The Scars of Sarajevo

The Round-the-World adventure is almost over. Only one region is left. From the airplane I spot the green hills that surround the small capital of Bosnia. In the early ninetees, these beautiful hills were used against the Bosnian people, as Serbian tanks positioned themselves right on top of those hills. The people of Sarajevo were trapped. Today, there is peace in Bosnia, but old scars keep ripping open whenever one of the many mines explode that are still to be found here. Since these mines were laid arbitrarily, without any map to locate them, tracing and removing the mines remains a great challenge even today. The technologies that Bosnia can afford are not sufficient to locate a great number of mines, because their devices cannot differentiate between mines and metallic substances on the hills. Several people lost their lives while trying to remove the mines.

 

 

With that said, today most mines in Sarajevo are located in more remote areas and nowadays it is very unlikely that a traveler would step into a mine. The farther you walk up the hill, or the more isolated a place is, the more vigilant you have to be. It is recommended to stay away from meadows, especially when the grass is not cut, as there probably is a good reason for that. It is of course also highly recommended to stay away from demolished or damaged premises. Although many areas have warning signs, one should remain vigilant all the more in isolated areas where none of those signs can be spotted, because there are still mines that have not been explored. However, as long as you stick to the populated areas and to the main streets of Sarajevo, there is not much reason for concern.

A traveler will notice very fast, how enthusiastic the Bosnian people are, when it comes down to sharing their personal stories or general information on their homeland. Even the cab driver, who takes me from the airport to the old town, gives me a lot of insight on Sarajevo's most recent history, turning this taxi ride into a free city tour. Among other buildings, he points at the Holiday Inn Hotel, whose yellow color makes the building stand out in the cityscape of Sarajevo. In the early phase of the war, the roof of this hotel was used by Serbian soldiers to break up a peace rally in front of the Republic Assembly building.

The initial idea for Bosnia was not only to choose a less typical travel destination, but to meet a Bosnian friend of mine who was forced to leave Germany eleven years ago. Unfortunately, my friend, who now lives in Zenica, for personal reasons is not ready yet to confront his past. 

 

As soon as I arrive at the Old Town Bascarsija, the heart of Sarajevo, I contact Indira, a tandem partner of mine who lives in this city. We agreed on later meeting in front of the national library Vijecnica, which was heavily damaged during the Siege of Sarajevo. Millions of books were burnt. Today, 18 years later, Vijecnica is being restored. Before I meet Indira, I walk around in the charming Old Town, trying to get used to walking on the paved stones. Countless shops tempt the consumers to buy souvernirs and clothes. The smell of Cevapcici lures me to one of the restaurants, until a poor child walks over to me and asks me for money. Once I give him some coins, it takes only a few seconds until the next child stands in front of me. The locals who sit in the restaurants are amused as they look over to me, noticing that I visit Sarajevo for the first time. Organized begging is prevalent here. 

Soon I stand in front of Vijecnica again and feel this need to enter the broken library. But the entrance is blocked off by barriers. I wonder if there is a way to get inside. Indira arrives a few minutes later, excited to show her hometown to a traveller, in the same way that a traveler is excited to explore new places. "Where do people go out at night here?", I ask. She suggests a few localities, but notes that she does not know so many bars, because she rarely goes out. Indira does not like loud places, which makes a lot of sense after I learn more about her past. 

Indira points at some red stains on the concrete. Whereever you find those stains, it means that at least three civilians were hit by a mortar and died. The traces that are today left as a result of the mortars hitting the concrete, have been filled with red resin. These red stains are also called the "Roses of Sarajevo". Many other places keep reminding the Bosnians of the horrors of the war, such as the Markale market, where two massacres took place in 1994 and 1995, or the parliament building that was heavily hit by tank fire.

The sun will go down soon. Indira's informative crash course on the history of Sarajevo is almost over, and I express my thoughts on what she has shown and told me so far. Suddenly she pushes me aside, noticing an object that lies on the ground. It's only a tissue paper. She stresses that you can never be careful enough, reminding me of the levels of insanity that the war reached. The most twisted form of warfare techniques was probably the positioning of toys that contained explosives on the streets to lure children. At that time, Indira herself was only a child. She tells me how she used to get water as a child, while the city was under attack. She needs a while to explain something to me, trying to remember a word in English. "Try it in Bosnian", I say, although I know that I only have a small vocabulary in Bosnian. "Strah", she says. A word that I understand.

 

Back in Bascarsija we stand in front of the Sebilj fountain, perhaps the most famous landmark in Sarajevo. "Sebilj" derives from the Arabic word "Sabil", meaning "path" or "journey". According to a legend, those who drink from the fountain of Sebilj, will return to Sarajevo one day. Thinking about my stay in Sarajevo so far, I want this legend to be true and joyfully drink from the fountain. Indira and I say goodbye to each other. Maybe we would meet again one day.

 

 

 

As I walk along the streets of Sarajevo while thinking about my future perspectives, I spot a spray painted message on a wall that makes me feel like Sarajevo is a friend of mine who just read my mind and is now giving me some advice: "Make a choice!". For now I make the choice to walk up the hill as high as I can. Hours later I take a look around. A beautiful view on one side, many graves on the other side. From a distance I see Grbavica, the district in Sarajevo that was damaged the most during the war. But you do not have to look that far to see the scars of Sarajevo. Demolished premises full of bullet holes are to be found nearly everywhere. There's an eerie silence while I continue walking along the street, trying to put myself in the positon of the Bosnians during the war. Even when the war was over, the people here could have never really felt safe, given that they could never know for sure where the next mine would explode. And even today you are not always sure where they are. Focused too much on these thoughts, I startle as I suddenly hear the loud honk of a car that flashes by.

Far up on the hills a curious older woman looks at me from her balcony and asks me what I am looking for. She calls her little daughter, who speaks English very well. The little girl comes down and asks me, if she and her friend, who has a surprisingly good command in German, can join me. I agree. The further we walk up the hill, the more I look for signs and make sure that we do not get too much off the beaten track. The children in Bosnia learn how to deal with mines in school. But as we know, kids also love to play so much that they sometimes forget about potential dangers.

 

 

They seem to have found a spot that they like, and it's a meadow. "Stay away from meadows", I kept saying to myself in Sarajevo, only to end up in this situation where I am forced to follow kids who run into a meadow. How ironical it is that on such a peaceful day, where the sun is shining, this moment where kids are laughing, playing and happily running up that hill, feels like the most worrisome moment in this Round-the-World trip, more worrisome than the moment when I accidentally landed in Compton, and more worrisome than the powerful thunderstorms that would not allow us to land in Islamabad for hours. Luckily, they listen to me immediately as I let them know that we should stick to the road. But not much later, the kids feel attracted to a similar spot. A woman, who lives in a nearby house, apparently feels the same concerns as I do, but instead of mentioning mines, she tells them that we must beware of snakes. One thing is for sure: It was a very reasonable idea to return to the road in this place, where we continue to enjoy a nice view on Sarajevo and take some pictures before we slowly head back down to their house, where I thank the kids and their mother for their friendly gesture and their hospitality.

Before leaving Sarajevo, I look out of the window, right at the burnt down library Vijecnica that is being restored. I decide to head to the Old town one more time, but on the way I notice something about Vijecnica. This time something is different. There is a gap in the barrier. I look to my left, then to my right, and then head straight into the demolished library to have a walk inside of the cold, empty and lifeless building to take a few pictures. I can hear the voices of construction workers on one of the upper levels. They spot me only after I reach the highest floor and try to walk down the rotten stairs. What excuse do I have? I try to act like I "accidentally" entered the wrong building. They don't seem convinced, but let me go.

15 minutes later I am back in the hostel, where Arijan, the son of those who run the hostel, tells me more about Bosnia's most recent war. He shows me some of his "war souvenirs". Collecting bullets and other war objects is a hobby among some people in Sarajevo. Arijan and I exchange thoughts revolving around Bosnia, while I am slowly getting prepared to leave. In a few hours the next flight would take me to Zagreb, the final place of this Round-the-World trip. "How does it feel to be inside an airplane?", Arijan asks me and reminds me how priviliged I am to soon take my eleventh flight in six weeks. A taxi is not necessary. Arijan's father offers to take me to the airport for a much cheaper price.

 

 

Back at the airport, a man greets me and asks me how I liked his country. "Don't you recognize me?", he asks me in Bosnian. Then I figure out that it is the taxi driver who took me to the old town when I arrived. Too bad that I cannot fully explain to him how I feel after my first stay in Sarajevo. Not only am I impressed by the hospitality and generosity of the Bosnian people towards foreigners, but as much am I amazed at how many of them take care of each other, like the young Bosnian man who broke a piece of bread in half, sat down right next to the old poor woman on the street and gave her one half of bread while starting a conversation with her. I had never seen something like this before. Indira asked me what I like so much about Sarajevo. I visited this country right after having visited numerous other countries on different continents, after visiting many beautiful places. And despite of all the bullet holes, the traces of mortars and the broken premises, all the scars of Sarajevo never managed to cover the beauty of Sarajevo. Before I arrived here, I witnessed the biggest man-made structures in the world, such as the Great Wall of China, the tallest building on this planet in Dubai. But if you want to talk about size, I would ask any traveller to look at the heart of the Bosnian people.

Travel Projects

I.    Around the World (2010)                                                           

II.   Stairway to Heaven (2011)

III.  Travelution (2012)

IV.  Era of Epicness (2013)

V.   Emergency Exits (2014)

VI.  The Slippery Path of Uncertainty (2015)

VII. Age of Turbulence (2016)

VIII. Against All Odds (2017)

IX.  Evasive Maneuvers (2018)

 X.  Home is Everywhere (2019)

XI. ??? (2020)