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.

A Few Steps From Europe To The Orient – Collision Course:  Sarajevo Between East & West

The dividing line between east and west in Europe is entirely subjective and over the centuries has been subject to change. In the first half of the 19th century the Austrian Foreign Minister, Prince Clemens Von Metternich stated that Asia begins at the Landstrasse, the road that led south and east out of Vienna to Hungary. In other words, Hungary was part of the Orient. During the Cold War, the dividing line was partitioned by an iron curtain that separated capitalism from communism, multi-party democracy from the dictatorship of one party rule. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall that boundary has moved further east, to the border running between EU and non-EU members. Some prefer to mark eastern from western Europe by religion. Cross the border from Hungary into Ukraine, Poland into Belarus and church steeples suddenly transform into onion domes. Catholicism and Protestantism give way to Eastern Orthodoxy, rules based religion to mysterious mysticism, Rome becomes Byzantium.

Cathedral Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos

Cathedral Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos
(Credit: Wikipedia)

A Precarious Coexistence- Empire & Ethnicity Collide
So where does East meet West in Europe? All of the above might be the best answer. In my experience though, there is no place where East meets West in such startling fashion as the heart of Sarajevo. Here the transition and transformation can be experienced on a human scale. One can walk from Europe into the Orient in a matter of minutes. This has much to do with the currents of geo-politics and geography. Yet in Sarajevo it is also noticeable at a real street level. Europe suddenly becomes interwoven with Asia. In the transition between the new and old town in Sarajevo I felt the beating heart of the Balkans, a deeply rooted multiculturalism with almost an unfathomable ethnic diversity. Here was to be found the deep roots of Ottoman influence in Europe, Austro-Hungarians dipping their toes into the near east, Serbs overreaching their way west, Croats with a marginally effective presence, the Sephardic Jews still making their presence felt even in absence and Bosniaks predominate, despite a precarious existence. Here was the place where empire and ethnicity collided, causing the creation of a sublime atmosphere only to be found in Sarajevo.

It took me only half an hour walking around the heart of Sarajevo to sense the depth of diversity that has been the city’s hallmark for centuries. A short walk took me past Catholic and Orthodox Cathedrals, the city’s oldest synagogue and its most glorious mosque. In my experience there is nowhere else in Europe where the architecture of differing belief systems stands in such close proximity to one other. These houses of worship not only represent religions, but are also symbolic of the different ethnic groups that have made the city their home. Sarajevo should be known as much for this plurality of peoples and faiths, as it is for the horrors of 20th century warfare that have irreparably altered its reputation. The heart of Sarajevo is a tale of tolerance sculpted in stone and professed in distinct dialects. Along a handful of streets, eastern and western ideals of Europe, religion and culture are arranged astride one another.

Inside the old Sarajevo Synagogue which is now the Museum of the Jews of Bosnia & Herzegovina

Inside the old Sarajevo Synagogue which is now the Museum of the Jews of Bosnia & Herzegovina

A Darker Testament – Religious Epiphanies In Sarajevo
This fascinating walk can best be done by starting at the Cathedral Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos along Branilaca Sarajeva. This Cathedral was the first church in Sarajevo to rival the Muslim monopoly on monumental sacral structures. At the time of its construction in the mid-19th century, Sarajevo was still part of the Ottoman Empire. Interestingly enough, the imperial Sultan Abdulaziz symbolically contributed funding for its construction. The Cathedral’s main benefactors were wealthy Serbian merchants in the city. Laid out on a cross-shaped plan, the three-section basilica contains five domes, with the central dome much larger than the others. Though the Sultan supported its construction, the Cathedral caused great consternation among the Muslim population of the city since its tower was higher than any minaret found in Sarajevo at the time. The cathedral’s dedication was delayed for over a year due to protests and the threat of violence from conservative Muslims. The furor subsided after the minaret at Gazi Husrrev-beg Mosque was raised by a few feet to surpass it.

From the Cathedral Church of the Nativity walk about 50 feet down Zelenih Beretki and take Strossmayerova to the north. This runs right into the neo-Gothic styled Sacred Heart Cathedral of Sarajevo. It is the largest cathedral in Bosnia-Herzegovina and plays an important role as the main center of worship for Catholics (mainly ethnic Croatians) in the city. The cathedral also acts as a symbol of Sarajevo, with its Romanesque towers appearing on the city’s coat of arms. Its size made it an inviting target during the Siege of Sarajevo. Despite sustaining major damage, the cathedral has now been repaired.

Turning to the east down Ferhadije, follow the street for a couple of minutes until it turns to the north and goes to the Museum of the Jews of Bosnia & Herzegovina. The museum is housed in the oldest synagogue in Sarajevo. It was built in 1581, fifteen years after the first Jews arrived in the city. These were Sephardic Jews who had fled persecution in Spain. The rustic multi-story building testifies to the enduring Jewish presence. Inside there is a much darker testament, the Book of the Dead, which lists over 14,000 Jewish citizens of Sarajevo wiped out by the Holocaust.

Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque in Sarajevo

Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque in Sarajevo (Credit: Julian Nitzsche)

An Eastern State Of Mind – The Orient In Europe
Backtrack down Ferhadija and turn left. The street name suddenly changes to Saraci up until the point at which it bisects Mula Mustafe Baseskije. After turning right, in a couple of hundred feet the soaring minaret and multi-domed Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque comes into view.  To see the mosque illuminated at night is a fantastic experience. It is also a reminder that this was the first mosque in the world to be illuminated with electricity. The mosque is an excellent example of classical Ottoman architecture. Located at the heart of Sarajevo’s Bascarsija (Old Town), within minutes of seeing the mosque, I forgot that I was in Europe or even the Balkans. It was as though I had walked into the near East, treading on Ottoman ground. The Oriental exoticism on display became all consuming. Here, the West only existed as a distant memory, just as the East minutes before had been all but unimaginable. The transition from one culture to the next was seamless. That magical architecture of spirituality spread across a few streets in the heart of Sarajevo had taken hold of me.

The War Still Being Fought – Preservation Of Dissension: The National Museum Of Bosnia & Herzegovina (Travels In Eastern Europe #23)

There were places I visited in Sarajevo because I wanted to and there were places I visited because I felt like I had to. The National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina was one of the latter. I have spent a large part of my career working in museums, including now. The idea of visiting something that reminds me of work while I am on vacation in Eastern Europe feels me with dread. I always recoil at such a thought for the same reasons. There will be an overwhelming number of things to see and read, then after an hour my legs and back will begin to ache, this will be followed by a test of intellectual endurance, as I grow weary of words and pictures and artifacts. The visit will come to an abrupt end, mainly because my eyes are glassy and mind numb from trying to take it all in. Museum fatigue is what I feel at the beginning of a visit these days, rather than at the end.

This feeling weighted me down as I walked towards the entrance of the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina on a late spring morning in Sarajevo. On the grounds leading to the entrance were medieval tombstones, an ominously intriguing reminder that the history of Sarajevo was much older than its famously fraught 20th century. Yet the 20th century was never far away, as the gloriously Italian Renaissance revival style museum building, erected at the tail end of the Austro-Hungarian era, so conspicuously showed. When I entered the museum though, it was the very recent past that confronted me. Here was a place that had aged, not because of time, but due to war. Its most prominent characteristic was neglect.

Medieval tombstones around National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Medieval tombstones around National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Credit: BiHVolim)

Agreeing To Disagree – Bosnia’s Past As Its Present
I soon discovered that The Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina does not have any world class exhibits. It does hold some priceless cultural artifacts, but there was little funding to care for them. As a matter of fact, lack of money was the main reason the place had fallen into a state of disrepair. The federal government was not forthcoming with operational funding. The main reason was that each ethnic groups representative entities, whether Bosnian Serbs, Croats or Bosniaks (Muslims) wanted their own cultural institutions. Each of them was opposed to a multi-cultural interpretation of Bosnia’s past. This was a harsh commentary on the often contentious ethnic relations at the federal level of government. The upshot was that by the time I visited the museum it was deteriorating badly.

From what I experienced the museum would be deemed by most visitors an abject failure. Paradoxically, that was exactly why, for me, it succeeded. The fact that it was cold, many of the rooms dimly lit and the exhibits falling apart spoke volumes about what the country had suffered since the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Not long after my visit, the museum would close for three years. I would later discover that the staff was not paid for over a year before the closure, yet somehow the museum stayed open. They proved that dedication, pride in the museum’s mission and a sense of duty could overcome a lack of funding, but only for so long. To compound matters, there was dissension about what should be presented.

Life during wartime in Sarajevo

Life during wartime in Sarajevo

Besieged Sarajevo – Surviving The War, Losing The Peace
The most arresting of the exhibits was one that dealt with the Siege of Sarajevo. This seemed only right, since it was the war and even more so its aftermath that had brought the museum to a point of extreme degradation. There were some artifacts from the siege, but it was a series of photos that spoke volumes. A woman in dark sunglasses rode a bicycle past a bullet pocked Volkswagen Bug, a small child with two black eyes and a bandage covering most of his head held a flower in his hand, the remains of a skeletal petrol pump at an utterly ruined gas station. One photo framed the essence of destruction picture perfectly. The photo was taken through a twisted, contorted metal vehicle door. Where the window glass should have been was the concrete skeleton of a ruined building. Another showed a wing of the National Museum during the war as little more than a series of shattered windows. Surreal and sublime, these images were snapshots of the Siege of Sarajevo.

The exhibit was done with little money, but a surfeit of emotion. The siege was a deeply personal trauma for everyone involved. Later I would learn just how personal for the museum staff. The museum’s director, Dr. Rizo Sijari, was killed during the siege by a grenade blast while covering holes in the building caused by artillery fire with protective sheeting. He was the most notable, but certainly not the only staff member who gave his life quite literally in the service of preserving Bosnia and Herzegovina’s national heritage. Centuries of cultural history were now threatened by narrow political interests and intractable ethnic tensions. The irony was that the museum had survived two World Wars and one of the longest sieges in military history, remaining open for most of that time, but it was on the verge of not surviving an uneasy peace.

I can't stop thinking of my friend...

I can’t stop thinking of my friend…

The Incalculable Loss – A Museum Of Memories
The exhibit ended with the “Book of Impressions – Exhibition – Besieged Sarajevo”. This allowed visitors to record their impressions of the exhibit. Some of these were deeply personal, such as the one that stated “I can’t stop thinking of my friend that left Sarajevo when she was a kid and could never get her city back.” Sarajevo still stood, but the city would never be the same, neither would the people. The personal traumas they experienced had scarred them for life. All the reconstruction and reconciliation could never bring the city or its citizens back to the peace they knew before the war. Their losses were incalculable. This exhibit communicated to me a little bit of what they had experienced. Unfortunately it was on the verge of being lost as well. A year after my visit the museum would close. “Besieged Sarajevo” was another casualty in a war that was still being fought.

From 2012 to 2015 the National Museum of Bosnia & Herzegovina was closed

From 2012 to 2015 the National Museum of Bosnia & Herzegovina was closed (Credit: Watalicom)

Moment Of Surrender – A Street Corner In Sarajevo: Visiting The Beginning Of The End (Travels In Eastern Europe #22)

I was picked up at the airport in Sarajevo by the proprietor of my accommodation. We drove back through Novo Sarajevo (New Sarajevo), a newer part of the city I had never heard of before. The typical Tito-era tower apartment blocks loomed over the city streets. It was not until we got close to the old town that I began to notice steeples and minarets piercing the skyline. I was nervous with anticipation. My goal was to get checked in as quickly as possible so I would have time to hurry down to the location of the assassination site. After dropping my bags off, impatience drove me to immediately order a taxi, A few minutes later I was being whisked through the winding streets above the Old Town. The taxi driver misunderstood the directions and dropped me off nearby. This turned out to be for the best as I was able be to get my bearings while approaching the site.

From the moment I first saw a photo of Gavrilo Princip being apprehended by police immediately after his assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the archduchess Sophie I was fascinated by that event. The assassination’s setting in Sarajevo, an exotic quasi-eastern city that was a cauldron of ethnic tensions had much to do with my interest. I can still remember when I first saw the photo. It was on page four in Volume One of the Marshal Cavendish Encyclopedia of World War I in my high school library. The Encyclopedia had a detailed article on the assassination. I read and reread it several times. My interest in the story of that fateful day led me years later to eventually track down an entire set of the encyclopedia later in life. Such curiosity eventually led me to research a trip to the actual site. That is what brought me all the way to Sarajevo. I now stood on the verge of realizing a decades old dream.

Realizing a lifelong dream in Sarajevo

Realizing a lifelong dream in Sarajevo

Trigger Effect – Changing The World One Bullet At A Time
It is not often (or ever) that I travel thousands of miles to visit a single street corner, but the allure of what happened in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 magnetically pulled me to that place where the Obala Kulina bana meets Zelenih beretki just across from the Latin Bridge. A century ago, the Obala was known as the Appel Quay, while Zelenih berertki was Franz Josef Strasse. Sarajevo was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the southern frontier of that multicultural polity. The annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina by Austria-Hungary in 1905 had caused the blood of Serbia to boil. Bosnia had a large population of ethnic Serbs. The nation of Serbia wanted to incorporate them into a Greater Serbia that would rule over all South Slavs. Ethnic Serbs in Bosnia were stoked by the Serbian government to overthrow Austro-Hungarian rule. One way of doing that would be to assassinate the heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand when he visited Sarajevo. The man who carried out the assassination, Gavrilo Princip, was a rootless, Bosnian Serb nationalist. His act of murder changed history.

When I got to the actual site, I was surprised by how small everything seemed. The Miljacka River, running beside the Appel Quay and under the Latin Bridge was flowing tepidly. It took less than a minute to walk across this world famous bridge. The street corner on which Princip stood when he fired the shots was just another ordinary street corner in front of an unmemorable building. Today the building holds a museum about the assassination and Austro-Hungarian rule in Sarajevo. There was a plaque with historical information on the outer wall of the museum and that was about it. It was something of a letdown, but what should I have expected? I had built the event up in my mind to such an extent that almost anything outside of the actual moment itself would have been a letdown.

The incredible thing was that the event really was of outsized significance, beyond all proportion to the modest surroundings of the site. There is no understating the assassination’s effect upon the world, both then and now. It was quite literally the trigger event that led to the outbreak of the First World War and millions of lives being lost in the first great conflagration of the 20th century. Princip’s shots were the inaugural volley that started the 20th century on an ultraviolent trajectory. Standing in the exact spot where it all began should have been humbling. In truth, I did not feel much of anything, other than a sense of gratification that I had realized a lifelong dream.

The Latin Bridge over the Miljacka River

The Latin Bridge over the Miljacka River

Murderous Foibles – Reign Of The Amateurs
As for the assassination itself, the entire operation was full of foibles, nebulous characters and outright amateurism. For example, there were six known potential assassins in the city that day. The first three completely lost their nerve, failing to carry out a number of prime opportunities to murder the Archduke. Another assassin did muster the courage to toss a bomb at the Archduke’s vehicle, which bounced off its open topped canopy and badly damaged one of his entourage’s vehicles following closely behind. The bomb thrower, tried to commit suicide by taking cyanide, which only proceeded to induce vomiting, then proceeded to leap into the nearby river which was less than half a foot in depth. So much for getting away. The police pulled him from the water and gave him a vicious beating.

The Archduke took this as more a personal slight than a potentially fatal threat. By the time he reached the town hall to give a speech, he was barking at the mayor about the ferocious hospitality shown toward him and his wife by the bomb throwing locals. His wife, Sophie, was able to calm him down, but his imperious, stubborn nature would come back to haunt them. Instead of getting out of the city as soon as possible, the archduke decided they should go to the hospital and visit those who had been wounded by the bomb. This meant going back through the city once again with the car’s canopy down.

The man in charge of the Archduke’s security (if there was such a thing on this day) decided they should avoid the maze of streets in the downtown area and hurry along the Appel Quay, more of a straight shot through town to the hospital. Unfortunately the archduke’s chauffeur was not told this information. He was still following the original route and turned right onto Franz-Josef-Strasse, back towards the city center. Just after making that turn, the chauffeur was dutifully informed (too late of course) that he was headed the wrong way (the right way by his incorrect calculations) and put the car in reverse, which jammed the gears causing the car to stall.

Princip was standing close to the middle of the crosswalk when he fired the fatal shots

Princip was standing close to the middle of the crosswalk when he fired the fatal shots

A Fluke Of History – An Ordinary Street On An Ordinary Day
At right about this time, Princip, whose most notable features were his short stature and a pair of preternaturally dark circles under his eyes, was coming out of Schiller’s Delicatessan (you can’t make this stuff up). He proceeded to pistol whip an innocent bystander who was in his way and then unloaded two shots. The first struck the Archduke in a jugular vein. The second struck his wife Sophie in the abdomen.
Right away, a crowd developed around Princip that attempted to lynch him. That was until the police arrived and carried him away. The Archduke and Sophie did reach the hospital, but she was dead on arrival and ten minutes later so was he. His final words were a repetitive mumble, “it is nothing.” Well it most certainly was something.

As for Princip, he turns the great man theory of history on its head. Perhaps it is not great men who make history, but weak men who overcompensate for their own innate weakness. They summon anger as a replacement for courage and leave their mark on the world through incident or accident. Such an improbable series of events put the assassination site into perspective for me. The act occurred less by planning than happenstance. It was a fluke of history that Princip found himself standing on the sidewalk beside the Archduke’s stalled out vehicle. The sheer randomness of everything that happened that day has left countless historians grappling to make sense of it all. The assassination is a reminder of the role luck and chance play in history. That may also be why the site itself seems to be so mundane. It happened on an ordinary street, on an ordinary day, but as I would find out soon enough, Sarajevo is no ordinary place.

Visiting Sarajevo – Shattered Impressions: Thirty Years & Thousands Of Miles Away (Travels In Eastern Europe #21)

Just as Bucharest has become associated with the monstrous architectural excesses of Nicolae Ceaucescu, my next destination, Sarajevo will always be associated with two tragic events that the city can never quite escape, the Assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand which sparked World War I and the 1,425 day siege of the city by Serbian forces during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s. The name Sarajevo evokes memories of these two events. One was the precursor to modern warfare, the other indicative of its ultimate extreme. These events will always have their place in history and give the city an unjustified reputation for infamy, as if it was fated to be the place where these events would occur. In other words, there must be something about Sarajevo. I must admit that I was not immune to such thinking. It was part of what drew me to plan my first trip to Eastern Europe and the Balkans around visiting the city.

I had originally planned to take a train through Bulgaria and Serbia to Bosnia, but after deciding to visit Bucharest it was easier for me to fly into Sarajevo. This was not the optimum way to ease into the Balkans. There would be no gradual change of scenery or prolonged crossing of borders, the transition would be abrupt. It was almost as if I was being parachuted into the city. Before parting ways with my travel companion, Tim, he had mentioned visiting the city. He called it “fascinating” and said it was well worth a multi-day visit. As the plane prepared for landing on the outskirts of the city, at an airport that had been central to the nearly four year siege, I wondered what to expect. I doubted it would be anything like my first encounter with the city, thirty years before and thousands of miles away.

Opening Ceremony for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo

Opening Ceremony for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo (Credit: BiHVolim)

The Winter Games – Sarajevo Shines In The Spotlight
It was the winter of 1984, Cold War tensions ran high and the Soviet Union was viewed as a monolithic Evil Empire. At least that is what we thought or were taught in the United States. The Olympic Games were more than a sporting competition. They were also a contest in the struggle for ideological supremacy. Posing the question of which system was better at developing athletes. A state controlled, centrally planned system or one inspired by the free market? The first communist nation to hold a Winter Olympics would be Yugoslavia with Sarajevo as the host city. Yugoslavia was an outlier, not part of either the Warsaw Pact or NATO, a communist nation with elements of the free market. The Yugoslavs hoped the Winter Olympics would boost their reputation with Sarajevo acting as the showpiece. The Yugoslav government spent $135 million in preparing for the games, an unheard of sum for a mid-sized country.

As a teenager in North Carolina and fanatical sports fan I eagerly followed those Winter Olympics. My most enduring memory is of snow, lots of snow, huge fluffy flakes falling on Sarajevo for days on end. Each day I tuned in, there would be legendary ABC Sports host, Jim McKay, standing amid a snowstorm, telling an American audience that Sarajevo was experiencing blizzard conditions. The downhill skiing event was canceled no less than three times due to heavy snow and high winds. I wondered if the event would ever be run. When it finally was, American Bill Johnson would be the surprise winner. I remember everything on the race course covered under a thick blanket of snow. For me, Sarajevo became the place of eternal snow, where it was forever winter. It was a powerful image that I struggled to shake less than a decade later, when the city came under siege.

A burning government building during the Siege of Sarajevo

A burning government building during the Siege of Sarajevo (Credit: Mikhail Evstafiev)

Siege Mentality –  A Ruined Image
The siege of Sarajevo brought images of a war torn city where people ran for their lives every time they crossed the street. There was no snow, only burning buildings gutted by artillery fire. Bullets, shrapnel and fear were pervasive. The siege seemed to be never ending, to the point that it became almost an afterthought. Bosnia became a synonym for ethnic conflict and Sarajevo a byword for death and destruction. Was this really the place that had hosted that winter wonderland of an Olympics? A dream city had somehow become a nightmare one. The siege and the Yugoslav Wars finally came to a muddled end, but Sarajevo would never be the same, at least not in the popular imagination. The war left thousands of scars, as many mental as physical.  As peace took hold Sarajevo faded into the background, part of yesterday’s news, obscured by international terrorism and the Euro Crisis. I thought little of it, as did the rest of the world.

Any mention of the 1984 Winter Olympics focused on the dilapidated state of the once magnificent facilities. War, neglect and lack of money had turned them into ruins at a very early age. Sarajevo came back into the news with the imminent arrival of the centennial of the Great War. It started to pop up in news headlines prior to the anniversary. It had been a dream of mine to visit the actual site of the Archduke’s assassination ever since I learned about it in high school Western Civilization class. My teacher, Mr. Johnson, spent an entire class drawing a diagram of the Sarajevo street layout, then explaining the causes of confusion that ended in Gavrilo Princip firing the deadly shots from point blank range that murdered the Archduke and his wife. Mr. Johnson had an incredible curiosity and spoke with such passionate fervor that it made me want to visit Sarajevo. To stand in the exact same place where to my mind, twentieth century history had begun. That was my goal in traveling to Sarajevo.

Sarajevo - from above

Sarajevo – from above (Credit: Julian Nitzsche)

Shock of the Normal – Opposites Attract
As my flight to Sarajevo touched down at the airport I looked out the window. I saw a place that looked completely normal. The wounds of war had been paved or painted over, the airport totally refurbished. It was inviting and well organized, passport control was a lark. My first impression of Sarajevo was of a warm, welcoming place, the complete opposite of its recent past.

Strangers, Friends & Enemies With Benefits – Crossing The Danube In Bulgaria (Travels In Eastern Europe #15)

My lasting impression of Ruse will always be the inquisitive, staring eyes of Bulgars. Their dark eyes and suspicious expressions followed me and my traveling companion Tim as we bought bus tickets for Bucharest. When we then proceeded to purchase food, the entire gathering of silent strangers followed us with intense stares. Their stares were not mean or harsh, but focused. They could not take their eyes off of us. It was obvious that we were foreigners, ethnically we looked the part. Tim, with his Asian features, was an obvious outsider. I was quite noticeable due to my red hair and fair skin, a rare trait in Bulgaria. Our every move was scrutinized by watchful pairs of eyes. We were guilty of being different.

The most disconcerting stare came from a middle aged man standing off to the side. Tall with broad shoulders, he could not hide his interest and not just in us. His eyes were fixated on our baggage. I half expected him to make an attempt at trying to steal them. After we got our food he slowly and deliberately approached us. I had my mind made up that he would either ask us for a cigarette or try a scam. Instead he pointed at our bags, than signaled towards a door. He was offering to keep our bags safe behind a locked door, which he would guard until our bus arrived. Strangely for such a suspicious acting character there was a mysterious charm about his behavior. Our intuition said to trust him and so we did. It turned out that he was a man you could trust, for a very small price.

Aerial view of the Danube Bridge (former Friendship Bridge) spanning the Danube River between Bulgaria and Romania

Aerial view of the Danube Bridge (former Friendship Bridge) spanning the Danube River between Bulgaria and Romania (Credit: Yavor Michev)

The Unknown Danube –  A City Called Ruse
Ruse is the largest city on the stretch of the Danube River that borders Bulgaria and the fifth largest in the entire country. That is notable, though it is hardly ever noticed. A host of spectacular cities are known for their placement on Europe’s most famous river. When the Danube comes to mind, thoughts of it are inseparable from Vienna and Budapest and to a lesser extent Bratislava and Belgrade, all capital cities which the mighty river flows through. With that kind of competition Ruse does not stand a chance. Nearly all tourist cruises of the river end at Budapest. The lower Danube that skirts Bulgaria and Romania scarcely exists in the popular conscious. That is a shame, but also an opportunity for more adventuresome travelers.

Unfortunately I did not have time to explore the Bulgarian portion of the Danube, let alone Ruse. I regret seeing nothing more of the city than its bus station. It would have been great for cocktail conversation to say that I toured one of the great cities on the Danube, Ruse. That will never happen since I cannot stand cocktails or the conversation that goes with them. Not to mention the fact that Ruse commands little to no interest, even among hardened travelers, except for the fact that it has a bridge over the Danube. For Bulgaria and neighboring Romania that makes it a very big deal.

Bridging a troubled relationship postage stamp from a 1948 stamp portraying the future bridge over the Danube River between Bulgaria and Romania

Bridging a troubled relationship postage stamp from a 1948 stamp portraying the future bridge over the Danube River between Bulgaria and Romania (Credit: Karen Horton)

Imperial Forces – Romans And Soviets Bridging The Danube
On July 5th, 328 AD the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great was present at Oescus (the same place exists today in Bulgaria) for the opening of what would be the longest bridge ever constructed in the empire. Known to history as Constantine’s Bridge, it was built largely of wood with abutments on each end acting as gates. The bridge spanned the Danube from Oescus to Sucidava (Corabia, Romania’s present location). Running over a mile in length, the bridge was in use for at least forty years. It would be over sixteen hundred years later before another bridge would span the lower reaches of the Danube. Neither Bulgaria nor Romania was capable of achieving such an engineering feat. This was due not to a lack of scientific knowledge, but instead political disagreements and territorial disputes that proved intractable.

These disputes were mainly over the region of Dobruja through which the lower Danube flows. Even after these were settled the two sides still could not agree on how or where to bridge the Danube. The solution came from of all places, the Soviet Union. Following the end of World War II with the imposition of hardline Communism a new force was brought to bear upon the situation. Under the guise of Communist solidarity and with the will of Stalin bearing down upon the parties, a bridge was constructed in just two and a half years. Opening in the summer of 1954, it was ironically named the Friendship Bridge. Former enemies were now forced into a friendship of convenience that benefited the strategic and economic needs of their Soviet overlords. Over a mile in length, the steel truss bridge has in more recent times become known as the Danube Bridge. Today it bisects an internal border of two European Union members. This bridge would be our corridor to Romania.

Friendship Bridge (now Danube Bridge) from Ruse, Bulgaria to Giurgiu, Romania

Friendship Bridge (now Danube Bridge) from Ruse, Bulgaria to Giurgiu, Romania (Credit Tiia Monto)

Crossing Over – From Many Centuries To A Few Minutes
Our crossing of the Danube was rather easy. The baggage guardian summoned us at the appointed time for our bus ride. The fee for his services was the equivalent of a couple of dollars. He led us not out into the main bus terminal, but through a back door and down a stairway. We were in for a pleasant surprise. There was no “bus” to be found. Instead we were part of a group of four taking a maxi taxi (a hybrid car/bus vehicle) to Bucharest. The vehicle looked almost new, it was a shiny Volkswagen that could have seated several more passengers. The driver was yet another suspicious looking person, who spoke no English and would stay almost completely silent throughout the ride to Bucharest. He was there to do his job without conversation or pleasantries. Crossing the Danube from Bulgaria had been extremely difficult for centuries on end, but now we crossed the bridge in a few minutes to Romanian border control. The Danube Bridge was hardly worth noting. It was nothing more than a large bridge, over a large river. It had taken so long, to build something so simple, a historical metaphor for the idea of progress in the Balkans. Nothing came easy in this region.

The World That Will Not Go Away – A Thousand Year Plan On A Bus Ride To Ruse (Travels In Eastern Europe #14)

The bus ride from Veliko Tarnovo to Ruse was the usual sleep inducing experience. I have no idea what it is about buses, but a person can be wide awake, fueled with adrenaline when they board and within a half hour they are reduced to a comatose state. The good part of bus travel is that it is for the most part a silent, contemplative experience. Passengers rarely raise their voices above a whisper. The downside is that even something as short as an hour long trip can seem like a marathon. Time inside a bus is suspended. There is an unreality to the sleepy silence that pervades the cabin. It as though everyone on board has lost all emotion. If you ever want to get forty adults to all be quiet at once, put them on a bus and start driving.

Waking The Dead – Surviving A Bulgarian Side Road
As the bus made its way through northern Bulgaria I fell in and out of sleep. My traveling companion Tim was in a separate row of seats.  Each of us had separately taken different sports, hoping to get a pair of seats to ourselves. This did not work as planned. We sat a third of the way from the front which soon filled up. I was beside a woman who was polite and preternaturally quiet. I had the window seat which turned out to be more curse than blessing. This trapped me for the length of the ride. Unable to stretch my legs I spent most of the ride trying not to brush my arm or leg against the lady. This made me ridiculously self-conscious, the pervasive silence added to my restrictive demeanor. At first, the landscape was one of barren hills covered with leafless trees. The transition from winter to spring had stalled. Winter chill, mixed with spring warmth had left the landscape half thawed. It had a depressing look to it, giving me a feeling of sustained mediocrity. As the bus traveled north, the landscape slowly opened up, fewer trees and more agricultural land. For the half of the bus ride there was really nothing of note. It was not until we pulled off the highway for a stop at a town that the ride took on air of excitement.

Up to this point the road had been relatively smooth, a little bumpy in spots, but serviceable. Then we exited the main highway. What happened next was a wake-up call of seismic proportions. The bus was thrown into upheaval as it encountered a roadway consisting of collapsed concrete and crater sized potholes. Somehow the bus stayed upright, but passengers sitting side by side were tossed into one another, bounced around and attempted to steady themselves. I was jolted wide awake. After an initial reaction of wonderment and horror I prepared myself for more aftershocks and tremors. Fortunately this only went on for about five minutes, yet it was bad enough that my back was lucky to survive the experience.

Survival instincts - A Bulgarian villager collecting branches

Survival instincts – A Bulgarian villager collecting branches

A Thousand Year Plan – Surviving Bulgaria
What came next was just as unsettling. The “town” we stopped in contained an abandoned factory that was an icon of dereliction. It looked like someone’s idea of a sick joke at the Communist Central Planning Committee. It was an unsightly mass that made junkyards look edenesque. The windows were shattered with loose wires protruding in all directions. Rust grew like moss on industrial detritus strewn all over the place. It looked like a person might get tetanus just by touching something inside the building. It was obvious that the factory had been placed in this rural netherworld as a sort of make work project. More to the point, it was a “Make Communism Work” project that had not worked in years. For some reason it reminded me of my elementary school, likely because of its elongated, rectangular shape and flat roof. This low rise nightmare of five year plans past was a fitting monument to the ossification and death of communism, both ridiculously optimistic about what the system could achieve and utterly depraved in its execution. Just looking at it made me want to start drinking again after over a decade of sobriety. I shuttered to think that anyone could live in the ramshackle town surrounding it, but people somehow did, but by the looks of things not very well.

After collecting a passenger the bus began to pick its way through the potholes back to the main highway. Then as if scripted, walking out of a copse of woods on the other side of a field, appeared a crowd of older men and women, the latter wearing headscarves. They were carrying large bundles of sticks in their hands and on their backs. This could have been any day in the last thousand years of Bulgarian history. Nothing had ever really changed in these rural hinterlands. It seemed that the more people and ideologies tried to change things, the more tradition became entrenched. They were integral to survival. These people carrying their bundles of sticks were acting out of an instinct for self-preservation. The system they relied upon was based on self-sufficiency and nature. It was the only one that had proven consistently reliable in the Bulgarian countryside. The system may have looked primitive, but it worked. This was because it was based purely on human instinct. Beliefs in the party or ideology had been proven worse than useless. They were destructive to human life and the environment, the antithesis of how Bulgarians had survived and would likely continue to survive for centuries.

Open Wounds – The Exhibition of Experience
The Bulgarian National Historical Museum in Sofia does not contain an exhibition hall for the communist era though it is housed in the communist dictator Todor Zhivkov’s former residence. This absence is best explained by the fact that most Bulgarians would probably like to forget those four decades of hardship and stagnation. The recent past strikes a raw nerve and is still an open wound that has not yet healed. This history is slowly dying every day. It lurks in downtrodden villages, towns and cities with gutted factories that are still experienced by those unlucky enough to be left behind in a world rusting all around them. Looking out the bus window into this morass, I was looking at a world that will not go away.