Bosnia i Hercegovina, its official name, is a beautifully mountainous country, full of rivers raging through gorges, and beautiful towns. Even today, the Turkish influence of four hundred years of Ottoman rule has been preserved in the reconstruction following the horrible Yugoslav War of 1991 to 1995. Yet there is an intensity in Bosnia, a nagging sense of pain resulting from the war, felt most strongly in Sarajevo.
But let’s begin with the gentler side of things, a look at Bosnia’s most illustrious landmark and certainly the most famous bridge in Eastern Europe, the Stari Most in the lovely town of Mostar. From wherever you view it, at night with the lights bathing its arch in gold as in the photo at the top,
or from a nearby bridge as above, or from the top of a nearby minaret Bonnie climbed to get the photo below,
it has a grace and captures the seemingly impossible as it spans the swift river between hillsides.
Built at the order of the Suleyman the Magnificent in 1557, it was intended to replace the rickety suspension bridge across the Neretva River since the town of Mostar had become an important transit point for trade in the expanding Ottoman Empire. It was finished in 1566 and stood for 427 years until totally destroyed in 1993 by Bosnian Croat artillery fire. By 1995 all of Mostar’s bridges had been destroyed, all 27 of its mosques leveled, and from the photographs we saw, the city was nothing but rubble. The Dayton Accord in 1995 brought the war to an end, and massive reconstruction began immediately. Today the Unesco World Heritage Site has much of its character restored, though pockets of shattered buildings and bullet riddled walls are still common and visible.
Once again the focus of the town is the bridge and its jumpers and divers. Here is one young man getting ready to make the plunge of twenty-one meters or sixty-eight feet into the icy cold water.
And here is short video of another as he makes the leap.
The river is lined through its Turkish section with colorful shops and restaurants, and filled with people who come from all over the world to see Mostar. We couldn’t believe the number of Asian tourists who filled its streets.
But the locals still find time to enjoy a chess game in the last afternoon when things quiet a bit.
Mostar’s second bridge, a miniature of the Stari Most, is called the Crooked Bridge and straddles a small stream which joins the main river in town, one of many. All were cascades filled with the abundance of rainwater that had fallen in the prior week.
We never did a count, but most if not all of Mostar’s mosques had been rebuilt and are scattered all over the town. This one on the outskirts is particularly pretty. Note that like so many of the buildings in Bosnia and Croatia, it too has a roof of cemented stone rather than red roof tiles.
Here is a rather dramatic photo of mosques as a thunderstorm loomed overhead. The minaret in the foreground is the one Bonnie climbed earlier in the day to photograph the bridge.
We made the three hour trip from Mostar to Sarajevo easily, even with rain the whole way. What we found was a city with a wholly different feeling and atmosphere, where remembrance of the horrors of the war were everywhere. Sarajevo was surrounded and under siege for almost four years, access in or out completely cut off and the entire city subject to perpetual bombardment from the Serbian Army forces surrounding it. On average over three hundred artillery shells fell on the city every day, and on one particular day over 3700 shells landed and exploded in the city. The destruction was virtually total.
What is so paradoxical about this photo is the contrast between the car and its immediate surroundings, and the untouched building behind it. There is a whole story around that building, the Holiday Inn at the time and still standing with a different owner today. It was where journalists were housed during the siege. They paid the Serbian Army an enormous ‘tax’ or ‘fee’ to leave it free of bombardment. Thus at the end of the siege it was literally the only building still standing without destruction in all of Sarajevo, even though it was in the middle of what was called Sniper Alley for the gunfire aimed at anything or one who moved in that part of the city.
The map below makes clear a couple of things about the siege. First, that in 1984, only eight years before, Sarajevo was the site of the Winter Olympics, its ski slopes and ice rinks filled with the world’s leading athletes. Once it was surrounded, it struggled to live with almost no source of food or supplies. Its economy was reduced to using cigarettes as currency. And over 11,000 of its citizens died from either starvation or gunfire.
You certainly will have noticed in the map above the one break in the encirclement of the city, the airport on its outskirts. That is where the United Nations forces were stationed, ineffectual at preventing the violence and often acting as nothing more than referees over how much weaponry the Serbian Army was allowed. For instance, they were permitted to use tanks to fire on the city, but not airplanes. The UN allowed journalists and diplomats to fly into and out of the city, and some food and supplies were flown in under their support. But half of anything they handled was given to the Serbian Army. All in all, the UN’s involvement in the war was far from its best moment.
For a period, attempts were made by the people under siege to circumvent UN forces and bring supplies in across the runway. Sniper fire was so intense, however, that unless you were young and carrying very little–and thus could run a very fast zigzag as you crossed–you would be killed by snipers. So an alternative was created. A tunnel 800 meters long was dug under the entire airport complex. Here is where it started outside the city, beneath a simple, bullet-ridden farmhouse belonging to the Kolar family, national heroes today.
Men worked night and day to dig it from both this side and from a number of locations within the city until they finally met and connected under the airport runway. The dirt and stone excavated was hauled out at night and dispersed, and lighting and a water line were installed along with tracks which allowed the heaviest supplies to be pushed down its length. But most of the material was carried through it by men carrying 80 to 100 pound loads on their hunched backs, as it was not high enough to stand upright.
When it rained it flooded, usually to knee height, but often to its roof and the water had to be pumped out over days. It was an effort beyond the heroic to dig and utilize it, and those who participated are credited with saving vast numbers of Sarajevo’s citizens.
Today Sarajevo has recovered with most of its buildings rebuilt or replaced and a sense of its historical past from long before the war evident once again, though its tram system, which we took from close to the campground into the city was a bit antiquated,
its interior a bit defaced,
and its tracks so out of alignment and level that riding it was closer to what a bucking bronco would provide than what one expects on a modern tram in other European cities.
But once into the heart of the city, its historical Ottoman Turkish influence is strong and apparent. The narrow streets are lined with shops selling copper goods, jewelry, and coffee and tea, and one feels almost as if in Istanbul instead of in Bosnia’s capital.
Lending an international feel to the place, there is even one narrow street with a couple of London phone booths by the entrance to an English pub.
The Turkish influence was also visible in the restored caravanserai below, the Monica Han. Originally built in 1551 as an inn for travelers, it could accommodate as many as 200 people in its enormous second story and feed that many in its food halls and courtyard.
That part of the ground level which served as a stable for visiting horses is now a fashionable Persian rug store.
We came to really like Sarajevo for its Turkish past, including the profusion of mosques and narrow lanes, but particularly for the spirit that has arisen among its people to overcome its desperately savage recent history. They talk with such passion about the siege and its horrors–almost all suffered the loss of family members through either starvation or death by bombardment or sniper fire–but they always come to tell you that they are focused on the future and have to overcome their past. Yet even then we were still led to what are called Sarajevo Roses, those spots marked in blood red where an artillery shell landed, killing those close by. The pain remains.