Sarajevo: Land of Blood and Honey
Sitting in the courtyard of one of Sarajevo’s most fabulous Ottoman-styled mosques, the silhouette of the Gazi Husrev-Beg minarets spread across the spacious courtyard. Water constantly ran from the central fountain – but not just for ablution. Its splashes and trickles played calm background music to the grand architecture, setting the scene for moments of serenity.
But it was hard to separate beauty from tragedy.
The past can cling onto the present like an unwanted friend, constantly tugging, constantly reminding. Some people I met wanted to be reminded. Some people just wanted to forget. One thing that can’t be ignored if you travel around is the abundance of striking white fields. Rows upon rows of white tombstones pepper the rolling hills of Sarajevo.
Before the war, graveyards were on the outskirts of the city but during the war it was hard to move bodies out of town and so cemeteries were built in the city. The 1984 Olympic stadium is now a massive graveyard. In no other place have I been more mesmerised by the dates inscribed on tombstones. But here, get closer to the sea of white pillars and you’ll notice that they are all dated within the same five-year period.
You will also subconsciously calculate how old the people were and realise many were just young lads in their twenties. This is less harrowing than the small graves of children. I can’t help but wonder how their mothers coped.
Have you ever met strangers who immediately warm your heart? I met them every day in Sarajevo.
It’s hard to describe why I felt that way but perhaps it was inevitable. Whilst in Mostar, we met a number of people who spoke highly of Sarajevo as a city with depth, with a soul. What made them say it was so special?
One taxi driver answered in eloquent simplicity: ‘the people of Sarajevo are heroic people’.
Sarajevo lives in the hearts of all Bosnians as the city which was under siege for four years (1992-1996) – the longest siege of a capital city in the whole history of modern warfare. According to the UN, nearly 10,000 people were killed and 56,000 were wounded. Other sources record the war claiming the lives of over 12,000 people in Sarajevo – roughly 1,400 of which were children.
The trauma caused was touched upon in the Prosecution Opening Statement against the Serb commander, Stanislav Galić, at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in 2003:
The siege of Sarajevo, as it came to be popularly known, was an episode of such notoriety in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia that one must go back to World War II to find a parallel in European history. Not since then had a professional army conducted a campaign of unrelenting violence against the inhabitants of a European city so as to reduce them to a state of medieval deprivation in which they were in constant fear of death. In the period covered in this Indictment, there was nowhere safe for a Sarajevan, not at home, at school, in a hospital, from deliberate attack.
Stanislav Galić was sentenced to life for crimes against humanity.
It was to this once-besieged city we travelled and were welcomed by its inhabitants.
Coaches from Mostar to Sarajevo leave every few hours and only take two and a half hours. Getting there was easy, simple, and beautiful. The road meanders along the Neretva River and is accompanied by mountains on both sides.
Our hotel – Pansion Stari Grad – was in the ideal location. Situated at the beginning of the Old City (Bascarsija), it took about a minute to walk to the famous Sebilj fountain which is pictured in much of the tourist merchandise. The fountains of Sarajevo continuously flow with fresh water. Once used by the women of the old city to wash their clothes, it now serves as an on-demand water bottle re-filler.
The Sebilj signals a departure from modern Sarajevo – a shift not just in architecture, but in time. A walk through Sarajevo’s old city is a walk through the past. A European past that’s not quite the Europe we know – a familiar stranger I have yet to put my finger on. It is this curious blend of East meets West that makes Sarajevo the city once known as Europe’s Jerusalem.
It is here that eastern empires of the Ottomans and Byzantines blended with the Roman and Venician empires of the West. Where else can this combination of cultures, traditions and religions be more naturally reflected than in its architecture? Within the same square lies an Orthodox church, Catholic church, mosque and synagogue. A distinctive feature of Ottoman rule from the fifteenth century was its relative tolerance of other religions – particularly in contrast to the persecution rife in other European quarters. Its history of having two distinct churches – Catholic and Orthodox meant there was no one established religious ‘truth’ and following the expulsion of Sephardic Jews from Spain in 1492, parts of that community resettled in Sarajevo.
The old city is a colourful labyrinth of winding streets, Turkish-styled cafes and haggling bazaars. A number of bridges rest across the River Miljacka – most famously the Latin Bridge; site of the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 which sparked World War One. One can’t help but stop and feel the weight of history in Sarajevo.
Many features of the Old City constructed in the sixteenth century were due to the great donor of Sarajevo – the Bosnian noble, Gazi Husrev-beg. This includes the famous Gazi Husrev-Beg mosque, a medresa, a school of Sufi philosophy, the city’s first library and a clock tower. The Gazi-Husrev-Beg mosque was built in 1530 by a leading Persian architect of the time and favours the early Istanbul mosque style. Its large and beautiful courtyard is inviting not only to worshippers at times of prayer – but to everyone as a scene of contemplation. A smaller mosque close by, with a green dome, evoked similar emotions. We dubbed it the ‘rose-garden mosque’ because the intimate courtyard cushioned some benches peeking out between the rose bushes.
As we made friends in the area, I realised everyone has their own story of tragedy and coping. We visited Sarajevo TV’s studios with Rose, the presenter we had met in Mostar. Whilst sitting in the cafeteria, she mentioned feeling uncomfortable going to report in Serbia because tensions are still strong. This beautiful TV presenter with long blonde hair and striking features had a sadness in her eyes. It turns out her mother was killed during the war when she was eleven. Her editor was also sitting with us and as everyone, had his own story. His brother was killed and he was paralysed when a piece of shrapnel hit his back. Fortunately he managed to go to Italy for treatment. However, once recovered his profession had to change. He was actually a trained medical surgeon, working as a doctor during the war. His injuries meant he has not since been able to practice medicine and had to resort to a less physically demanding profession in journalism.
We were also introduced to a famous Bosnian singer and teacher at the Music School by some local students we befriended. This lady was ethnically Serb but also a proud Bosnian. People like her symbolised the rare instances of inter-ethnic cooperation and brotherhood during the war. As with many wars, artistic expression flourished in the flurry of emotions. One of her famous songs was recorded under the threat of sniper fire as she was forced to run to the studio during the height of the conflict. She translated the lyrics for us before singing – the essence of which were about a lady who was sitting and crying by the River Drina. She had lost her home and her family. But the song caressed her saying don’t cry, you are Bosnian – be proud of it. Even though I couldn’t understand the individual words, when the music room echoed with this rich a cappella brimming with emotion, I felt tears come to my eyes. No wonder then the people of Sarajevo connected with its beauty and pain.
There is a story – probably a myth – of how the Balkans got their name. It says that two Turkish words combined – ‘bal’ meaning honey and ‘kan’ meaning blood. The indication was that this beautiful region would yield its honey – but it would cost blood. Sarajevo feels like that – a land of blood and honey.
(Names may have been changed to retain anonymity)