Exploring the Bosnian Capital
We emerged from the tunnel leading from the platform into the main Sarajevo station building. It was probably the same vintage as Mostar but it was a lot more impressive. It had been restored too; there was a cozy looking café on the concourse and a large Coca-Cola sign across the back wall.
As we moved outside the view back onto the station was a bit more brutal. The grim atmosphere was not improved by the fact that the whole ugly station square has been renamed to commemorate the terrible events of Srebrenica.
In the foreground was the tram terminus.
The Sarajevo tramway featured a lot in pictures of the city during its infamous siege in the 1990s. The news reports back then often seemed to show upturned tramcars that were being used as cover by residents trying to shelter from Serbian shells and guns. The tramway’s restoration is a symbol, one of many, of the defiance of the city.
The Sarajevo tram network is not complicated: it consists of a single route going the length of the long thin city with just one short spur to the station. It was one of the first to open in Europe and even served as a prototype for Vienna’s system.
The tracks make a loop in the old centre and then head back out to the suburbs passing between tower blocks in the centre of the wide arterial road. During the 1992-1995 siege this wide road was known as “sniper alley”. Many of the 5,000 citizens killed were gunned down here.
We boarded the tram at the station terminus and headed into the city. The service is mostly still in the hands of the Czech-built Tatra cars that were once familiar all over the old eastern bloc. There are also implants and donations from other cities, notably Vienna.
We creaked and squealed down the station spur until we reached the main artery and turned east towards the city centre. Almost immediately on the left was the famous Holiday Inn where the journalists covering the siege were based. It had now been fully restored, painted in yellow and renamed.
One stop further on was our own hotel, the modern Marriot Courtyard, located about half way into the city centre from the station.
Even though it was only 10:00am we were able to check in and refresh ourselves. Just over an hour later we headed back out ready to explore Sarajevo. We were intent on trying to uncover the city in historical order and so we went to the old city centre district first.
1463 – 1878
Bosnia became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1463 and, in common with other parts of former Yugoslavia, much of the local population converted to Islam. Yet, unlike much of the rest of the region, they didn’t all convert back to Orthodox and Catholicism when the Turks left. Today, Bosnia’s population of 5 million breaks down into about 45% Muslim Bosniaks, 36% Orthodox Serbs and 15% Croatian Roman Catholics. For many years Sarajevo was a melting pot, a meeting point of east and west, with rates of inter-marriage between the ethnic groups quite high. With the fall of Yugoslavia it became a powder keg.
We walked east along the banks of the River Miljacka to the area of the old city known as Bascarsija.
The old area was a delight to walk around and, like Mostar, it reminded us a lot of Turkey. It was an intriguing maze of narrow alleys leading between the Mosques, caravanserai-restaurants and little shops.
It was Friday and so the impressive 16th century Gazi Husrevbey Mosque was busy for prayers.
We found a place for mini Balkan sausages (Cevapi here) and enjoyed what we both agreed were the best yet.
Afterwards we found a cafe and had a Bosnian coffee with a bit of lokum on the side.
We ate in the old town on the other days too; sampling wonderful stews, salads and terrific burek.
We walked up from Bascarsija into the hill suburb of Bjwlave and spent a while walking around streets that were free of tourists and full of old-style houses with box windows.
Close by we visited the Svrzo House: a brilliantly restored Ottoman property from the 18th Century.
Moving west from Bascarsija one comes to the edge of the Austro-Hungarian part of the city. In fact, there is even a line down the middle of the street with a sign denoting the border between “west and east”. The Ottomans gave up Bosnia to the Austro-Hungarians in 1878. The new regime wasted no time in imposing its mark on the city.
The streets surrounding the old city are filled with buildings from the Austrian- Hungarian period. There are modern residential buildings as well as cathedrals, both Orthodox and Catholic, shops and banks.
The National museums closer to the station date from this time too.
As does the central market hall….
We visited Despica Kuca: one of the oldest residential properties in the city. The preserved interiors gave an idea of what it was like living in a rich Bosnian Serb family during the Austrian period.
We ventured across the river to see the Sarajevo brewery which is another classic building from the period and is still going strong as a beer factory today.
The grandest building the Austro-Hungarians built in Sarajevo was the city hall. Controversially constructed in a Moorish style and badly damaged in the siege, the building has now been lovingly restored and features a museum on the history of the city.
The city hall was also the last place that Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie visited before they met with their violent deaths on 28th June 1914. There is a small display that is supposed to represent where they enjoyed their last cup of tea.
As they made their way from the city hall and along the river bank to the station they were assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, a Serb fighting for Bosnia to become part of a new Yugoslavia. A small fascinating museum stands near the spot of the shooting and inside is the pistol Gavrilo used. The event, as every school child knows, led to World War One and, although Gavrilo didn’t live to see it, ultimately to a new Yugoslavian kingdom.
Sarajevo was occupied by the Germans in the Second World War and the events of that conflict are marked by a moving memorial in the centre of the city containing an eternal flame.
Tito’s effect on the city can still be seen in the numerous tower blocs that were constructed as the city expanded westwards along the wide boulevards.
The 1980s were a time of joy for the city as it hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics. We ventured up Trebevic Mountain to see the old bob sleigh track. It is a poignant reminder of the sad legacy of the games; the area was used by the Serbs as an artillery position during the siege less than 10 years later.
On the afternoon of our first day we joined a 4-hour minibus tour in order to learn more about the history of the siege. Joining a tour made sense because the locations of many of the sights were spread out around the city and some were not easily accessible by public transport or even by taxi.
There were 8 of us in the minibus; 2 Australians, 2 Spanish, a driver, our guide and us. The guide and the driver were both natives of the city. The guide told us he was a Muslim and he introduced the driver, who spoke no English, as a Serb.
The guide was just 29 years old. Years before in Prague we had gone on an excellent walking tour about the Velvet Revolution and it had been made all the more interesting as the elderly guide had lived through the whole communist era. In Sarajevo, our guide explained, there were few people who had experienced the siege who actually wanted to talk about it. It largely fell to the younger generation to tell their story.
We were taken first up to the Zuta Tabija, an old bastion and city viewpoint, and we were told about the background to the conflict and the geography of the city. From Zuta Tabija you could see the long-thin shape of Sarajevo stretching westwards and surrounded by hills. It was from these hills, occupied by the Serb artillery, that the city was shelled for almost 4 years.
We got back onto the bus and were then taken around the various locations in the town centre as the guide related the facts and the various human stories connected with the siege. There was the famous violinist who refused to stop playing, a story of a Serbian and Bosnian “Romeo and Juliet” who died trying to escape together and there was the birth of the “Sarajevo Rose”; the practice of marking hundreds of the places where shell bursts scarred the pavements and roads with bright red paint.
We were driven past (and we later returned to) the market hall where shells had landed three times and killed masses of people. It was the third massacre here that finally persuaded NATO to begin bombing the Serb positions and, within two weeks, to end the siege.
The mother and child memorial was explained to us as we passed by.
We were taken past one of the largest cemeteries, located in a former football pitch, and shown the masses of graves that all had dates between 1992 and 1995 on them.
The highlight of the tour was the airport tunnel museum, although we almost didn’t make it before the closing time due to the terrible Friday evening traffic heading out of the city.
Between 1992 and 1995 the airport was the only way in and out of the surrounded city. It was controlled by the United Nations but they had yielded to Serb pressure and would not allow any of the city’s defenders to cross the runway to access Bosnian-held territory beyond.
The solution for the besieged citizens of Sarajevo was to dig a secret tunnel underneath the runway. For two years the tunnel, the entrances of which were hidden in two houses either side of the airport perimeter, was used as a lifeline between the city and the rest of Bosnia.
The museum is located in the house on the far side of the airport runway. A small section of the tunnel is preserved and we walked through it. There were also displays that explained how the tunnel was built, how it was used as well as exhibits that told the more general story of the siege.
After the tunnel, we made our last stop high up on the hills themselves. We were shown the vantage point the Serbian artillery had over the city. Ironically, this area is now part of the Republic Srpska, and as we passed through the suburbs and villages located near the high ground surrounding Sarajevo there were lots of Serbian flags visible.
The next day we visited the excellent Gallery museum next to the Catholic Cathedral. It showed, through photographs and films, the events of the war with a particular emphasis on the massacre at Srebrenica.
On our last night we sat in the modern rooftop bar of our hotel reflecting on what we had seen. Looking around the ultra-modern bar full of young people enjoying themselves, it seemed obvious that the city had recovered from its tragic past and now had a promising future.
Walking around the city and jumping on and off the trams, you could also assume that the city contained a mix of people, Orthodox, Catholics and Muslims, who all got on. The place seemed the friendly and tolerant melting pot it had been in earlier times.
And yet, we couldn’t put aside the conversation we had had with our guide in the last hour of our tour. We had asked him if he was optimistic for the future. He had told us without any hesitation that he was not.
He had then spent the rest of the trip telling us why. As we passed through the Republic Srpska he pointed to the posters of the imprisoned war criminals displayed on government buildings. With bitterness in his voice he told us that these criminals were still regarded as heroes and the people who regarded them so were working among other Bosnians down in the city every day.
The two-state solution couldn’t work. Republic Srpska would always push for integration with Serbia and they would never really accept being part of Bosnia. The education the Serbian children got was different, their police force acted differently and there were recent concerns about how they were being armed. Even the beer that the different groups chose to drink was different; no true Serb would drink beer brewed in the Sarajevo brewery. The two-state solution was supposed to have been temporary but nobody could think what to put in its place.
The system was very costly too as everything had to be duplicated between two governments. The country was in an economic mess and was becoming dependent on aid and growing tourism from the Arab countries. The amount of UAE and Qatari citizens having second homes in Sarajevo was growing fast, he told us, and yet youth unemployment was way over 50%. “The best thing to do for a young person is emigrate” he concluded.
We hoped he was wrong. Sarajevo is a delightful and fascinating place to visit and its wonderful people deserve a better future.