Bosnia and Herzegovina, Day One: The Siege of Sarajevo

14 Mar

Wow – where to begin?!? It’s tough to get started when you want to describe one of the greatest weeks of your life, and even tougher when this week was last week. I know that as the distance between me and my week in Bosnia and Herzegovina grows, so will the significance and meaning of it in my life. With that being said, I have still drawn plenty of meaning and significance from the experience only five days after it happened, so this blog post will try and convey all of that (so if you are rushed, I would save reading this for another time).

We’ll start the story just as we began our week – stepping off the plane and into a bus (while being surrounded by four breathtaking mountains, each of which played host to the 1984 Winter Olympic Games):

But we weren’t stepping onto your average tour buses – we had the honor of being guided by two local college students, Adnan and Elsa, who both spoke excellent English and survived the siege of Sarajevo, the longest siege in modern history. After introductions and loading up our luggage, we set out on the “Tour of Misfortune” (which was appropriate as we passed numerous bombed-out buildings scattered with bullet holes – a grim reminder that the war was fought only 20 years ago):

Our first stop on the tour was to an old house which was contained one of the entrances to the famed Tunnel. This Tunnel ran under the airport, which was controlled by the U.N. during the war in an effort to funnel food, medical supplies and other humanitarian aid into the besieged city.

However, part of the deal was 50% of all food and other supplies had to be given to the Republika Srpska army (the Bosnian Serbs), which occupied the surrounding hills and was conducting the siege. So, this Tunnel helped provide necessary additional food, medicine and weapons to the badly under-supplied people of Sarajevo. Weapons had to be smuggled in through the Tunnel because the U.N. instituted an arms embargo on the country of Bosnia during the war in an effort to limit the fighting – however, this greatly weakened the Bosniak Muslims, who lacked the heavy weaponry and professional soldiers which the Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats possessed, since these two groups were both supplied by Serbia and Croatia respectively (for a quick historical background). Construction on the 800 meter Tunnel began on either side of the airport, and despite not knowing where the other group was digging, when the two groups met, they were only centimeters apart. The Tunnel looked like something out of The Great Escape with Steve McQueen:

After going through a very small preserved portion of the Tunnel, our guides told us what it was like in Sarajevo during the siege. The Serbs on the surrounding hills would fire at anything and anybody moving in the city – combatants or non-combatants, men, women, children, vehicles, you name it. Even if a light was on in a house or in a room in a building at night they would shell it. A main road in the city was nicknamed “Sniper Alley” because the Serbs took up positions in buildings on the street in an effort to cut the city in two. The Serbs even shelled the city’s market place twice during the war, resulting in numerous civilian casualties. You can still find “Sarajevo Roses” throughout the city – red paint outlines marking the spots where people were killed. The only access to water in the city was at the local Saravejsko Brewery, since it is built on an underground spring. Countless people died trying to reach the Brewery simply to fill up a bucket of water for their family. Families would often live in the basements of buildings for the entire duration of the war: our tour guides remembered going to school as 5 year olds in the basements of neighborhood homes. With the situation so dangerous and the fighting so close, how was it that the citizens of Sarajevo managed to hold out and successfully defend their city? Our tour guide Elsa provided the answer when she said that her father was positioned down the street from her family’s home, so if he were to let the Serbs through, it would be the end of his family. Elsa’s story gave a much deeper meaning to what we had previously read about how the Bosniaks had “better morale” than the Serbs – because they were defending the things that mattered most to them.

On a bit more light-hearted note, one of the funny moments at the house with the Tunnel entrance was an exchange between one of my fellow classmates, Tayma, and the owner of the house. Tayma is Bosnian, or Bosniak Muslim, and her family spent the entire war in the basement of a house in the city of Mostar, which is south of Sarajevo and is where we visited later in the week. Her family moved the U.S. after the war, but she still speaks Bosnian, and after watching her engage in an animated conversation with the owner of the house, Tayma explained to us that the owner wanted her to marry his son (this served as a good reminder that we were not in Europe anymore). Another reminder was after we jumped back in the buses and proceeded to drive across the city. At one point, our bus driver pulled off the road and picked up some random guy who was waiting in a parking lot. He jumped in the front seat, said hi to us, and then we continued on our tour with our guide giving us a look like ‘what the heck was that?’ But that’s how things work in Bosnia – this is an old-fashioned country that operates on favors and based on who you know. Bosnian time is much different than Danish time (I wouldn’t be surprised if there is no word for ‘punctuality’ in Bosnian) but it’s all a part of their culture and it was refreshing to be thrown into it for a week.

As we continued on our tour, we drove down Sniper Alley and past the hideous monstrosity that is Tito’s Communist architecture from the 1970s:

Looks like a bunch of tetris blocks or a scene from Inception. Anyway, moving on, our next stop was the former Olympic Stadium, which was largely destroyed during the war, but part of which was redone to hold soccer matches:

Finally, we concluded our tour at the top of a mountain on the Eastern side of the city (the Tunnel and airport were located on the Western side of the city). From atop the mountain we could look out on the old trading route that connected Istanbul with Europe (via Sarajevo) and was the reason why Sarajevo sprang up as a major city during Ottoman rule (with tour guide Elsa in the picture):

And here are both our tour guides, Adnan and Elsa:

Here’s the old front which was bombed out during the war:

And some pictures of the magnificent view we had from atop this hill:

The old Sultan’s palace (also bombed out during the war):

And where we began the tour, way off in the distance beyond Tito’s skyscrapers:

To end our tour, we stopped at the Latin Bridge:

This is significant because right next to it is the corner on which World War I started with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Astro-Hungarian throne:

And our hotel was only one block away (my mind was blown at this point – we were staying only one block away from the spot where World War I started, unbelievable). Here are all the pictures (but don’t miss my last paragraph below):

At this point our tour was over and we thanked our tour guides for not only sharing so much information with us and taking us around the city, but also opening up and sharing such personal stories with us to really give us a deeper understanding of what happened in Sarajevo during the siege. At the end of the day, I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude – I just wanted to find somebody to thank for giving me an incredible opportunity to go on this trip, meet these people, hear their testimonies and see where so much history and suffering has occurred alongside a rich blending of cultures and religions. But more on this in my next posts – since is plenty for now (and it’s only day one of five!) Stayed tuned for more on my week in Bosnia and Herzegovina…

2 Responses to “Bosnia and Herzegovina, Day One: The Siege of Sarajevo”

  1. Nancy Macias March 15, 2012 at 6:51 pm #

    Nathan, I just read your blog and am feeling an overwhelming sense of sadness for the people of Bosnia. Perhaps I am remembering my fear/sadness of my remembrance of WWII and how we were in 2nd grade and having to go to the basesment of our school where the huge furnace was located. We sat on the cat walk with our heads between our knees til the siren sounded and the practice air raid drill was over. I know you will never forget this experience too and as sad as it was, it will serve to sharpen your determination to do everything in your power, in daily life, to be aware of injustice and to be a walking example of peace. Grandma

  2. Regina March 21, 2012 at 9:06 am #

    Thanks for writing about this, Nate. It sounds like you’re learning a lot and I’m grateful that you’re sharing it with us. Keep enjoying and learning 🙂

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