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Friday, September 9, 2016

8/30: One Family's Stories of War in Sarajevo

Our very cosy Airbnb room with the kitchenette included was high above the city in a rather isolated area of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia i Herzegovina, known as BiH. Luckily, as family and friends already know, we are not bar people or care to stay out late because, if so, this location would certainly not have been ideal!
To get into the city, we needed to walk down several sets of stairs on one of the many hills that surround Sarajevo to a busy street that lined both sides of the river that runs through the city. Since we didn’t have any local currency except what our Airbnb host had kindly lent us when he picked us up from the bus station in East Sarajevo (that's a story for the next post) last night, finding an ATM and a bakery to buy something for breakfast were our first priorities.

Before leaving on any of these ‘Big Trips,’ we always try and get the equivalent of $50 in each country’s local currency. That makes it so much easier coming to a new country and being able to pay for a taxi at the bus station or for a loaf of bread or anything right away. However, our local bank could not get Bosnian money for us.

Walking into town that first morning and seeing bullet-ridden buildings right away was pretty alarming evidence that the Balkan civil wars of the 90s was still very recent history for the residents of Sarajevo. Sights like those were to be repeated all day as we walked through the city.

We found a grocery store and ATM before joining the walking tour at the National Theater in Susan Sontag Square. Yep, the same Susan Sontag who was a writer, filmaker and political activist who spent time in Sarajevo during the city's siege.

Neno, our free walking tour guide, introduced himself by saying jokingly his name was not Nemo as in the Disney character! He said he was only seven when the war began in Sarajevo in 1991 and that his family stayed in the city all 44 months until the war ended. He made a point of saying the history of his city is not just about the war.

People, Neno said, know three things when they think about Sarajevo: the 1984 Winter Olympics, the war in the 1990s and as the city where Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated in 1914 which became the trigger for WWI. In other words, one good thing and two bad things. He said, therefore, Sarajevo should host another Winter Olympics to balance out the bad!

In the first of his pitches promoting tourists to return to Sarajevo, he said the war ended 21 years ago so people should not be afraid of visiting his country. A seven day ski pass only costs 60 euro or about $70 which is an absolute steal when compared to ski passes in Colorado.

Neno, talking about his city’s history, mentioned how Turkey ruled Sarajevo for 400 years from the end of the 15th century and were responsible for bringing Islam to his city and country. The Austro-Hungarians conquered the city in 1878 but only stayed for 40 years util the end of WWI. Even though they ruled for a brief period of time, they modernized Sarajevo. That was when the city received its first electric trains and other influences from Western Europe

All six countries (Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia i Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Croatia) united after WWI and the country became the First Yugoslav Kingdom and was ruled by the Yugoslav royal family. The capital was Belgrade, the city we had just left yesterday. Between the two world wars, Sarajevo went through a period now called Stagnation Time as few buildings of any note were constructed. That was the Art Deco period elsewhere in Europe but not in Sarajevo.

When WWII broke out, the Serbian king went into exile in England. Josip Broz Tito and fellow Communists saw this as an opportunity to exert power so the second Yugoslavia was created after the war. He became president then and remained so until his death in 1980 when he was 88.

Neno discussed how young people from the age of 25-30 in Sarajevo suffer from a whopping 65% unemployment rate. Many in that segment of the population have left Bosnia altogether hoping to find better lives elsewhere.

In 1991, Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and BiH peacefully separated from Yugoslavia. That left three ethnic groups in Sarajevo: Bosniaks who were Muslim, Serbs who were Orthodox and Croats who were Roman Catholic. In March, 1992, one part of the Serbian community boycotted independence from Yugoslavia as they wanted to remain with Macedonia. They had their own army and leadership.

Neno said his family decided to stay when hostilities began as they and so many others thought the agression would only last 4 weeks and not 44 months. He and his family spent the entire war in the basement of their apartment building as it wasn’t safe for them to live on the eighth floor. There were between 25 and 30 people living there for the entire length of the war. He and the other children attended an improvised elementary school and high school in the basement led by a young teacher who risked her life daily to come to the building.

Neno demonstrated the dark humor the war brought out in people by saying his mother left for her job in finance every day during the war wearing high heels. Neno’s older sister was so distressed and pleaded with their mother not to wear those shoes as they would make it so hard to run in if and when bullets were flying. Their mother responded by saying, “At least if I die, I will look good and I’ll have a better chance of being photographed by the foreign media!”

He was adamant that he didn’t want everyone to think of the almost four year siege of his city as being only a depressing time. Life continued on and there were many happy times too even though there were shootings day in and day out. However, to this day, Neno said he hates the sound of fireworks as they bring back memories of the daily explosions.

The Sarajevo Rose: This marked the spot just around the corner from the National Theater where an explosion happened during the civil war. To symbolize the place where people died, the spot was filled in with pink concrete. There are a number of Sarajevo Roses around the city, Neno explained. 
As Neno led the tour to our next spot, it was hard to miss the signs indicating how many Bosnians feel about the European Union and its abandonment of their country during the war. Plus, the banners referred to some Bosnians' desire to join the EU.

We walked next to the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral, the biggest church in the city, which was built in the 19th century. He explained the church looked very new because money had come from the Greeks to build it as they have such a large Orthodox community. The money came, of course, before Greece fell on such hard economic times. He joked that that was too bad and that Greece couldn’t have their money back now!

Only 2% of the Sarajevo population is Orthodox now because, when the war started, they went north and east; 4% are Croats and 85% are Muslim but not all practice. Neno explained his mother is Muslim but she doesn’t go to the mosque. When asked by his sister why she was celebrating a Muslim holiday, she said she didn’t know the significance of it but she liked the food! His father is a Serb so his parents’ marriage was mixed. Neno joked he never complained about his mixed background because it meant he got gifts from both sides of the family when the religious holidays rolled around. I am sure our own four children can appreciate that as Steven and I are, of course, from different faiths too!

The Serbian Orthodox Cathedral:
Neno commented that there are lots of tourists from the Middle East countries who visit Sarajevo and even stay for up to the four summer months at a time. They don’t need visas in BiH unlike when visiting other European countries; they come to escape the excessive heat of the Middle East and they feel at home in the city’s many mosques.

Neno stated that the relationship between Serbia’s ethnic groups today depends on the person you talk to. He explained how understandably hard it is for some people to go on when they have lost five or even ten family members.

This statue, located very close to the cathedral, was a gift from Italy in 1997 and represented multicultural spirit.
Men are always playing chess in this spot just a few steps from the statue. Even though the game is between two players, they have an audience of 20 others around them, telling them how to play the game!

En route to our next stop, the synagogue, we passed an impromptu market of book stalls on the bridge. 
The synagogue: Jews came to Sarajevo when expelled from Spain in the 16th century. Before WWII, there were 12,000 Jews and 10 synagogues in the city but there are only 700 Jews left now in Sarajevo. The last wedding celebrated there was 60 years ago which seemed almost impossible. Some Jews survived WWII because Sarajevo had no official ghetto. Muslims and Jews lived side by side in relative peace because what was more important was the relationship between the people themselves. As Neno said, “Good neighbors are more important than gold.” Sarajevans have learned since living in such close quarters during the Balkan War how important it is to check out your neighbors before renting first.
He let us know that Sarajevo has a huge stray dog population and that is a result of the war because residents were no longer able to care for their pets or the animals’ owners had died. The dogs are particularly agressive in the winter months when they have fewer opportunities to scrounge for food.

While he was chatting about the synagogue, importance of good neighbors, stray dogs, etc, we were in front of a particularly ugly building the entire time. Neno said the building had won the ugliest building contest when it was constructed in 1982 because of its pretty hideous vibrant green and sunshine yellow colors and its architectural style or lack thereof! However, the rents there are more expensive there than in the much prettier building just a few feet across the river because the residents in the ugly building get to look at the pretty building!

The Ugly Building:
The prettier yellow building across from the ugly building:
More shots of the ugly building!

More war-ravaged buildings:

We were only a minute’s walk from the Latin Bridge, the original one of which dated back to the 16th century and the Ottoman era. Most people believe that the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Ferdinand’s assasination by Gavrilo Princip in 1914, which was the excuse trigger for WWI, occurred on the bridge but that was untrue. According to Neno, Princip was from Bosnia, not Serbia as we’ve all been told. He trained in Serbia and was sent to Sarajevo along with fellow sympathizers who wanted an independent Serbia and not continued to be occupied by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Princip remains a very controversial figure and people in the city have mixed feelings about him, Neno stated.

The Latin Bridge:
The Archduke and his wife were driving to Town Hall when there were two unsuccessful attacks on their open car. Ferdinand announced he would cancel the lunch that had been planned so he could visit those who had been injured in the hospital and that he would return on the same street. Princip was in a corner coffee shop and was able to shoot and kill Ferdinand and his wife and thereby complete the mission his compatriots had been unsuccessful with. 

Town Hall:
The Latin Bridge:

Gavrilo Princip was sitting in the coffee shop located where the word 'Muzej' is when he shot Archduke Ferdinand and his pregnant wife Sofia.
Neno commented that all the men involved in the attempted assasinations were sentenced to 20 years in prison. An Austro-Hungarian who was invloved in the shootings but didn't accomplish anything was hung. But Princip, the assasin, who was 19 years, 11 months and 2 weeks old was sent to prison. If he had been just two weeks older, he also would have been hung. He died in prison four years later from TB. Neno said, that if there hadn't been that shooting, there would have been another incident to cause the beginning of WWII.
Just a few blocks away from the bridge is the oldest modque in Sarajevo. It dates back to end of the 15th century and was rebuilt last year frm money received from Turkey. Neno mentioned that this side of the river is the oldest area because that was where the Turks moved to initially. Later, they moved to the other side of the river.

There are over 200 mosques in Sarajevo which seemed staggering until, Neno explained that, since Sarajevo is a city of hills, Muslims can't easily access more centrally located mosques. It would be impractical for people to climb up and down the very steep hills five times a day to pray as required by their religion. 
We walked next to the Franciscan Monastery and St Ante's Church. He said it was the church for all Sarajevans because Franciscans promote a multicultural spirit for all faiths. Neno said that he has two Catholic friends and that ten friends go to the church every year on Christmas Eve. He joked that there are more Muslims in attendance then than Catholics!
It was very humbling and inspiring to know that in a city that is still so divided today that in the space of about three blocks there was a Jewish synagogue, a Muslim mosque and a Roman Catholic church.

Directly opposite the church is a large brewery that remained open during the entire 44 month long siege of the city. 
The factory had been opened since 1864 and was built on the site of a local spring. Fresh water was so scarce during the war that residents lined up to get water from the brewery.

Food that arrived during the war was free and delivered by international aid. There were markets available, too, but prices were sky high. Neno remembered not having any chocolate for three years because it was simply unavailable. For his birthday during the last year of the war, his mother was able to trade a pair of gold earrings for a chocolate bar. That was the best one he ever had, Neno explained. That experience showed him how small things can be so important especially to children.

The old road below led to Istanbul and was the entrance and exit to Sarajevo in the olden days. Sarajevo had been a very important city because it had been on a trade route between the east and the west. The city had 40,000 people and the market was 50 times bigger than it is today. 

It was amazing to think that we walked on pavers that were the same that marked the road to Istanbul. 
At the top of the hill was a large Muslim cemetery that had gorgeous views overlooking the city of Sarajevo.
All the headstones in the cemetery face the north side as that is the direction of Mecca.

We slowly began traipsing downhill back toward Town Hall that we had seen from the opposite side of the river earlier on the tour.

Town Hall: The Moorish-style building, also known as the City of Phoenix as in rising from the ashes, had a tragic history. Of course it had been associated with the assasination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914. On August 26, 1992, it was deliberately hit by a Serbian artillery shell and about 90% of its irreplacable collection of manuscripts and Bosnian books were destroyed. Money to rebuild it came from both Austria and Hungary beacuse of their prior history with Sarajevo as well as Spain because of its Moorish architectural style.
Chris: I can only imagine how sad you would have been to also discover of the tragic loss of a nation's heritage when the Library was demolished.
Town Hall's fabulous portico:
That was the end of our walking tour which had lasted for close to three hours. It had been a tour we won't likely soon forget: very informative, at times amusing, at times very thought provoking and always an insight to a period of disturbing conflict. Before saying goodbye to everyone, he again urged us all to visit BiH again and promote others to come too. 

We were tired and hungry since we had only eaten a couple of croissants all morning. We headed into Old Town behind Town Hall and walked down Coppersmith Alley:

We found a huge selection of doner restaurants in the main square since Sarajevo's heriatge is primarily Turkish. Doner is meat cooked on a massive revolving spit which is then shaved into little pieces and added to a warm pita bread. Lettuce, tomatoes, onions, a sauce are finally added - yum!

We shared one while watching the world go by for a while in Pigeon Square. While munching the doner, we noticed a number of Arab women walking by in full hijab clothing.

Neno had suggested a number of places to see on our own so we walked the couple of blocks from Pigeon Square to the first one: the Old Orthodox Church. It was also known as the Church of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel and it dated from 1493/4. Because of its location on a very narrow street nestled just behind a tall black iron fence, there was no space to back up and take a shot from a further perspective.
The entry was through a small doorway that led down into the church.

From upstairs, we were able to get a fresh perspectiveof the chandelier.

We strolled next to the massive Gazi Husrev-beg Moslem complex which comprised the mosque itself plus a museum, market area, high school, elementary school and other buildings. 
Gazi Husrev-beg was born in Greece while his father was a governor there. He was also known as the Great Benefactor of Sarajevo when he governed the city for 20 years. Gazi was a honorary title given to prominent warriors and heroes for their military successes and courage. Husrev-beg gained it because of his military conquest of Belgrade. After his death, Sarajevo was the largest city in the European part of the Ottoman Empire.

The Gazi Husrev-beg Museum: 
I learned that the mosque's dome height was a two to one ratio to its base. I wonder whether that only pertained to this mosque or to all.

A copy made in 1585 of the authentic document of the mosque. The original dated from 1531.

Leaving the courtyard where the Museum was, it seemed odd to see the No Drone sign on the tree. I wondered whether it was because they might interfere with the religious sanctity of the mosque and the rest of the complex or whether it was for potential security concerns.
Across from the museum was the entrance to the Mosque area. The first thing you normally see is the Hamman where ritual bathing of hands and feet is performed by Muslim men normally before entering the mosque itself. This mosque's courtyard was different from so many we've visited before. There were large number of people wandering around evidently having a really joyful time, kids were playing with soccer balls, etc. That may be, in part, because of its location smack dab in the middle of the Arab market too.
The entrance to the mosque: We had bought tickets to enter as it was visiting time, i.e. in between the five designated prayer times, but, for some reason, it was closed.
921 mosques in the country were either torn down or  suffered extensive damage during the agression against Bosnia as they were considered as symbols of Serbia. The Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque was hit by artillery mortar more than 100 times.
Seemingly all kids we had seen while wandering throughout Old Town had these black balloons with writing on them and the mosqure area was certainly no exception. I wish I had could have figured out their significance.
We wandered through the market area thinking back to Neno's comment about this area of Sarajevo having been 50 times larger in an earlier age.
The mosque's minaret: It had been amazing seeing all the minarets that dot the city's skyline in every direction when we had walked high above the city just a couple of hours ago on the walking tour.
The Bezitan or indoor market was our next five minute pit stop. There were so many shops selling scarves and all sorts of items direct from Turkey that we imagined ourselves back in Istanbul.
I bought a lovely pink scarf from one of the stalls which was positively the last item I 'needed' after buying way too many last year in our travels through Asia. But of course, I just wanted to support the local economy!
How lovely to read the sign on the street that said Sarajevo: Meeting of Cultures.
We walked to the Jewish History Museum next which only seemed natural after visiting the Orthodox church and the mosque complex!
The Museum, which opened in 1966, was located in a stunning building right next to cafes and other shops and not set apart and locked away. It was the first time this trip we had been able to walk right up to and enter a Jewish site without having to be buzzed in or leave ID. 

In 1581, a decree was passed in Sarajevo about building a temple. It is thought that Sarajevo had at least 1,070 Jewish people in 1770. There was also a temple and Jewish community center in the town of Travnik in 1768. All other Jewish communities in BiH were of a later date and founded by Sarajevan Jews.
The ticket taker cum guard and guide said that about 14,000 people visit the Museum yearly making it one of the most popular places in the city. As gorgeous as the Museum was, I think the numbers speak more about the limited sights in Sarajevo as the city is still recovering from the war and has a very long way to go before making it on the tourist trail. 
A circumcision knife:
The Museum suffered little damage during the war because of its location.
Jews during the Midle Ages were engaged in various trades, in particular tailoring, shoe making and production of sheet metal goods, etc. 

We read about the last surviving attar shop which sold herbal remedies and had served the Sarajevo people for 300 years until its doors were shuttered in 1942.
The Museum underwent extensive renovations in 2004. 
Part of the museum was dedicated to the roles of Jews in the Workers' Movement in Sarajevo before WWII. Sinking ever deeper into fascism in 1940, the government issued laws that prevented jews from entering high school. In Sarajevo, a Jewish high school was set up where the most prominent Jewish intellectuals worked.

This massive book was the first thing we saw on the second level and recorded the 12,000 Jewish lives from BiH that perished during WWII. 
One area was dedicated to the Holocaust of the Jews and the destruction of their cultural heritage. I wrote extensively about Israel's highest award given to people who helped save Jews during WWII: the 'Righteous Among Nations' in one of my posts about Vilnius in Lithuania. 
This is a list of just 42 recognized with the honor in BiH. How tragic that it is so short. As of January, 2007, 21,758 people worldwide were recognized.
A Catholic church was about the only other religious institution we hadn't covered in the last hour or so guess where we next next? The Sacred Heart Cathedral of course!
It was impossible to miss another of the Sarajevo Roses in front of it.
Statue of Pope John Paul II was in front too:

Seeing the Mother of God Serbian Orthodox Church near where we had begun our tour brought us back full circle.

Photos weren't allowed so I surreptitiously took these ones. Notice the reflection of the dome in the picture below:

It had been, as you would imagine, an emotionally heartrenching day in many respects. We began the trudge back to our Airbnb room, so relieved we weren't tired when we faced all those steps!
Are we there yet, Steven seemed to joke!
As we walked back to the safety of our home away from home for our few days in Sarajevo, I thought of the war that ravaged Sarajevo for 1,400 days from 1992 to 1995 and brought the city to its knees. And how one family experienced that war.

Posted from Dubrovnik on September 9th, 2016.

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