Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina: A city with a living history
Emerging from the horrors of the 1990s war, the city has rebuilt and restored its hope for the future. Reif Larsen falls in love with a city driven by its persistence and ingenuity.
The touchable city
Last June, at the end of a long day, I found myself wandering down the Ferhadija, a 16th-century pedestrian way that runs through Old Town Sarajevo. On warm evenings the walkway resembles a river of humanity—people come out to take in the rhythms of the city as children dart between legs, young lovers stroll arm in arm and the distant heave of an accordion echoes down an alleyway.
The Ferhadija begins at the Second World War memorial on Marshal Tito Street (Ulica Maršala Tita) and moves east, backwards through time: the concrete Socialist-era buildings give way to the elaborate pastels and corniced facades of the city’s Austro-Hungarian period, before finally ending in the Bašcaršija, the old Ottoman district, where you walk past serene courtyards filled with Muslim worshipers, the hush of a centuries-old public fountain and stalls selling spices, traditional copper coffee pots and cevapi—a truly glorious meat-in-a-pita concoction.
“To understand the soul of this city you must see how it runs west to east.”
This collision of past and present lends the city a hyperreal texture, as if you’re walking through a postcard come to life. I’m amazed that Sarajevo isn’t overrun with more tourists, for while the city’s compact size makes it feel accessible, its collision of cultures gives it an air of mystery.
“Sarajevo is a latitudinal city,” explained architect Amir Vuk-Zec as we sat in one of the city’s many cafes. “To understand the soul of this city you must see how it runs west to east.” He began drawing a diagram of the city on the back of our bill. “It's a long bowl, you see? It's a touchable city.”
A tumultuous past
One could make the case that Sarajevo has seen more tumultuous events in the last 150 years than any other city of its size: the handover from Ottoman to Austro-Hungarian rule; the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which instigated the First World War; the rise and fall of fascism, the rise and fall of socialism; and a horrific war in the 1990s.
To visit this beautiful, cosmopolitan city is to witness both our modern civilisation’s greatest sorrows and greatest triumphs.
“We have too much history!” Bojan Hadžihalilovic told me. “We don’t know what to do with all our history!” Hadžihalilovic is a graphic designer and a former member of the TRIO collective. During the war, TRIO produced a series of now-famous posters in which they inserted Sarajevo’s name into various designs: Coca-Cola, Absolut vodka, Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”.
It was one of many examples of Sarajevans’ humour and invention in the face of great suffering. “I would never want to live through that again,” Hadžihalilovic said. “But during the siege we were at our best as citizens.”
"Art and culture are as important as water and food"
Dinarides mountains. Image via Wiki
I first fell under Sarajevo’s spell in 2008. I arrived in the city blurry-eyed and disorientated after a ten-hour train ride. To get my bearings, I traced the route of the River Miljacka to my hotel.
During my walk, the muezzin struck up the evening call to prayer. After a moment, these intonations were joined by a deep peal of church bells: an Orthodox wedding. This was the audio collage of a city that for centuries was constructed around the tenets of coexistence; a city where you’ll find a mosque, a Catholic church, an Orthodox church and a synagogue all within 300 yards of one another.
“These mountains where I once played as a child, now they had become this place of death."
Such cultural intermingling occurs against a dramatic backdrop of Dinarides mountains that border the city on three sides. These were the same mountains that once hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics, Sarajevo’s coming-out party to the world. And these were the same mountains that, only eight years later, enabled the Bosnian Serb Army to encircle the city for 44 months, dropping an average of 300 shells a day and killing more than 11,000 people, according to the Research and Documentation Centre.
“These mountains where I once played as a child, now they had become this place of death,” explained Nihad Kreševljakovic as we shared a coffee from the top of one of Saraje-vo’s skyscrapers. Kreševljakovic is the artistic director of the Sarajevo War Theatre, which was founded during the siege and now stages contemporary Bosnian productions.
I asked him why people would open a theatre in the middle of a siege, when many were without the most basic necessities. “During the war we had empirical proof that art and culture are as important as water and food,” he said. “The theatres were full of people. The audience risked their lives to see the show.”
A city of loss
During that first evening in Sarajevo in 2008, I found myself standing in front of a once-grand building now lying largely in ruins. A sign announced that an art exhibition was being held inside. This pseudo-Moorish building was the famous Vijecnica, or town hall, which became the national and university library of Bosnia and Herzegovina after the Second World War.
On August 25, 1992, the library was shelled by the Bosnian Serb Army as part of a larger strategy to decimate the cultural legacy of Bosnian Muslims. The building burned for three days; more than a million books were lost.
The Vijecnica exhibition turned out to be a retrospective of the late Croatian artist Edo Murtic, which included huge black-on-white canvases of skeletal army officers, their arms thrust in fascist salutes. To view Murtic’s work, you navigated past piles of rubble, past peeling plaster. I left the exhibition bewildered, tears in my eyes, forever smitten by the endurance of a structure erected and battered by humans.
The Vijecnica today
Vijecnica’s restoration was finally completed in 2014, and I saw the result last summer. An unimaginable amount of work had gone into recreating the original design. The entire interior—culminating in the soaring atrium—had been hand-painted in a range of eye-popping colours, including vermilion, azure and gold.
Today, it’s increasingly difficult to find evidence of the siege: facades, once pockmarked with bullet holes, have been plastered over, and mortar craters are now becoming harder to spot as the city’s streets and pavements are repaved. Though Sarajevo isn’t large, with just over 400,000 residents, its limited geography means the urban centre is crowded, and buildings are too valuable to sacrifice.
Perhaps the most successful memorial project to date has been “Sarajevo Red Line”, held on April 6, 2012, to mark the 20th anniversary of the siege. Conceived by theatre director Haris Pašovic, the installation consisted of 11,541 empty red chairs, each representing a Sarajevan lost in the war. Of the chairs, 643 were small, sized for a child.
“People were crying,” Pašovic said. “They would walk up and down and choose a chair and that would become the chair of someone lost. They left flowers or a message and by the end of the day all the chairs were filled.”
The key to Sarajevo’s future is the persistence and ingenuity that allowed people to function during the war with limited or no electricity, water, heat or food; to risk their lives to attend candlelit theatre shows; to bend but never to break. And it’s this same persistence and ingenuity that give the city its air of buoyant survivalism today.
But there are also Sarajevans born during or after the war who are moulding the city inspired, not burdened, by the pull of history. One of the most dramatic examples can be seen in the Festina Lente pedestrian bridge, completed in 2012, which spans the River Miljacka directly in front of the Academy of Fine Arts. The gravity-defying loop-de-loop of aluminium and steel was designed by three students from the academy.
“The bridge is a bridge, but in the Bosnian tradition it’s also a gateway that you must pass through,” said Bojan Kanlic, 29, one of the designers. It has become a beloved symbol of new Sarajevo. On warm afternoons you’ll find students, tourists and pensioners lounging inside its helixed gateway.
On my last night in the city, as I made my final lap down the Ferhadija, I couldn’t help but feel optimistic for Sarajevo’s future. For all of its rich history, this is a story that’s being written in the present tense.