If you believe the signs around Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s (BiH) capital city is where the 20th century both began and ended. If it were not for a number of violent events, the city might be overlooked by outsiders as another small Balkan capital. However, the city is well remembered because it was the site of the assassination that served as a catalyst for the First World War. In the 1990s Sarajevo became the embodiment of the bloody Balkans as Serbian forces surrounded the city, laying siege for the over three years and creating scenes of horror that would be broadcast globally. Letting those events dominate common conceptions of the city truly sells short a place that is welcoming, safe, and offers so much to see and experience.
Bosnia has long been a meeting point for cultures. This is borne out today in the country’s demographics with three main ethnic groups- Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croat. BiH is roughly half Bosniak, slightly more than a third Serb, with the remainder being Croat. Sarajevo itself is a mostly Bosniak city, though Eastern Sarajevo (a formally separate city since the Bosnian War) is mostly Serb. For several centuries BiH was controlled by the Ottoman Empire. Though as that empire declined a new one, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, moved in to occupy BiH beginning 1878. Austrian rule was fairly oppressive towards non-Catholics. As a consequence, the Serb population grew restless and in 1914 Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb, killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo setting off events that would create the World War.
Following World Wari I, BiH joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, the state that would become Yugoslavia. BiH was occupied by German forces during World War II and was the location of significant fighting between the occupiers and communist Partizans led by Josip Broz Tito. Tito, one of the 20th century’s most interesting figures, would form a socialist state in Yugoslavia after the war and effectively hold together the multiethnic state for nearly 30 years until his death in 1980.
Sarajevo was the host of the 1984 Winter Olympics. This marked a high point for the city as the world’s focus turned to Sarajevo for an event associated with peace and cooperation rather than war and division.
Yugoslavia would start to fall apart as Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia declared independence in 1991. BiH held a referendum on independence in 1992. Over 92% of voters voted in favor the measure, though it must be noted that the vote was largely boycotted by the Serb population. BiH formally declared independence on March 3, 1992. Bosnian Serbs supported by Serbia refused to accept this. The bloodiest war on European soil since World War II began as Serb forces attacked the Bosniak population. Threeway fighting occurred among Bosnia’s ethnic groups, though the BiH military had a not insignifcant number of Serb and Croat soldiers. Bosniak and Croat forces united as the war went on to focus on fighting the Serbs.
The conflict is remembered for its brutality and often indiscriminate nature. Civilians were often the target of military and paramilitary forces. All sides were responsible for atrocities, though the most notorious is the killing of 8000 Bosniaks at Srebrenica by Serb forces in 1994 under the command of General Ratko Mladic. The longest siege of a capital city in modern history occurred in Sarajevo as Serbs dropped an average of more than 300 shells a day between 1992 and 1995. Mass rape also became a common tool of war. The conflict created a humanitarian crisis on a massive scale.
The Bosnian War came to end when NATO forces intervened and began a bombing campaign against the Serbs. This campaign was the first ever live engagement by a NATO force. The bombing led the Serbs to accept the Dayton Agreement. Under the terms of this agreement and the earlier Washington Agreement Serbia renounced its claims to BiH and a new political structure for BiH was put in place.
The Bosnian War was mindbogglingly complex. Like so many modern conflicts, the narrative depends on who you ask. Whether it was a civil war or one of outside aggression, who bears moral responsibility, and more issues do not have clear answers. Time has helped groups to reconcile and justice to be administered. All of the individuals indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia have been captured and several have been convicted. Still, progress remains to be had. The war disrupted the lives of an entire country. 20 years since the end of the conflict can feel like a lot of time or not nearly enough.
BiH formally consists of two political entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (consisting of mostly Bosniaks and Croats) and Republika Srpska (mostly Serbs). Each entity has significant autonomy within its borders, but the system is designed so that decisions at the national level are done by consensus. Naturally, this leads to very little being achieved, as each group has effective veto powers. The extremely complicated system is designed to placate each group. At the same time it has the effect of codifying the ethnic divisions and freezing them rather than trying to advance past them.
While I mention the religious groups above, it is only to show that country is diverse rather than spiritually rigid, dogmatic, and divided. Like its neighbors, Bosnia is markedly secular and historically the region has been extremely tolerant of different religions. Sarajevo is noted for having had an Islamic mosque, a Catholic cathedral, an Orthodox church, and a Jewish synagogue all within a radius of less than a half mile. These coexisted easily during the 19th century, well before any similar arrangement would be found elsewhere in Europe. Tragically, the synagogue exists only as a Jewish museum these days as a legacy of the Holocaust. Nearly all of Sarajevo’s Jewish population, nearly one quarter of the city, was eliminated during Nazi occupation.
There are obvious physical scars in Sarajevo from the siege. Pockmarked buildings are still visible, but for the most part the city has cleaned up, rebuilt, and looked ahead.
The impact sites of shells on some sidewalks were filled with red resin following the war. These were dubbed Sarajevo Roses. Fewer and fewer of these remain as large sections of sidewalk have been replaced. Those that do remain stand as memorials to victims of shelling.
Though Sarajevo was surrounded during the siege, there was a lifeline to the outside world. The Sarajevo airport, controlled by UN forces, was a thin piece of neutral territory standing between Sarajevo and friendly Bosnian territory. Initially this meant that individuals would risk running across the runways to transit between the two areas. This was incredibly dangerous and a route beneath the airport was recognized as a better alternative. An 800 meter long tunnel was constructed over several months. From houses on either side of the airport, engineers dug out earth, built up supports, and laid down tracks for carts. Idiosyncrasies in the tunnel construction reflected the different conditions faced by the people on either side. The walls and support beams of exterior side are built of wood while those on the Sarajevo side of the tunnel made of metal because wood was too valuable as fuel within the city. The tunnel is cramped. A short section of it is open for visitors and at its tallest point my head was scraping the ceiling and I could touch either wall with my elbows. Despite its claustrophobic construction, the Tunnel of Hope brought a flow of food, arms, and communication that was invaluable to the besieged city. The tunnel went undetected by Serb forces for over two years from the time of its completion until the end of the conflict.
I cannot help but admire the people of Sarajevo for their resilience in the face of the siege. For three years they faced the terror of mortars, artillery, tanks, and snipers. Yet, they continued to live, not just in the sense of not dying, but also in the sense of embracing the struggle and recognizing the absurdity of their situation. Less than a decade earlier the world had come together in Sarajevo for peaceful celebration competition and now the city was left isolated from the world and from that peace, the Olympic sites turned into rubble or battle positions. Despite a daily forecast of possible death raining down upon them, the people of Sarajevo created art, they danced in clubs, they played music, they even held a Miss Besieged Sarajevo pageant in which the contestants unraveled a sign pleading, “Don’t Let Them Kill Us”. All of these were provocative, symbolic, and defiant gestures that yell out, “Fuck you, you will not kill me and, even more, you cannot kill my will to live! End this war.” I don’t know if I could embrace life in that way in those conditions, but it provides me with hope knowing that at one time a group of people were able to and for all of the pressure that could work to break their spirits they held strong.
Among the most noticeable Austrian-era buildings in Sarajevo is the Vijećnica, the City Hall. This brightly colored Moorish building was constructed in 1896 and sits along the Miljacka River. It served as the National Library before the war and housed over two million items. It was hit by Serb shells in 1992 and it along with the documents inside went up in flames. This act is remembered as a particularly bad episode in the siege as it represented an attack on culture, learning, and history. The building was rebuilt and restored over more than 20 years, reopening only last year. The interior is beautiful and it alone is worth paying the entry price, however admission also includes access to whatever exhibitions are on display. When I went these were a thoroughly detailed historical perspective of the city and a collection of photographs from the war and its aftermath.
To think that anyone would target a center of knowledge for bombardment and destruction proves the senselessness that emerges in war. The use of incendiary shells on the National Library was unjustifiable from a military perspective. Not only did the Bosnian people suffer from the loss of blood for three years, but they saw their culture turned into ashes.
As if the city itself and the aforementioned sites were not enough to elicit your sympathy and respect for the people of Sarajevo, a trip to the Historical Museum will provide insight into Sarajevan ingenuity. A permanent exhibit on the siege displays household items improvised from the limited goods available at the time.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie visited Bosnia in June of 1914 to observe military drills. Following the exercises they planned a brief stop in Sarajevo. The Black Hand, a secret group aiming to create a large South Slavic state (Yugoslavia), plotted to assassinate the couple. Six assassins participated in the event. As the royal couple drove along the Miljacka River on June 28, 1914, a bomb was thrown towards their vehicle. It missed and injured passengers in a car following behind the royal vehicle. The visit continued as planned following this first attempt on the archduke’s life. The Archduke attended a reception at the city hall and then headed back along the river. Confusion about the return route led the motorcade to stop directly in front of assassin Gavrilo Princip. Princip quickly shot Sophie in the stomach and Franz Ferdinand in the neck. Both died quickly from their wounds. Princip was apprehended immediately. He and his co-conspirators were tried in Sarajevo. Being 19 years old at the time of the assassination, Princip was too young to receive the death penalty under Austro-Hungarian law. He received the maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. He died in prison from tuberculosis before the war that he is associated with had ended.
Austria-Hungary responded to the assassination by issuing a set of demands to Serbia which were rejected when Russia signaled its support to Serbia. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia a month later. Russia mobilized its military which led to a German declaration of war on Russia. In the months that followed declarations of war piled on as all of the Great Powers of Europe joined one bloc or the other.
The building at the assassination corner is the Museum Sarajevo 1878-1918. This small museum takes up only one room, but covers the period of Austrian rule in Sarajevo. Here you can see clothing, documents, and ephemera from the period. A display of Franz Ferdinand and Sophia as they appeared on the day of their deaths stands out.
Old Town Sarajevo is a collection of Ottoman-era construction. You can easily spend hours getting lost in the markets, alleys, and religious buildings of the area.
The Sarajevesko Brewery produces Bosnia’s most widely consumed beers. As fan of beer I made it a point to visit the brewery’s small museum and tavern. The museum takes up a small room, but covers the history of beer in Sarajevo and displays items such as old labels and awards from festivals. The ticket also includes a beer at the next door tavern. The tavern itself is attractive with its wood floors, bar, and paneling. You can choose between a pilsner style beer and a dark lager. Seeing as how just about every beer I had had to this point in my travels was some take on a pilsner I gladly opted for the dark lager. I was not disappointed. Though it is hard to say how it would stack up against a quality dunkel from the US or Germany, I would say that this was one of the best beers I consumed in a month of traveling.
It is impossible to visit Sarajevo and not think about those violent events of the 20th century, however one must remember that we now live in the 21st century. Sarajevo is not a place of misery. The people stand out as amicable, helpful, and beautiful. They live in the present. While my life differs from Sarajevans my age, our lives do not feel so foreign that it feels as if we occupy two different planets. I do not think I would have felt that way 20 years ago.