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The Resilience of Sarajevo

If there’s one thing a tourist comes away with from a trip to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it’s an admiration for the resilience of its people. Sarajevo has been through a lot, and naturally a place that’s been through a lot will have many stories to tell. This post is inspired by these stories, which have shaped the legends, unique culture and attitudes in Sarajevo.

Legends and History

Located in the centre of the Baščaršija (old town) is the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, a structure built in the 16th century. Legend has it that Gazi Husrev-beg, the Ottoman governor at the time, brought over three architects from what is now modern-day Turkey and asked them what should be built first in the mosque’s construction. One architect suggested the construction of a minaret, a tower from which the call to prayer could be made. Another suggested the construction of a minbar, a raised platform from which sermons could be delivered. The third architect suggested the construction of a toilet, much to the laughter of the others. He defended his suggestion, however, by stressing the importance of hygiene, not just in cleaning oneself physically but also cleansing one’s mind and soul. Husrev-beg was swayed by this argument and the first public toilet in Europe was
constructed in Sarajevo in 1530.

Legend also has it that Husrev-beg employed a constructor who was Orthodox Christian. This constructor refused payment and instead requested a church be built. Husrev-beg accepted this request and the church was later visited by couples who would kneel under a specific table with the understanding that this would prevent any complications during pregnancy.

Entrance to the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, Sarajevo
Entrance to the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, Sarajevo

These brief legends highlight the multicultural interactions and considerations that have existed within Sarajevo for hundreds of years. During the Spanish Inquisition, for example, Ottoman fleets would collect those fleeing persecution and would allow them to settle in cities of the empire. A community of Jews made Sarajevo their home during the 16th century.

These multicultural interactions were often encouraged during the Ottoman period, exemplified by the building of caravanserais; accommodation given free-of-charge to travellers for 3 nights with breakfast included. The condition placed upon these travellers was that they had to trade with the locals.

Security was very strict in caravanserais of Sarajevo. There was only one entrance / exit and two guards were placed there to keep watch. When it was closing time the guards shouted out, “Is anyone outside that wants to come inside?” They would have to ask the question three times and hear “no” three times before closing the door. Similarly when it was time for travellers to leave the caravanserai, the guards would ask, “Is anyone missing anything?” They would have to ask this question three times and hear “no” three times before letting people leave.

Entrance to a traditional caravanserai used to accommodate travellers visiting Sarajevo
Entrance to a historical caravanserai that was used to accommodate travellers visiting Sarajevo

Also located within the Old Town of Sarajevo, this time in the main square of the Old Town, is the Sebilj, an Ottoman-style wooden fountain. There used to be 300 of these scattered throughout the city, with an individual stationed at each one to distribute water. The remaining Sebilj in the main square is now self-service (fill your bottle from a running pipe) and legend has it that one who drinks from the Sebilj of Sarajevo will one day return to the city.

An Ottoman Sebilj or water fountain in Sarajevo
An Ottoman Sebilj in Sarajevo

The Siege of Sarajevo

The siege of Sarajevo by the army of Republika Srpska that took place between 1992 and 1996 has been described as the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. Admirable of the people who lived through the siege are the attitudes, resilience and defiance Sarajevo demonstrated in the face of constant bombardment.

Some people living through the siege were prepared to die. They didn’t foresee a future in which they could come out alive from heavy and continuous shelling from Serb forces. Food and resources were scarce, and doctors had to conduct surgery without anaesthetic under candlelight. The siege, it is argued, was psychological with the purpose of demoralisation as much as it was a siege of destruction. Many bombings took place at night to wake people up and deprive them of sleep. The National and University Library, which contained around 1.5 million volumes, came under deliberate attack to eradicate the history and culture of Bosnia. The building burnt with fire for 2 days and 2 nights and people would risk their lives running into the flames to salvage any manuscripts they could find. A truck would be stationed next to some of the windows so people could throw the books out onto the truck, which would then drive away and find another place to store the books.

Sarajevo City Hall
Sarajevo City Hall, which used to be the National and University Library

The bleak circumstances with which people found themselves in during the siege has, for some people, manifested in an appreciation for the small things they experience day to day. For example, a child may have spent around 80% of his time in a basement during the ages of 7-11. While safety was always a concern, his child-like instinct could take over and he would go outside to play. Chocolate was scarce during the siege and he would collect empty wrappers and packets, sniffing and sometimes licking them to get even the slightest sensation of the real thing. Now when he has a taste of chocolate, he gets flashbacks to the years of the siege.

Romeo & Juliet

Sarajevo’s Romeo and Juliet is a story of a mixed couple that attempted to escape the siege. Boško was a Bosnian Serb and Admira was a Bosniak. As conditions worsened in Sarajevo, they decided to make an attempt to flee the city. Boško, through some connections, managed to get in touch with the Serb forces, who explained that there would be no shooting if the couple were to cross a nearby bridge.

On 19th May 1993 at around 5pm, Boško and Admira approached the bridge. Both began to run and immediately upon setting foot on the bridge a shot was heard. Boško was hit and died instantly. Another shot was heard and Admira fell. Wounded, she crawled towards Boško’s body and hugged him. She lay there for around 15 minutes until she too died. Both were 25 years old.

While the story of Boško and Admira has an unfortunate ending, their relationship served as a rejection of the hostility and division that the siege intended to create. They didn’t value each other on the basis of their ethnicities but rather on the basis of who they were as people.

The Spirit of Sarajevo

Despite the constant bombardment and destruction, many people in Sarajevo were determined to go about their daily lives. This was their method of defiance. Attacking forces may have destroyed a lot in the city, but they could never destroy the spirit of Sarajevo.

People still went to work, though they didn’t necessarily get paid. Children still went to school, and if they couldn’t, teachers would organise classes in different building blocks. Theatres continued to show plays, asking for payment of a single candle so they could light the stage. The first Sarajevo Film Festival was organised with attendance of 15,000 people. When asked by journalists on why the Film Festival was taking place during the siege, they received the response, “Why is the siege taking place during the Film Festival?”

A child shouted at her mother upon seeing her wear high heels before going out. The child was perplexed; “How will you be able to run if bombs start falling?” The Mother replied, “If I go down, at least I’ll go down in style!”

From March – June 1993 the Sarajevo Tunnel, also referred to as the Tunnel of Hope, was built. It was an underground tunnel that linked Sarajevo to Bosnian-held territory beyond Sarajevo Airport, and allowed food, aid and supplies to be brought into the besieged city. Due to a lack of equipment, the tunnel was dug with shovels and by hand. Work on the tunnel ran 24 hours a day, with payment of a pack of cigarettes for an 8 hour shift.

Attitudes

The spirit of resilience that kept people going throughout the siege continued in its aftermath. As people searched for ways to rebuild, they collected bullets and used these to create souvenirs to sell such as keychains, pens and toy airplanes.

Souvenirs made from bullets, Sarajevo
Souvenirs created from bullets

In some ways the siege brought people together. A person who worked as a police officer during the siege remains proud that his duty was to protect all people of Sarajevo, not just people of a specific ethnicity or religion. One church had been damaged by shrapnel but its reconstruction was cancelled as a reminder that it wasn’t just one religious group that was under attack.

It seems Sarajevo has adopted an attitude of moving on but not forgetting. The Sarajevo Memorial for Children Killed during Siege is a testament to how those who are without blame and without participation can get caught up in the horrors of war.

The Sarajevo Memorial for Children Killed during Siege
The Sarajevo Memorial for Children Killed during Siege

The base of the memorial has been created by shrapnel that was dropped on the city during the siege. Children’s footprints cover the base, the centre of which are two shards; the large one covers the small one, which symbolises a parent attempting to protect their child. To the side are seven cylinders that bear the names of the children that were killed during the siege.

These cylinders can be spun round, and when they are, various noises can be heard that mimic the sound of children playing. Ultimately the cylinders stop spinning and the sound can no longer be heard; symbolic of a mortar falling onto the playful innocence of children after which nothing but silence remains.

Throughout the city there are Sarajevo Roses; memorials made from damage to concrete where a mortar shell landed and killed people. The damage to the concrete has been filled with red resin.

A Sarajevo 'Rose'
A Sarajevo ‘Rose’

Another way in which people have coped in the years following the siege is through humour, exemplified by the Canned Beef Monument.

The canned beef sits upon a base with the words Monument to the international community by the grateful citizens of Sarajevo; a sardonic expression of gratitude for food aid that was inedible, some of which had expired by over 20 years and wouldn’t even be eaten by animals. Given the satirical nature of the monument, authorities didn’t allow it to be placed in the centre of Sarajevo. Was this an attempt to keep the monument out of sight from the international community? The monument was moved but by some humorous twist of fate, when the United Nations staff in Sarajevo moved to new premises, their building stood right in front of the monument. The Canned Beef Monument which mockingly thanks the international community, and was meant to be hidden, literally stands 100 metres from the international community!

The Canned Beef Monument, Sarajevo
The Canned Beef Monument, A monument to the international community

Ultimately time moves on and Sarajevo has chosen to do so as well. In the words of someone who lived through the siege, “After everything I don’t hate anyone. I’m an optimist and we have to live together.”

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