The call to prayer rings out across valley in Sarajevo. It begins in a small minaret close to me in the district of Kovači as I wander up the hill in the evening. Soon another follows, echoing across the valley from an opposing hill. One by one, each minaret begins its call to prayer until the musical climax reaches its peak and the voices begin to die out into one single voice before it fades into silence. I feel a shiver, and look to my right on the footpath as I make my way back to my homestay. Like a white shroud spread out down the hill, the Šehidsko Kovači Cemetery is a poignant reminder of Sarajevo’s recent history.
“See the ring in the middle,” my host Micky pointed to a circular marking between the tombstones earlier in the day, “that used to be a swimming pool. We all used to play there as children. Since the war, it’s become a cemetery. People got along and helped each other. Serb, Bosniak, Bosnian Croat – it didn’t matter. Politics was the problem, not the people.”
The graves are new in the cemetery. Tall white tombstones mark the resting places of some of the soldiers from the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who died in the war back in 1992 to 1995. Each adult in the city remembers the horrors from the conflict that emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia; most of whom lived through the Siege of Sarajevo that lasted almost four years. It’s is perhaps why the city celebrates life so much 20 years on.
Earlier in the evening I sat in café downtown, watching the apple scented smoke I exhaled coil up the silk green and gold wallpaper. In the corner of the café, young girls in headscarves sipped strong Bosnian coffee served from hand-crafted copper coffee sets, while young men took turns to inhale from the shisha pipe – or nargila in Bosnian – chilling out to the sounds of mellow eastern beats in a nargila café hidden in the backstreets around Baščaršija. This is Sarajevo today: a veritable melting pot of multiple cultures and ethnicities which exists in both today and times long dead.
But it’s hard to escape the echoes of the war, from the bombed out buildings and façades scarred by shrapnel to the poignant white cemeteries that haunt the hillsides overlooking the city with hundreds, if not thousands, of graves. Sarajevo has bounced back to become perhaps one of the most vibrant and exciting cities in the Balkans.
A City of Contrasts
The city of Sarajevo, and even the country of Bosnia & Herzegovina itself, has been both a cultural and religious mix for centuries. In the city centre, the Ottoman architecture is a stark contrast with the grand art nouveau and fin de siècle buildings left over as a remnant from the city’s Austro-Hungarian days.
At the heart of Sarajevo, there is even a line denoting east and west, where it feels like you’ve crossed from Istanbul into Vienna in seconds. Sarajevo’s unique mix goes beyond the modern cosmopolitan cities formed by recent waves of immigration, like London or New York, but rather, it has taken the time to evolve over centuries. The Sarajevo Museum in Baščaršija, housed Brusa Bezistan, a former 16th century Ottoman silk bazaar built, showcases the evolution of the city, and its influences from various cultures, backgrounds and religion.
Today, church bells ring out on Sunday mornings while the morning mist still lingers in the valley, complemented by the call to prayer from the minarets dotted around the surrounding hillsides, echoing across Sarajevo five times a day. In the heart of the city, you’ll find a Catholic church, a mosque, an Orthodox Church and an old synagogue within the same block. But as recent as the 1990s, this peaceful side-by-side living seen today is a stark contrast to the horrors during the Bosnian war and the Siege.
“It didn’t matter what you were,” my guide said as we drove from the Tunnel of Life back into Sarajevo. “It didn’t matter if you were a Muslim or a Serb. The shells and the snipers didn’t distinguish between religion. There is still segregation in Sarajevo. Many Serbs moved to Eastern Sarajevo, a suburb in the Republica Srpska [an autonomous state in Bosnia & Herzegovina]. The city is still divided, but there are Bosnian Muslims and Croats are moving there, it’s cheaper to buy property in Eastern Sarajevo. Most people just see themselves as neighbours, although there are still political differences.”
The Tunnel of Life
Running underneath Sarajevo airport lies a subterranean passage that became the city’s lifeline. During the Siege, the city was completely surrounded by Serbian forces and the supply line cut off. Between March and June 1993, the Bosnian Army constructed the tunnel to link the city with the Bosnian-held territory outside the Serb forces. The tunnel ran underneath the airport which was an area controlled by the United Nations and came up under a house in the suburbs of the city. It acted as a channel to bring in food, war supplies and humanitarian aid into Sarajevo, although some also used it as a way of getting out of the city.
On first impression the house is run down, scarred with bullets and shrapnel marks. The cellar of the house obscured the entrance to the tunnel, and visitors can still go 20 meters into this tunnel today. Clunking down the metal stairs, the tunnel has been restored, with wooden pillars and the rails set down where trolleys were once pushed through bringing supplies and arms into the city. It’s not very high, and I had to crouch as I scrambled through the small section of the tunnel. Today it’s dry and clean, but in the 1990s it was damp, sometimes muddy at parts as people marched back and forth in a matter what was life and death of Sarajevo. Without the tunnel, the city wouldn’t have survived the Siege.
While the outskirts of Sarajevo still echo the recent past, the city centre has bounced back. An eclectic mix of trams rattle about the streets, some looking like the original damaged vehicles from the 1990s, contrasting against modern trams that have come from the world over – even as far as Japan. Downtown Sarajevo, with its small artisanal shops selling copper goods in winding Ottoman streets, locals and tourists bunched up together eating burek, flakey pastry filled with a tangy white cheese or meat, or grilled meat or young Bosnians smoking from nargila pipes.
More than just the War
On the fringes of the city centre, Zlatna Ribica is a café and bar that embodies the essence of the Sarajevo’s nature. With its mix of eclectic, vintage and artistic memorabilia that looks like a Hungarian ruin pub in the world of Hogwarts, Sarajevo’s bohemian artistic and theatre communities gather in this small, hidden bar that is getting recognition from the tourists who go there. Here, you can melt the coffee time away into wine-o-clock, when a glass of local Blatina wine will get served up in a metal goblet. Sitting alone in a full bar, a waitress dressed in a witch’s hat asks me if one of the regulars can join me, a well dressed older man, who was once a Bosnian diplomat who travelled the world.
“I come here every day,” he tells me over drinks, “this is a wonderful bar, typical of Sarajevo. Artists and creatives come here. We have an exciting scene here in Sarajevo, although it’s still waiting to burst. People still think of the city as it was 20 years ago, but I’d rather bring people here. This is where the city is heading.”
“I really wish that people saw that Sarajevo has so much more to it than the war,” Anna, a young student on the bus to Zagreb told me, “it’s important and we all remember, but Sarajevo is more than that. There is so much history, just look up at the buildings and you’ll see. When people think of Bosnia or Sarajevo, they think we still live in a warzone. Some people even think we still have a war going on!”
Modern-day Sarajevo is its people, who are friendly and happy to share their city with you. Sarajevo is a city that still shows its scars, but the most important part, its heart welcomes visitors with stories and a strong cup of Bosnian coffee.