Sarajevo. It’s a city whose name resonates through the history of the 20th century. Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand here, the straw which broke the camel’s back and started World War I. Less than twenty years ago, it was besieged for a whisker under four years, a time of unimaginable deprivation and hardship – raising the question of whether the record it set is enviable (for the fortitude of the inhabitants) or unenviable (for the fact it happened at all)…
On a happier note, it was also the setting for the 1984 Winter Olympics – best known in the UK for changing the mental image of Ravel’s Bolero, via Torville and Dean’s clean sweet of 6.0 scores in the ice dancing.
As we arrived, our initial impression was one of utter bewilderment. We headed in along a long, straight main route through anonymous modern sprawl – trying to find signs for the campsite. We soon twigged that it was behind us, and – after considerable fannying around – found it, pitched, and grabbed a tram to the city centre.
In the centre of town, one thing became rapidly obvious – there’s surprisingly little to remind you of the war. Sure, there’s the odd building which is still derelict and pock-marked. But they’re very much the exception, no matter how beautiful some of them were and could be again.
That tram route was the notorious “Sniper Alley” – not that you’d have ever known it from the identikit modern suburbs, shopping centres and the like along it now. The City Hall is still shrouded in scaffolding – but that’s not exactly unusual. The building may be being rebuilt, but the irreplaceable and ancient contents of the National Library it housed were 90% destroyed by the fire which followed its shelling.
The old Ottoman centre of the town, reminding us strongly of Skopje’s old town, heaved with tourists heading through the smoke of innumerable ćevapi cooking on open grills. Large and ancient mosques sit broodingly, with little to tell you of how recently they lay in ruins. The foundations of a centuries old coaching inn lie next to the brand spanking hotel whose construction unearthed them. One of the other original inns remains – now housing a couple of coffee shops, restaurants and tourist-tat shops, of course. It’s not the original building, it’s another reconstruction after destruction – but this time, it’s a ’70s reconstruction after a fire.
As we sat outside a Lebanese restaurant (as a change from those ćevapi – the first “non-local” restaurant we’ve eaten at on the whole trip, excepting the odd pizza and burger – but, given the Ottoman surroundings, not a huge step on the food continuum), we noticed the sheer number of beggars doing the rounds. Even outside the touristy centre, they were on most major road junctions – not only the ubiquitous Roma, but Bosnians with injuries which you can only suppose came from the war.
On returning to the campsite that first evening, we found that our van had been joined by another high-top T25… As we’d been following Louis to the coast, we’d had very enthusiastic waves from a white van coming the other way, but hadn’t noticed that it bore British plates. Somehow, they’d found us, though… Nathan and Anna are taking a long break, too, and after backpacking around South-East Asia had popped back to the UK to collect their van, Ginny, from storage to tour Europe. The evening disappeared incredibly rapidly, as ever.
A return to the town centre by tram the next day saw us wandering around more and more of the city. Everywhere you go, there are signs of the war if you look for them (although we never did find any of the famous “Sarajevo Roses”, the blood-red infills of shell damaged pavements, remembering those killed whilst trying to live normal lives) – but you have to look surprisingly hard. The historical museum houses an exhibition – or would, if it wasn’t closed for renovation. There’s a monument on the edge of a park, opposite a shopping centre, to the 1,600 children killed in the siege – but none that we could find to the 9,000 adults. Sure, some of the tourist agencies advertised “Siege Walking Tours”, but we just plain couldn’t find the building hosting a photo exhibition. Quickly, we found ourselves focussing less on what we thought would be a major contribution to the “feel” of the city, and digging a bit further back. We went around a couple of house museums – one the home of a wealthy Ottoman family; the other the home of a late 19th century Serbian family, cultural pioneers who housed the first theatre performances in the city.
Another evening spent chatting to Nathan & Anna passed by, although not without incident. Around midnight, as we sat outside, we noticed somebody wandering around. Nothing, in itself, unusual – except that this guy just didn’t “feel right”. Dressed all in black, he seemed not to be going anywhere, just mooching around. As he stared towards us, he ignored a cheery greeting – and our little internal alarm bells started to ring. They only got louder as we noticed he was not alone – another shadow was meandering around in slightly different circles. Nathan headed off to warn the site management, and we had a little wander around, tracking their suspicious activities. Eventually, they skulked off to the wire fence separating the back of the site from some flats, and car lights headed off into the night at a rate of knots. It was the first time on the trip that we’ve had any indication of potential malefactors around a campsite, although we’ve certainly been on several with heightened security of varying degrees of sophistication – from swipe cards to gain access through to people spending all night cuddling shotguns next to the loo block… Even though logic said that they’d been scared off and wouldn’t be back that night, if ever, we weren’t exactly sorry to leave the following morning.
Our first stop wasn’t very far at all – just the other side of the suburb that hosted the site, right next to the airport runway. During the siege, the airport was under UN control, under the terms of a localised ceasefire that allowed UN flights to land, but required the UN to prevent anybody crossing the airport, which closed off the horseshoe of territory held by the Serbian forces. The Serbs did not control the land on the other side of the airport, so a tunnel was dug in secret, right under the runway. There’s nothing marking the city end, but the outside end has been preserved by the family whose house provided the terminus. A small exhibition provided the context and an insight into the conditions that must have been faced – before we headed out into the garden to see what’s left of the tunnel. There’s only a short stretch, properly lit and without the knee-deep water that restricted it to barely a metre and a half high.
The high-voltage cable that was strung along the ceiling next to an oil pipe, between them providing the only energy supplies, are both still physically present but the danger they would have presented to those using the tunnel was not. The corrugated steel sheeting protecting the entrance to the tunnel is perforated with ragged bullet holes, and the tail of a shell sticks out of a hole in the concrete next to it. And this was the safe end…