Remember when you couldn’t turn on the news without hearing about Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, and other major conflicts in the Balkans? It wasn’t that long ago – the early to late 90’s. In High School and even in College, I remember that Bosnia and Serbia were always in the news headlines for the terrible war and turmoil occurring there. Unfortunately, this always made me associate these places with horror and death. Fast forward a decade and a half later and I’m strolling through the once violent streets. In fact, I love the streets of Sarajevo, Bosnia and didn’t want to leave even after three days. The small city is completely surrounded by mountains. Bright white buildings with red tile roofs fill the valley and work their way up the mountainside. There are Mosques, Catholic Cathedrals, as well as Jewish Synagogues, connected by stone streets, cozy courtyards, and welcoming cafes. The shops and restaurants are a mix of East and West items and food. I kept forgetting where I was – Europe or the Middle East?
The entire time we are there the sky is bright blue without a single cloud. The streets are filled with happy locals and visitors, along with the occasional melodious calls to prayer that echo through the city. With this peaceful air, it might feel like horrific acts of violence never occurred here. But the lingering signs of past war are everywhere. Many of the buildings are covered with gunshot holes. There are large gouges throughout the streets and sidewalks from grenades and mortars. Some of the dents are filled in with red to make “Sarajevo’s Roses,” as a memorial for those killed in the mortar attacks. Strolling through the many cemeteries in and around the city, you’ll be struck by the fact that 80% of the dates on the stones are from 1992-1995. I thought our tour guide was exaggerating these statistics until I saw all of the gravestones for myself. Sadly, in only the small city of Sarajevo alone, 11,541 residents died during the four-year war (and over 100,000 in Bosnia). It’s still dangerous to visit the surrounding hills and mountains of Sarajevo because of the live mines that are left from the war. You must go with a professional guide.
I hate to admit it but back in the 90’s I was much more concerned about school, boys, track, and driving than I was with Foreign Affairs. I knew there was war throughout Bosnia, Serbia, and the surrounding region but I didn’t know why or to what extent. Now I’m an adult (kind-of) and I’m interested in what happened in these places. The former Yugoslavia fell apart in the years of 1991-1999. The six regions divided into the six current countries of Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, and Macedonia. And these divisions weren’t a peaceful process. Serbian forces held Sarajevo, Bosnia (and other cities) under siege for long, violent periods of time. Sarajevo was under siege for four years (1992-1995). They cut-off residents’ food, water, electricity, and gas supplies. I can’t imagine living like this for so long. Even during the harsh winters with up to six feet of snow on the ground and temperatures below zero (F), there was no power. The residents had to burn anything they could find to stay warm in their homes (even tires), so many of the homes were left with black walls.
We visited the narrow “secretly” dug half-mile tunnel where residents smuggled in food and other items they needed to survive. The tunnel is 5 feet high and 3 feet wide so the residents had to crouch down carrying up to 200 pounds of supplies. The citizens were allowed to use the tunnel to bring in needed items only twice a year so they tried to carry as much as possible. The waiting line for the tunnel took days. Food and necessities in the city were insanely expensive – 10 Euros for one egg, and 25 Euros for a kilogram of sugar. Snipers filled the hills and shot at anyone. People ran from place to place, ducking for cover from the hillside snipers. Cars had to speed recklessly down the street to avoid attack. In the four year siege, Sarajevo was attacked daily. 3 MILLION mortar rounds and other large artillery were launched at the small city, and 11,501 residents were killed from the city of Sarajevo alone.
In Bosnia, the residents seem to be open about their troubled past. The city of Sarajevo offers different opportunities for “war tours” or “troubled times tours.” The copper artists collected the metal shells in the hills after the war. Now they decorate and sell them. The artist that we talked to said they like to do this because they want to take the bad things from war and make something beautiful out of them. After the end of the war, this artist’s father decorated a large shell inlaid with copper and gold for Former President Clinton to present to him when he visited Sarajevo. The Bosnians we met love Clinton, and Americans.
During our time in Belgrade, Serbia, we didn’t learn much about their history. It seemed like locals were much less willing to discuss their troubled past. There weren’t any museums or tours that we could find that discussed the turmoil in the 90’s. So we had to do some research ourselves and find a few of the bombed buildings on our own. Even so, there were police officers or guards around the few bombed buildings that haven’t yet been repaired. They asked us to leave. There were large cloth banners covering the building ruins, too. Maybe their lack of openness is because their times of trouble are even more recent. In 1999, NATO bombed Belgrade for 78 days during the Kosovo War.
As for today, Sarajevo and Belgrade aren’t defined just by their recent war-torn past. Now they’re fascinating cities that are full of life, culture, beauty, and friendly people. We found it quite interesting that today Bosnia-Hercegovina has three different presidents that rotate every eight months. There is a president to represent the Croats (predominately Catholic), the Serbs (primarily Orthodox), and the Bosniaks (primarily Muslims). Bryan and I kept marveling how strange it was to be walking the streets of these places. It made us wonder – where will we be traveling to in another decade or two? Maybe our children will be backpacking through Afghanistan or Iraq after college. The last week has taught me not to judge a place because of news headlines from years ago. Growing up hearing of certain places in the news may put a negative (and incorrect) stereotype of a place in your head. Beautiful, eclectic Sarajevo, Bosnia and lively Belgrade, Serbia are nothing like I would have expected. Open your mind, forget your stereotypes, and let yourself fall in love with a place you’d never expect to visit. A little time can change everything.
* Fellow Travelers: While traveling through Bosnia, you will probably hear about Mostar. In our opinion, we found Mostar far too touristy (everyone wants to see the “old” bridge that was re-built in 2004) to have an enjoyable visit. We would have much rather spent our time somewhere else.