Arriving in Sarajevo by plane was really easy from Belgrade. Though it was a prop jet, we arrived safely and quickly into Sarajevo. Seeing the red roofs of the blocky houses below, I had no idea what I was going to experience here.
I made my way into the city and immediately was surprised at how big it was, since everyone had told me it was so small. Well there’s New Sarajevo and Old Sarajevo, and Old Sarajevo is quite small afterall. Luckily, my hostel was located right next to Merkale Market, a huge square with a covered roof with stalls and stalls of fresh product being sold. I got settled and headed out for a quick bite to eat for dinner and to read up and orient myself to what the city had to offer.
The next morning, I got some breakfast from one of the many bakeries around town and came back to the hostel to eat it for some strange reason. While I was eating, the manager said if I wanted to go on a walking tour of Sarajevo, I could join two others from the hostel as they were going to meet the tour guide then. I grabbed my breakfast and was on my way to join a free tour of Old Sarajevo.
Our tour guide named Neno, not Nemo, was really engaging and told us a brief history as to the story of Sarajevo. While pointing out a lot of landmarks such as mosques, churches, and the synagogue, we found that Sarajevo was living quite peacefully for centuries with people of different religions—proof that it can be done. We then started having other points of interest pointed out such as the Merkale Marketplace, the beautiful colorful market which turned red with blood back in the 90’s when a missile landed and created a massacre of people trying to go about their daily business during the siege of Sarajevo. The names of the killed are placed on the wall, and the crater created by the evil is filled with red resin which creates a splatter mark to remind everyone of those killed by that spot. These Sarajevo roses, over 100 in the city, serve as a constant reminder to the people and visitors of Sarajevo as to the atrocities that occurred just 20 years ago during the aggression of the Serbian army by Chetniks.
The tour continue educating me and giving me a background of this city which I was completely ignorant about. I remember the name of Sarajevo and it having ‘fights’, but I had no idea to the extent at which this city was aggressively besieged by an army encompassing the people of Sarajevo and cutting off the gas, electricity, and water.
After the tour, I made a couple of new friends that I went to lunch with, and continued onto a photography exhibition of the fall of Srbenica. Again, the exhibition told so much about the various wars that were going on throughout Bosnia’s pull for independence away from Yugoslavia that it is incredible anyone survived.
That evening, we went to another tour called the Siege of Sarajevo Tour (SST). While the website said specifically they do not work on Tuesdays, I encouraged us to give a call just to see. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. And get we did with the most incredible, engaging, moving tour I’ve ever been on.
Created by 23 year old in his own home, the set of a bunker is created out of real wood which creates the scene of the entire tour. Walking up to his house, I didn’t know what to expect as there were foot prints leading up to his front door, you could tell he was passionate about educating about the siege.
He had us sit in the bunker to understand what it was like for the Bosnian forces that held the line against the Chetniks (Serbians who wanted to take over Sarajevo to expand the Serbian territory). After a bit, he left the room and said now sit back and experience what it was like.
In surround sound, we heard shelling and bullets flying all around us. All of a sudden, the phone rings, and we sit there not knowing if we are supposed to pick it up or not. He jumps in completely in an army vest, and says something in Bosnian. It sounded like he was receiving bad news, and then he interacted with us in a very foreign accent asking if we want to learn more about the Siege.
He then said more details about how that phone worked, and how the lighting was, and how the bunker was setup with men who had to sit there day in and day out in horrible conditions. He then explained how the tour would work, which would be a video that played in front of us asking the main questions about the siege, then answering them with video footage, demonstrations, and explanations.
The way he explained what was happening was never condescending, but simplified to the point of letting us understand exactly who the players were, why people were doing what they were doing, and how the break apart of Yugoslavia went. It was absolutely fascinating.
Before we knew it, it was already 9 oclock, 3 hours after the tour began, and I’d been completely captivated by the footage, the interactivity of the demonstrations from setting off landmines, to seeing a model of how the bunkers were placed near one another, to feeling and holding make shift guns that people made. We also saw the rations that were provided by the UN per every 15 days, hardly enough to keep a mouse alive, and apparently so disgusting that the dogs wouldn’t even eat it. But it’s what kept Sarajevo citizens alive during this 4 year long siege.
Needlesstosay, it was a really moving informative tour, and I was drained by the end. That night I went to dinner with my new friends and recounted our tour for the couple that didn’t go, and reflected upon what I’d learned all day, trying hard not to feel a sense of guilt for what I was doing on the other side of the world, and how big my problems seemed at the time, to know what kids my age were dealing with on this side. It is amazingly lucky to have this life.
The next day, I walked to the top of the viewpoint to look out at the lush green mountains that overlooked beautiful Sarajevo. This time, noticing the shrapnel marks that pocked all the buildings facades, I had a new view of what this city was like. I couldn’t help but imagine what it was like running on these streets dodging snipers and trying to retrieve water to enable survival for the next few days. Everything was a risk, yet the Sarajevo people didn’t let the siege break their spirit, and they kept pressing on trying to keep life normal by still having children attend classes and such.
The day of strolling around and then lunch with my Swedish friend and a new Finnish one, we were able to enjoy a beautiful day in Sarajevo. I then went to get my things and head for the bus station to make my way down to my next Bosnian stop, Mostar.