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)

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.

Weird, But Not Menacing – Against Fear: Crime & Safety in Eastern Europe

It has happened so many times that by now I should be used to it. Someone finds out I have traveled to Europe and asks me where I went. When I mention Hungary or Slovakia or Ukraine or some other country in Eastern Europe they look at me surprised, then follows an awkward silence. They wait for me to say something, it becomes obvious that they know next to nothing about the nation I have mentioned, except that it used to be communist and therefore must be dangerous. An example of this occurred not long ago when I was discussing a European trip with someone whose only overseas travel had been to England and France. They would soon be headed to Greece and eventually hoped to visit Croatia. They asked me places that I might recommend. I said if you get to Croatia, check out Bosnia because it is beautiful, highly affordable and a place where east and west collide sometimes right before your eyes. A third person listening to this conversation turned a bit pale and said, “Bosnia sounds dangerous.” I tried to set their mind at ease, saying “it is fine, one of the safest places I have been.” Their expression belied a willful disbelief. Our conversation ended not long after that, but it reminded me of so many I have had since I first traveled to Eastern Europe.

Beliefs About Bosnia – Safety In Sarajevo
The long shadow cast by four and half decades of the Cold War and communism, the Iron Curtain and Soviet occupation, has left an impression in American minds that Eastern Europe is a land of totalitarian backwardness. The post-Cold War era has transformed that image for westerners into a region that is at best incomprehensible, at worst beset by lawlessness, with governments captured by Mafioso and business riven with bandit capitalism. Like any stereotype, such a reputation contains elements of the truth. For instance, Bosnia is not dangerous today, but was deadly during the 1990’s Yugoslav Wars. Ukraine has an ongoing war in its southeastern part, but the rest of the country – a land mass larger than France – is largely peaceful. Such facts do little to dissuade prejudice and keep many Americans away from the region.

Street sign in Sarajevo - note the bullet holes below the sign

Street sign in Sarajevo – note the bullet holes below the sign

I often get the sense that people believe that as soon as someone arrives in Belgrade or Bratislava they will be set upon by armed thugs, scam artists and corrupt police demanding bribes. The reality is much different. They are much more likely to be left to their own devices. Let’s be honest, a sense of helplessness is likely to cause more travelers to avoid the region than local crime. A city such as Sarajevo stands out for the difference between expectations and reality when it comes to safety. It was ground zero for urban warfare during the Yugoslav Wars. The city was besieged for 1,425 days, as Serbian forces attempted to shell the city into submission. Fifteen years later I visited Sarajevo and have rarely felt safer in a city. Nothing about it felt threatening. Underneath sunny skies, looking up at the hills surrounding the city, it was difficult for me to imagine the horrors that Sarajevo had suffered in the not so distant past. The scenes of Bosnians running for their lives as they struggled to so much as cross a street had been beamed into homes around the world on nightly newscasts during the mid-1990s.

Sarajevo - a city now at peace

Sarajevo – a city now at peace (Credit: Julian Nitzsche)

Now there were young people sitting in outdoor cafes socializing and sipping coffee.  All the main tourist areas were in excellent condition, war could not have been any further from this scene. It was only when I started going down side streets and back alleys that damage from the war became highly visible. Building after building was pockmarked with bullet holes. This had once been a war zone, now it was benign. Since my visit, Sarajevo has continued to exist in a relatively docile state. According to one major crime index Sarajevo is safer than Paris, Brussels, Rome and Dublin. Think about that for a moment, a city that was at the heart of the deadliest conflict in post-World War II Europe a decade and a half ago is now safer for both its citizens and tourists than many wealthy Western European capital cities. When I asked the proprietor at my hotel if the city was safe, he replied “Sarajevo is perfectly safe for tourists.” From what I experienced, he could not have been more correct.

Street in the 8th District (Joszefvaros) of Budapest

Looks safe to me – street in the 8th District (Joszefvaros) of Budapest
(Credit: Czimmy)

Perception & Reality – The Safety Of City Centers
In the 2016 Crime Index, Kharkiv in the far eastern portion of Ukraine was the most unsafe city in Eastern Europe. There were still twelve cities above it though. All of these were in Western Europe or Great Britain. I have never been in Kharkiv, but I have been to Kiev. The most worrisome thing in the capital of Ukraine was a corrupt police force looking to check documents and possibly extract bribes. Even a relatively unsafe Eastern European city has to be put in perspective. Tourists are unlikely to ever go into the most dangerous areas of these cities. The majority of Eastern European cities have very safe city centers. The crime is usually concentrated in outer districts. This is the complete opposite of the United States where inner cities are usually outposts of crime that can sometimes turn deadly, especially after the sun goes down. It is a strange sensation for an American to be wandering around the center of a city such as Budapest late at night not giving much of a thought to personal safety.

One of the supposedly more “unsafe” areas in Budapest is the 8th District, Joszefvaros. In some areas it does look rougher around the edges than other parts of the city, but I have been in the district more than twenty times and have never had a problem there. Rougher in this area of Budapest means the streets are grimier, there are more odd characters begging for cigarettes and sleeping on the streets. It feels weird, but not menacing. The phrase “weird, but not menacing” perhaps sums up the real fear for those Americans who do not visit Eastern Europe. The region is weird for many people because they know next to nothing about it. It is also filled with nationalities speaking strange languages and who have a much different history from the west. Eastern Europe may not have a reputation for refinement and wealth, but it should also not have a reputation for crime. Western Europe is where that problem largely resides.