Viewing the Besieged Sarajevo exhibit at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina was a highly emotional experience. As engaging as that exhibit was, a more absorbing experience was to be found out in the streets, alleyways and parks of Sarajevo. All of these places were part of a living museum. As I discovered while walking around the city, damage from the siege was written on walls scarred with holes from bullets and artillery shells, painted on the streets where roses memorialize those who were killed and in parks where the remnants of land mines could still be found. The length and ferocity of the siege meant that no area of the city had been left untouched by the brutal hand of modern war.
The Reality Of War – Bullet Holes & Backstreets
One of the most interesting aspects of Sarajevo was how the heavily trafficked tourist areas bore few noticeable scars from the siege. I spent hours in the Old Town (Bascarsilja) and around the pedestrian shopping street of Ferhadija which were immaculately kept. It was only when I adventured beyond these areas into the backstreets and alleyways that I began to notice hundreds of bullet holes covering the buildings. As a rule of thumb, the further out from the center I walked, the worse the damage. Some buildings looked abandoned and bore gaping wounds from artillery shells. The bucolic hills that ringed Sarajevo had been used by Serbian military forces to rain death and destruction onto the civilian populace. Some of the civilians under siege in Sarajevo had even been ethnic Serbs. The possible murder of their ethnic kinsmen did not faze those who commanded the heights above.
Viewing all the damaged buildings brought home to me just how dangerous the city had been during the siege. It was one thing to read about how the citizens of Sarajevo had to run for their lives every time they crossed a street, quite another to stand in the very same spots contemplating how anyone could have stepped out of a doorway without getting shot. What I saw was a rough approximation of the day to day reality of life in the city for over fourteen hundred days. As bad as all this looked, it was nowhere close to the fear felt by those who were caught up in a cauldron of urban violence. Anyone who stayed in Sarajevo during the siege realized there was only one true escape from war and that was death. Roses painted on the pavement served as a constant reminder of those who were killed. Family, friends, neighbors and relatives, Muslim, Croat, Serb, Bosnian or Bosniak, death showed no prejudice.
Lives Saved & Lives Lost – Memories Of A Siege
If seeing all this was not enough, there was also the fact that Sarajevo is filled with people who lived through the siege. Every time I walked past someone, I would wonder to myself what they had seen and heard during the war. What kind of sacrifices had they made in the interest of self-preservation? I asked the proprietor of my hotel, who was in his late twenties if he remembered much about the war. He had been very young at the time, but remembered the constant explosions and sounds of gunfire. It was just how things were back then. His answer was very matter of fact. Maybe he was so young at the time, that it did not make a lasting impression. More likely, he had blocked out the experience or compartmentalized the trauma. Then again who would want to discuss such a horrific experience with someone they barely knew.
It was impossible to visualize the mental scars that Sarajevo suffered, but in the hills above the city I found myself witness to at least one family’s grief. It was not the minarets or mosques or the languidly flowing blue ribbon of the Miljacka River that I found most memorable about Sarajevo. Instead, it was the seemingly endless rows of Muslim tombstones that spread out like giant white sheets covering sections of the hillsides. Late one morning I was making my way to the ruins of Vratka Fortress which overlooks the city. On my way up I came across one of many graveyards. What looked to be a large family gathering was taking place at one of the graves. There were tears, grief stricken women, middle aged men with their heads bowed and eyes cast downward. It was a sobering sight that must be repeated all too frequently in Sarajevo. As I walked past row after row of headstones I noticed the relative youth of those buried there. Elvir who lived from 1971 to 1993, Ervad from 1977 to 1996 and on and on and on. The majority of these tombstones were of young men, sons, brothers and fathers gone forever.
Bombs Away – Minesweepers
My last evening in Sarajevo, I decided to walk up the road that went past my accommodation in the Vraca neighborhood of the city. It was pretty much a straight climb up until I got to Vraca Memorial Park (Spomen-park), a green space with busted concrete walkways and crumbling monuments badly in need of repair. The park is dedicated to the citizens of Sarajevo who lost their lives during World War II. While walking along, I saw an elderly Bosnian man up ahead of me who was also taking a stroll. He suddenly stopped and looked down, then began yelling in my direction while motioning me over to him. At first I wondered if it was some kind of ruse, but I kept walking toward him. When I got close, he pointed at the ground just off the walkway. There was a small hole with the remnants of a land mine. We could see where the mine had been defused, but enough of it still lay there that I immediately knew what we were looking at. The old man shook his head violently from side to side and kept saying what I imagined was the Bosnian word for land mine. He eventually walked away, but I stood there staring at that spot for quite some time. Finally I looked up. I was no longer in just a park, but on a battlefield. A sense of menace came over me. In that moment I felt fear, the fear that still haunts Sarajevo.