachau is now considered a “fashionable and highly desired” suburb? I’m still trying to wrap my head around that. I’ll blog about the experience when I can find the words. If I can find the words.

        Although I wasn’t aware of the conflict at the time, my impression was more like a civil disruption, similar to our “occupy” movement a few years ago. Lots of protests, some police brutality, minor fighting in the streets. To think I was so ignorant of the entire situation saddens me.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Reblogged this on Picnic at the Cathedral and commented:

    I wrote this post in 2015 after visiting Sarajevo on the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre and spending a day with Amir, a journalist who lived in Sarajevo during the siege. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about this experience and about how a cosmopolitan area of Central Europe where several religions peacefully coexisted turned into a war zone where thousands were slaughtered through ethnic cleansing during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. I don’t have any answers, but when I look at my own country in 2018, where our president repeatedly stigmatizes immigrants, where the Supreme Court upholds a blatantly xenophobic travel ban against majority Muslim nations, where I hear my fellow citizens (many of them Christians) justify ripping children away from asylum seekers who are fleeing for their lives and putting those children (including toddlers!) in cages, I think, are we next? And what must I do to prevent it?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Beautiful. And terrible. It is important to remind ourselves that this way leads xenophobia, ethicism, racism and nationalism. Somebody “first” means somebody else last, or not at all. We should all try to be more like Amir.

    And part of my heart dies too, when some senseless conflict clumsily destroys art and hstory that have weathered centuries, if not millenia. We must celebrate what remains.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely agree! And what is missing from all this jingoistic rhetoric is any attempt to deal with the complexity of real life situations. For example, I have a friend—an American citizen from Venezuela whose family still lives there—who favors the travel ban Venezuela because it only applies to government officials and their families. She says the Venezuelan institutions are seized by narcotrafficking and drug lords and that ngos are unable to get humanitarian aid into the country so putting pressure on the government may ultimately result in aid getting to the people who need it most. I also know of students who are in the country for their phd and can’t visit their families anymore or risk being held out of the country. I also know someone who has a wife and 2 kids under 5 stuck in a war zone on the other side of the world because the travel ban hit right when they were about to (legally) immigrate. Without listening to people’s stories we’ll never have a lick of empathy.

      I try not to think about all the art and architecture—priceless human treasures—so recently destroyed in Syria.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I missed this the first time around. Lovely. I haven’t been back since the war — actually – since my wedding there! But I plan to bring my 23 year old daughter – hopefully in the autumn, to visit where I met and married her father. And to see it in peace.
    I’ve been thinking recently how I’ve seen up close how neighbors can turn on each other. And I’m afraid, I’ve always thought that it could easily happen here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh autumn should be a lovely time to visit with your daughter! What cities are you going to?

      I have a friend who was a Serbian living in Croatia whose entire village was wiped out through ethnic cleansing. He said to me (in response to this post) “I’ve been thinking that since before the election, because even then I recognized the ideologues fanning the flames of prejudice and division. I have no answers, though. I felt powerless then and I feel powerless now.”

      I think we should try to be a little extra decent to our neighbors during these times of stupid rhetoric, just to show that we value each other and recognize each other as fellow humans.


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