When I mentioned to people that I was going to Sarajevo in May 2003, reactions ranged from "wow!" to "you're crazy". For many people, a mention of Sarajevo brings up war-torn imagery instead of glorious moments as the host city for the 1984 Winter Olympics. I wanted to spend a bit of time here to see how the city has been coping with its recent setbacks.
Sarajevo was a melting pot for many religious and ethnic groups for hundreds of years. Serbian aggression is said to have killed over 10,000 people here during the staggering siege from 1992 to 1996. The locals were able to endure this ordeal with a long tunnel constructed under the airport that was the lifeline from the city to a nearby suburb. Any random walk through the city will take you past many structures that have been damaged or annihilated. The National Library still stands empty and in a state of semi-disrepair along the Miljacka River, whose sludgy chocolate waters mock the brownish exteriors of this handsome Moorish-style edifice. Originally designed by Alexander Wittek in 1892 and later revamped by Ciril Ivekovic, the National Library was originally the Town Hall and is slowly being rehabbed.
Perhaps the most moving sight in Sarajevo is the graveyard that has taken over the landscape surrounding the Kosevo soccer stadium. It is sad to see thousands upon thousands of mostly whitewashed grave markers, a majority of them with the death year of 1992. A wander through the cemetery is a small history review, as you will see fancier older tombstones from previous generations, which contrast with the simpler, hastily erected ones of the more recent batches. In a close second place, the burnt-out shell of the former Parliament Building is a morbid and recent reminder of the ferocity of these dangerous times. Deserted hotels scattered about town are identifiable as such only because of outdoor signage, which distinguishes them from the ruins of residential blocks.
Despite the rough spots, it is heartening to see areas that are slowly recovering. The well-to-do members of the middle class appear as if they could be in any other European setting. The cafes and shops along Ferhadija, the main pedestrian street, look very lively as the young locals enjoy each other's company. A walk around busy thoroughfares like Marsala Tita and Zmaja Od Bosne ("Dragon of Bosnia") could lead you to giant chessboard matches, bustling fruit markets, and the somewhat sedate Eternal Flame commemorating World War II. The ethnic mix of Sarajevo is evident with the proximity of several prominent places of worship that cater separately to Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox Serbs, and Jews.
A walk through the Turkish quarter gives its trademark Muslim flavor to the city with its prominent mosques and shops. Most visitors are welcome to stop by, but some Muslims are still put off by those who dare to interact with the ritualistic fountains. Pop into the courtyard of the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque for a peek into local life. Designed by Persian architect Adzem Esir Ali in 1530, this important mosque has an attractive "birdcage" fountain in its courtyard. Muslims pray on the outdoor terrace, as the interior is still undergoing postwar renovations.
The beautiful mountain ranges contrast with the bleak and gray Skenderija quarter that is one of the few remaining venues from the 1984 Olympics. In the city center, umbrella salesmen pop out of the woodwork during downpours, although the local police seem to crack down on the more unsavory vendors. Speaking of security, soldiers from around the world still maintain positions in Sarajevo and elsewhere in Bosnia-Herzegovina. These peacekeepers reveal their ethnicities by their tongues and their flag-embossed uniforms. The international mix also includes humanitarian aid workers and the ever-present journalists.