We’ve been traveling with some guidebooks, including Rick Steves’. One thing he highly recommended for Sarajevo is to hire a local guide and he lists Amir Telibechirowich as a key resource. We contacted Amir and were lucky that he was available as he had just returned from leading a Rick Steves’ tour throughout the Balkans. Amir is actually a journalist rather than a guide, and he brought a journalist’s depth of detail to our experience, but even more so, his personal experience living through the nightmare of the siege of Sarajevo, including the death of several close family members.
We started at a pair of graveyards right across from our hotel. One was an old Ottoman era graveyard, with many tombstones topped with turban shaped decorations. The graveyard is located in an inhabited area, not because the housing expanded to this neighborhood, but rather because the local tradition has been to bury the dead in open spaces in amongst houses. This was done to avoid thinking of the dead as spooks, zombies, or any of the other scary things western culture often associates with the dead.
Across the road is a much larger, newer graveyard. Although to a cursory look, the tombstones seem almost identical, in fact there are people of different faiths buried here. Once the dust cleared from the early 90s conflict, some 10,000 Sarajevans were dead (including 1,600 children) and 50,000-70,000 were wounded. The currently population of approx. 310,000 remains about 200,000 below the prewar peak. This graveyard is just one of many from this period when even burying people during the war was dangerous – people were shot by snipers while conducting funerals.
We also learned about the mysterious Bogomils, who were a mystic Christian sect living in the area that associated with neither Orthodox or Catholic churches and ultimately became Muslims under the Ottomans, whose philosophy was closer to that of the Bogomils rather than the more traditional Christian denominations.
From there we climbed to a lookout with a great view of valley. Sarajevo has to have one of the most impressive locations of any European capital nestled in the heart of a deep valley that would seem to be a great defensive position if you controlled the nearby peaks. However, sometime well before the conflict, citizens saw construction equipment building fortifications around the peaks. When they asked questions they were told that these were for the protection of the population, but in reality the guns placed there were not pointed away from the city, but towards it, making the city indefensible once the shooting began. Nearby we could see an old prison station. This was where Princip got taken after assassinating the ArchDuke (and getting beat up by the crowd).
Walking back into down we saw the Moorish style, Austro-Hungarian built City Hall. Due to a building mix up (or a deliberate act on the part of the slighted architect), the balcony, from which the Mayor would make his proclamations was not placed on the side facing an open space as would make sense, but instead toward the narrow quay with a river in front, with very little space for any crowds and the sound of water to compete with.
In the Ottoman core of the city we visited the exterior of one of the main Mosques, then headed across the street to the old Madrassa (school) which is now a museum as the Madrasssa is in newer quarters next door. The old town town includes many Mosques, and bazaars selling food, jewelry and all sorts of knick knacks.
We then walked through the Austro-Hungarian middle part of the city, passing the Jewish Museum, Catholic Cathedral, Serbian Orthodox Cathedral, plazas and so forth. In a number of places throughout the city serious damage from the war can still be seen and Amir took us into several alleys to see this. Much of the damage was done by mortars that could lob a shell over the buildings and into the spaces in between where the shrapnel would wreak havoc. As we walked along the streets in a number of places small pock marked areas on the street could be seen, many of them filled with red paint. These are so called “Sarajevo Roses” and denote the site of a massacre, defined as the death of 3 or more people from a single mortar bursts. The non painted ones mean that either no one was killed or “only” one or two people.
As we passed into one of the newer areas of Sarajevo, we were now in the heart of “Snipers Alley” where people had to dart between buildings in order to avoid the Serbian snipers who seemed to shoot anything that was moving in their sights. Amir related how the streets were empty and one day someone offered him a lift back to his home, near the airport. He drove at around 200 KM/Hr (about 125 MPH) through the streets, in part to avoid the snipers, but also because he wanted to and he could. Amir wasn’t sure which he was more frightened off – the snipers or the driver!
We had come here at my request to visit the National Museum in order to see the Sarajevo Haggadah. Unfortunately the room is currently kept locked so we could only glimpse the book through a glass door and under a glass case. This was very disappointing, but we got to see other parts of the museum including Roman and other artifacts, an Ethnographic wing with dioramas of Ottoman life, a Natural History wing, and Bogomil tombstones outside.
Amir took us to a fun Cafe called Tito that is decorated with lots of memorabilia of the former head of state. Outside are some military vehicles including one of the 5 tanks that the locals used to defend the city. Imagine – going to a museum to get a world war II era tank to try to protect your home.
Amir and I drank Cockta, a drink I’ve seen on every menu in the former Yugoslav states. He explained to me that Tito did not ban foreign products, so for instance, Coca Cola was available, but he also encouraged the creation of local equivalent products, and so this is the Yugoslav version of Coke – somewhat different in taste, but not bad.
We delayed our departure from Sarajevo the next morning in order to visit the Memorial Gallery 11/7/95 which is a gallery that includes photos of the aftermath of the Srebrenica Massacre as well as various films and presentations attempting to explain what happened there and how it affected the families of the dead, It also includes an exhibition of graphic protest posters from the time. The Srebrenica Massacre took place in the northeast of the country in a Muslim town close to the Serbian border. It was officially a safe area protected by the UN, but unfortunately they ended up being woefully unable to do their job and 8,000 men and boys were deliberately exterminated in a horrific coordinated act of ethnic cleansing. Somewhat telling is that the Court in the Hague ultimately found that the Dutch UN peacekeepers were directly liable for the death of 300 of these people.
A sobering end to our visit to such a beautiful town. No one who lived through the conflict will forget this episode of madness, but from the friendliness and positivity of the all the people we met, it seems they are doing their best to write the next chapter in this city’s long and illustrious history.