We woke up early to catch the 8am train from Mostar to Sarajevo. When our taxi didn’t show up by 7.30am, we decided to walk to the station. It was a good half hour of brisk walking with our heavy backpacks, but we made it just in time, and the train journey was well worth the exertion. The train passed through some beautiful countryside, mostly between and under mountains (apparently the tracks run through some 68 tunnels).
In Sarajevo we stayed just down the street from where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie were assassinated in 1914. The museum that now stands on that street corner has some interesting displays related to the assassination, including the pants that the assasin, Gavrilo Princip was wearing when he shot them. Revisiting the events of almost 100 years ago, we can’t help but wonder, was the assassination merely a plot by Serbian military-backed plot to gain independence from the Austrian-Hungary monarchy, or was it part of a larger, more sinister conspiracy to start World War I and thereby set the stage for the establishment of a New World Order?
But we digress. We loved Sarajevo. For one, the hostel we were at, Travellers Home hostel has cable TV in the dining area, a well equipped kitchen stocked with an interesting selection of free food including microwave popcorn and packet soup, and our room even had a remote control sun roof! Sarajevo itself is lovely. It’s situated in a valley surrounded by mountains on both sides. The food is good and value for money, and the people are genuinely friendly. And the best thing is, there aren’t too many tourists around.
Of course, being in Sarajevo you can’t help but imagine what life must have been like during the 44 month long siege just 20 years ago. While all we could remember from back then was the news footage of rockets setting the Sarajevo sky aglow, we were now hearing (and reading) story after story of how ordinary citizens survived for almost four years in a city under siege, in a war where you could rarely see the enemy, but had to be extra careful that your enemy could not see you.
We took the famous “tunnel tour” to the key sights of the siege. This included the Sarajevo Tunnel that was such a vital lifeline for city’s inhabitants, as well as the hills from where the Serb forces laid siege on the city. *Notice that we say “Serb forces”, not “Serbs”. Many Serbs were in fact opposed to the Serb forces and their objectives, and many stayed behind to defend Sarajevo.
As the international community dragged its feet, an estimated 12,000 people, including over 1,500 children died in the siege of Sarajevo (and many more in other parts of the country). The most shocking failure of the international community was perhaps the implementation of the arms embargo. While the citizens of Sarajevo became sitting ducks as they lost access to weapons to defend themselves (and they even had to surrender what weapons they already possessed), the Serb forces continued to receive a constant supply of weapons and oil from Serbia.
We understand there are many different opinions of why what happened, happened. But after what we’ve seen and heard, one particular version that we personally would like to believe is that it had more to do with politicians seeking to consolidate power (following the dissolution of Yugoslavia) rather than straightforward ethnic or religious feuds.
Having been for centuries a meeting place for traders from the east and west, Sarajevo has always been a melting pot for people of different ethnicity and religion. Until today, the city’s multicultural heritage lives on especially in the old part of town. At various times of day, call to prayers ring out from the beautiful old mosques, churches and synagogues scattered among the narrow streets here.
Evidence that this spirit of peace and tolerance has been alive in Sarajevo for centuries is found in the Ahdname that was issued by the Ottoman Sultan Fateh Mehmed II when he conquered Bosnia in 1463. It is one of the world’s oldest firman (edict) on religious freedom:
“I, the Sultan Khan the Conqueror, hereby declare the whole world that, The Bosnian Franciscans granted with this sultanate firman are under my protection. And I command that: No one shall disturb or give harm to these people and their churches! They shall live in peace in my state. These people who have become emigrants, shall have security and liberty. They may return to their monasteries which are located in the borders of my state. No one from my empire notable, viziers, clerks or my maids will break their honour or give any harm to them! No one shall insult, put in danger or attack these lives, properties, and churches of these people! Also, what and those these people have brought from their own countries have the same rights… By declaring this firman, I swear on my sword by the holy name of Allah who has created the ground and sky, Allah’s Prophet Mohammed, and 124,000 former prophets that; no one from my citizens will react or behave the opposite of this firman!” (May 28, 1463)
Another tale of inter-faith kinship involves the Sarajevo Haggadah, a 600 year old illustrated Jewish manuscript that is now worth over USD700 million. When the Nazis invaded Sarajevo, Hitler instructed his troops to seize the haggadah from the National Museum and burn it. The chief librarian of the National Museum at that time, a Muslim Bosniak by the name of Derviš Korkut, risked his own life in order to save it. When the Nazi officer came to demand for the haggadah, Derviš lied that another officer had already come to collect it (and had already burnt it), although it was still sitting on the bookshelf behind him. The Nazi officer searched the library, but couldn’t find it because it did not have a golden cover as he believed it would. The librarian then smuggled the book out of Sarajevo, passing it to a Muslim cleric in Zenica, who in turn hid it from the Nazis under the floorboards of a mosque… How cool is that?
This piece took a bit longer to write than usual. As travelers, we see things in a blink of an eye, so it is often difficult to fully or accurately appreciate or understand the places and people that we come across, even more so in a region as complex as the Balkans. So for this post, we weren’t sure just where to begin, nor what to say, nor how to end it. Not that we didn’t have anything to say, we actually had too much to say. Bosnia definitely overwhelms. We stayed for six nights in Sarajevo, and that wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy. This is one place we’re definitely coming back to. We hope you will too.
The title of this post was taken from a U2 song.