About fortchoteau1

A lover of Eastern European and especially Austro-Hungarian history. Also, have a special interest in the Cold War. I have travelled extensively in Hungary. Also, have been to Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Romania, Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Italy, Austria, Germany, Belgium & France.

Cheated By Fate – Pavel Hutka vs. Adriano Panatta: Almost Was Not Good Enough

Very few people know the name of Pavel Hutka. Who he was and what he nearly did are buried in the deepest recesses of tennis history. His moment of glory never quite arrived. He was good enough to be a professional tennis player, but only on the very fringes of the Grand Prix circuit from 1974- 1981. He never won more than two consecutive matches at the highest level of the tour during those years. With a record marked by more losses than wins it is hard to discern any kind of career trajectory other than downward. He seemed to go from one bad loss to another, with a few scattered victories thrown in for good measure.

There have been hundreds of professional tennis players like Hutka over the past fifty years who have records just as forgettable. The only reason anyone remembers Hutka at all is for what he could not do. Over the course of a few hours at the 1976 French Open Hutka looked like a world beater. He was on the cusp of pulling off a major upset. No one could have known at the time, but if he would have defeated the Italian Adriano Panatta, it would have changed the course of tennis history. This would only become clear in retrospect, after the tournament ended with Panatta as the champion and Hutka as an afterthought.

Pavel Hutka

Pavel Hutka – almost was not good enough at the 1976 French Open

The Survivors – Rising From Obscurity
Pavel Hutka came into the 1976 French Open with a poor record on the regular tour. Since his debut at the Grand Prix level in 1974 he had won four matches and lost nine. His best victory had come the year before when he defeated 30th ranked Andrew Pattison of Great Britain on red clay in Hamburg. Other than that victory Hutka had no other memorable victories. He played a few close matches against such clay court stalwarts as Juan Gisbert and Francois Jauffret, but ended up losing in the final set. His play during the spring of 1976 did not raise hopes. He lost three of four matches with his lone victory coming over Bernard Minquot, a Belgian lucky loser (someone who loses in qualifying, but gets into the main draw of a tournament because of another player’s withdrawal) at a tournament in Dusseldorf. The French Open would be his first Grand Slam tournament ever. He entered the event ranked #162 in the world. Hutka was fortunate to avoid qualifying, but the main draw was not kind to him.

Hutka’s first match would be against the mercurial Panatta who was seeded eighth. The Italian had been playing some of the best tennis of his life. He was coming off a magical, much lauded victory at the Italian Open. During that tournament he had cheated fate, somehow managing to survive eleven match points in the first round against Australia’s Kim Warwick. After that great escape, he rode a wave of confidence to the title. Little did Panatta or anyone else realize that he was about to undergo the exact same experience in Paris that he did in Rome. Instead of the highly regarded Warwick in the first round, he would face the barely known Hutka. The two would play one of the most memorable matches of the tournament.

Adriano Panatta

Adriano Panatta – cheating fate at the 1976 French Open

Framed – Panatta Lucks Out
Hutka started the match in strong form, helped by an unorthodox style that gave Panatta fits. Officially the Czechoslovak played right handed, but he served and hit overheads as a lefty. This ambidextrous style was something Panatta had rarely experienced. Before he knew it, the speedy Hutka had run away with the first set, 6-2. Panatta then settled down. He seemed to hit his stride, easily winning the next two sets. It was in the fourth set that the match took an odd turn. Panatta lost his form, while Hutka soared. The Czechoslovak blanked the Italian 6-0. Hutka’s high level of play continued in the fifth set. He forced Panatta to hold serve on four separate occasions just to stay in the match. At 4-3 Hutka gave himself two break points on Panatta’s serve, but squandered them both. Five different times he was two points from winning the match. Then while leading 10-9, Hutka finally made it to match point. What happened next was incredible.

Panatta’s first serve was out. Hutka returned his second delivery with a shot that hit the net cord. Panatta came in behind a deep, penetrating shot. This forced Hutka to hit a lob that he struck with near perfect precision. Panatta was only barely able to reach the ball. His attempted smash struck the frame. Hutka nailed a cross-court backhand. Panatta lunged for the volley which hit his frame once again, but this time for a winner. Panatta pulled himself up off the court. He had somehow saved match point with two shots off the frame. It was an incredible turn of events. This boosted his self-confidence.  Hutka must have been asking himself what else he could do to defeat the Italian. Panatta would go on win the final three games and the match 12-10 in the fifth. The match point save made him invincible. Panatta would go on to win six more matches, including a defeat of Bjorn Borg in the semifinals, to take the championship. As for Hutka, he became nothing more than an almost famous footnote in tennis history.

The Hard Truth – Going On To Lesser Things
Pavel Hutka would never come close to another upset like his near defeat of Panatta at the 1976 French Open. His career was that of a classic tennis journeyman. He attained a career best ranking of #103 in 1979. By 1981 he had played his final tour level match. One has to wonder what would have happened if Hutka had defeated Panatta at Roland Garros in that memorable match. Would he have gone on to greater things? It is more likely that he would have lost in the next round. Hutka’s game was such that he was unable to consistently compete at the highest level as his later results so often showed. He had enough talent to play one exceptional match that almost altered the course of tennis history, but in Hutka’s case almost was not good enough.

Mismatched– Ivan The Underdog & The Ugly American: The 1984 French Open Men’s Final

When I think back to how my fascination with Eastern Europe began my memory gets hazy. There is no single moment that served to stimulate my interest. It was more an accretion of events, newspaper articles, television programs and school classes that eventually brought about a lifelong fascination. Many of my earliest memories came from sporting events. A touchstone among these was the 1984 French Open final between John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl. The contrast between the two men was reflective of the differences between West and East. McEnroe was the explosively temperamental and insanely talented American. He was individualistic to the point of being iconoclastic, both his game and behavior were anything ever seen in tennis.  A deeply flawed genius, in 1984 McEnroe was enjoying one of the greatest seasons in tennis history. His main rival at this time was Ivan Lendl, a taciturn Czechoslovakian who had an air about him that was colder than a Russian winter.

The power and the glory - Ivan Lendl won three French Open titles

The power and the glory – Ivan Lendl won three French Open titles

The Artists Versus The Automaton – A Rivalry Of Contrasts
Lendl’s game was the polar opposite of McEnroe’s. He bludgeoned opponents with a deadly forehand and laser like serves. Whereas McEnroe’s game was a display of artistry, Lendl’s was mechanistic. He seemed robotic and rigid, reflective of a cold and brusque ideology sequestered behind the Iron Curtain. In truth, Lendl had a canny, dry sense of humor, while McEnroe could be a first class jerk. It hardly mattered to the public since on the court Lendl was stereotyped, as a taciturn Eastern Bloc automaton. This colored my opinion of him. I did not care for Lendl because his game lacked imagination, but I was fascinated with what he seemed to represent. There was something scary and alluring about the man. For someone who was said to be cold and emotionless, men’s professional tennis’ equivalent of a human backboard, he was remarkably fragile in high stakes matches, tending to crack under extreme pressure.

Lendl had lost four Grand Slam finals while notoriously falling apart in the latter stages of these matches. There were questions of whether he would ever win a Grand Slam title. The 1984 French Open Final did not look promising for Lendl’s title hopes. He would face McEnroe, who was well on his way to possibly the greatest season in tennis history. The American had won his first forty-two matches that year, with five of those victories coming over Lendl. Traditionally McEnroe’s weakest surface had been clay, but he trounced Lendl twice on the surface prior to the French. As for Lendl, each of his losses in the first half of 1984, save one, were to McEnroe. He could beat anyone, except for his greatest nemesis, much like the fact that he could win any tournament other than a Grand Slam event.

Just out of reach - John McEnroe never won the French Open

Just out of reach – John McEnroe never won the French Open

Getting Personal – Johnny Mac & Ivan The Underdog                                            
Then again I was not quite for Lendl either. His personality and demeanor induced more fear than reverence. There was one thing that made me favor Lendl in this match, he was a decided underdog. A little over an hour into the match he was looking less like an underdog and more like an abject failure. McEnroe dominated the first two sets, allowing Lendl a total of five games and breaking his serve thrice. Lendl looked out of his element, McEnroe was on fire. That was until the second game of the third set. At this juncture, the score was 1-1 with McEnroe up 0 -30 on Lendl’s serve.  If McEnroe broke here, he would be well on his way to becoming the first American man in 30 years to win the French Open. At this critical juncture what ended up breaking was McEnroe’s temper. He took it upon himself to explode at a courtside cameraman in a bizarre show of nervous tension. McEnroe followed this up by losing the game. He would then go on to lose the third set.

In the fourth set McEnroe once again forged ahead. He broke Lendl’s serve to take a 4-2 lead. He was now a mere two games away from the coveted title. The seventh game would end up being the turning point of the match. The crucial moment came with McEnroe serving at game point, 40-30. He came in to the net behind a serve to Lendl’s backhand. The Czech hit a slice that dipped low causing McEnroe to hit his backhand volley from a difficult position. McEnroe pushed the volley a bit too much. It ended up going just long. After winning that point, Lendl dominated the rest of the set, winning five of the last six games. McEnroe made one last push in the fifth set, getting a couple of break points on Lendl’s serve, which he failed to convert. Lendl finally wore McEnroe out, breaking the American’s serve in the twelfth game to win the match the score of 3–6, 2–6, 6–4, 7–5, 7–5. Lendl became just the fourth player to come back from two sets to love down and win the French Open final.

Ivan Lendl Triumphant - 1984 French Open Champion

Ivan Lendl Triumphant – 1984 French Open Champion

Lendl Has The Last Word – His Game Does The Talking
The match altered the Lendl-McEnroe rivalry. They would play seventeen more times after that French Open final with Lendl winning twelve of those matches. McEnroe would make it to three more Grand Slam finals, winning two of them. His career would go into perpetual decline while Lendl continued to excel. The Czechoslovak played in twelve more Grand Slam finals and won seven of them, becoming the world’s top player during the latter half of the 1980’s. During this time he also became Americanized. After moving to the United States in 1986 he was declared an “illegal defector” by the government of Czechoslovakia. He was effectively banished from his homeland. When the Iron Curtain fell in 1989 Lendl was a permanent American resident and also a three time French Open champion. Lendl slowly grew on me. I respected his superhuman work ethic, intense focus and competitive play. Lendl’s values were not eastern or western, but universal. In any country or ideology this translated well.

 

A Measure For Their Dreams – Budapest By The Danube: Heart Of Optimism (Travels In Eastern Europe #27)

There is only one thing to do after arriving in Budapest for the very first time. It is to make your way over to see the Hungarian Parliament Building. I know this from experience as it was late in the afternoon on a sunny day in mid-March when I rushed over to see the structure. As such there was no time to try and take a tour of the interior. That was fine with me because truth be told all I really wanted to do was feast on the ultimate piece of architectural eye candy, a building that brings to mind a confection of the most fantastical kind. No amount of superlatives can aptly describe the Hungarian Parliament building. It is much larger than photos of it are able to capture. Just to walk around the building at a rather brisk pace takes a good twenty minutes. The sheer glamour of this neo-Gothic masterpiece is overwhelming. The beauty and grandeur of the building is one thing, but consider that the Parliament serves a country of only ten million people. It looks like something one would expect to find as the seat of government for a world power. Hungary is only a mid-sized country in east-central Europe, but it obviously has much greater designs.

Hungarian Parliament Building

Hungarian Parliament Building (Credit: Ivanhoe)

Historic Convergence – Pulling A City Together
The Parliament is a reflection of how the Hungarians see themselves and their place in Europe. These are people of outsize ambition, who take creativity to its ultimate extreme. This is how they ended up with such a fantastical confection astride the Danube. It is also how they ended up creating a city along both sides of the river front of unsurpassed majesty. The area where Budapest is strung along the Danube brings to mind an old phrase, “the hits just keep coming.” From where I stood in the shadow of the Parliament on the river’s embankment I took in a scene of architectural enchantment that was as much the product of a fairy tale, as it was the work of man. Gazing upriver, across the placid, slate gray surface of the Danube I spotted the unique three-part Margaret Bridge connecting both sides of the city with an island of the same name. Then I looked downriver where the Chain Bridge, that inaugural link between the two sides of what became the same city, stretched across the watery expanse.

The bridge is a historic link, it allowed the lifeblood of Buda and Pest to flow unimpeded into one another. Its centrality to the city’s convergence is without equal in annals of European history, magnetically pulling the two sides together to create Europe’s fastest growing metropolis in the latter half of the 19th century. The Buda Hills across the river from where I stood that day, displayed a series of treasured buildings that any city would be pleased to call its own. I counted at least six church spires, the most prominent of which soared above all, that of the Matthias Church on Castle Hill. There was another set of spires recognizable just below the church. These were part of the Fisherman’s Bastion. Further on was a dome that signaled the top of Buda Castle which spread royal wings beneath it. This panorama of Buda as seen from Pest was so wondrous that I could hardly believe my eyes.

Looking towards Castle Hill from the Danube in Budapest

Looking towards Castle Hill from the Danube in Budapest

Rising From Ruins – The Building Of Buda
To think that all this is not the product of prior planning, but many centuries worth of organic growth is mind boggling. Here is a scene of stunning urban perfection that has scarcely been repeated. Descriptions will not do it justice. Taken as a whole, this part of the city as it stands astride the Danube is one of the great wonders of the world, a setting that has no peer, even in the annals of old Europe. The sheer scale of grandiosity on offer along the Danube in Budapest is overwhelming. That makes it hard to imagine that the beautiful scene standing on the Buda Hills has been reduced to a smoldering ruin on multiple occasions in the past. When the Habsburgs took it back from the Ottoman Turks in 1686 and the Red Army stormed it during the winter of 1945, they left a residue of rubble that paradoxically became a foundation for regrowth, rebirth and reconstruction.

Following World War II, what was left of both the Margaret and Chain Bridges lay submerged in the river. Revolutions in 1848, 1919 and 1956 left bullet scared buildings and rising plumes of smoke in their wake, signals of the resistance that lay at the heart of all good Magyars. The embankment I stood upon has been inundated by the Danube too many times to recount, sending parts of Pest to a watery grave. Good men and women laid low by the pessimism of the Magyar mentality have leapt into the dark waters of the Danube in alarming numbers over the past two centuries. Jews had been marched to these river banks and shot by the hundreds in acts of genocidal indifference. Historical fate had subdued this city and its citizens repeatedly. Yet through it all the city rises again and again.

Chain Bridge looking up at Buda Castle at night

Chain Bridge looking up at Buda Castle at night (Credit: Noval Goya)

The Will To Splendor – In The Minds Of Magyars
Budapest by the Danube is a sparkling example of triumph over tragedy, the will to splendor, an astounding adherence to national destiny. For all their reputed gloomy cynicism, the heart of every Hungarian must be filled with an abiding optimism to overcome the many misfortunes of history inflicted upon their nation. How else to explain the creation of a capital that is such a showcase of scintillating beauty? Optimism is the eternal answer. Optimism took the grey Danube, spun it into a silvery thread and wove it into a fantasy cityscape of the most furtive imagination. Optimism built a series of unforgettable bridges that transcended nature to connect a city and nation into a greater whole. Optimism touched the sky with steeples that soared from a wellspring of faith. And optimism created a city that is a stunning exposition of the majesty that lives in the heart and mind of every Magyar.

Long Shadows – The Greatest Ill-Fated: Hungarians & The Budapest Metro (Travels In Eastern Europe #26)

Everything I had heard about Budapest, its elegance, style and grandeur would turn out to be true, but my first impression of the city came at the Budapest-Deli (Budapest-South) Train Station. Budapest-Deli is one of those functionalist styled, communist era concrete constructions that give modernity a bad name. It is an architectural step toward oblivion. There are plenty of darkened windows. While the structure’s exterior is mainly in an off white color that suffers from discoloration by grime. The cavernous interior swallows those who traverse its mildew scented corridors. The station’s inner bowels feel like the setting for one of the Death Wish movies. There is nothing remotely pleasant about the place other than the fact that it is safe. To be fair, the station is a byproduct of the horrific destruction caused by the Second World War. During the siege of Budapest, the station and its surrounding area was the setting for a cataclysmic struggle. By mid-February 1945, the Red Army held what was left of the station, which amounted to little more than a giant pile of rubble. It took years to rebuild and it was not fully finished until 1975, during a period that is well known for its architectural low points.

Deli Palyaudvar - another architectural low point

Deli Palyaudvar – another architectural low point (Credit: Attilanagy)

Looming In The Distance – Putting A Name On History
Budapest-Deli connects to Metro 2, also known as the Red Line, which would whisk me from the Buda side of the city, west of the Danube, over to Pest on the river’s eastern side. I only had to go four stops down the line, but each of the names on these stops offered a clue to the tumultuous history of Hungary during the 19th and 20th centuries. The first stop was at Szell Kalman ter, named for a politician that most Hungarians do not even remember. During the Cold War this station had a different name, more indicative of the recent past, Moszkva ter. I later learned that most of Budapest’s citizens still called the station by this name. The long shadow of the Soviet era still hung over some parts of the city. Whether it was in the architecture of Budapest-Deli, a previous name of a metro station or the many tower apartment blocks that framed the city’s outer districts, the looming gray shadow cast by years of communism was never far away.

The next station on Metro 2 was Batthyany ter, named after another Hungarian politician, Lajos Batthyany. Batthyany is much better known than Kalman Szell (the station name is reversed because Hungarian put surnames first), sadly for tragic reasons.  He was Hungary’s first Prime Minister, unfortunately his tenure coincided with the failed 1848-49 Hungarian Revolution. He was sentenced to death by the Austrians for his role in events. Prior to his execution, Bathhyany tried to commit suicide with a small sword that had been smuggled into him by his wife. His attempt resulted in a large loss of blood after he tried to sever jugular veins in his neck. The execution method planned for him was changed from hanging to firing squad. The sentence was carried out in Pest on October 6, 1849. Batthyany is memorialized by, among other things, a mausoleum in the city’s most famous cemetery, an eternal flame at the spot of his execution and having the metro station I passed through named for him. That is all well and good, but his execution is a somber reminder of Hungarian subservience to a foreign occupier.

Széll Kálmán tér station - Metro 2 in Budapest

Széll Kálmán tér station – Metro 2 in Budapest (Credit: Christo)

The Cusp Of Greatness – Kossuth & Deak
From the Bathhyany ter stop, Line 2 rumbles beneath the Danube’s depths before arriving at Kossuth ter, yet another name fraught with historical resonance. Any visitor who spends time in Hungary is confronted by the legacy of Lajos Kossuth. Every city, every town and every village has a street named for Kossuth. Nearly every one of them has a statue of him. It is little surprise that Kossuth’s name was given to the same metro stop as that for the Hungarian Parliament. He is a giant of Hungarian history due to his role in fomenting and then leading the Hungarian Revolution. A brilliant orator, lawyer and journalist, he was the Governor-President of the incipient nation in 1848-1849. Unlike Batthyany, who paid for his support of the revolution with his life, Kossuth escaped abroad. He then spent the last four and a half decades of his life promoting the cause of Hungarian independence abroad. Kossuth’s legacy is in many ways a mirror image of Hungarian history, a meteoric ascent to the edge of greatness followed by a dramatic defeat. Perhaps that is why he has achieved such an exalted status in the pantheon of Hungarian heroes. All Hungarians can see part of themselves in his life.

Deák Ferenc tér - Metro 2 in Budapest

Deák Ferenc tér – Metro 2 in Budapest (Credit: Christo)

My final stop on Metro 2 was Deak ter, named for Ferenc Deak, a famous Hungarian who actually met with great success in his lifetime. He is best known for helping negotiate the compromise which created Austria-Hungary in 1867 and set off a Hungarian golden age of peace, dramatic growth and cultural renown.  It is at the Deak ter stop that the city’s metro lines all converge. This is where the web of Budapest becomes most tightly woven. I navigated this multilevel interchange while dragging a piece of luggage through a crowd of human commotion and energy.  Before long I was taking Metro 3 (Blue Line) a couple of stops to Nyugati Palyudvar (Western Railway Station). It was here that I surfaced in the city.

Nyugati Palyudvar (Credit Bill Dillard)

Nyugati Palyudvar (Credit: Bill Dillard)

A Golden Age – Gilded With Dreams
Nyugati is an unforgettable picture of lost elegance. The Gustav Eiffel designed station still retains the look and feel of its time. Laying my eyes on the station for the first time acted as a wild stimulant to my imagination. If every person in the station had suddenly disappeared and I had been left there all alone, I would have thought time had spun backwards to the turn of the 20th century. Back to that age when Hungary was part of an empire and Budapest was the capital of a Kingdom that stretched from the jagged peaks of Transylvania to the craggy coastline of Croatia. A golden age gilded with the dreams of Magyars reaching for their potential. This station, like the city that surrounded it, aspired to greatness and in that imaginary moment, realized its attainment.

 

A Place They Once Called Home – The Cure For Loneliness: Pecs To Budapest By Train (Travels In Eastern Europe #25)

A lonely feeling descended upon me during departure at the Pecs Train station. I boarded the train for Budapest, found a seat and stored my belongings. I then looked out the compartment window at those still waiting to board the train. There was a middle aged woman being seen off by her parents.  Hugs, tears and last goodbyes were exchanged. She got on board and took a seat across from me. As the train began to pull away she looked out the window with tears cascading down her face. She tried to smile, but this led to more tears. This scene made me realize just how far from home I actually was at the moment. No one was going to say goodbye to me or be waiting for my arrival on the other end of the line. Traveling solo is great until it’s not. If you ever want to really know how much home and family means to you, go off to a distant land where you cannot speak the language and do not know a single soul in the country. Then watch a last goodbye or a first hello between family members and friends. An unforgettable sensation of loneliness will overcome you. At least that is what I felt as the train pulled out of Pecs.

Point of Departure - Pecs Train Station

Point of Departure – Pecs Train Station (Credit: Váradi Zsolt)

Home Is Where The Hurt Is– A Life Abroad
For me, travel is as much about the people you meet, as the sights you see. Some of my most vivid recollections of trips concern the strangers I have met. They have sometimes confirmed, sometimes denied what I have spent years learning about the region. This happened on the train trip from Pecs to Budapest. The woman who had been crying earlier struck up a conversation with me. She spoke decent English, but had trouble understanding some of the things I said. We were soon joined by an older man who sat beside her. His English was excellent, so much so that he could act as a translator. The woman told me she was traveling back to Germany where her husband was from. They lived in Munich, but she was originally from Pecs and her parents still lived in the city. Germany was a fine place, salaries were high, but it would never be home. Her experience was not rare.

Ever since Hungary and several other Eastern European nations joined the European Union in 2004, their citizens have been heading west where jobs are more plentiful and opportunity abundant. Romantic ties have also lured many Hungarians, the majority of which are women, to the west. By one estimate there are a couple of hundred thousand Hungarians living in France and Germany, while over 50,000 now call Great Britain home. The money may be good and the living standards higher, but nothing can replace home. The tears in this woman’s eyes expressed that. She could always go back home, but only for a while.

A Transylvanian Tale – From Stranger To Confidant
I was thousands of miles from home on a train in southern Hungary. None of my family or friends had any idea exactly where I was at that moment. I was surrounded by strangers, but suddenly did not feel so alone. The company of this woman, in addition to the man who was translating for us, made me feel as though I belonged. We were no longer strangers, more like confidants for a handful of hours. Life means so much more in moments like these. My attention soon turned to the impromptu translator whose English was impeccable. He looked to be in his late 50’s, thoughtful and well-spoken. He began to tell me a little bit about himself. He was not from Hungary, but Transylvania, a region still home to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Hungarians. The mythical land of Dracula was much more than its popular image allowed. It was filled with people who made the best out of their situation.

This man was the first Transylvanian I had ever laid eyes on in real life. He did not have fangs, wear a cape or inspire terror. He was not a vampire, but a professor. I never did learn exactly why he was traveling through southern Hungary or onto Budapest. That was because we spent most of the trip discussing what it had been like to live as an ethnic Hungarian in Transylvania before the Iron Curtain collapsed. He said the situation had been extremely difficult. The regime of Nicolae Ceausescu persecuted Hungarians as well as Romanians. He said that Ceausescu wanted “to kill all of us.” Whether this was true or not, who was I to argue with a man who had lived through that period. The historical evidence shows that Ceausescu used ethnic Hungarians as a convenient scapegoat. The man did not tell me anything that I had not already read, but it was still fascinating to meet a Hungarian who had lived through the Ceausescu years. I wanted to reach out and touch him just to see if he was real. When he talked about persecution it was done in a matter of fact manner, as though this was something to be expected during that time. He was living proof that stoic vigilance is one of the best antidotes to repression.

Convergence on the way into Budapest

Convergence on the way into Budapest (Credit: Joliet Jake)

A Handful Of Hours, A Lifetime of Memories  – The Memory Makers
It comes so soon, the moment when there is nothing left to wait for.  The train slowly rolled into Budapest-Deli Station (Budapest South Station). The two people I had shared the journey and a bit of their life’s stories with would soon become little more than a memory, albeit a vivid one. The fleetingness of travel can be jarring. People appear and disappear for no discernible reason. In this instance, there was only a quick good-bye, what more could there be. I would never see either of them again, but the short time we spent together stayed with me. Why is that? Scientists who study memory say that we remember what was most relevant to us. Those who appear in our memories years later, for no apparent reason, must have somehow seemed relevant to us at the time. The woman from Pecs and the man from Transylvania were relevant to my loneliness. The few hours I spent with them had cured it.

 

Anonymous – City Park, Budapest: Biography of an Unknown

One of my earliest memories of school is from the first grade, when I was told a famous story about George Washington. This story involved a youthful Washington who loved to spend time outdoors on his family’s land. One day his father found a cherry tree in their orchard that had been chopped down. Washington’s father knew his son never went anywhere without his trusty hatchet. He suspected that young George may have cut down the valuable tree in an act of thoughtless mischief. When his father asked him if he had been responsible for chopping down the tree, Washington replied, “I cannot tell a lie. I chopped down the cherry tree.”

The point of the story was to always be honest and admit the truth. There were other valuable lessons to be gleaned from the tale, such as taking personal responsibility and the value of being accountable for one’s actions. I would later learn that the story is almost certainly mythical, but it focuses on a greater truth. The tale illustrates values that Americans should all hold dear. Whether it is Washington and the cherry tree or Rome’s creation as a byproduct of Romulus and Remus, mythical lore is central to how great nations, empires and peoples see themselves. This is just as true for Hungary and Hungarians as it is for my own country. Their early history and conquest of the Carpathian Basin is the stuff legends are made of, quite literally.

Anonymous - The Great Unknown

Anonymous – The Great Unknown

The Stuff Of Legend – Words & Deeds Of Hungarians
The importance of myth and legend in Hungarian history can be found at one of Budapest’s most visited attractions. In the City Park (Varosliget), a statue of a strange man sits alone on a concrete pedestal. His head is hung low and covered with a hood. In his right hand is a sharp instrument, not a blade, but a writing utensil. He seems to be either deep in thought or brooding, but no one really knows for sure. Who is this statue supposed to represent? There are no easy answers when it comes to the man known as Anonymous. His identity is vaguely known, unlike his writing which is the stuff of legend, both figuratively and literally. Anonymous casts a long shadow over the history of Hungary. As he should, since an even longer shadow hangs over exactly who he was.

Scholars believe that sometime in the mid to late 13th century a scribe for the King of Hungary wrote the chronicle that provides a narrative on the background, conquest and aftermath of the Hungarian arrival in the Carpathian Basin. The veracity of this chronicle known as the Gesta Hungarorum (The Deeds of the Hungarians) has been questioned. It relies on everything from heroic folk songs, myths and ballads to written sources both ancient and medieval to tell the early story of the Hungarians. Some claims by the author are totally outlandish, such as when he states that Hungarians fought the Romans. There is way more fiction than fact. Nonetheless, the chronicle has provided the Hungarians with many of their founding myths. It also serves as proof of that old cliché to never let a good story get in the way of the truth.

As it is written – excerpt from a facsimile of the Gesta Hungarorum

Teller Of Many Tales & Very Few Truths – “P who is called magister”
The Gesta was written three and a half centuries after many of the events it describes. This makes its historical account of events highly unlikely. Nevertheless, it provides a homegrown basis for the early history of the Magyars. Almost all other accounts come from foreign sources. Truth be told, the Gesta also relies quite heavily on works by foreigners as well as a plethora of dubious sources. The Gesta was written by a Hungarian, which explains much of its popularity. That is the main reason it has informed the Hungarian people’s beliefs concerning their early origins. It is considered a trusted, but extremely flawed source.  So who was the anonymous author of this famous flawed work? A hint is given in the opening sentence.

The author is explicitly vague, calling himself, “P who is called magister, and sometime notary of the most glorious Bela, King of Hungary of fond memory.” The problem with identifying the author from this self-reference is that there were four different Kings of Hungary named Bela. A majority of scholars have concluded that it was written under the reign of King Bela III (1172 – 1196). The reason Anonymous wrote the work is less obscure. One of the more interesting statements made by Anonymous was that he had decided to write the history of Hungary’s kings and noblemen because no such work existed. Many of the tales he told did not exist, until he either made them up or repeated ones he had heard that were not grounded in historical fact. Anonymous was a man who loved good stories, no matter the truth. He did provide just enough factual material that some of what he said was taken seriously. It is this interweaving of truth and tale which created a work that has stood the test of time.

Miklos Ligeti - sculptor of the Anonymous statue

Miklos Ligeti – sculptor of the Anonymous statue

The Power Of Myth – A Universal Truth
It took five centuries before a translation of the Gesta appeared in Hungarian (the original was written in Latin). Its popularity soared along with Hungarian nationalism in the 19th century. At the time of the Millenary Celebrations of the Magyar conquest of the Carpathian Basin in 1896, the Gesta was promoted as a reputable source. As part of those celebrations, Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef donated funds for the sculpting of ten statues to be placed in public areas around Budapest. This was the impetus for the statue of Anonymous found in the City Park. Miklos Legeti, a native of Pest was commissioned to sculpt it. Legeti, was a rather obscure artist, best known for the realistic quality of his work. He completed the statue in 1903. It is now hailed as a masterpiece. Strangely enough, Legeti is all but unknown today with the exception of his statue of an unknown man. Ironically both of these men have not been forgotten, proving that the power of myth is timeless, as are their works.

 

Exit Wounds – The Paradox Of Peace: Sarajevo’s World War I

It is one of the great ironies of history that Sarajevo, the city where World War I ignited, was untouched by military violence during the war. This is both incredible and understandable. Incredible from the standpoint that Sarajevo was a hotbed of ethnic tension which exploded in the immediate aftermath of the assassination. Violence flared with the targeting of ethnic Serbians and their property, but this was civilian rather than military inspired violence. The shots that Gavrilo Princip fired to murder Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie on June 28, 1914 were among the first and last to echo through the streets of the city during the next four and a half years.

Since the assassination triggered the war, rather than being a part of it, it might even be said that no shots were fired in Sarajevo during the conflict, at least not as part of a skirmish or battle. The lack of military operations in or around Sarajevo during the war is understandable since Bosnia-Herzegovina was on the war’s periphery throughout the conflict. That does not mean Bosnians came through the war unscathed. On the contrary, there was privation and loss felt on a personal level. The citizens of this multi-ethnic city might not have been dodging bullets in the streets. Nonetheless, they were deeply affected by the war.

Sarajevo - Paradox of peace

Sarajevo – Paradox of peace

Mob Mentality – Professions Of Loyalty
One of the strangest parallels regarding Sarajevo and the assassination is that only two people lost their lives in the post-assassination rioting. That is the same as the royal couple murdered by Gavrilo Princip. This is rather remarkable because anti-Serb demonstrations and riots broke out in the hours following the assassination. On that Sunday evening, less than twelve hours after the Archduke was murdered a large crowd assembled outside the Hotel Europa. They began to toss stones at what had been a meeting place for many Bosnian Serb politicians. A handful of troops finally arrived on horseback and dispersed the crowd. The next morning a demonstration was held where Croat and Muslim politicians gave speeches denouncing the assassination and professing loyalty to the empire. The area was festooned with black flags and the Austro-Hungarian anthem was sung. These speeches served to whip up emotion among the crowd.

When the rally ended, many of the participants joined gangs that vandalized Serb-owned businesses and homes. These gangs stoned a Serbian Orthodox Church and the nearby Metropolitan’s residence. They proceeded to ransack a Serbian Orthodox school while continuing to bust windows and pilfer goods from Serb-owned shops. Other belongings from businesses and homes were stolen, flung out into the street or destroyed. Some Sarajevans were seen cheering from the windows of their apartment buildings while the riots were in progress. Then two ethnic Serbs were killed by rioters. Only through the intervention of Imperial troops did the looting finally subside.

Remnants of a Serbian tailors shop strewn on the street in Sarajevo

Remnants of a Serbian tailors shop strewn on the street in Sarajevo

Anything But Normal – The Home Front As A War Front
During the First World War, Bosnia-Herzegovina continued to be under the control of Austria-Hungary. As such its men were pressed into service just like millions of others in the empire. Men in Sarajevo volunteered or were drafted into the Imperial armed forces. They were sent far away from their homes to fight in lands that most knew nothing about. Sarajevans found themselves on either side of the conflict. Many Bosnian Serbs sided with their ethnic brethren in Serbia while others fought for Austria-Hungary. The ethnic mosaic of Sarajevo, like that of Bosnia-Herzegovina led to complicated loyalties. The home front was repeatedly touched by the tragedy of war. By one count, ten percent of all Bosnian men were lost in the war. Many wives in Sarajevo suddenly became widows, fathers and mothers lost sons. The battlefront may have been far off in a geographical sense, but mentally it weighed on the minds of Sarajevans. The closest that Sarajevo ever came to being touched by military operations during the war was in the latter part of 1915. Troops from Montenegro threatened to overrun the city. In response, the authorities evacuated part of the city. When the threat subsided, citizens were allowed to return home. Yet life was anything but normal during the war.

Sarajevans were subject to a war tax, an attempt to help alleviate the increasing cost of the war. Rationing went into effect less than a year into the war and continued throughout. Acquiring life’s basic necessities became increasingly difficult. There was little opportunity to have a say in these strictures. Government as it existed before the war had ceased to exist. Sarajevo was governed by a trustee appointed by Imperial authorities. Rule was by decree rather than representative institutions. Freedom of speech was proscribed. Suspicions of anti-government elements were rife. Politics no longer accommodated the people, only the state. City life was slowly transformed by the war, but the biggest change would come at the end of the conflict. By the autumn of 1918, the worldwide conflagration that had started four years before on a Sarajevo street corner had led to a political transformation in the affairs of all South Slavic peoples.

Destruction outside the Hotel Evropa - the day after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Destruction outside the Hotel Evropa – the day after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

With Or Without You – Sarajevo & The War
On the first day of December 1918, less than a month after the Great War ended, the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was proclaimed by Prince Regent Alexander of Serbia. Eventually this state would come to be called Yugoslavia. It is telling that Bosnians were not mentioned in the first iteration of the state’s name. Bosnia-Herzegovina was absorbed to the point of vanishing by the new polity. Sarajevo’s fortunes declined in unison with the province it had once helped govern. Institutions of government were doled out to the cities that were hubs for the largest ethnic groups, Belgrade for Serbs, Zagreb for Croats and Ljubljana for Slovenes.

The days of Austro-Hungarian largesse in building the city up as its Balkan showpiece were long gone. Austria-Hungary had been swept away by the war. Sarajevo had provided the trigger that started that process. Without the Archduke’s assassination in Sarajevo the First World War might not have happened, but no can know for sure. What is certain is that Sarajevo and the war became inextricably linked, not with military operations, but tied in with an event that led the world to explode.

To Overcome That Which Would Destroy – Miss Sarajevo: Running Toward The Transcendent Power Of Art

One of my goals while visiting Sarajevo was to go on a run through the city streets while listening to Miss Sarajevo. This ethereal and mysterious song was a collaborative work from the band members of U2, their longtime producer Brian Eno and world famous tenor, Luciano Pavarotti. The song is named after an event that took place during the Siege of Sarajevo in the mid-1990’s when an underground beauty pageant was held in the city. The pageant was an act of defiance in response to the shelling and destruction of Sarajevo. The contestants wore sashes during the contest that said “Are they really going to kill us?” One haunting image shows the women on stage holding a banner that says “Don’t let them kill us.” This image was used as the cover for the single of Miss Sarajevo. It is a remarkable statement that needs little explanation, a surreal act of artistic defiance made in response to modern war.

Miss Sarajevo beauty pageant

Miss Sarajevo beauty pageant

“What are you going do?” – A Question Without An Answer
The Sarajevo beauty pageant became the subject of a documentary by an American filmmaker, Bill Carter. Carter brought the situation in the city to U2’s attention while they were on the Zooropa tour in Italy. He believed that the international news media was ignoring the prolonged siege. The lead singer of U2, Bono, got a wild idea that the band should travel to Sarajevo and play a concert. This would have been dangerous and perhaps deadly. That idea was quickly nixed. Instead the band decided to have a live feed from Sarajevo broadcast during their concerts. Citizens of the city would speak to the audience.

This turned out to be just as surreal as a beauty pageant in the besieged city. No one in the band or the audience knew who would show up on the feed or what they might say. It was a bizarre setup that led to moments of dramatic honesty that sometimes called out the band and its audience. The most wrenching of such scenes occurred during a show at Wembley. A woman came on the screen and pointedly asked “What are you going do?” She did not give the band time to answer. Next saying, “I know what you’re going do, you’re not going do anything.” In that moment she was correct, but later the band would prove her wrong.

Man pushing his bicycle while ducking potential sniper fire in Sarajevo

Man pushing his bicycle while ducking potential sniper fire in Sarajevo (Credit: Bill Carter – Miss Sarajevo)

To Turn Your Eyes Away – Citizens Besieged
Bono helped fund and produce Bill Carter’s Miss Sarajevo documentary. The 33 minute long film followed the young men and women of Sarajevo as they not only fought for their survival during the siege, but managed to create art, music and movies while maintaining a modicum of normalcy. The film’s name was also the name given to the song Miss Sarajevo, which was released along with the film in 1995. Lyrically the song describes what Bono felt the people of Sarajevo were going through during the siege.

“Is there a time for keeping your distance
A time to turn your eyes away
Is there a time for keeping your head down
For getting on with your day”

These opening verses of the song hint at the day to day reality of life during the siege. “Keeping your distance”, turning “eyes away” and “keeping your head down” were as necessary for survival and sanity as the endless search for food and water. The surreal nature of “getting on with your day” while modern war rages in the city is insinuated with such verses as:

“Is there a time to run for cover
A time for kiss and tell”

And so the song goes accompanied by a languid, relaxed melody until Pavarotti sings a gorgeous Italian libretto. Roughly translated it means:

“You say that like a river finds its way to the sea
You will find your way back to me
You say that will find a way
But love I’m not a praying man
And in love I can’t wait any more.”

There is no song quite like it, just as there is no city quite like Sarajevo. The song has a dreamy, atmospheric quality, as if it inhabits a world all its own. The song arrives unexpectedly, shimmering with surrealism, emotionally ambient, a beautiful and remarkable statement of trying to proceed with daily life during wartime.

Man running through the streets of Sarajevo - scene from Miss Sarajevo

Man running through the streets of Sarajevo – scene from Miss Sarajevo (Credit: Bill Carter – Miss Sarajevo)

Finding Its Way Inside Of Me – A City & Song Speak
The song captured my heart when I woke up one morning twenty years ago to find the video for Miss Sarajevo on television. I watched it while half asleep, becoming entranced by the black and white images of Sarajevo’s citizenry making their way through blast holes in walls and tunnels beneath the smoldering city. One man runs for his life past burned out buses, another pushes a bicycle down the street while ducking potential sniper fire. Such scenes were interposed by super slow motion footage of the beauty pageant run through a blue filter. The last minute of the video contains footage of explosions, gunfire and buildings in flames followed by more images of the beauty pageant contestants, offering a poignantly tragic counterpoint. None of it seemed real and yet it was all too real. The song and video did more to advance my understanding of the siege than a thousand news reports.

And so I found myself on a morning jog around Sarajevo while the song played on my IPod. Under a cloudless sky on a sunny day I felt none of the visceral emotion that I had two decades before. Sarajevo, at least superficially, was a changed city, peaceful to the point of tranquility. Miss Sarajevo provided an eloquent sonic backdrop, but little more than that. It was not until my final morning in the city that I sensed something different. Before leaving on a morning train to Hungary, I awoke very early to go for one final run. Darkness still consumed the city as I set out from my accommodation in the Vraca neighborhood. I made my way down a residential street that hung on a hillside. As the sweeping ambience of Miss Sarajevo began to play over my headphones the song found its way inside of me once again. Maybe it was the darkness or my foggy state of mind, whatever the case I felt like I was running through a dream. The city and the song suddenly spoke to me in unison, of a deeply troubled past, darker than the early morning sky at that very moment. Yet it also somehow communicated to me an unmatched resiliency. Sarajevo was still standing and I was standing inside of it, listening to Miss Sarajevo, a song about the transcendent power of art to overcome that which would destroy.

Black Butterflies -Infernal Resistance: A Balkan Book Burning In Sarajevo

Words both medieval and modern were floating through the infernal air of a fire lit, late summer day in Sarajevo. These words were not spoken, but written. They lingered as embers and then fell to the pavement. The words rained down in fragmented torrents, the charred remnants of 1.5 million books and invaluable archival documents that told a narrative of the city’s imperial overlords from centuries past. This was the Bosnian National and University Library being consumed by flames. In August 1992, the Siege of Sarajevo had just begun months before. Everything and everyone in the city had become a target.

The Serb forces entrenched on the hillsides surrounding the city targeted any structure that was representative of Bosnian statehood. The library made an inviting target. It was a national treasure filled with proof that Bosnia was an ethnically diverse, relatively harmonious multicultural society and had been so for many centuries. The library’s books and documents held words that helped bind Bosnia together. As such, the Serbian military forces wanted it destroyed in the interests of creating an ethnically homogeneous state. Their aim was nothing less than cultural genocide. And so on August 25, 1992 they aimed their artillery at the Vijecnica, the old Sarajevo Town Hall which held the library. Ironically, this was not the first time the Vijecnica had been involved in controversy or tragedy.

The Bosnian National & University Library - formerly the Sarajevo Town Hall

The Bosnian National & University Library – formerly the Sarajevo Town Hall (Credit: lasserbua)

The Vijecnica – A Nightmare of European Fantasy
The Vijecnica was the brainchild of the Austro-Hungarian administration that governed Bosnia-Herzegovina in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Austro-Hungarians wanted to facilitate the creation of a Bosnian identity to separate it from the Ottoman Empire and pan-Slavic Serbia, in the process creating what one scholar has called “an Islamic architecture of European fantasy”. Constructing a large municipal building in the Old Town area of Sarajevo would also impose Austro-Hungarian civic virtue upon the cityscape. Ideals were the easy part, the reality of construction turned out to be much more difficult. The first architect to work on the building quit after criticisms from the provincial imperial minister. The second architect, Alexander Wittek, modeled the building’s design after a mosque and school he saw in Cairo. In a fantastical twist the building was designed in Moorish revival style. Wittek’s design would last, but he did not. The mental strain of working on the project is thought to have driven him over the edge. Shortly after quitting the project Wittek committed suicide.

Four years after construction started Sarajevo’s town hall finally opened. The building, with its ornate atrium and glass dome, columns and arches, looked as though it had been transported from the Maghreb. On June 28, 1914, the Sarajevo Town Hall played a part in what would turn out to be one of the most tragic episodes in world history, the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand that precipitated World War I. After being nearly blown to bits by a bomb tossed at his motorcade, the Archduke arrived at the town hall for a reception given by the city’s leaders in his honor. The ill-tempered Archduke interrupted the Sarajevo mayor’s speech with an emotional outburst, stating, “Mr. Mayor, I came here on a visit and I am greeted with bombs. It is outrageous.” The archduke’s outrage subsided when his wife, Sophie, calmed him with a few words whispered in his ear. He stayed at the Town Hall for only half an hour, but it would turn out to be the last building he ever visited. Not long after leaving, he was gunned down in the streets of Sarajevo.

Unlike the archduke or his assassin, the Town Hall would survive the First World War. And then survive an even greater conflagration twenty years later with World War II. In the years after the war, Yugoslavia’s communist authorities decided to turn the building into the National and University Library, the ultimate storehouse of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s accumulated history and knowledge. Little could they have known at the time this would eventually make the building and its contents a target. “Black butterflies” flew through the infernal air that engulfed the streets of Sarajevo. These butterflies were not alive, but dead. They did not have wings, only burn marks. “Black butterflies” was what the citizens of Sarajevo took to calling the residue from millions of pages of books that fell from the summer sky, raining down upon the city on August 25th & 26th, 1992.

A man watches the Bosnian National & University Library on fire in August 1992

A man watches the Bosnian National & University Library on fire in August 1992

A Crime Against Culture & A Cry For Recognition
This was a Balkan book burning on an unprecedented scale, a crime against culture that was directed at humanity. The destruction of the Bosnian National and University Library was carried out with extreme prejudice by those who decided to take aim at the heart of a nation. Shot and shell rained down from the heights above the city, the building hardly had a chance and the library inside of it even less of one. There were harrowing scenes as those who worked at the library and book loving citizens dodge sniper fire in an attempt to save whatever they could. Their efforts were largely in vain.

After the fire had been extinguished a remarkably sad, but inspirational act occurred. The master cellist, Vedran Smailovic, sat among the ruins of the library and began to play. This act of cultural defiance was a poignant expression of artistic defiance and sorrow. It was not so much a work of music that emanated from Smailovic’s bowstring as it was a cry for recognition. The destruction of the library was not just the destruction of Bosnia’s heritage, but an act of inhumanity against all citizens of the world. Smailovic’s symbolic act called attention to what had taken place. It would be over twenty years before true restitution occurred.

Vedran Smailović playing cello in the ruins of the Bosnian National & University Library in 1992

Vedran Smailović playing cello in the ruins of the Bosnian National & University Library in 1992 (Credit: (Credit: Mikhail Evstafiev)

Rising From The Ashes – Bound By Books
In the spring of 2014, after years of painstaking work the Library was reopened. Anything that had been saved from the fire was restored. Entire parts of the building were reconstructed. Libraries from around the world helped donate either physical or digital copies of books and documents. The effort resulted in an amazing resurrection of a cherished national institution. Nevertheless, what had been consumed in the infernal fires on those dreadful August days in 1992 can never be replaced. Most of the rare books and manuscripts in the library are lost forever. Despite such irretrievable losses, something much more valuable remained: a sense that the nation of Bosnia is more than a library. It is a diverse group of peoples infused with a rich multicultural identity, full of intellect and ideals that have proven indestructible.

Scars Of Sarajevo – Haunted By Fear: The City As A Museum Of War (Travels In Eastern Europe #24)

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.

Graffiti on the ruins of a building in Sarajevo

Graffiti on the ruins of a building in Sarajevo

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.

Cemetery in Sarajevo

Cemetery in Sarajevo

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.

An explosive situation - Vraca Memorial Park (Spomen-park) in Sarajevo

An explosive situation – Vraca Memorial Park (Spomen-park) in Sarajevo

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.