It was roughly twenty years ago that Bosnian Serbs, with arms and the direct support of the Serbian military and government, laid siege to Sarajevo for almost three years. It was part of a Serbian nationalistic effort to lay total waste to an entire people through organized rape and murder. I have no vested interest in Balkan politics save for a general concern over the state of humanity and/or flooding disasters, but as an exercise in short-term memory, holding grudges and skewed perception it’s hard to beat. I still can’t help but think about Serbian atrocities whenever I watch Novak Djokovic play tennis.
There are a seemingly endless series of graveyards, large and small, sprinkled throughout the city center of Sarajevo. They all contain white headstones and every single one has a 1993-1995 date of death.
As a tourist, I like to spend my time in cities. Wandering aimlessly. Eating street food, taking pictures, getting lost, bungling around with the language. I didn’t do anything different in Sarajevo, but it felt a little different.
There’s something a bit…what’s the word? Icky? Hmmm, maybe too technical. What the hell, let’s go with icky. There’s something tenuously icky about touristing about in a place that is the exact location where the worst thing to ever happen to someone occurred and where that person still lives, walks and works. Like I’m treading on their memories, intruding on their pain.
It was sobering to visit Verdun, the site of Germany’s effort to bleed France white in WWI. I’ve walked along Omaha Beach at Normandy, stood in the the sand-swirl bleakness of El Alamein, the remnants of trenches in Ypres, visited Little Round Top at Gettysburg, Custer’s final moments in Montana, the Alamo, Azincourt, Waterloo, Gallipoli, you get the idea. None have had the impact of Sarajevo.
Part of it is distance and time, of course. It’s hard to feel the same emotional pull about a few thousand French soldiers dying 600 years ago, especially when it gave us this, if a bit indirectly.
They’re also battlefields, which makes it easier, the horror of war lessened with the intrigue and entertainment of strategy and personality. Ethnic cleansing and the desolation of a city and its population is harder to compartmentalize.
Sarajevo is an undeniably beautiful city, if permeated by a tinge of sadness at every turn. The recovery in the years since the war has been swift. It’s pretty modern, safe, easy to get around. I have no interest in genuine danger when I travel. A little trip into the unknown is fun, not knowing the local language or customs and whatnot, but my greatest concern when traveling is typically the prospect of getting mugged, and the chances of that happening are not much greater abroad than in my hometown of Los Angeles.
I thought a lot about Syria during my time in Bosnia. I’ve always wanted to go to Damascus, and I came close to going before the civil war broke out. My cousin and I had our plane tickets reserved and ready, and then the first three casualties were reported and we were told in no uncertain terms by my uncle to not make the trip. Now I may never be able to see the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. And what will it be like if I do go? Will I see Roman ruins and admire the architecture, or will I only be able to imagine Hezbollah doing God’s work?
My main purpose in traveling to Sarajevo was to check off another WWI landmark and visit the site of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, centered around the Latin Bridge, pictured below, along with now completely unnecessary captions. We’re fast approaching the 100th anniversary of the Black Hand’s contribution to the outbreak of the first world war.
Several nights made for lots of opportunities to take photographs. I also drank many cappuccinos, but they’re not pictured.
Our last night was the final day of world cup qualifying in the group stage, and Bosnia needed a win to guarantee a trip to the finals in Brazil. Nothing more intense than soccer fans in the throes of celebration after a winning goal.
It was a fun few days. Beautiful city, great food, nice people, fascinating history. But I felt a little like I was intruding. And it was hard to be there and not think of snipers.