30/6/15 – 04/07/15
I was really interested to see Sarajevo, especially after our short introduction to Bosnia-Herzegovina in Mostar. This part of our journey was always a little bit up in the air, as we were possibly thinking of heading south through Albania and Montenegro and going to Greece, but plans soon changed. We’re heading this way now because we’re making our way to rural Bulgaria to spend three weeks doing a Workaway. We’re really excited about it, plus it’s given us this chance to head a little bit of the beaten track as we cross BiH, Serbia and then Bulgaria.
We take the metro from the bus station and arrive at Balkan Han Hostel, which is only a 10 or so minute walk from the old town. We’re greeted by bumbling, friendly owner Unkas, who shows us around the hostel. It seems like a really cool place, everything you want in a hostel, and perfect for a solo traveller I’d say – their outdoor terrace area was always buzzing with people. We’re staying upstairs, which I think is a newer part of the hostel. The beds are really comfy, although the bathrooms don’t leave much to be desired.
We immediately book the ‘Sarajevo Under the Siege’ tour, which Unkas organises for hostel guests. We’ve actually read from previous hostel guests that this is one not to be missed, so it should be very interesting.
For now, we wander down to the old town, walking through the city centre on the way. The high streets seem just as they would almost anywhere else in the world, lined with cafes and clothes shops, but then out of nowhere you enter the old town and it’s almost like stepping back in time a bit. The fashion chains and smooth pavement disappear, and instead the streets are narrower and they’re all cobblestoned alleyways full of stalls selling trinkets and coffee sets. Every few steps there’s another grill restaurant selling the local ‘cevapi’ dish. Here it’s served inside pita bread with onions and cheese sauce. I took a photo to include, but it really doesn’t look very appetising if you look at a random photo. It’s definitely a dish you need to enjoy in person.
Located right in the centre of the old town is the historical Gazi Husrev-beg mosque, the largest of its kind in BiH, and a major focal point for the city of Sarajevo. It was always packed with people, whether praying or simply socialising with other members of the community. Plus, it’s one of the few cities I’ve ever visited where you’ll find a mosque, but then only a few streets away is a Catholic church. They seem to coexist just fine, which is the impression we got from the whole city. From an outsider’s perspective, it seems a very harmonious and peaceful place, with very friendly locals. This has obviously not always been the case, but perhaps the atrocities of the 90s mean that the people of Sarajevo do not take this period of peace for granted. Many of the buildings here have been repaired –unlike Mostar- but not all, maybe as a sombre reminder of something that should never be allowed to happen again.
I’ve not been to Turkey (yet), but the old town reminds me of a sort of ‘mini Istanbul’, as all the small markets, winding alleyways and Arabic influences making you feel as if you’re in a little Bazaar or souk. In that way, the old town of Sarajevo is kind of magical. There’s also the abundance of Turkish delight everywhere, we found a little shop which sold the absolutely MOST delicious delight we’ve ever eaten, and so cheap as well. As well as traditional Bosnian coffee, which is apparently very similar to Turkish coffee. It’s very rich, but I had to order it more than once just to appreciate the presentation and beauty of it.
Our ‘Sarajevo Under the Siege’ tour was really unbelievable and very moving. It was lead by an old friend of Unkas’, who is in his 60s and worked his way up the ranks of the Bosnian army while Sarajevo under siege for almost four years. He took us to sites all over the city, starting at a cemetery dedicated to those soldiers who died in combat, and then to a lookout overlooking the city, beside another mass graveyard as well. The stories he had to tell us were horrific, from the completely brutal shellings that they endured, to just the simple things like selling his wife’s jewellery to just buy a chicken to eat from the ‘black market’. He spoke of regularly coming home from a day of shooting and bloody killings, and when his wife asked ‘what happened today?’, he would reply ‘nothing special’, just so he didn’t have to repeat the terrible things he’d seen or even been a part of.
One of the most powerful parts of the day was when we arrived at another viewpoint of the city, an abandoned and shelled hotel overlooking the city. Our guide said even he and his wife used to come and stay at this hotel before the war, that it was a very successful business. Now, it’s completely run down and just an empty shell of what it used to be. It also seems to serve as some kind of squat for the homeless and stray dogs as well. You can walk all throughout the hotel, and plainly see where the different rooms were, some would have had some pretty spectacular views! There’s just something very raw and powerful about seeing these kind of abandoned buildings, especially when the history and stories are still so very recent.
The tour also took us to the ‘Tunnel of Hope’, a secret tunnel built by the Bosnian Army used to transport food, war supplies and other goods underneath the Serbian forces. Our guide said he went through the tunnel several times, no easy task considering it was often flooded to waist level, and has a height of only 1.6m on average. Most of the tunnel is closed off now, but you can still walk through a small patch and marvel at how the Bosnians would have constantly gone back and forth in this narrow space running almost one kilometre.
The tour concluded with a trip to the abandoned bobsled track on the outskirts above the city. Used in the 1984 Winter Olympics was quickly left derelict as soon as the war began, although often was used to transport weaponry. Now, it sits hauntingly empty, abandoned and snaking through overgrown forest. It’s covered in graffiti and rust, apparently popular with cyclists. It was a poignant way to finish the day, once again finding ourselves on top of the city looking down at Sarajevo. It was such an emotional and educational day; we both learnt so much about the city and the war that caused this city to be under siege for almost four years –the longest siege in modern warfare. It is completely unimaginable to me that many of the residents here would have lived in an active war zone for that long, even more so that over 13 000 people lost their lives.
It is also shocking to think that walking down the main streets of Sarajevo, anyone my age (24+), lived through this. This isn’t something terrible that happened a lifetime ago where all we have are grainy images/videos as proof, this happened barely two decades ago. And the evidence we have is far from grainy.
Overall, Sarajevo was not always a cheerful experience, but it was something I’ll never forget. It makes you realise and appreciate how lucky we are to have been born in a place that was far away from all of this conflict. Simple geography meant that I had a much better start to life than someone who was born here. That doesn’t really seem fair, but I’ll count my blessings anyway. But nonetheless, while Sarajevo has quite a lot of physical wounds on its cityscape, its people still seem as determined as ever. They won’t let their chequered past define them, and that’s something to be admired.