When planning this trip months ago in Denver, Steven and I booked a four hour War Tunnel Tour of Sarajevo to get a greater understanding what Sarajevans went through during the 44 month long siege of their city.
We again had about a half hour walk from our Airbnb room to the Old Town where the tour began. Thus, we had to pass more of the bomb-ravaged buildings en route. Guess that just got us in the proper mindset for our tour.
On the 30 minute shuttle ride to the beginning of the tour, Armina, our guide, gave us some staggering facts and figures to dwell on. This was the longest siege since Leningrad's during WWII. Over 11,000 people were killed, including 1,600 children in Sarajevo. The average weight loss among adults was 10 kilos or about 25 pounds, not only because of lack of food but also due to stress of living in a war zone for so very long.
Throughout BiH, 200,000 people were placed in concentration camps; 20,000 women were raped and 8,000 people remain missing to this day and are preseumed dead.
As we drove, she talked about 2% of the people now in Sarjevo are very rich with the rest of the residents from the middle or low middle classes. The biggest nation donor to the country's slow road to recovery since the war is the US, followed by Japan and Germany.
For much of the 90s, Sarajevo was virtually surrounded by hostile Serb forces. Butmir, which was where we were headed, was the last Bosniak-held part of the city still linked to the outside world. Between it and Sarajevo was the airport runway. Although it was supposedly neutral and under tenous UN control, crossing it would have been suicidal during the conflict.
The solution was a hand-dug 800 meter long tunnel under the runway. It took 140 miners, 4 months and 4 days to remove 350,000 tons of soil and build the three foot wide tunnel. That was just enough to keep Sarajevo supplied with arms and food during the siege. Most of the tunnel has since collapsed but a 20 meter section remains. That is what we came to see to get a glimpse of what happened and the hope for a brighter future.
Map showing how the city was surrounded on virtually all sides:
Leftover boxes of supplies in the home's basement:
We were fortunate we had the choice of walking through the open 20 meter stretch of tunnel that was so short and that we didn't need to walk its entire length while escaping the city. It was hard to imagine residents going through the 800 meter length bent down like that.
After spending a couple of hours at the Tunnel, we left and entered the self-described Serbian Republic (totally different from Serbia, the country) located in East Sarajevo, an area and concept Steven and I were totally unfamilar with. Our bus from Belgrade had arrived at the bus station in East Sarajevo a couple of nights previously but we simply thought that was like a separate suburb, period.
That is now technically the case as people can go back and forth freely from Sarajevo to East Sarajevo and you can't tell who is from where. There are indeed no border controls but the residents of East Sarajevo are Serbians first and foremost. They only fly the Serbian Republic flag and don't like to display the national flag of BiH. For the residents of Sarajevo who suffered during the hellishly long siege, it was at the hands of the Serbian nationalists in East Sarajevo and other areas.
The sign said 'Welcome to Republic of Serbia ' (i.e. in BiH). What a chilling reminder that the area and many of its residents are still deeply divided.
Armina confirmed you still need to watch what you say and how you say it and to whom living in BiH. That is part of the reality living in her nation today, even 21 years after the war ended.
Lest one thinks there is no hope for peace, Armina told us about the first imman, a Muslim holy leader, who had been in a concentration camp during the war and yet now is promoting peace. She also explained about a man from Trebinje who found Islamic manuscripts and made sure they were given safe refuge with the Islamic community there. They are now under conservation in the Oriental Institute in Sarajevo. Armina also mentioned some of the work being done by the Inter-Religious Council of BiH.
It's critical to understand, Armina later told me, how people on all sides of the conflict lost loved ones, that everyone in the war-torn nation is tired of war and yearns for peace.
The tour took us to East Sarajevo, in part, so we could visit the Jewish Cemetery which is the second largest in all of Europe after Prague. The cemetery, because of its postion high atop a hill overlooking Sarajevo, was used by the Serbs to attack the civilians in Sarajevo, Armina relayed.
Even though the place of eternal rest was used to wage war, the Serbs mercifully didn't destroy any of the tombs directly.
Neno, our walking tour guide yesterday, had discussed how Jews and Muslims had lived side by side in relative peace in Sarajevo. Armina mentioned that spirit of cooperation was reflected when when the most valuable Haggadah (a Jewish book of prayer at Passover), in the world had been placed in one of the city's mountain mosques during WWII for safekeeping. At the beginning of hostilities in the 90s, it was placed in the safe in the National Bank.
The temple at the cemetery:
On a lighter note as we drove to our next destination, Armina talked about Sarajevans' love of coffee. She said the world's biggest coffeepot is in the city and it can make 8,000 cups of joe with 650 liters of water! She commented that even Turks prefer coffee from BiH because Bosnians boil the water first. I'm a confirmed tea fan so I couldn't attest to what she said but I'll take her word for it!
While we were relaxing here, I chatted with Armina about the rest of our trip and she said one of her dreams was to visit Oman at some point. I promised to mail her a postcard from there in a couple of months' time.
From the fortress, we had perfect views of nearby Zuta Tabija or Yellow Fort. Armina said that during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan and during the Ottoman times, announcements were made of eating times from there.
The soul searching and haunting photos in the gallery are all by Tariq Samarah. He spent years accompanying family members to graves in their search for loved ones. When he founded the gallery in 2012, his aim was to preserve the memory of the Srbenice tragedy and of the 8,372 people who died in the genocide. He traveled to eastern Bosnia although he knew what had happened there during the war. Samarah described seeing the mass graves and feeling the smell of the decomposing bodies was a new and horrifying experience. But still, all these years later, he never allowed his work to be guided by hatred, he stated. If I hate, he said, I am weak.
This image is the only road in and out of one of the refugee camps.
This body had been preserved with the skin still on as it had been discovered under water.
In 2002, 600 incomplete bodies were found underneath this doll by someone who knew what had happened there.
Thanks to scientific advances and DNA analysis, most victims have been identified. It is often, though, just a single bone that has been found. Bone by bone, a human puzzle is made. There are situations that there are no surviving family members so identification is then impossible. BiH has become a world leader in identifying missing persons, we learned.
The hand of a woman giving a blood sample:
2,400 shovels were used that day; one was broken by the weight of emotion, Samarah described.
The city's produce market:
A much smaller one:
Memorial to whom?
The National Bank Building where important documents were safeguarded during the war.
Sarajevo's Snipers' Alley:
A little bazaar off the main street:
Design on sidewalk along Snipers' Alley:
The Ali Pasha Mosque built in 1560 in classical Ottoman architecture. It was just rebuilt after it sustained heavy bombing in the siege.