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View towards Novo Sarajevo from the eastern hills. Photo: Alan Grant

13 years after the end of the war, the Sarajevo of 2008 is a modern city with new high-rise buildings, embassies, cafés and restaurants. The capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina is again hosting international events like the Sarajevo Film Festival. In times like these the city reminds visitors of the days when it hosted the Winter Olympics back in 1984.

The signs of war are either slowly disappearing, or have become part of the city's heritage. City tours have long included the bridge where the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on 28 June 1914 and set off the First World War; the Old Town, with its mosques and the carefully restored Ottoman-era shopping quarter; and the partially destroyed national library, used as the city hall during Austro-Hungarian times. Nowadays, the "must-see" sights also include the tunnel built by Sarajevo’s citizens during the siege to link the city with  the nearby airport.

Prison photo of Gavrilo Princip - Robert Donia

"Common life" is the term that Robert Donia prefers to use to describe the city's multi-ethnic character in his "Sarajevo: A Biography". He says:

"In the book I have used the Sarajevans' preferred pre-1990 term, 'common life', to capture the values that bind Sarajevans together. Common life took different forms in each of the city's historical epochs and mutated over time, but it was belief in common life that enabled its citizens to mould the city's unique character.”

Sarajevo's common life was never more tested than during the siege of the city. In April 1992 the Bosnian Serb army captured key positions in and around the town, effectively sealing it off. A city in the heart of Europe was turned into a war zone, shelled from the surrounding hills and cut off from the rest of the world. In August 1992 Sarajevo's National Library was destroyed in three days of Serb shelling. 1.5 million books were reduced to ashes. The head Librarian, Kemal Bakarsic, described the wanton destruction:

"All over the city sheets of burned paper, fragile pages of gray ashes, floated down like a dirty black snow.”

Destruction of the National Library 25 August 1992. Photo: flickr/ highly tasteless

War-damaged building Central Sarajevo. Photo: flickr/KnownColor

A detailed investigation has shown that 10,615 people lost their lives during the siege – three quarters of them in 1992, the most terrible year in the city's modern history. Three times as many inhabitants were injured. All this happened under the eyes of the world's media, and despite the presence of UN peacekeepers. During the siege the population lived without electricity, running water and with little food. It was a "struggle for mere survival, but also for the defense of human dignity," as the historian and Sarajevo resident Dzevad Juzbasic described it.

Muslim graveyard  in Sarajevo
Muslim graveyard in Sarajevo. Photo:flickr/mblomqvist

Today, the city's cemeteries and the dates on their tombstones remind visitors of the harsh reality of the siege. Robert Donia has written:

"No resident of Sarajevo passed those wartime years without mourning the loss of one or several family members, close friends, or neighbours. Grief was deepened by survivor's guilt, the awareness that the sniper might just as well have selected the prior passer-by or the artillery shell might have landed a few feet away or a few minutes earlier or later.”

(Robert Donia, Sarajevo: A Biography, 2005, p. 320)

In 1993, the people of Sarajevo – the Sarajlija – dug a 700 metre long tunnel under the frontlines, linking the city of Sarajevo with the airport and the outside world. The tunnel not only helped provide food supplies for the city’s besieged population, but also served as a conduit for arms deliveries, bypassing the international weapons embargo. Tim Lister, one of the few outsiders allowed to use it, described what it was like to crawl through the tunnel at night.

"Once we entered the air changed, the smell changed, as did our state of consciousness from the very first steps. The walls hugged our elbows and we literally had to bend in half to walk, or more like waddle, through the 700m corridor. The iron reinforcements above dripped with moisture and the muddied floors were covered with wooden planks…Sweat dripped from our foreheads, and muscles in our backs began to reject our unnatural position."

(Tom Lister, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bradt, 2007, p. 121.)

Entrance to the  Sarajevo tunnel
Entrance to the Sarajevo tunnel. Photo: flickr/Fiasco NY

War came to Sarajevo three times in the last century – twice by way of the two World Wars, and once in 1992. It was the last of these, however, that inflicted the most damage on the city. At the peak of the massive bombardments in 1992, not even the most optimistic of its residents could believe that Sarajevo would manage to resist – but it did.

Still, the war has perceptibly changed the city. Most Serb residents have not returned. Many Croats and Bosniaks who fled during the war in great numbers have found a better life elsewhere. The very large number of ethnically mixed families has fallen sharply.

Robert Donia describes the city's dilemma:

"The city's common life did not die during the war, nor has it perished in the difficult postwar era. However, Sarajevans face many difficult choices in the post-socialist and postwar era, and the future of the city's common life is among them…

Most of them reject national exclusivity in principle, yet they have repeatedly opted to put nationalist political leaders in office. With the city still living in the long shadow of ruinous war and its citizens holding contradictory social values, Sarajevans have yet to discover or invent a full spectrum of cultural, political, and educational institutions that are free from both communist and nationalist authoritarianism. As they endeavor to do so, the future of the city's common life hangs in the balance.”

Watching Sarajevo. Photo: flickr/Semih Hazar

June 2008

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