A New Song for Sarajevo

March 29, 2012

20 years after the Siege of Sarajevo, Lara Jakob investigates the rehabilitation of Bosnia & Herzegovina’s capital.

The wind tugged at her wedding dress as she took dainty steps along the dry stone wall. Cameras panned around her as she swayed her hips, mouthing the words of a new euro-pop song –a backing track of fast trance keyboard over a dusted drum. Behind her, Sarajevo stretched out across the valley, the rustic landscape dropping sharply toward the city. I was out of breath. I had made the steep climb to this spot under minimal shade but it was worth it. From here, the view was panoramic – the whole basin rose and fell like waves at my feet. It was hard to imagine in quiet like this that the city two decades ago was in turmoil. Then my glance slipped from the white of the wedding dress to the same white burrowed in the hillside: the stones of countless graves. Walking back down the hill later, looking more closely, I could see the wounds in the houses I passed – the memories of gunshot shattering concrete.

Arriving a few days earlier, I had been commandeered by a haggard landlady in a wallpaper patterned shawl, offering beds. It was 6am. She bundled me into her car with a few others, tired and dishevelled. The drive into the city was silent. A few cars meandered along cobbled roads, the landscape battered by sun – I could have been in rural Southern France, the way the dusty stone walls were set in yellowed grass. Our eventual arrival into the city’s Old Town was in every sense serene. Bakeries were just opening and umbrellas around the square were rising. The hostel overlooked the main square which houses an ornate water fountain – stone steps leading to carved wood under a green dome. In the distance I could make out the matching dome of the mosque and the yellow tower of the cathedral. As the ancient meeting point of four religions, Sarajevo constantly reminds you of the spiritual.

Hostel Ljubicica did quite the opposite. Looking from the tin covered balcony, I felt I was in an unstable shack. The rooms themselves were sufficient, if slightly on the damp side. I realised quickly why this was: everything was cleaned with a hose. Each day the hallways would become a makeshift river – water rushing from every orifice and sinking into the floor. This mini water world continued as you stepped onto the pavement. The roads were cleaned the same way and streams ran down gutters on either side. Arriving at the mosque on my first morning, it felt apt that behind the dusty white walls, the centrepiece would be another fountain. I picked a place beneath the shade of the light green leaves of a horse-chestnut in the grounds and watched bowed men pray at the steps.

Walking back to the area of Baščaršija to take in the bazaar, the Orthodox Cathedral came into view: bright yellow and salmon coloured panels rose in front of me towards a bulbous spire that squatted on the bricks like a balloon pushed to bursting point. Inside, gold panels of saints covered every square inch; an imposing candlelit chandelier was hung from thick gold chains and marble columns jutted into the star painted heavens. I was taken aback by the extravagance of the Cathedral and yet a coolness hit me as I walked in, despite of, or perhaps because of, the gold overload in front of me.

Returning to the heat of the bazaar, the dark wooden bay windows of each shop hid from the shade beneath cloth coverings. Rickety tables stood outside adorned with copper and silver. Walking through these little pedestrian streets felt so much like walking through a treasure trove that I felt I should have muttered ‘open sesame’ when I first entered. Outside some of the shops, men sat sipping fruit tea from these metal chalices, metal table tops clanging with the arrival of Aladdin lamp style teapots. I could have been in Turkey, wandering round these dusty caverns with the sun glimpsing through gaps in the cloth. In Sarajevo you seem to travel across Europe in a day and it all fits seamlessly together.

One night in the pedestrianised area of Ferhadija, I walked back from the lively bar Kinema with some fellow English travelers. It was still boiling, even late at night, and when we came to one of the many fountains, we decided to jump in. A local man from across the street saw us and ran over shouting “the police will shoot you! The police will shoot you!” We jumped out and tried to dry off as quickly as possible. He was wild, shouting unintelligibly in a mixture of Bosnian and English – “you want to see?” he shouted, ripping his shirt off and diving head first in to the shallow pool. When he reappeared, he pulled himself out of the fountain and blood ran in rivers along the natural lines of his chest. We ran.

The next day, I took one last walk up the hill with Mehmet, a local man that I’d met at Kinema the night before. There was some cloud cover that day and the heat closed in around me like an uncomfortable hug. When you arrive in Sarajevo, most travelers will tell you ‘don’t mention the war’ and on the whole I hadn’t heard many people bring it up. It is written on the faces of the older generation, and in the people you see with lost limbs that remember all too well, and do not need reminding. As we paced the path, it was to my surprise that Mehmet brought it up. Pointing to gunshot holes in the dry-stone wall, he said confidently “it’s not over”. The flames darting about in his dark eyes showed me that underneath, tensions were still burning strong: “We are still at civil war.”  

When we got to the vantage point, allowing the city to encircle us, we took a moment to cool ourselves down in the shade. The sound of underground rivers still pattered beneath us, the smell of ćevapi and pastry rose from the Old Town and it was hard to feel anything other than an overwhelming peace. There are few outward signs of grief in this city, but an inward one remains – one that I hope this tranquillity can eventually outlast.

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