It felt like traveling back to the past, when I met my former best friend in front of the Sebilj Fountain in Sarajevo after not having seen him for sixteen years. Still overwhelmed from this emotional reunion, I begin to prepare for my final day here in Bosnia's Capital, and on this day, it would feel like traveling back in time once more. There is just one more person that I must meet, and one more obligatory thing to do. Today another circle will close. It starts raining again.
It has become our tradition that Indira and I meet in front of Vijecnica, a building of huge historic significance for the Bosnians. The city hall, which also served as the National Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was one of Sarajevo's shining landmarks until it was burnt down in 1992 during the Siege of Sarajevo. It took more than two decades to complete the structural repair of this edifice. Today, meeting in front of Vijecnica feels very different, because it is the first time that we stand in front of this building after it has finally been made accessible to visitors.
The moment we enter Vijecnica, many thoughts run through my head. First I feel like I have a deja vu, although I know that it's not a deja vu. The next moment it feels like I had a dream of how I entered this building, although I know that it was not a dream. I was in here before. It just looked completely different.
"It is forbidden to enter Vijecnica. But there is a way to get inside.", Arijan said to me during my first visit in 2010 when the destroyed library was still being reconstructed. From my hostel I looked out of the window with a perfect view on Vijecnica, pondering over the possibility to enter the destroyed building. Just shortly before I left Sarajevo in 2010, it just so happened that on my way to Carsija I spotted this gap at the barricade that was set up around the construction site, prompting me to quickly enter the edifice without anyone noticing it.
Once I was inside, it was quite an unspectacular moment, which in the following years ended up being just a dusty memory that I would eventually completely forget about. But today, as I stand in the middle of the restored building, all the dust on the past memory is being blown away, and I begin to remember the pictures that I shot five years ago in what had been left of the library. I begin to remember this cold, empty and ruined place, its connotative expression of sadness and hopelessness, and how I looked up to the central part of the empty roof scaffold, whose gap is today filled with colored glass.
Carefully I climbed up the rotten stairs of this once desolated place, until the construction workers caught me and kicked me out of the building, I recall as Indira and I walk up the stairs and euphorically look at the beams of sunlight projecting the colors of the newly installed window onto the wall. Ever since, I kept on witnessing the final phase of reconstruction, whenever I came back to Sarajevo. In 2011, the structural repair of Vijecnica continued. While progress had been made in the interior, from the outside the building almost looked the same as in the previous year. Two years later, when I visited Sarajevo again, the facade was already fully refurbished. Finally, in 2014, the building reopened, bringing back sweet memories to the people of Sarajevo. Indira, who like me has also entered this building for the first time since it was reopened, must surely feel like a part of her childhood has been restored.
But unfortunately and paradoxically, it is this building itself that reminds the visitor of how easily memories can be erased. The Sarajevans, who are very sensitive about preserving memories and history in general, will always remember how over two
million books and documents were burnt amid the destruction of Vijecnica. However, as much as they like to enjoy the sweet memories to the fullest, as much they want to learn from the bitter memories to the fullest. The tragical chapter of the siege has unquestionably coined the Sarajevans' collective identity. To confront the bitter realities of the recent past not only reminds them of the ugliness of war and in turn of how to appreciate even the most simple things in life, but it is their way to remember and honor those who have fallen.
The proneness to preserve anything that is related to their history and memories, good or bad, is today perfectly reflected in this very building, where certain parts have been repaired only partially on purpose, thus preserving even 'bitter' components,
one example being the preservation of some damaged pilaster strips, standing in contrast with the renewed ones, a contrast between the ugly times of war and the beautiful times of peace.
As essential as the preservation of memories is, as much it is important to look forward and to move on. Apart from the reconstructions of familiar landmarks, new structures have emerged as well, the most notable one perhaps being the Sarajevo City Center building. In 2011, when I stood in front of what used to be a huge construction site, I would have probably not paid too much attention to it, had I not spotted the banner ad, which announced that the building will function as a shopping mall and additionally as a five star hotel. It was not hard to guess that this project was launched by investors from Saudi-Arabia.
Criticism arose that such a project undermines the authenticity of Bosnia's Capital. While authenticity should not be measured by how broken the streets or how damaged the buildings are as a result of warfare, this structure is indeed uncharacteristic for Sarajevan cityscape. This, however, has not affected the cultural and architectural heritage of the city, and as the predominance of Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman influence demonstrates, what has constituted Bosnian architecture in the same way like it has constituted Bosnia's history and culture, has always been the contrast between traditionalism and modernism, as well as the mingling of Bosnian culture with other cultures, both of which simultaneously mirror the cultural, ethnical and religious diversity that is to be found among the people of Sarajevo.
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