A new Sarajevo

Between past horrors and a bright future

By Christoph Dabiri In Bosnia and Herzegovina 8 MINUTES READING TIME

With a hard landing, the nearly thirty-year-old plane from Belgrade touches down. The ashtrays nearly fall out of the worn-out armrests. “You see” says my neighbor, “everything went fine. I told you the pilots are good. Sometimes they drink too much, but they're good.” People over here have quite a special way of comforting others, it seems. However, she's right. Here we are: Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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Our plane was admittedly a newer model, but in fact, this flight was one of the last for “Jugoslovenski Aerotransport,” the airline named after a state that no longer exists.

Before coming here, I knew that there would be plenty of marks leftover from the war. Living in Berlin with all its evidence of the Cold War and even WW2 showed me how slowly wounds heal. And so it seems that for a second I forgot that this barbarous 1992-1995 siege of Sarajevo by Serbian forces lies just 20 years in the past. As a result, from the very first moment I'm quite surprised by the number of scars in this war-torn city.

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Since the fall of Yugoslavia, the new Bosnia and Herzegovina is sovereign. As so often in history, the country faced a long and bloody struggle for its independence. For several generations, the capital Sarajevo was the term for the last war on European ground. Many people today still associate “Sarajevo” with destruction, violence, crime, and poverty. And of course as a result, I was also strongly advised before my trip to be careful. But one thing was clear from the time I arrived: image and reality – once again – did not coincide.

Alongside the countless buildings riddled with bullet holes, some patterns on the road catch my eye as I walk through the city. People tell me that these are the places where mortar shells hit the streets. Many of these holes were filled back up with red resin. Today, these so-called “Sarajevo roses” are memorials.

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Two of the most devastating bombings by the Serbians took place in the central Markale marketplace. Everyone I spoke with about it can tell me something because they knew at least one person who suffered from it. Everyone killed were civilians. I imagine that it was a day like today. I feel sick.

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Extensive cemeteries can be found all over Sarajevo. The death dates often range from 1990 to 1994.

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From a strategic standpoint, the city is located in a bad position surrounded by mountains. If someone would like to lay siege to the city, all he would need to do is hide on the hilltops and send bullets flying into the city to eliminate the population – which is exactly what happened. For almost four years. To survive being closed in for such a long time, a hidden tunnel was built allowing food, medicine, and weapons to be transported. It ran directly under the airport's runways and a cellar in a private house served as the entrance to the tunnel. In terms of defending the city, this tunnel was decisive for the outcome of the war.

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It is hard to believe that ethnic cleansing, concentration camps, and other atrocities could have happened again just 700 km from Munich and around 500 km from Rome and Vienna – only just 20 years ago. As the scars of this time are slow to heal, Sarajevo's inhabitants also wonder until today: How did the world look on for so long without helping?

Today, however, the city seems to be slowly blossoming again. And in my eyes, it has a lot of potential for that, too. Its rich history and many different influences make the city not only a melting pot of cultures, but also a place full of options.

“JERUSALEM OF EUROPE”

Before the war, numerous religions lived and thrived literally side-by-side: Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Jews. Today the muezzins' call to prayer still echoes the sound of church bells and you can feel why Sarajevo's nickname was once "Jerusalem of Europe.0 The predominant religion today may be Islam and there may only be one active synagogue left, but you can still see the city as it once was: diverse.

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Start in the eastern part of the city: Here lies Baščaršija, the old Ottomon marketplace from the 15th century, which with its narrow streets and many small shops and stands resembles a bazaar. Only a few minutes' walk to the west is Ferhadija Street, where you can immediately recognize the 19th-century Austrian occupation by the Habsburg Neoclassical architecture. The Romans, too, have made an impact on Sarajevo. Moreover, on Velika Avlija Street, you can find the Jewish Museum, housed within Bosnia's oldest synagogue. And of course you can see the concrete blocks of the 20th century in Sarajevo. The fact of the matter is, however, that in fewer than ten minutes, you can figuratively traverse continents and centuries here in the city.

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The capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina presents itself today as a modern, lively university town with an unbelievable cultural scene among which the multitude of international renowned festivals stands out. Sarajevo is not a large tourist destination and is therefore a hidden treasure in Europe. But it won't stay that way, I’m sure. The first artists and start-ups are already moving to the city, made possible by affordable prices and all-around creative freedom. And what should I say – my heart, too, was quickly won over by Sarajevo and its optimistic people, its beautiful location, its possibilities and its absolute uniqueness in Europe and in the world. This is the city of a new generation.

“Here she comes, heads turn around
Here she comes, to take her crown.”

(U2 – “Miss Sarajevo”)

As I leave Sarajevo, I am avoiding another flight, even if, as I myself have experienced, “the pilots are good.” Instead, I'm taking the train. And you know what? The train drivers are good, too! And as if Sarajevo hadn't already wowed and convinced me enough with its hidden beauty, I leave the city bound for the south, along the winding roads of different mountain ranges, past turquoise-blue lakes and rivers, through untouched nature. Stunning. This place is one of a kind.


Thanks for reading!
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9 Comments
  1. Meliha July 13, 2015

    One of a kind! Not just because it’s mine. 😀 Thank you for wonderful words written. Thank you and come back again! <3

    Reply
    • Chris Dabiri July 13, 2015

      I feel honored by these words from a resident, thank you! 🙂 Yes, I can’t wait to come back – I really felt like buying a plane ticket, when I was writing this…

      Reply
  2. Envera Hrnic September 11, 2015

    Chris, thank you so much for such a beautiful story about my home town. Last ten years I leave somewhere else, and not in my home town, but every time I go back for visit, I experience Sarajevo like it was my first time, being excited all over again, like I did not spend over 40 years of my life there, including those war days that you described exactly how they happened like you been there. Thank you! Envera

    Reply
    • Chris Dabiri September 12, 2015

      Dear Envera, I’m touched by your words. It is a great honor to me when you say that the text is close to reality, especially as you have such deep insight about Sarajevo. Thank you! But where are you living now?

      Reply
      • Envera Hrnic October 24, 2015

        I moved to US Florida in 2003.

  3. Mia S. September 13, 2015

    Dear Chris,

    Thanks so much for this wonderful story on Sarajevo. Next time you come I hope your visit is even more beautiful. You should come in the winter and experience the mountains! Thanks again, Mia.

    Reply
    • Chris Dabiri September 13, 2015

      Hi Mia, I am super happy you like the story. Coming back in the winter season is a great idea, as I was already thinking about writing another little report on the old bobsled – that would be very well suiting! Let me know, if there's anything else you'd recommend in the winter. Again, thanks for your words, Mia! All the best, Chris

      Reply
  4. Sonja April 23, 2017

    Hi Christoph,
    es ist schon eine weile her, dass wir uns getroffen haben und ich mir vorgenommen hab deine Story über Sarajevo zu lesen. Auf jeden Fall hat es sich gelohnt. Wie gerne würde ich jetzt bei allen erwähnten Orten vorbei gehen und die Bilder für mich zum Leben erwecken!
    Deine Erzählung ist auf den Punkt treffend und besonders gut hat mir gefallen, dass neben der Kriegsgeschichte auch die Diversität bemerkt wurde. Das macht Sarajevo für mich aus.
    Und ja, die Zugfahrt durchs Land ist was einzigartiges!

    Reply

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