October 24-28, 2001: Some cities charm me on arrival, others I never warm to. I loved Lisbon at first sight, but have no desire to revisit Madrid, for instance. (No need to tell me that Madrid is marvelous, just be glad we don’t all like the same things.) Of the major cities on this trip, Riga had made my revisit list, and now Sarajevo joined it.
Of course, getting there had put me in good mood, despite leaving Mostar under gloomy skies and from a cavernous bus station. Although I’m a big train fan, I had passed on the train ride between Mostar and Sarajevo partly because the train left uncomfortably early, and partly because I didn’t want tunnels obscuring the views. And the views as we followed the Nereva river valley through the mountains were indeed impressive.
Then, I got a very warm welcome at my hotel, the Safir, especially when I showed the young woman on the front desk the Fodor’s trip report which had led me to choose it. (True, I wasn’t quite as pleased with the hotel myself, as I explained on tripadvisor.) But I think I would have fallen for Sarajevo anyway. For all three Sarajevos, that is: the Ottoman quarter with its pedestrian streets and quaint shops, the Austro-Hungarian quarter further west, with its stately buildings, and even the newer section still further west towards the airport and “sniper’s alley” where people daily courted death during the siege.
With the notable exception of the National Library, still being rebuilt, fewer bombed out buildings were in-your-face reminders than in Mostar, and I saw few “Sarajevan roses” – star-shaped shell craters in the streets, painted red – but the war was still very much a presence. Just eight years after the city hosted the Winter Olympics, Serbian regiments of the encircling Yugoslav army attacked the city and started a siege that lasted close to four years. “Siege” is almost too tame a word for the shelling which resulted in over 10,500 deaths and 50,000 injuries, and targeted, besides the irreplacable contents of the National Library, the Winter Olympics’ venues and even hospitals.
I took a tour that included a visit to the 800 meter tunnel under the airport runway that had kept a vital trickle of supplies coming into the city. I spent a sobering hour in the History Museum. I even ate lunch in the Holiday Inn, which was the home of the foreign journalists during the siege, and therefore largely spared attack. And I marveled both at the endurance of the inhabitants, and the viciousness of the attackers, who had so recently been citizens of the same country. I also wondered why it had taken so long for the rest of the world to try to stop it.
Sarajevo could have been depressing, just one more chapter in the dark history of human warfare. Instead, the spirit of the Sarajevans, their refusal to surrender, was inspiring. Here were people, used to a comfortable, 20th-century, urban life, suddenly back in the Dark Ages, living in the basements of bombed out buildings, risking death every time they ventured out to find food, fuel and water. The museum shows how they improvised and made do, how teachers and doctors and nurses continued their work. The tour shows the odds against them, the damage the town suffered, but also how they kept fighting.
Near the end of the tour, I asked the guide, a man who spent many nights camped in the winter snow on the one mountainside the Sarajevans held, defending his city, what relations were like today between Serbia and Bosnia. He replied that they weren’t fighting. In the Balkans, perhaps that’s as good as it gets.