Sarajevo. You may not be able to locate it on a map right away, and you may recognize the name and recall that there were some significant things that happened here (maybe it was Communism? Yugoslavia? Some sort of assassination maybe happened that caused a war?), but you can’t recall any specific facts. At least, this was my perception of Sarajevo before this trip. However, I have learned so much more about this enchanted city in the last few days, and it’s history and current existence is equal parts fascinating, disturbing, and inspiring.
Tucked in a mountainous valley, Sarajevo is shaped like a long, skinny rectangle, with neighborhoods working there way up on mountains on all sides of the city. When you walk around at night, it seems like the city is surrounded by walls of lights, but it’s just houses built on the steep hills all around you. It’s an impressively diverse city. It was the only city in all of Europe up until the 20th century that had Islamic mosques, Christian chapels, and Jewish synagogues all on the same block in several neighborhoods throughout the city. I have noticed on this trip that religion seems to have played a major role when European cities were first developing, with religious segregation being very common (there has been a designated Jewish Quarter in every city we have gone to, and it seems like they were developed around the 1700s). So it’s refreshing to take a walk around Sarajevo, and simultaneously hear church bells and the Islamic call to prayer- I guess it’s what multiculturalism sounds like. And it’s not just religion, but ethnicity too is very mixed here (with the exception of Black people. Joe has been the only one I have seen in Sarajevo). However, Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Middle Easterners, Germans are all sprinkled throughout when you take a stroll down the street. And the architecture is unlike anything I have ever seen in an urban environment. With strong influence from both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empire, one moment it will seem like you are walking down a quintessential Western European street with cobblestones, pillars, and fountains, and then you turn a corner, and you are in a typical Middle Eastern market with Turkish tea pots, rugs, and oil lanterns being sold in ornate wooden structures. There are an impressive amount of people out all of the time, sipping Bosnian coffee, playing chess in the park, drinking some domestic beer, feeding pigeons, smoking cigarettes everywhere, walking around looking fashionable-you almost forget that Bosnia (and Sarajevo) was in the middle of an ethnic cleansing genocide 20 years ago. However, as soon as you take a closer look, you can see the scars everywhere. A lot of the buildings still have bullet hole marks in them, or you’ll notice an arc of damage on a wall caused by a mortar shell. If you look down, you’ll notice “Sarajevo roses” all throughout the city. These roses are holes in the concrete where bombs went off, but they filled in the holes with red resin to honor those that died there (see picture).
The politics behind what caused the war, and the multiple parties involved with it, took me awhile to grasp. However, once I did a little research, the story sounded eerily familiar. An extremist leader was elected into office that felt like Serbians should be a ruling majority, and anyone who wasn’t Serbian should be treated as less than and removed from Serbian land whose boundaries were redrawn. From my research, it seems like there were a significant amount of students, intellectuals, neighbors that felts like this was too extreme, and protested for acceptance and diversity- both attributes it seems like Bosnians have prided themselves on for hundreds of years since they live in an area that is such a meeting of cultures. One of the books I read even had a line talking about this that struck me: “We’ve lived openly with our different backgrounds for years in this country. There’s never been a problem. Do you think people are going to change overnight just because a madman is taking the reigns of government?”
Unfortunately, things did change and violence was incited by an angry, prejudice, power hungry minority (and some people wanting revenge against them). Eventually, hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives in incredibly brutal and violent ways with torture and rape commonly being used on civilians just because of their ethnicity or religion. Some of the stories are truly horrifying. Leading up to it, many people didn’t ever think it could happen, especially because it was the 90s and they believed that The West (US, Europe, United Nations) would never allow another genocide take place after World War 2 ravaged the continent. However, it took NATO three years to intervene, and it seems like there still is some resentment from the people towards the United Nations and The West for not coming in to help when it was very well documented what was going on.
I try to not let my brain go to too dark of places when I learn about the war, especially with the recent tension in the US amongst political parties. But, there are just so many parallels between what I am seeing people say on my facebook feed, and what people felt before the Bosnian war happened.
However, there are lots of differences as well, and I am not predicting doomsday by any means for the US. Overall, we are still one of the more progressive nations in the world- I have not seen very many public displays of LGBTQ affection while I have been in Europe, and it does not visibly appear to be celebrated and supported as much as the US (although there are still areas in the US that there is severe discrimination). More and more privileged people are becoming aware of injustices and Black Lives Matter, with many Christian church’s proclaiming their support for Muslims, and women’s rights are continuing to expand and are significant when compared to some countries. We still have a long ways to go, but let’s not forget how far we have come (without denying the atrocities we inflicted, and taking accountability for our prejudice actions in the past). It’s a challenging balance because our track record as Americans is full of human rights abuses, but we have also had some pretty incredible movements of social change and culture.
I’m also hopeful as I explore Sarajevo, because it reminds me of how resilient people can be. Most of the people I encounter were alive during the war, and were probably severely affected by it, but they survived. It’s also somewhat eerie to have so much calm and happiness around, when you know there was so much destruction not that long ago. The people here have obviously worked hard to rebuild their city, their community, and their lives. I wasn’t able to talk to many people about the war because it was advised to not bring it up to strangers, but there definitely is the vibe or renewal in the air. Sarajevo is a budding metropolis, and people everywhere and sharing coffee and tea with people who have different beliefs than them. It gives me hope that even if the US has some hard times ahead, time will continue to propel us forward while we prepare for the worst, but hope for the best. War would be hell, but Europe has shown me that life can thrive even after the hardest of times.