We had arranged a warm showers host in Sarajevo which was a real treat. Selim and his wife Yasmin and two lovely daughters hosted us for two nights and we really enjoyed talking to them both. Naturally they both remember the war vividly. Hearing their personal stories about what it was like to live in a sieged city for nearly four years was chilling but important to hear. Tales of living in an apartment where your front room was crumbling onto the pavement below after being bombed, and the whole block only having one working toilet between 60 people. Having to run from building to building to avoid the shots from the snipers and living in constant fear with only UN peace troops to rely on for basic provisions.
The Siege of Sarajevo lasted nearly four years and was the longest in modern warfare. The city sits on the small Miljacka river and is surrounded by hills. This is where the Serbian backedtroops stationed themselves; able to completely surround the city and its inhabitants. We enjoyed listening to their accounts of how individuals carried out small acts of defiance against the siege. People carrying on going to work despite no paycheck, and of course the famous Miss Sarajevo beauty competition.
Sarajevo wasn’t the only city to be sieged. When the war ended in 1995 the city was unrecognisable with most of its architectural heritage (a wonderful mix of Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian design) and cultural sites lost. The traces of the war have now almost disappeared although a number of the building’s walls have bullet holes.
We also enjoyed talking to Selim about lots of other things too, everything from philosophy to politics – it’s nice for our travels through Bosnia not to be completely dominated by the War… Selim is an interesting guy who is one of those people who is always learning new things. He’s got a degree in contemporary art and sculpture, another in Arabic and is currently in the midst of a part-time degree in Philosophy. He has a full time job working for the train company as well as two kids… and he likes to host cycle travellers in his house!! An inspiration to us all!
On our first day in Sarajevo we signed up to a free walking tour in the morning. These are tours run by individuals and they work on a tip based system. What’s good about free walking tours is that you tend to get a really personal perspective of a city. Our guide was great and the tour was titled ‘East meets West’.
It explored the mix between the Ottoman heritage and the later Austro-Hungarian influences. Sarajevo is predominantly Muslim and has over 200 mosques. But it also has lots of Churches, both orthodox and Catholic. Sarajevo has always been home to a diverse mix of people, a tolerant city where different ethnicities and religions have lived harmoniously. It’s probably one of the reasons why the city’s inhabitants where some of the most confused victims of the war – they don’t understand how the country fell into such hatred.
The tour also touched on the years of Tito, and our guide gave a great personal account of how he was so idolised by his people. Religion was frowned upon in the communist state, but she said people didn’t mind giving up their religious icons because they had Tito to idolise instead.
As well as its more recent history, Sarajevo has one other claim to fame in history – it happens to be home to the bridge where Franz Ferdinand was shot, kicking off the First World War.
We had great weather while we were here – it had been minus degrees with snow just a few days before – and one afternoon we walked up one of the hills to overlook the city. We also treated ourselves to a date night Indian meal at the only Indian restaurant in the city. Oh and I almost forgot, we both got haircuts!
On our last afternoon we visited the War museum and took a few hours to learn about Srebrenica and the mass genocide, where 8732 Muslims boys and men (count so far) was carried out by the Army of Rupublika Srpska (backed by Belgrade) during the war in July 1995. It’s horrendous that this was ever allowed to happen and you can’t help but blame the UN peace effort (or lack of). This massacre and accompanying displacement of thousands of Muslim Bosniaks are the worst crimes which have happened on European soil since WW2.
What happened here has naturally inflamed ethnic tensions, especially as many Serbs, both in Serbia and the Republika Srpska state of Bosnia and Herzegovnia, refuse to accept what happened, The army generals and leaders who were responsible for this systematic ethnic cleansing are still seen as national heroes by many – despite them being committed for war crimes in The Hague.
From here we’ll cycle north towards Banja Luka, the defacto capital of the Autonomous region of Republika Srpska. Another cold snap is due to roll in, the weather has been extreme here so we’ll see how we get on with that. Hopefully it won’t slow our progress too much!