HILLTOP VIEW / SARAJEVO, BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA / JUNE 2016
On history, resilience and the legacy of war.
There is a place in Sarajevo where you can stand on the so-called meeting point of East and West. The line is tiled into the ground — “Sarajevo Meeting Point of Cultures” — and from this vantage point you can look one way and see the brown-tiled roofs of the old Ottoman-era city, and the other way, the pastel, baroque buildings of the Austro-Hungarian-era city. The break between these two sides of the city is obvious, stark; it is a visual depiction of history as a series of wars and conquerings.
There is no avoiding war in this city. The Latin Bridge — where Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated, commencing World War I1— spans the river Miljacka in the heart of the city. Buildings in and around Sarajevo remain pockmarked with bullet holes from the Bosnian War. The city is surrounded by mountains, so that when you ascend any one of them, you can see the city spread out below as if at the bottom of a bowl, pointed Ottoman minarets piercing the sky at regular intervals. You can see how this beautiful valley also made the city geographically susceptible to the longest siege in history, during which over 11,000 people were killed.
The siege of Sarajevo lasted from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996 — a total of 1,425 days and much of the duration of the Bosnian War, which was fought between Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian forces upon the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991. Though the war had many causes — including territorial aggression — it also had a strong ethnic/religious element. Bosnia, at the time of Yugoslavia’s dissolution, was a multi-ethnic state with large populations of Bosniaks (largely Muslim), Serbs (largely Orthodox) and Croats (largely Catholic). Serbian leaders exploited these divisions to advocate for Serbian nationalism and the creation of a “pure Serbian” territory, which, in their view, necessitated ethnic cleansing and resulted in the rape, torture and murder of thousands.
Throughout the siege, Republic Srpska (Bosnian Serb) forces stationed themselves in the hills around Sarajevo and trapped residents in the valley below. Almost a year after the siege started, construction began on the Sarajevo Tunnel, or the Tunnel of Hope, which was dug by hand by the Bosnian Army as a lifeline to Bosnian forces outside the city.2The tunnel — about 800m long, and only 1m wide in places — ran beneath the airport runway, a neutral zone controlled by the United Nations. A small railway track was eventually added to aid the movement of goods, supplies and weapons via carts. For years, this tunnel — which frequently flooded and had poor air quality — served as the only point of connection between the city’s residents and the outside world.
You can enter this tunnel, or at least a small portion of it that has been preserved for visitors. The air is damp, the lighting dim. You can see the thin rails snaking into the darkness, dank wooden planks beneath your feet. You think about desperation, about carrying a backpack laden with supplies, about wading through a foot of water, about traversing a seemingly endless path and waiting to see an opening. We heard stories of the black humor characteristic of Sarajevo’s residents, about how, when someone graffitied “This is Serbia” on the local post office, someone else immediately painted underneath, “No, stupid, this is the post office.” We heard stories of the international community’s failings in providing humanitarian aid, such as sending expired goods or malarial medications though there has never been malaria here. We heard stories about how shocking it was to see a city descend into such violence less than a decade after having hosted the world for the Winter Olympics in 1984. As you walk a few steps through the tunnel, stooping, you think about survival, and then you think about hope.
Life goes on in Sarajevo. Residents stroll past the cement high rises of Sniper Alley, once the deadliest part of the city. A young carpet seller bemoans the demise of traditional artisan shops in the old quarter of the city, lost to popular hookah spots arising everywhere. Tourists flock to the fountains, trinket stalls and pastry shops of Baščaršija and the chain stores that have popped up in the newer areas of the city. The locals are welcoming and friendly, filled with quiet resilience and fortitude. You sip coffee in a tiny shop on a steep side street, and the waitress says you should make sure to come back sometime. You have already been thinking, this whole time, that you will.