Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina

This post originally appeared in Here & Now, the quarterly magazine from the Academy of Urbanism,  in Spring 2015. The AoU is the leading UK organisation for urbanists, covering planning and design, development and globalisation, community and politics, and the arts.

I visited Sarajevo in December 2014 as a guest of Remembering Srebrenica, a British charitable initiative raising awareness of the Bosnian genocide by organising visits to Sarajevo, Srebrenica and other sites of the war.

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As the freezing fog cleared, I looked down at Sarajevo and got an impression of the ease with which murder once rained down from the hills cradling the city. When the Bosnian war began in 1992, over 400,000 Sarajevo citizens were living in the valley, trapped, facing death from above. Bosnian-Serb forces and their tanks gathered on these hills and for three years – the longest siege of a European city since the Second World War – thousands of civilians were killed.  Shooting fish in a barrel doesn’t even come close. The impact of the war continues to be visible in the city streets today, but the evidence of these brutal years has been embraced in creative ways.

I was visiting Sarajevo in December 2014 as a guest of Remembering Srebrenica, a British charitable initiative raising awareness of the Bosnian genocide by organising visits to Sarajevo, Srebrenica and other sites of the war. 2015 marks twenty years since the massacre of Srebrenica, a small town east of Sarajevo where 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian-Serb soldiers over ten horrific days. Our guide, Resad Trbonja, had lived in Sarajevo all his life and showed us glimpses of the war still evident in his hometown. Burnt out shells remain on the outskirts of Sarajevo, where there once stood family homes. In the (almost) pristine centre of town, occasional bullet holes pock the Sacred Heard Cathedral. Sporadic shrapnel scars mark the pavement from where the thousands of mortar shells exploded. Rather than repaving over them, the dents have been filled with blood-red red to commemorate the victims and nicknamed the ‘roses of Sarajevo’.

Trams crisscross Sarajevo, full to bursting throughout the day, in a variety of shapes and colours. The lack of uniformity is a clue to their diverse origins. Most of the tramways were totally destroyed during the siege and since the ceasefire in 1995 cities from across the globe have donated trams to help Sarajevo return to normality. Bosnia Herzegovina has a proud history of being a meeting place between East and West, where people of varied cultures mingle peacefully. This was clearly evident in the high rate of mixed marriages before the war that, while shattered by the war like so much else, is beginning to show signs of returning to its previous levels. We walked past busy mosques, synagogues and churches of both catholic and orthodox denominations in the dense centre of town, all equally astounding in their extravagance. The winter sun was already begin to dim after a few hours of wandering the cobbled, labyrinthine market lanes. We sheltered from the cold with other citizens and travellers in a downtown café, as has been the way in Sarajevo, except for a brutal and unforgettable series of interruptions, for centuries.

Remarkable that in the winding streets of the bazaar nothing seems to have changed for decades, if not centuries. Old and young drinking traditional Bosnian coffee in the sheltered courtyards. You can expect to see merchants from the east and west, a priest, and so on (a demonstration of diversity and place of centrality). The citizens I spoke to haven’t either forgiven or forgotten. The history has become part of the city’s fabric, painfully integrated into the vibrant and complex city.

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