06 May 2016

Bumming Around the Balkans: Experiencing Sarajevo

Note: I actually wrote this article back in late December, just when I returned from my trip, wanting to write this down while the memories are still fresh. So forgive the anachronisms with respect to the time references I make in the article, which results from me wanting to publish this together with the rest of the series.

I spent three nights in Sarajevo. I arrived by bus from Mostar around mid-afternoon, and after climbing the hill where my hostel was located, I set about exploring the city. The weather was bad, with thick smog covering the city for days, and during the three days I was there, I didn't see the sun at all. In fact, it caused my flight to be canceled, and the airline had to transport us by bus from Sarajevo to Zagreb so that we could catch an alternative flight from there.

Anyway, I don't want to talk about the weather. I wanted to talk about the city instead. See, I did some sight-seeing, but after reviewing my photos, I realized that while I took plenty of photos in Mostar and Dubrovnik, I only took 7 photos in Sarajevo. Perhaps it is because the museums and exhibitions I visited didn't allow photos, but mostly, it is because Sarajevo is less of a city to photograph, but more a city to experience. In fact, I have to say that the best part of my visit to Sarajevo was the people I met.

Everyone has a story to tell. If you patiently listen, they will tell you what happened to them 20 years ago. Some of them even have visible scars reminding us of the tragic events that happened to them during the Bosnian War. And while not everyone has permanent bodily damage, almost everyone I met have memories of the painful things that happened in that area in the 1990s.

Take for example the guy in the hostel whose name I do not know. He speaks with an American accent, and it turned out that when he was 9, his family was almost killed. He is 31 now, putting this story in 1993. He told me that they were at a concentration camp, and his family was slated to be killed the day after. However, they managed to escape, and he ended up living in Germany, picking up the German and Turkish languages. However, his family didn't stop there, but moved to Fargo, North Dakota, as refugees. They eventually settled down in St. Louis, Missouri, and he entered the military and became an American citizen. He then spent time in Afghanistan, and now he is back in Sarajevo as a translator for the diplomatic corps.

I also met Sabina, who owns a very charming restaurant near the Cathedral in the Old Town. As a little kid, she also had to leave the city, and her family settled in Mansfield, Ohio. After the war ended, they came back, and now she owns a restaurant cooking traditional Bosnian dishes, not the dishes that every Bosnian touristic restaurant will offer, but real home-made cooking, straight from her mom's kitchen. She even taught me how to make veal shank stew, which I hope to try one of these days.

Then there's also the girl I sat next to in the bus from Sarajevo to Zagreb. Her family eventually ended up in Denmark. She carries a Danish passport now, and while she was too young to remember anything (she was 2 when they moved), she has plenty of family members that have tragic stories as well.

While I was at the airport waiting for my flight that eventually got canceled, I saw people and overheard their travel itineraries, reflecting on the patterns of the Bosnian diaspora. I saw this family of 6 traveling from Sarajevo to Chicago. There was the grandmother, who spoke only Bosnian (at least from what I can hear); the two teenage boys, who spoke only English; and the three adults, parents and perhaps an uncle, who spoke English to the children and Bosnian to the grandmother. I also saw in the bus the passports of the other passengers (our passports were collected at one point to go through Immigration at a land border when we crossed from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Croatia); there were plenty of passengers who spoke Bosnian, and yet were carrying Danish and Swiss passports.

Walking around Sarajevo, I saw plenty of ruins of buildings, bombed out shells of concrete, with bullet holes dotting the surfaces. There's one right next to the cathedral. Even the buildings that are still inhabited sometimes show signs of war, as the restoration works that have been done aren't usually done in such a way that these things were erased completely. As I walk the sidewalks and the pavement, every now and then I would see a part of the pavement that was painted in red; these are the Sarajevo roses, which is the scar made on concrete by a mortar shell explosion. They are everywhere.

The weirdest thing for me was the cognitive dissonance I would experience when I met very friendly locals, which makes me ask why such a tragedy like the Bosnian War happened at all. Given that the main social divisions aren't ethnic (all are south Slavs) but religious (Croats are Catholic, Serbs are Orthodox, and Bosniaks are Muslims), it is very hard to negate the idea that religion again exerted its negative influence on an otherwise very friendly group of people.

Sarajevo is definitely not Paris or Vienna. There is no beauty that is easily visible when one roams the streets. It is not a city that encourages the visitor to take out his camera and snap away. Instead, it constantly reminds the visitor of the human condition. Humans can do brilliant and amazing things, but at the same time, human are also capable of painful and wicked deeds. Sarajevo puts things into perspective: life isn't all about happiness, it's about tragedy as well. And while tragic things have happened in the past, Sarajevo also shows evidence of another human character, that of resilience. The local folks in Sarajevo show they can survive, and make a comeback. While tragic things have happened in Sarajevo twenty years ago, Sarajevo today is lively and vibrant, and full of positive and optimistic people. For this reason, it is the people I have met in Sarajevo that I consider the highlight of this trip.


  1. This is very moving. I like the way you came to the conclusion that some places are best experience, and that this experience won't be captured on film (or rather, on a memory card...).

    1. Zhu,

      Yeah, as you said, sometimes there are experiences that are less visual and hard to capture in camera. My time in Sarajevo was definitely one of them.