Our September 2007 holiday
Introduction The Country The City Day One Day Two Day Three Day Four Conclusion
"If I were a winged bird,
I would soar above all Bosnia,
I would soar, never alight
until I gazed upon all Bosnia."
Translation of opening lyrics from "Da sam ptica",
a sevdah song sung by Amira on the CD "Rosa"
Roger and his wife Vee regularly enjoy interesting holidays, as will be evident from this web site, but recently Roger's sister Silvia (who lives in Leicester) suggested that it would be fun if the two of them went away for a break together. So, in Autumn 2006, Roger and Silvia went to Paris for a long weekend. They enjoyed the occasion so much that they decided to repeat the experience in September 2007 and go rather further afield.
We chose to spend a weekend in Sarajevo through a break offered by Regent Holidays [click here]. For Silvia, this was her first trip to Eastern Europe while, for Roger, Bosnia was his 47th country visited. Roger got in the mood by buying a CD of Bosnian music called sevdah [click here]: "Rosa" by Amira [click here].
Sarajevo is the capital city of the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina (abbreviated locally as BiH). Like several other countries, this was created out of the horrors of the Yugoslav wars of the early 1990s. The territory declared its independence in March 1992. Serbia responded to the declaration by armed resistance and an attempt to partition the republic along ethnic grounds. The war started on 5 April 1992 and ran until 29 February 1996.
The most recent research places the number of victims at around 100,000–110,000 killed (civilians and soldiers) and the number displaced at 1.8 million. This research has shown that most of the dead (civilians and soldiers) were Bosniaks (65%) with Serbs in second (25%) and Croats (8%) in third place. Of the actual documented casualties, 83% of the civilian victims were Bosniaks, 10% were Serbs and some 5% were Croats,
Following more than three years of inter-ethnic strife, in November 1995 a peace agreement was reached in Dayton, Ohio, USA. The Dayton Peace Accords have created a second tier of government, composed of two entities of roughly equal size: the Bosnian/Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Bosnian Serb-led Republika Srpska. European Union peacekeeping troops remain in the country.
Link: the war in Bosnia & Herzegovina click here
The total population is 4.5 million. The three ethnic groups are the Bosniaks 48% (mostly Muslim), Serb 37% (mostly Orthodox) and Croat 14% (mostly Catholic).
There has been a great deal of reconstruction and investment is slowly coming in from abroad, but there is still unemployment of around one-third and the divisions are greater than ever: this small country with half the population of London has no less than three presidents (Bosniak, Croat and Serb); there is much, much less integration of communities than before the war; children are being taught three different histories in their respective schools; and there are even three different mobile systems used by the three ethnic communities. As one very knowledgeable observer of the political scene put it to us on our visit: "The bottom line is that the situation is a mess - and it's getting worse".
Sarajevo lies in a wide valley running east-west created by the Miljacka River. It was founded as a city in 1461 under Isa-Bey Isakovic, the first Ottoman governor of the province of Bosnia.
For most people, Sarajevo has two claims to historical prominence.
First, it was the location of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914. After several bungled attempts earlier in the day, this took place near the Latin Bridge when the young Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip shot the Archduke and his pregnant wife Sofia, an incident that triggered the First World War. Although that war resulted in more than 9 million deaths, Sarajevo itself largely escaped damage and destruction during the conflict.
Link: the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand click here
Second, it was the site of the longest siege in the history of modern warfare, lasting from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996 – a total of 1,335 days. This siege was carried out by the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) and Bosnian Serb forces (VRS). It is estimated that more than 12,000 people were killed (including 1,500 children) and 50,000 wounded during the siege, 85% of them civilians. There is a well-known 1997 film on the siege called “Welcome To Sarajevo” [for my review click here].
Link: the siege of Sarajevo click here
Before the war, Sarajevo's Muslim population was around 45%. The city today is a peaceful place of 300,000 but with a majority Muslim population of around 85% and smaller Orthodox and Catholic communities. It has a distinctive lifestyle, caught by the words 'sabur' ('take it slow') and 'bujrum' (''you are most welcome'). The cafe culture and coffee define the nature of the place.
Official city site click here
Sarajevo Photoblog click here
Thursday morning and the trip was almost over before it had even began due to a security alert at East Croydon railway station. This made Silvia - travelling down to Gatwick from Leicester - later than intended and made Roger - intending to take a train to Gatwick from Victoria station - very much later than planned. If we had missed the flight, it would not have been a case of taking another one a few hours later, since our airline British Airways only make three direct flights a week from Gatwick to Sarajevo. Fortunately we made it and everything else on the trip went perfectly, starting with the 2 hour 10 minute flight to Sarajevo on a Boeing 737-436. Shortly after we landed, we heard what sounded like some sort of explosion, but it proved to be simply a signal that it was sunset and Muslims observing Ramadan could end their fast.
Now the airport is only 12 km (7.5 miles) from the city centre, but there are no shuttle buses and no bus routes in the near vicinity, so we had arranged a transfer to our accommodation. Our choice of hotel proved to be a sheer delight: Hotel Ada [click here] - named after the owner Adam Skender - is a small place with only seven rooms and one apartment. But it is a little jewel since it was once the Swedish consulate, it is perfectly located a few minutes from the historic Bašcaršija district, and above all the service is so welcoming and friendly (we made friends with the young women Leila Husovic and Dina Ahmetspahic).
Now, three years ago, Roger made a trip to Milan to speak at a training centre run by the International Labour Organisation and one evening he ran into a group of students on another course, chatted to them for a while, and exchanged e-mail addresses with a few, including Vesna Kraišnik from the University of Sarajevo. So, once this trip was planned, he made contact with Vesna (aged 31) and arranged to meet for dinner on the first night. She was accompanied by an academic colleague Siniša Berjan (28) who spoke even better English.
We had asked them to take us at our expense to a restaurant that served typical Bosnian food and they made an excellent choice. The Kibe Restaurant is located up in the hills to the north of the city and provides a spectacular view of the thousand sparkling lights in the valley below. On the evening we ate there, one room was taken over by the European Union High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Slovak Miroslav Lajčák [click here] and his entourage.
The food - which Vesna and Siniša chose for us - was excellent and voluminous: a local salad called šopska, a local kebab called Hadžici, a local pasta called klepe, a type of veal known as teletina, a type of lamb known as jagnjetina, and finally a plate of delicious desserts comprising a plum item, an apple item, kadaif and hurmašice. All this, plus wine and coffee, came to just over 70 Euros (or around Ł45) which we paid. Now this is an unbelievably low price for such a meal for four in London but, in Bosnia, it represents something like a third of the average monthly wage.
The conversation too was much appreciated. Vesna and Siniša are both Bosnian Serbs and spent the war out of the city, she in Belgrade and he in Montenegro, Serbia and then back in another part of Bosnia. Siniša's family fought on the Serbian side in the war: his father was wounded, one of his father's brothers had a leg amputated, and another of his father's brothers was killed. They had a very different perspective on the war than most of the other Bosnians we were to meet during our trip.
Friday morning breakfast at Hotel Ada was a revelation: a compote of fruit, a delicious selection of fresh rolls, a main dish of ham, cheese, and scrambled egg, an amazing (for breakfast) dish of blueberries with ice cream, and as much tea and coffee as one wanted - all served with charm. We found later that this was typical of breakfast at this hotel, although each day the precise menu varied.
We had been recommended to take a tour or two of Sarajevo using a company [now] called Sarajevo Insider [click here] and this proved to be excellent advice. Prior to our departure, Roger had booked two tours on-line and the arrangements - including pick-up from our hotel - worked perfectly. So at 10 am we were collected by Zoran Herceg for the "Sarajevo Grand City Tour" - a walking tour. He is a Serb but his family spent the whole of the siege in Sarajaveo, his father fought in defence of the city, and his girlfriend is a Muslim. He was aged 13 when the siege began and 16 when it ended.
It was only five minutes walk to the start of our tour: Bašcaršija (the word derives from two Turkish words: "baš" which is "bas" in Turkish and means "main" and "caršija" which is "çarsi" in Turkish and means "market"). This fascinating quarter is located in the old town to the east and it was designed in the 16th century in the Ottoman-Turkish style. It contains a bazaar that sells all kinds of metalwork, jewellery and pottery and each pedestrianised street was originally dedicated to a different craft. We began at the Sebilj Fountain which is a city landmark. The original fountain was for the refreshment of the horses who plied the trade route from Istanbul in the east all the way to Venice in the west. The location of the fountain is popularly known as Pigeon Square because of the number of such birds which constantly occupy the area. The one street that retains its specialised shops is Ulica Kazandžiluk where for five centuries coppersmiths have practised their skills. The street is notable for its traditional Bosnian tea and coffee sets.
the Sebilj Fountain
in Ulica Kazandžiluk
Zoran took us the short distance over a bridge to the north side of the Miljacka River where he wanted to show us two buildings. The first was Vijećnica back on the south side, a pseudo-Moorish building constructed in 1894 and originally the City Hall before it became the National Library. One night in 1992, it was deliberately targeted with incendiary bullets by the besieging Serb forces and some two and half million of the three million rare books and manuscripts were lost in the flames. Even today, the building is not fully restored - one of the few major buildings in the city where this is the case. The other building is called Inat Kuća which translates as Spite House. This was originally on the south side of the river and, when the site was needed for the construction of the City Hall by the Austro-Hungarians, the owner refused permission unless the house was removed stone-by-stone to the other side of the river. It is now a restaurant with a sign reading: "I was once located on the other side, but out of spite I moved over here".
Returning to the south side, we made our way to the main street of the Bašcaršija district called Sarači - the name is derived from the leatherworkers who traded here since the mid-16th century. Off this busy street, we entered the tranquility of the Moriči Han, originally a free inn from the Ottoman period and now a Persian rug centre.
The defining feature of Sarajevo over the ages has been the religious mix of its population and Zoran showed us how, within a very short distance of one another, the city has an Orthodox church, a Muslim mosque, a Jewish synagogue, and a Catholic cathedral - something that one can experience elsewhere in the world perhaps only in Jerusalem (which Roger had visted only five months before).
First of these structures was the Orthodox Church of St Michael The Archangel. Built in 1545, it is noted for its very large iconostasis (altar) which covers the entire right-hand wall. Another distinguishing feature is the upper floor tomb positioned on a trestle structure which contains the body of a young male child who was found dead outside the church. Women who wish to encourage their fertility or to protect their children walk around the structure three times and then crawl under it. Indeed we saw a woman performing this strange ritual and Zoran told us: "I can assure you it works".
Next stop was the Begova Džamija Mosque. This was constructed in 1531 with an endowment from the most famous Bosnian governor Gazi Husrev Bey. We could enter the courtyard but could not go inside the mosque itself since it was Ramadan. Directly opposite the mosque is a madrassah built a few years later in 1537.
At this point of the walking tour, we saw two utterly different features. Next to the mosque is what we were assured was the first public toilet in the world. It was originally constructed in 1530, like everything else damaged in the siege, and restored in 2001. Roger and Silvia tried it out - it is still free - and found it adequate for its purpose. Then, on the corner of Obala Kulina Bana and Zelenih Beretki (and not, as is so often written, on what is now called the Latin Bridge), there is the site of the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand on 28 June 1914. Like everything else in Bosnia's history, this event has undergone a re-presentation. In the period between the world wars, there was a tall monument to commemorate the death of the Archduke but the Communists removed this. In the Communist period, the assassin Gavrilo Princip was seen as a hero of pan-Slavism and the bridge and the district were named after him. These days Princip is seen more as a terrorist and the site of the killing is marked simply by a plaque on a wall and a small museum.
It was back to the religious part of the tour as, having seen the church and the mosque, we saw the synagogue and the cathedral. The Sarajevo Synagogue was constructed in 1902 and is the only functioning synagogue in Sarajevo today. At the entrance, a stone menorah commemorates the 400-year anniversary of the Jews in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Zoran told us that, before the Second World War, there were some 11,000 Jews in the city who were so integrated that there was no ghetto, but some 90% of them were killed in the Holocaust following the capture of Sarajevo by the Ustaše Croatian fascist Independent State of Croatia. Finally on the religion theme, there was the Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Cathedral. This was built in 1889 and the architectural design was inspired by the Nôtre Dame of Dijon in France. The space in front of the cathedral is a traditional meeting point for young people and just across from it is Trg Oslobodenja (Liberation Square) with a small park and a peace memorial.
The final part of our tour was very moving. Zelena Pijaca Markale (the Markale produce market) was the scene of the most infamous atrocity of the siege when on 5 February 1994 a Serb-fired mortar killed 67 civilians and wounded another 200. Today the site is still the same open-air marketplace, but most of the rear wall is taken up with a simple memorial listing the names of all those who died. Later in the weekend, we were told by a Serb source that independent experts had demonstrated that a mortar shell could not have caused such a death toll, that this account was Muslim propaganda, and that instead the Muslims had planted a bomb that caused the deaths in order to win support from the international community. It is incredible that such an incident can be the subject of such widely different accounts and demonstrates the depths of the divisions that still exist in today's Bosnia.
The last stop on the tour was on Ferhadija. This is the pedestrianised street that starts as Sarači in the east of the city and then becomes Ferhadija at a point where one can literally see the Ottoman architecture stop and the Austrian architecture begin. We stood outside the building where Zoran and his parents experienced the siege and still live today. Before the war, there were Muslims, Catholic and Orthodox families on the same floor who shared tea together, but today it is all Muslim. As Zoran put it: "We lost the beauty of living together". On the pavement below the flat is an example of the so-called "Sarajevo rose", the site of a mortar shell which killed and which after the war was filled in with red resin to mark the location as a memorial to those who lost their lives. The one Zoran showed us commemorates the site of an incident which occurred on 27 May 1993, less than two months after the war began. You can see more examples of the "Sarajevo rose" on flickr [click here].
Our walking tour was supposed to have lasted two and a half hours, but we had asked so many questions and Zoran was so keen to share his experience that it took three and a quarter hours. We were very grateful to Zoran because we felt that we had learned so much in the space of just one morning. As we retraced some of our route looking for a place for lunch, we stopped to look at some paintings for sale on an open-air stall. There was one of the famous Bosnian town of Mostar and Roger explained to Silvia how the Serbs had destroyed the historic bridge which has now been reconstructed. The owner of the stall obviously overheard the conversation and stormed up to us shouting: "The Serbs! I hate them - and I am a Serb". We returned to the Bašcaršija district for our meal and here we found a place called "Twins A + M" where we indulged for the first time in a traditional Bosnian dish called çevapi: small meat sausages of lamb and beef mix served with fresh onions in pitta bread (delicious!).
We were on our own for the afternoon and Roger recalled the conversation of one of his good Jewish friends in London who had advised him that the Zemaljski Muzej (National Museum) houses an object of very special significance to Jewish people, so we set off eastwards along the river bank to the museum. It was a straightforward walk but longer than it looked on the map. The object we were seeking is called the Sarajevo Haggadah [click here]. A Haggadah is an illuminated manuscript that contains the traditional text of the Passover Haggadah which accompanies the Passover Seder. This particular one is the oldest Sephardic Haggadah in the world, originating in Barcelona around 1350. Sadly, however, the Sarajevo Haggadah is sealed inside a glass case sitting in the middle of a small room which is itself sealed off by a glass door, so it was very difficult for us to see anything. The rest of the museum might have been of some interest except that all the descriptive text was in Bosnian. So we contented ourselves by resting in the Botanic Garden with its medieval tombstones.
We returned to the city centre and at the west end of Ferhadija street observed the Vječna Vatra (Eternal Flame). This national monument pays homage to the liberation of Sarajevo at the end of the Second World War. Further along Ferhadija, we stopped for a drink and, when we were struggling with a non English-speaking waiter, found ourselves in conversation with Zijad Haračić. He is a Muslim married to a Serb who spent the siege in Sarajevo and then emigrated to Australia. During the siege, he sent his two children out of the city but, when it was all over, his daughter (who was three when she left home) did not recognise her own father. His mother was tortured by Serb soldiers in occupied territory and died after the war. She named the Serbs responsible but they have still not been successfully prosecuted. He reminded us that many of the Serb war leaders - notably Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić - are still free and wondered how this could be unless there was some sort of deal with the Western powers. Zijad made the telling analogy that the Bosniaks feel like many raped women feel: utterly humiliated and somehow guilty for their own suffering.
By the time we were back at hotel, it was around 7 pm and we had been out for nine hours. After refreshing ourselves, we went out for dinner in the Bašcaršija district. Following a recommendation from the hotel, we went to a place called "Pod Lipom". The food was good and Roger had filovane paprike (stuffed peppers with mince meat) followed by palačinci (sweet pancakes).
We found ourselves sitting under a photograph of then US President Bill Clinton standing in the same part of the restaurant. We talked briefly to a couple on a table on one side of us - they were Czech and Roger speaks a little Czech because his wife is half Czech. We talked longer to the couple of the table on the other side of us - Yoshko Palenik is Slovak and Carleen Shoy is black British (her family is from Monserrat). Amazingly Carleen lives in the same part of London as Roger and works with a former colleague of his - who says that there are six degrees of separation? [click here].
It was Saturday and, after another splendid breakfast, we started the day with another pre-booked tour with Sarajevo Discovery [click here]. This one was called "Times Of Misfortune" and focused on the siege of 1992-1995. Our guide this time was Adnan Vlajčić who, together with his wife Amela, runs the company. Adnan is a Muslim who was 12 when the war broke out. For the first few months, he was in Sarajevo and then he and his mother managed to travel in one of the last convoys allowed to leave the besieged city and go to Germany where they spent the war with relatives.
There is a sense in which every part of Sarajevo has a war story so, as we drove out of the city, we passed a park with trees and Adnan told us that this was the only park to retain its trees throughout the siege. In all the others, the trees were cut down for fuel; in this one, the trees were kept because they provided some protection for an adjoining army barracks. We drove up a hill to the edge of the city to see the Zetra Olympic Hall [click here] which hosted the opening ceremony and some events of the very successful XIV Winter Olympic Games in 1984. This was the proudest time in recent Sarajevo history. As he did on several further occasions, Adnan showed us a photograph of how this location looked during the siege. The stadium was deliberately destroyed by the Serbs to hit the morale of the local population. There are cemeteries everywhere in Sarajevo - all serving different religious communities - and on the opposite side of the valley from the stadium, we would see the largest: the Muslim Bare cemetery.
We drove out of the city westwards towards the airport along the infamous "sniper alley" of the siege years. In fact, this is an utterly misleading term. It conveys the idea of a short and narrow street; in reality, it is a six-lane road called Zmaja od Bosne running for several kilometres. The "alley" started with the Holiday Inn Hotel, thought of as the safest place in the siege because most of the foreign journalists lived there, but soon became a nightmare strip which included the buildings of both the "Oslobodjenje" newspaper and the local television studios. The road leads out to a suburb called Ilidža which was occupied by Serb forces in the siege.
Our destination was the Tunnel Museum at Butmir. Roger and Silvia had never heard of the wartime tunnel before booking the break in Sarajevo and, until we got there, somehow imagined it linked the UN-controlled airport with the city centre. In fact, it was built under the airport runway and linked the 'free' area of Butmir with the besieged Sarajevo district of Dobrinja. Following a first abortive attempt, the tunnel was constructed from 28 March to 30 July 1993 with digging taking place from both ends. The length was around 800 metres, while the height was between 1.5-2 metres and the width around 1.2 metres. It proved to be a lifeline for the survival of the people of Sarajevo with food and supplies being carried though on peoples' backs or pushed through on metal carts running on a tramline. Typically it would take around three quarters of an hour to traverse and often the bottom of the tunnel would be flooded.
It is astonishing that this story is not better known and that the museum is not more promoted. There is no public transport to the museum or even any signage directing one there, while the location of the museum is the home of the Kolar family of six who in the war allowed it to be the entry point of the tunnel on the Butmir side. There is an amateurish 17-minute film that depicts the building and use of the tunnel during the siege, some rooms displaying construction tools and other artifacts, and a short section (20 metres) of the actual tunnel (the rest has been filled in or collapsed). Behind the house, the garden leads down to a fence around the airport, now a modern structure a world away from the horrors of the early 1990s.
We returned by driving south of the city through Lukavica and stopped at a vantage point in south-east Sarajevo for a wonderful view of the city with its red-tiled roofs and thrusting minarets. The tour was advertised as two hours but had taken two and three-quarter hours. Again we had learned so much.
After a quick wash at our hotel, we were out again to have another lunch in the Bašcaršija district and again we ate the local çevapi (this time with cheese). Then we did a little shopping in the multitudinous craft establishments.
Now on Thursday evening when we had first met Siniša Berjan, he had recommended that we visit a park to the west of the city called Vrelo Bosne and had eventually offered to take us there himself on Saturday afternoon, so at 3 pm he collected us from our hotel. He had home-made gifts from his mother: for Roger, a cherry liquor and, for Silvia, a jam made from plums. It was then about a half-hour drive out to the park. Vrelo Bosne (the River Bosna Springs) [for a YouTube video click here] is understandably a source of great local pride and was the subject of a major revitalisation project in 2000.
The park is traversed by a 3.5 metre track lined with no less than 726 maple-leaf trees planted between 1882-1888. Siniša hired a horse and carriage to take us down the track which was fun. The site is the source of the River Bosna and consists of a number of small islands connected by bridges over the various little streams. A number of animals are kept in the park, such as ducks and swans, and there are other minor attractions in the park, such as horse rides, picnic sites and restaurants. Siniša was keen for us to try the water which was brilliantly clear and very cold. We took the slow way back, strolling the length of the tree-lined track and talking more about the Bosnian war.
Siniša lives in the Bosnian Serb-led Republika Srpska and drove us back to the city by a route which enabled us to pass through the Republic. There are no barriers, just a sign - a little like passing from England to Scotland, except that it is a long time since the English and the Scots were murdering one another.
Less than an hour after being dropped off at our hotel, we were picked up by our companions for dinner: Frank Ostrander, Economic Counsellor at the United States Embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and his wife Bonnie. None of us had met before, but Frank is a friend of Howard Webber, the Chief Executive of Postwatch where Roger sits on the Council and Howard provided the contact. Frank and Bonnie took us to a restaurant in the city centre: "Club Jež" is located in an old Austro-Hungarian building near the National Gallery. It was good to talk with Americans and receive an independent view on the political situation in Bosnia as well as exchange views on the current American political scene.
It was Sunday and time to go home after an all-too short break. There was one more excellent Hotel Ada breakfast. The staff were friendlier than ever now that we had been there a few days and tried the odd word of Bosnian. One member of staff had a lovely little expression for Silvia which her daughter translated as "a little snowflake". Silvia decided that this would make Roger "a big snowball". These terms could stick!
We just had time for a walk for an hour. This time, we turned away from the city centre. Very close to our hotel and starting up a hill was the Kovači Memorial Garden [click here]. This is a new Muslim cemetery full of victims of the siege and beautifully laid out with a small crescent-shaped pond and flowing water.
Then we climbed further up the steep hill to the location of an old fort called Vratnik built by the Austrians over the period 1729-1816. This district is the oldest in Sarajevo and has real character and wonderful views.
There was no time for more as our pick-up for the airport was coming ...
It was a short visit to Sarajevo but we felt that we had seen a lot and fallen in love with the place. It does not have world-famous sights like Paris's Eiffel Tower or Rome's Colosseum, but it has a stunning location surrounded so closely by hills and such a rich history embracing both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. Its recent history is tragic, but we had managed to speak to local Muslims and Serbs and gain some appreciation of the different perspectives on events. We were blessed with excellent weather throughout our trip - sunny, warm and bright - and Roger managed to take over 130 photographs.
We shared the horror of the local people to whom we spoke that, less than a decade after the joy of hosting the Winter Olympics, the city could be at the centre of a bitter war between communities that had lived together harmoniously for centuries. We felt somewhat ashamed that on our continent on our watch so many had suffered for so long before there was any meaningful intervention by the international community.
Above all, the local Bosnians made it a very special trip for us and we will keep in touch with a number of them. To them all, we say: "Hvala lijepo".