Despite its dark history, optimism is ringing through the streets of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital, Sarajevo
From the shadow of its war-torn past, Sarajevo is now a buzzing Eastern European city with fascinating culture, moving history and a bright new future, says Chris Beanland
It happens in slow motion – woozy, poignant and fleeting, like all important moments. A dragonfly hovers in front of me as if it’s trying to start a conversation. Its wings flare and glisten in the morning sun. Its gaze drills into me. The dragonfly’s home is Baščaršija, Sarajevo. I stand agog in this ancient area’s thrumming main square. It is Istanbul in the Alps – minarets thrust up towards azure sky and Ottoman architecture dazzles with a brooding exoticism. The scent of Turkish coffee and spices – white pepper, coriander, paprika – hangs in the air on the tight side streets. This is the city in Bosnia and Herzegovina where the Occident meets the Orient. The city where Europe meets the East; a melting pot for centuries.
Baščaršija’s precious heritage has been restored on a huge and dazzling scale – the remnants of the Talishan Inn are preserved as an open-air archaeological museum. The site is presided over by the dazzling modern lines of a newer hotel – the Europe. Its startling extension is a fascinating counterpoint to the ancient buildings.
Outside the beautiful Academy of Fine Arts, a modern bridge formed like a loop-the-loop roller coaster crosses the babbling river Miljacka. The river flows down from the city’s encircling bucolic jade-coloured mountains as a trickle in summer and a torrent in winter.
The Latin Bridge crosses the river a little upstream, a stone fairy tale-like structure that, when I was visiting, was covered in scaffolding and receiving some much-needed TLC. A plaque by that bridge marks the spot where Austrian Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia were shot dead in 1914, sparking the First World War.
Inside the Academy of Fine Arts there’s a poster advertising a StartupWeekend to support the city’s unlikely nascent community of coders and internet entrepreneurs. Downstairs, a course on photojournalism is taking place.
Journalists hold a mythic place in Sarajevo’s recent past. The road from the airport is named after Kurt Schork – an American who reported a story titled Romeo And Juliet In Sarajevo about a doomed pair of real-life lovers, Bosniak Admira Ismić and Bosnian Serb Boško Brki, who were killed in the siege. Half of Schork’s ashes are buried next to the couple here.
The 1992-96 siege tore the heart out of the city. As a sensitive child,
I sat glued to the TV coverage, horrified, and yet convinced that if Imyself became a journalist I could one day save other stricken people. I could never be as heroic as the journalists who lived at the Holiday Inn built originally for the 1984 Winter Olympics, and I feel a lump inmy throat as I look up inside its lobby and imagine its now quiet corridors filled with desperation and bravado and the rumble of distant ordnance. Not even the journalists could be as heroic as the Sarajevans who endured four years without running water, electricity or gas and the constant threat of being shot by snipers. At the SiegeMuseum I find it impossible to suppressmy tears as a guide talks calmly of his friends and close relatives who were killed, while a documentary film showing the full horror plays in the background.
Places in the city centre where civilians were massacred are marked by grim stretches of red pavement and stone memorials on walls. Fresh flowers are meticulously maintained and flames burn bright in small metal torches to keep the memories of the innocent victims alive.
Museums like the brand new lowlit Gallery 11/07/95, which opened last year, remember victims of the genocide outside the city – in this case the horror that took place in Srebrenica. Yet, despite the trauma of recent times, despite the ache that must persist within everyone who calls Sarajevo home, the city today is nothing less than a joy. Its streets ring with life, with hope.
Round the corner from Markale – where two such massacres occurred – outside the Orthodox Church, old men play giant chess. Every table at every pavement café is taken by locals and tourists drinking coffee. I haggle a trader down from the equivalent of Dh50 to Dh35 for some fake sunglasses. I buy a slice of meat burek
from Fino, one of the best bakers of the filled savoury pastries, and munch it in the sun while I watch the hordes stream out of the Ali Pasa Mosque. Friday prayers have just ended and men throng the streets, some yet to put their shoes back on. The mosque’s water gardens are lush, emerald green, carefully manicured.
The city centre’s shopping streets buzz. International brands are everywhere. The BBI Centre is an award-winning, upmarket new mall, brown with big windows and full ofWestern stuff for sale in this most cosmopolitan of cities. Lush, Timberland, Lego and Apple have shops in the mall.
Al Jazeera has a big bureau upstairs covering European news and its sign is on the side of the building. I change some money into Bosnian Konvertible Marks at the bank inside. One of the cashiers is a Bosnian Muslim wearing a headscarf, the other a Christian who wears her hair uncovered. A small sign that multiculturalism is returning – a welcome sign.
You can take a clanking tram from here to the train station, passing the massive American embassy where signs loudly proclaim, “NO PHOTOGRAPHY”.
Outside the station the Avaz twisted skyscraper, the HQ of a publishing company, rises as a symbol of the new Sarajevo. In a skate park down below, a huge work of playful public art dominates – two giant trumpets trying to talk to each other. I find a hole in the fence and gingerly cross the railway tracks, through Sarajevo’s haunted hinterlands, past the Hotel Grand, where I’m holed up. A stray puppy makes pleading eyes at me then loses its courage and darts into a hedge. A road leads up to The TV Tower at the top of the hill and this vantage point affords heart-stopping views of the whole city and is the perfect place for a picnic of sweet Bosnian cakes and fruit juice.
This capital city is getting to me; it’s getting under my skin; it’s already in my blood. This city has entranced me from afar for years.
Back down below, at the end of the day, Sarajevans laugh and drink in the chic cafés and jumping bars of Ulica Strossmayerova. People are having fun, and it’s infectious.
Across the street a group of 20-somethings is fooling around. They’ve been paid to advertise something – half of them are dressed as oranges and half as mobile phones. Their faces are painted with smiles. They are the future of Sarajevo.
They joke and laugh and all look like the best of friends. Their optimism is infectious.
The 1992 to 1996 siege tore at the heart of Sarajevo, but today a sense of calm and optimism prevails
The Baščaršija bazaar is the perfect place to bargain, while the
beautiful Academy of Fine Arts (inset, below) has fine views of the Miljacka river on which Sarajevo
The Sarajevo Holiday Inn, purpose-built for the 1984 Olympics, shows the steadfastness of spirit in Sarajevo – seen in the midst of a danger zone in this 1994 photo, and as it stands proudly today (below left)
Belyingly beautiful Brebrenica has a dark history, but today its streets ring with hope
The Multicultural Man Builds The World statue symbolises peace and was a gift from Italy
The Latin Bridge over the Miljacka has a plaque marking the spot where Arch Duke Ferdinand was assassinated, sparking events that led to the First World War
While Sarajevo has moved forward, the troubles of its past are well documented in museums, formal and informal. This tunnel was built by besieged residents
Visitors enjoy the slow pace of life at the cafés in the old Turkish Quarter in Baščaršija,
while the Avaz skyscraper (below) reflects the rise of the bustling new Sarajevo
The BBI Mall with its shops stocked full of Western items reflects the cosmopolitan nature of the city