Welcome to Sarajevo


I knew two things about Sarajevo growing up:

1. It hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics

2. Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated here in 1914, precipitating the First World War

However, I confess I may have once conflated the two on a history exam and stated the Archduke was assassinated AT an Olympic ceremony, which started the war. It’s a bit comical now but I assure you, my history teacher did not share in the laughter.

I’m here this week as part of SAIS’ Conflict Management program. This city, an amazing crossroad of east and west, is our backdrop as we study a country struggling with the lasting ravages of a war inspired by ethnic hatred that was fomented by few at the expense of the many. For decades Serbs, Croats and Bosniak Muslims lived in harmony here, respecting each other’s traditions and cultures. You can explore an awe-inspiring Christian church and then, after two blocks, experience an equally profound Mosque. Open-air markets sell miniature statues of saints next to prayer beads, Turkish coffee sets, and mementos made from ammunition casings.

There’s the rub. For all of the city’s charm, you are constantly reminded it suffered a nearly four-year siege by Serbian forces after the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Bullet holes pockmark the side of buildings. Wooded mountainsides are littered with active landmines. Craters from mortar rounds on streets and sidewalks are filled in with red cement and called Roses of Sarajevo. They are everywhere.

I knew little about all of this before coming here other than that there had been a conflict. I never fully understood why it happened. I paid little attention to world affairs in those days I’m sorry to admit. Further, school was all consuming. I was exactly the type of uninformed citizen I have come to loathe. But even if I had some knowledge of the conflict, it would have been minuscule compared to what I’ve learned about the country and its history this week.

The fighting officially ended in 1995 with the signing of the Dayton Accords and the country has more or less limped on ever since. The resulting government in Bosnia-Herzegovina was set up in such a way that the three major ethnic groups are equally represented. There is a rotating three-person presidency, and there are three people for each major official position (and everything that comes with it.) For comparison, imagine there being three Secretaries of the Treasury, etc. Complicating things further is a small sliver of the country known as Republika Srpska, an autonomous enclave of ethnic Serbs not as subject to the central government as the rest of the country. It is part of Bosnia, but not really. I have yet to fully wrap my head around it.

We spent the bulk of our week meeting with agencies and government offices working on some aspect of piecing the country back together. Some are focused on creating viable institutions, particularly criminal justice, while others grapple with EU accession, financing infrastructure rehabilitation and continual implementation of aspects o the Dayton Accord. None of them has an easy task and it shows. Every person we met with looked exhausted. Optimism is in good supply but it is tempered by the reality of the situation. As one official put it, “the bullets stopped but the fighting did not.” In a nutshell, it took very little to instill ethnic hatred where there was none to begin with and it will take generations to undo it. Let that be a lesson.

If I’ve painted a somewhat grim picture, there is great cause for hope. We spent our first day with Jovan Divjak, a general in the Bosnian army who now runs a foundation he helped start in 1994 whose name loosely translates into, “Education Builds Bosnia-Herzegovina.” Its aim is to provide scholarships and other assistance to those who need an education, especially those suffering as an outcome of the war.

The general gave us a guided tour of the city along with stories and experiences from the war at every stop. We began in the mountains surrounding Sarajevo getting a sense of how the Serb arm encircled the capital city from on high so as to rain down bullets and mortars for four years. On the way down he saw a friend, a woman who lost her husbands and sons in the war. During an incident where the general and some friends were under fire, they took cover in her house and have remained close friends ever since.

The general took us to a large cemetery built near the edge of the city commemorating countless men and women who died during the siege. The markers are all obelisks about four feet tall and they cover a small hillside, many of them written in Arabic. You start to get a sense of the scale of the tragedy. Next we visited a now-famous tunnel just beyond the airport that was used to move people and supplies in and out of the besieged city. It’s a museum and they let you enter the beginning portion of the tunnel. During its use it carried Bosnian and UN soldiers, oil, mail and scarce luxuries into the city. Its other side was a Bosnian-held town outside the ring of the Serb army. I stood there and began counting the little things in my life that, in such a situation, would be luxuries. I lost count quickly.

Our guide then took us to a Jewish cemetery that had served as a sort of dividing line between Serb and Bosnian forces repeatedly throughout the war. The latter used it as an artillery position. Thick gravestones marked with bullet holes peppered the landscape with soldiers on either side fighting for their lives.

The general had stories for every inch of the tour. He remembered strategies and tactics deployed by both sides in a way that made you think he could actually still see soldiers, weapons and tanks in the mountains above the city.

At the tour’s end, the general took us to his organization’s offices for some light refreshments. He served rakia, a liquor that is basically a staple here in Southeastern Europe. It was delicious – and potent. I look forward to researching it further while we’re over here. As he entertained us, it seemed he was trying to drive a point home: remember what you saw today, remember how such a tragedy was born out of fear and hate, and how exchanges and experiences like this are the most powerful weapon against it all.

I think it was Nelson Mandela who said that no one is born knowing how to hate someone who is different from them. (I’m not online as I write this so I can’t Google it.) True, but it seems to be one of the more powerful things humans are able to pass on to each generation. It can pass on love, tolerance and understanding too. It’s a shame the former reared its head in a place as historic and dynamic as Sarajevo.

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© 2020 by Mark Konold