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Friday, September 9, 2016

8/31: Sarajevo: A Frozen War & A Cold Peace

If you hope that this post will be a lighthearted look of Sarajevo as a balance to yesterday's tales of a family's experiences during the war, this post is not for you. If, however, you want to learn more about the longest siege in modern European history, read on.

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.

The entrance to the tunnel in Butmir across Sarajevo was in a home specifically chosen for its location and because it was large enough for people escaping the city to stay for a short while. It had a basement which was very unusual for homes in that location.

Map showing how the city was surrounded on virtually all sides:
The army uniform against the highly trained Serbian forces: Levis.
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.
The exit:
From the Butmir side of the tunnel, wood was used as the construction material. From the other side in Dobrinja, metal was used due to the shortage of wood in the besieged Sarajevo where it was used for heating. A small railway track used to push rail trucks to transport goods was put in shortly after the tunnel was dug. There were also telecommunication cables, a fuel pipeline and a cable for electricity that was distributed to priority consumers.

The wheelchair was used to transport those who had been injured through the tunnel.
Plastic boots worn while digging the tunnel: 
Armina related that Sarajevans living through the siege could only dream of eating eggs and chocolate. She remembered receiving a tube of sunscreen lotion in a humanitarian shipment that some well-meaning person had sent. A nice gesture but unrealistic given that she was not able to spend time outside and worry about being sunburned.
Actors and directors who supported Sarajevo during its film festival. Don't know the timeframe though.
Poignant information about the Sarajevo rose that I wrote about in the previous post too.

The open field where Sarajevo's airport had been: We had come from the buildings in the background, i.e. downtown Sarajevo. It is in a valley or bowl between the high hills that surround Sarajevo. 
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.

Monument to Jews of WWII: While strolling around the cemetery and reflecting on what had transpired there, we could hear the noontime bells pealing from a nearby church.

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!

The next destination was the Kozija Bridge where the caravans from Ottoman Turkey had passed through on their way into the city. Prior to the siege, people came to picnic and enjoy the water. A few, very hearty souls had biked out which would have been tough considering the condition of the roads in this area.
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.
We drove to this old fortress so we could see Sarajevo from another angle. The fortress had been a military barracks for the Austro-Hungarians.
Nothing much remained of the former barracks although Armina said festivals still take place there. The colors made for pretty photos, I thought.

It was distressing seeing all the piles of trash here and elsewhere in the city as it was such a distinct change from other places we'd just seen. I asked Armina about it and she confirmed how sad it is too. She and others had spent several hours picking up all the litter here not long ago as part of a program called 'Let's Do It' only to discover on her next visit, trash had piled up again. There were no garbage cans anywhere either and, sadly, government officials refuse to put any in either. Given what the nation has gone, and is going through, this is but a minor matter. 
On a brighter note, the site had a lovely viewpoint over the city. Having learned from Armina what had befallen her city though during the war, it made me look at the location from another point of view.
The gray, flat building in the picture below was donated by Libya's Moammar Gaddafi, Armina said. No idea for what purpose though!
Cemetery for Muslim soldiers:
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.

While we wandered around for a bit, Armina found and presented me with this four-leaf clover wishing us safe travels as we journey onwards. I was very touched by her thoughtfulness.
After suffering through the war, the residents of Sarajevo have been changed forever. Armina talked very movingly and eloquently about the war, even with her sometimes fractured English, and said the only hope for the country now is the kids born after the war. She described Sarajevo as having suffered a frozen war and now is experiencing a cold peace because memories of that war are still so raw for most Sarajevans who went through it. The reality is that some people who suffered so much during the siege are not willing to be peace builders as they are still focused on what they lost. Their primary focus, still, is to recover bodies of their loved ones. 

Armina had worked since the siege ended in 1995 until last December for Catholic Relief Services and still felt that so many residents want to do something for the past to try and make peace with what happened and are unable or unwilling to move forward. I got the sense from her that it had been too demanding to continue to work for CRS because results were slow in coming.

International aid agencies are constantly saying to the people and leaders of Sarajevo and the country that you already have too many sites memorializing the past and that you must move on and look to the future. When told that they must try and solve some of the issues facing their city and nation, the leaders say we have too many priorities and we don’t know how to figure out which is the most important, Armina stated. 

We returned to the Sarajevo Funky Tours office close to 1:30, about four hours after our tour had begun. It had obviously been sobering but enlightening and very informative and Armina had been an excellent guide.

According to Trip Advisor, one of the highlights on any visit to Sarajevo is going to Galley 11/7/95 which displays, through the use of videos and graphic photos, the war and siege of Sarajevo. You would think that after our having spent four plus hours on the War Tunnel Tour, we might have had enough and wanted to shy away from learning more right then. That wasn't, however, the case.

In very simplistic terms, the causes of the siege of Sarajevo were a growing nationalist and separatist faction, the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc of nations and the terrifying rhetoric of Bosnian Serbian nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic. The goal was to create an ethnically pure Serbia in Bosnia i Herzegovina. According to one of the Serbian Bosnian leaders, the time had come for revenge against Turkey for perceived prior grievances.

The date, 11/7/95, refers to the day that 8,372 Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered by Bosnian Serb forces in the town of Srbenice in easterrn Bosnia. According to the chilling audio we listened to at the Gallery, to this day, the systematic and swift killings took place with no response from the international community even though they knew of the events as they were happening.
Srbenice was a small town with a mostly Muslim population and that was the Serbian Bosnians' initial target. Beginning in June of 1995, it was bombarded on a daily basis and residents had almost no food or medicine. Dutch peacekeepers asked for UN military assistance but the French commander in charge refused. The Muslims ran toward the Dutch base seeking refuge but the Dutch only allowed 5,000 women and children to enter. 

The others tried to reach the BiH army in Tuzla through the forest in what is known as the March of Death. 

The Portrait Room: It was harrowing seeing photos of so many of the victims, knowing that it wasn't just bodies that were buried on 11/7/95, but so many hopes and dreams too. It wasn't just old people who were slaughtered in the ethnic cleansing but 500 boys under the age of 18 and newborns who were the youngest victims too. We could tell from the list of the 8,372 victims that entire families were slaughtered by looking at the names and year of death. They at least died quickly and weren't tortured.
More than twenty years after the massacre in Srbenice, thousands of Bosnians live in temporary refugee camps. Since July, 1995, their lives revolve around finding about the fate of their lost family members. 

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.
A woman, who had lost her husband and three sons in the carnage of that day, described these birds as bringing hope.
To hide what had happened on that day in July, the Serbs reburied the bodies in other places. This often happened far away in places where battles had taken place so that people would think they were combatants. These graves were then called secondary graves. There was evidence, for instance, of one body being found in five places 30 kms away.

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:

The first identification was completed on November 16th, 2001; it was of a ten year old boy. On March 31, 2003, the first group funeral was held: there were 699 men and 1 woman buried. 
In cases where parents have lost their children, some opt to just bury one bone because they fear they may not be alive when other parts of their loved ones are found. Every year on the anniversary of the massacre, there is a funeral ceremony for those bodies found and identified during the preceding year.

Samarah reported that he found that attending the first funeral the most difficult. What he heard that day was the sound of dirt as people covered coffins with shovel fulls of dirt. It was the most painful sound he heard.
 2,400 shovels were used that day; one was broken by the weight of emotion, Samarah described.
Samarah stated that the symbol of Srbenice is the suffering of innocent people and the indifference of others just as happened during WWII to the Jews in the Holocaust. In both cases, the world knew what was going on and did nothing. 

Also at the gallery, familar looking posters but with a twist, Sarajevo style:

I think it's safe to say we both felt numb after spending several hours at the gallery and needed to fresh air and sun to warm our faces and heavy hearts. We walked back to our Airbnb along the main street. All the following photos are from there.

The city's produce market:

A much smaller one:
Memorial to whom?
The National Bank Building where important documents were safeguarded during the war.

Eternal Flame:
Sarajevo's Snipers' Alley:
A little bazaar off the main street:
Statue of man calling for his missing son:

Memorial to Children Killed During the Siege of Sarajevo: 1992-1995:
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.

Edmund Burke's famous quotation that I read at the Gallery resonated with me at the end of that dark day: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Posted from Dubrovnik, Croatia on September 9th, 2016.

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