1425 days – 3 years, 10 months and 24 days. That’s how long Sarajevo was under the siege, surrounded by the Army of Republika Srpska. That’s how long the citizens of this incredibly beautiful city had to struggle, trying to survive in this hopeless circumstances. 11 541 of them, including around 1500 children, didn’t make it through this terrible time. Even if the siege ended almost 20 years ago the city and its people still heal and when you look closer you can still see all the scars and tragic Sarajevo history very well…
Sarajevo is one of a kind city. Its multiculturalism and tolerance was often set as an example how people of different ethnic and religious background can live together next to each other, be great friends, start families and just coexist peacefully. It is in Sarajevo where Eastern and Western cultures meet – literally! There is this place on Ferhadija – the main pedestrian street in the city – where suddenly the typical Central European architecture from the times of Austria-Hungary changes into typical Ottoman style. One moment you might feel like in Vienna, Budapest or Brno and the other like in Istanbul. In the small area you can find a Catholic cathedral, Orthodox church, a mosque and a synagogue. And that show exactly how Sarajevo is, how it mixes styles, cultures and backgrounds in a very normal way. While you would find it weird everywhere else in Sarajevo it just feels right.
Sarajevo history – where First World War started
Sarajevo set tongues all over the world wagging already in 1914 when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in the city. This led to the First World War and shaped the history of Europe forever. I find it pretty incredible that both, first and last most important events of the 20th century, those that had major impact on the world we currently live in, happened in this very city. While it tried to live peacefully all these tragic things happened right there, in Sarajevo.
Background of the Balkans war
Many people confuse the Balkan war with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. But the background of what exactly happened in this part of the continent is so deeper and doesn’t have much to do with former Soviet Union. There’s been always strong nationalist tendencies in Yugoslavia (a country that eventually split into Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia) but as long as Josip Broz Tito was leading the country things were under control. After his death in 1980 the Serbian nationalist grew much stronger, the dream of many was a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia. That resulted in all the republics trying to gain the independence. While in some countries the process went rather smoothly, others had to face the brutal and bloody civil war. At first the newly created Bosnian national assembly consociated all three ethnic groups in the country (Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs) but eventually the Serbian party left the parliament in Sarajevo and formed their own assembly that later on established Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (since 1992 named Republika Srpska).
5th April 1992 – most important day in recent Sarajevo history
After the referendum (boycotted by Serbs) Bosnia and Herzegovina declared the independence at the beginning of March 1992. That escalated the conflict and tensions in the country yet the inhabitants of Sarajevo, people of three ethnic backgrounds didn’t believe till the last moment that someone might attack the city, the place where it didn’t matter if you’re Bosniak, Croat, Serb, everyone was simply Sarajevian. The whole horror began on 5th April 1992 when during the peaceful protests two women were killed by snipers. They are considered the first of thousands victims of the Sarajevo siege.
The longest siege in the history of modern Europe
The hills surrounding Sarajevo, the city’s biggest asset became its biggest curse. That’s where the numerous snipers found their position to be the lords of life and death of the inhabitants of the Bosnian capital. Sarajevo became a world’s biggest firing range with the difference that the objects were alive. People were shoot like rabbits, every day. The biggest number of casualties was in June 1992 when 1706 people lost their lives. Some of the snipers were born and raised in Sarajevo, their used to be neighbors and friends of their future victims. That made the whole siege even more tragic and more difficult to understand. Were they money obsessed that they had decided to go up to the hills and destroy their city or was it just the pure evil nature of the human race?
The situation in the city has changed drastically almost overnight.It was surrounded from every possible angle and there was almost no way to escape from Sarajevo. The other thing was that people didn’t want to leave, they wanted to stay and defend their beloved city, even at the highest cost. The life in Sarajevo was unbearable. There was no running water, no electricity, no food. Leaving home (or what was left from it) to try and get some of the basic things meant that you could have never come back, like people who were killed waiting in line for the water, for bread or (twice) shopping at Markale market. There was no safe place in Sarajevo, streets, houses, schools, hospitals and cemeteries where all under the constant attack. Sport grounds that were home to 1984 Winter Olympic Games were turned into the place of eternal rest for many inhabitants who have lost their lives during the siege. And that was the reality in the city for almost 4 years…
Sarajevo history scars
Sarajevo is healing fairly well and now seems to be the regular Central European capital city with shopping centers, busy streets and crowded cafes (that’s another phenomenon for me there). But when you look closer you will see scars very well. The majority of houses might be rebuilt, the main streets shine again but it takes a short walk into the backstreets to see a different face of Sarajevo, a really sad and humble one. The war and the siege is still present there: in the bullet holes encrusting facades of houses and blocks, in marks left on the street after the shell hit, in commemorative plaques with names, year of birth and year of death of those unlucky ones who didn’t make it through the siege. When walking around the city you might also see so-called Sarajevo roses – scars on the ground caused by the mortar shell’s explosion filled with red resin. They commemorate the place where at least one person died after the attack. I remember when during my first visit in Sarajevo I accidentally stood on one when checking a map – when I’ve noticed I quickly jumped away as I felt like this scar is burning me. Ever since then I look carefully to the ground when I wander around in the capital of Bosnia and when I see one of the roses I walk around it, out of the respect for the victims.
It takes time to understand Sarajevo…
I have a confession to make here. I didn’t like Sarajevo all that much at first, it just seemed like a random Central European city that already has its best times behind. But the more I wandered around, the more I learned about the terrible events in mid 90s, the more I felt the tragedy of the city and its people – the more I started loving it. I just needed time so Sarajevo could have grown inside me. The city is like a magnet, it’s impossible to forget about it and the moment you leave it you long to return as soon as possible. For me one of the reasons why I got so obsessed with the capital of Bosnia was the siege. It was the first event in the recent history that I remember (sadly I missed the end of communism in Poland or the fall of Berlin Wall as I was only 5 years old then) but since I was a kid then I didn’t really understand what’s happening in Bosnia, I was sure it’s just some kind of misunderstanding. I remember watching news from the first Markale market attack and I was certain it was just a terrible accident – I thought so until I visited Sarajevo and got to know the truth. Ever since then I try really hard to understand what exactly happened in Sarajevo and, more important, why it happened and why the outside world did nothing to help the city but the more I try, the harder it gets. The whole siege makes just no sense…
Finding remnants of the war in Sarajevo
Subconsciously I subordinated my recent stay in Sarajevo to tracking down the remnants of the siege and the recent war. Around the corner from my hostel, Franz Ferdinand, was the Gallery 11/07/95 dedicated to the genocide in Srebrenica where over 8.000 people tragically lost their lives. I’ve been reading and watching movies about this genocide before so I was a little bit prepared for what I was about to see but still when watching the movie and looking at the touching black and white pictures I could feel a stone in my throat and when I look around I could see almost everyone with tears in their eyes. But the exhibition about Srebrenica wasn’t the worst part for me there. It was again the siege of Sarajevo, shown on the black and white pictures as a slideshow, with the music from „Requiem for a dream” in the background. I was literally shaking there and then, I couldn’t take it all! This music always gives me shivers and combined with these drastic pictures it was just too much for me! But at the same time I felt I’m glued to the sit, I couldn’t move and I just stared at the screen with eyes wide open.
From the Gallery 11/07/95 it was just few steps to the Markale market (and two Sarajevo roses were on the way), the sight that took so many lives in two mortal attacks. The place works normally like before and it is probably the best place in central Sarajevo to get fresh fruits and vegetables, homemade dairy products or knitted socks. But in the corner there’s a wall commemorating the victims of the attacks as well as the mark on the ground where the shell hit. I didn’t want to just stand and stare there, in the middle of the busy market so I had this smart idea to return there later on. When I got back to Markale it was around 7pm, the place was dark and no one was around. I’m not much of a spiritual person but I really felt some kind of energy there, like the souls of those who were gone forever were still present at the spot that took their lives away. Things like that don’t really happen to me and I was seriously freaked out!! Later on during my stay in Sarajevo I walked along Markale market few times and it always made me feel slightly uncomfortable.
On my way to the downtown of Sarajevo I came across the memorial of children killed during the siege. It’s such a sad place, especially the little footsteps imprinted on the surface of the memorial. But what struck me the most was the list of children who have died in this terrible time. Many of them were born in 1984, just like me. People were passing me by yet I was standing there and staring at the names, thinking how fortunate I was to be born a thousand kilometers away. Even if things in Poland weren’t good back then at least I didn’t live with the constant danger. It was just unbearable to think how the siege destroyed the childhood of Sarajevo kids, how they couldn’t lead a save and happy life like their peers not far away in different countries…
Later on I headed to the Olympic stadium but deep down I knew I’m not going there for the sport itself, I needed to see how this once joyful sight that hosted best world’s athletes was turned into the sad reminder of the tragedy of this city. The sport arenas were rebuilt and don’t look like they’ve been through a lot. However the surroundings are full of graves of people of all three religions that live in Sarajevo. During the siege that was one of the most important burial sites in the city and often it was safe to organize funerals only in the darkness, otherwise the gatherings were a perfect excuse for yet another attack. Sarajevo is the city of cemeteries, there are way too many of them for the city of this size. When standing at the Yellow Bastion, the best spot to see the panorama of the city, there are at least three big graveyards in the sight, there is no way to escape them in Sarajevo. Life seems to be back to normal after all these years, the city is being reconstructed and the bullet holes disappear under the new layers of paint but the graves spread all over the place are the best testimony of what the city and its people had to go through.
At the end I really wanted to visit one more place – the Jewish cemetery. I have a thing for them and this one is second largest in Europe, after Prague’s graveyard. But this place played a big role during the siege too – it was on the front line, snipers were shooting to Sarajevians from there. I crossed the Vrbanja bridge (the spot where first two victims of the siege were killed) and climbed up to the cemetery – on my way some houses were still a ruins and others had post-war scars. The Jewish resting place itself was really beautiful, located on the hillside with so many old graves. But it was also pretty obvious that it served as a war zone since so many graves were ruined by the bullets. Up until then I couldn’t really understand how easy it was to attack this city but there, at the Jewish cemetery I could see everything very clearly. Standing there, at this hillside I could spot people strolling along Miljacka river, busy Zmaja od Bosne street (known as a „snipers alley” during the siege), the parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Holiday Inn (the only hotel that was working in this terrible time and was a base for foreign journalists) were right in front of me, for the asking, and so easily reached by Serbian Army. It was then that I fully realized the size of the tragedy of Sarajevo and its citizens, how they were constantly a target and how almost every place was a potentially fatal one.
I was planning to stop by in the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the must visit place for everyone who wants to understand Sarajevo. I’ve already been there during my first visit to the city (you can read more about it here) but the exhibition about the siege was so good I wanted to see it again to fish out even more details from it. But after tracking down the siege for two days I was really a wreck and my mind couldn’t take it anymore. The white destroyed building I passed by is so unobtrusive yet it hides probably the most important collection of items that show the reality of the life in the surrounded city and tell the story of these terrible 1425 days.
Before leaving Sarajevo I climbed up one last time to the Yellow Bastion, to witness the amazing sunset over this incredible city and to reflect one more time about the inconceivable events that have changed it forever. I don’t think I will ever fully understand what exactly happened there and how the reality of the siege was for normal people but at least now I feel I know a little bit more. Learning about the tragedy of the capital of Bosnia and its inhabitants was even more difficult and challenging right now, when kind of similar things happen to civilians in Ukraine. It just breaks my heart that no one in the world has learned the tragic lesson from Sarajevo history.
The siege, still so recent, definite Sarajevo and its people now. Even if the whole new generation has been born and raised since then the memories of the tragic events are still very much alive. One out of five inhabitants of Sarajevo was a victim (either wounded or dead) and all of them had to struggle and survive in these inhuman reality. But I’m not saying that every Serb is an assassin and every Bosniak is a victim. The evil hides everywhere, despite of the nationality or the background (Bosniaks weren’t saint here either) and the only disadvantaged side here were the inhabitants of Sarajevo, no matter of which origins. Even if I have no real connection to the city and the people there I had a really difficult time visiting it and now writing about that. But I believe these kind of stories need to be told as „the worst crime is to forget”…
Sarajevo history in the media
If you would like to learn more about Sarajevo, the siege and the consequences you should read „Logavina Street. Life and Dead in the Sarajevo Neighborhood” by Barbara Demick or „Twice Born” by Margaret Mazzatini (this one can get boring at times but the parts about the city are really good). There’s also a pretty decent movie „Twice Born” with Penelope Cruz, you could also watch „Welcome to Sarajevo” and definitely try to find these tow Bosnian movies: „Grbavica” and „Na Putu”. Some of the bloggers wrote about Sarajevo too, check out Nate’s, Larissa’s, Dave+Franca’s, Dave’s, Lauren’s, Diana’s blogs as well as (in Polish) Osmól’s.
And if you head to Sarajevo and would like to see all these tragic places by yourself here’s a small map that might be help for you
In Sarajevo I can definitely recommend you staying at Hostel Franz Ferdinand, the place itself is really cool and the location is unbeatable! You can book the place in the hostel here. And if hostels are not your thing here you can find other accommodation options in Sarajevo.
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If you think of visiting Bosnia and Herzegovina or just want to read more about the country don’t miss my other posts about this place:
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