by Karen Lewis
In December 2014, over the Christmas period, I spent two and a half weeks in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was an unexpected, out of the blue, invitation which took me by surprise and at the same time was just what I needed. It was something I was looking forward to, not only to see family but also for the excitement that another adventure was on the horizon.
It is sometimes hard to believe that I was alive during the war that took place in Bosnia in the 1990s. I remember hearing about it on the news as a teenager and not really paying much attention to it back then, growing up in Scotland. It wasn’t until I arrived in Bosnia and learned about what the people of Sarajevo went through that I finally made the connection.
There is something that had an impact on me when I first stepped out of the airport doors. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first. All I know is what I felt when I first looked around.
Due to the effects of the war, Bosnia doesn’t look exotic or glamorous but there are parts of the city that have remarkable architecture throughout Sarajevo. There is just something about the place that strikes me as fascinating as well as interesting. To me it has character.
The eternal flame to this day continues to burn in Sarajevo in memory of the victims of World War II. It was initially dedicated on April 6, 1946 and is situated at the end of Ferhadija Street where it links with Marshal Tito Street. This was to celebrate the liberation from Nazi occupation during the war.
When I first came across the eternal flame while walking down the street, the first thing I did was run across to heat my very cold hands. It also seems to be a popular spot to have your photograph taken.
The street names are a bit difficult to pronounce unless you have a great aptitude for languages. Even then, it takes a bit of practice for new arrivals who don’t already know the language.
As you walk through town there appear to be different sections of town all very unique. The first part is from the communist era, the second is Austro-Hungarian, and at the end is the Turkish Quarter. They all seem to flow from one part into the next. One landmark that is well known there is an Ottoman fountain. It is said that if you drink from it you will return to Sarajevo one day.
As I walked through the street from one end to the other, I remember seeing a woman standing on the street with one leg begging and another man walked past who had one arm. If I could speak the language, I would have spoken to the old man who stands on the street everyday hoping to share his story from the war with people passing by. For some it might be a form of therapy and others an area of trauma and sensitivity.
The old Turkish area has a very large Muslim population. You often see Muslims praying in the Mosques. This area also has a variety of cafes to choose from if you are feeling hungry.
One of the traditional meals I tried was a large Pita bread with small sausage type meat inside called cevapi.. Burek is also a common traditional meat filled pastry snack or sirnica which is a cheese filled pastry.
There are many coffee shops throughout the streets of Sarajevo. They can also be smoky places but some offer a non-smoking section. The culture there tends to enjoy socializing and people can sit in coffee shops for hours.
One of the oldest streets in the Turkish quarter is Kazandziluk Street. Here you will find lots of stalls, crafts and copper items. The street name will come as no surprise when you discover what it translates as- Coppersmith Street. If you are shopping for bags, belts and coffee then those are just a few of the items you are likely to find, along with a selection of carpets and silver.
The apartment we were staying in while in Sarajevo was situated on a fairly steep hill, not that I am complaining, as it was good for keeping fit. Staying on the top floor meant step aerobics every day. In the distance out the living-room window, I remember seeing the BBI centre, which at first glance looked like an office block but was actually a modern shopping centre with several floors.
Traveling around was easy while staying in Sarajevo. Most places were central and within walking distance from the apartment. There is also a taxi service, which I was pretty impressed with. Not only was it fairly inexpensive; they were very punctual, so I did not have to hang around waiting for too long. In saying that, it is always wise to ask for an idea of what the cost will be before entering the taxi and make sure it is registered. The tram is another alternative for traveling around as it runs on a loop around the central district.
Bosnian Marks are the currency there and you can only get them while in the country or at an ATM. You can’t exchange money outside the country.
While in Sarajevo, a few of the family members had read a book called Besieged by Barbara Demick, and I was slowly being introduced to this book and thought I might read it at some point. While walking up Logavina Street, the street that is featured in this book which told about the lives of people during the siege, we met one of the people featured in the book and one family member we were with spoke to him in Bosnian. Meeting one of the characters from a book was a surprise to us and completely unexpected!
If you ever travel to Bosnia be sure to go on one of the war tours as they are led by Bosnian survivors of the war who have lots of stories as to what life was like growing up during that time. I found the tunnel an area of interest when I was there, as well as the scenery of the mountains. One thing the tour includes is the actual war tunnel, which goes under the airport. You are also able to walk through part of it to this day.
The Bosnian army built the Sarajevo tunnel between the dates of 1992-1995 while the city was under siege, as a means of humanitarian aid. It was used to smuggle supplies like food, water, newspapers and cigarettes. Weapons were also passed through. People came in and out of the city through it.
The tunnel started from the garage of an apartment building on the Dobrinja side and the entrance on the Butmir side was from a house very near the airport, each starting at their end and meeting in the middle. They worked 24 hours a day on the tunnel on a shift pattern to have it finished as quickly as possible. The tunnel ran underneath the airport, but both entrances were closely watched and guarded. People traveling through the tunnel would often travel with a goat, which would go out ahead of them at the entrance in case of trenches or mines. Traveling by the tunnel was a big risk, but many did it. Some people chose to stay in Sarajevo as the tunnel required a great deal of physical fitness, while others would rather stay in their homeland as a way of not giving in to the enemy. There was also nowhere else for many to go, and only people with the right connections were given the option of escaping.
If you were to head up into the mountains, the view from up there is incredible. The air seems a lot clearer as well. I remember seeing the bobsled track that was used in the Winter Olympics of 1984 for events. It is no longer in use today but who knows maybe one day it will be.
During the siege, the mountains were a place the people of Sarajevo could not go as it would be extremely dangerous. The Serbian forces fired weapons from the hills and had Sarajevo surrounded.
Even though I did not drink from the fountain, I would definitely like to return to Sarajevo one day. There is certainly a variety of things to see and experience and I would recommend it to anyone.
Check out more travel articles in KRL’s travel section.