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.

Comfort In The Unknown – Riding the Balkan Backwater: Sarajevo to Pecs on the Drava Intercity (Part One)

For most American travelers thoughts of a first long European train trip bring to mind Paris to Rome or Vienna to Venice, riding the rails between the continent’s most glamorous cities. Few would chance a train ride from Sarajevo to Pecs through the provincial backwaters of the Balkans. Sarajevo has a reputation for being ripped apart by war, a city synonymous with the deadly siege that engulfed it for years. In the popular imagination, Sarajevo will be forever at war.   Conversely, Pecs is an almost unknown city in southern Hungary, a place only Hungarians are supposed to visit. A trip between these two cities would be done by most out of necessity rather than wonderment. I found myself with a rare and once in a lifetime opportunity to travel this route a few years ago. It turned out to be just in time, as not long afterward the line stopped running, most likely due to a lack of passengers. The trip was a surreal ride from a war scarred Bosnian countryside, through a part of Croatia rarely seen by tourists that arrived at the surprising splendor of southern Hungary’s most beautiful city. Along the way I was witness to varying degrees of development in each nation, providing a look at an area of Europe that is missing from the mental map of most travelers.

The Drava Intercity

The Drava Intercity – Sarajevo’s lost connection to Hungary (Credit: Attila Voros)

The Places In Between – Unseen Europe
There is always anticipation and dread when I view the timetable for a train trip. Anticipation for all the places I will probably pass through for the first and last time ever. Dread at the possibility of an entire day covering a relatively meager distance. Trains in the Balkans are not known for their speed or efficiency. The Drava Intercity Train actually went from Sarajevo all the way to Budapest, but I decided to get off in Pecs. This cut the trip from eleven to just under eight hours. There were two border crossings and eight stops. The stops along the way sounded less than promising. There was Zenica, the fourth largest city in Bosnia, whatever that was supposed to mean. Doboj, site of the largest railway junction in Bosnia and once home to the largest Austro-Hungarian concentration camp of World War I, a place where over 45,000 mostly ethnic Serbian soldiers, women and children were once held.

Samac would be the last stop in Bosnia, soon followed by Slavonski Samac in Croatia. These towns had once been on the front line of the Bosnian War, now they were a couple of remote border crossings. Osijek offered the most hope for sights that might be seen from the train window. It was the economic hub of Slavonia, not to be confused with Slovenia. The closeness of the names was confusing. Slavonia was a pancake flat, exceedingly remote region of Croatia that had nothing in common with Slovenia other than an eight letter name. Beli Manastir was the last stop in eastern Croatia, it meant white monastery. From what I read, it did not seem to have one. Another border crossing would come at Magyarboly, the first part of the name a reminder of what the Hungarians call themselves, Magyars. Finally I would arrive in Pecs by the mid-afternoon. This arrival time was predicated on an early start as the train would be leaving Sarajevo at 6:55 a.m.

Tragic reminder - one of Sarajevo's many cemeteries

Tragic reminder – one of Sarajevo’s many cemeteries (Credit: Michael Büker)

The Stray Dogs of Sarajevo
I dread an early departure time for intensely personal reasons. My main goal every morning is to get up and go for a run. This meant that I would have to wake up around 4:00 a.m. for a run through the dark streets of Sarajevo. While this sounded dangerous, Sarajevo turned out to be one of the safest cities visited or at least it looked that way. There seemed to be police everywhere, of course that was for a reason. My main worry on the morning run was the threat of unexploded landmines. The day before, I had been walking in a park near my hotel when an elderly man motioned me over. He pointed out the remnants of a landmine that had now been disarmed. This was startling. An urban green space still stalked by death.  A reminder of that the war was never far away in Sarajevo. My early morning run went according to plan except for one memorable incident.

During my visit to the city I had been surprised by the noticeable lack of stray dogs. At two of my previous stops on this trip, Sofia and Bucharest, there were stray dogs everywhere. In one of Sofia’s city parks I was followed by a herd of stray dogs that grew with every lap. I expected that Sarajevo, having suffered through years of war would be much the same. Until the morning of my departure I had not seen a single stray dog. Then while running down a well-lit street I noticed lots of movement on the other side of a fence in an abandoned lot. Running around aimlessly were several herds of dogs. There must have been twenty of them, all strangely silent. The stray dogs of Sarajevo obviously were alive and well, keeping to themselves.

Titoesque architecture - Sarajevo's Train Station

Titoesque architecture – Sarajevo’s Train Station

Leaving Sarajevo – Scars of War
After returning to the hotel and showering I took a taxi to the train station. Leaving Sarajevo gave me mixed feelings. The sunrise showed a city not much different from so many others in Eastern Europe. Bungalows, single family homes and communist-era apartment blocks covered the hillsides and valley. It all looked strangely normal for a place that had, not so long ago, been the scene of horrific carnage. The only overt sign of the war were the glowing white hilltops. These were covered with tombstones of Bosniaks, a sobering reminder of the conflict’s human toll.

I had spent three days walking around Sarajevo, admiring the rebuilt city. It all looked so well put together, not what I had imagined. Imagination finally met reality for me on one of the backstreets, where the walls were pockmarked with hundreds of bullet holes. The past was really never very far away, both physically and historically in this city. The Drava train from Sarajevo to Budapest was waiting upon my arrival at the train station, a block looking structure that looked like it was designed by Tito. I wearily walked through its concrete corridors and boarded the train. One trip was now over and another was just beginning. What lay ahead of me was the unknown. For some reason, that seemed very comforting.