Our train for Sarajevo leaves at 510 PM.
We’d spent the day in Mostar.
We love trains.
Somehow they are reminders - bodies in motion, moving to freedom or oblivion.
I always think this on a European train,
last train to Nuremberg or in this case to Sarajevo.
The train takes us through gorgeous mountains and villages.
I wonder what it will be like when we arrive.
I pick up Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey into Yugoslavia,
reading about her first encounter with the region in 1937 as the world prepared for war.
The King Alexander of Yugoslavia had been assassinated only three years prior in 1934 during a state visit in France.
War would follow.
She wanted to find out why, to understand: “a lethal weapon, to turn over a new leaf in the book of history.”
By 715, we arrived without a clue.
We had a room. But no directions.
We walked out of the train station and the first thing I saw was a faded sign for the 1984 Winter Olympics. I flashed to Katarina Witt’s Gold Medal skate in Sarajevo.
And then what happened afterward.
You have to call for a cab, one of the men said to me at the cab stand.
Everyone is tired.
We run into a cafe and grab a signal.
The hotel is 26 minutes away, by foot.
So we walk into the early evening, a bar to our left, past a skateboard park, the city in motion.
At a park, we stumble into some graves, big and small for children and their mothers, the Sarajevo memorial to the children killed, names of 521 children killed here during the conflict.
A statue of a man calling out to his child, before he is killed.
The war is everywhere here.
On we make it to our hotel and out for a bite.
Mixed crowds, lots of people drinking coffee, some in hijabs and and burkas, many not, summer crowds, apparently not many concerned about COVID.
All we’ve heard is that the food is terrific here.
Our waiter is kind, telling us stories.
And nothing disappoints - the kabob, the salmon salad and dill sauce, the yogurt, the no filter beer, the wine.
A buzzing metropolis, with Mosques, Eastern Orthodox, and Catholic Churches, even a synagogue on the same street, it has long been seen as a space for tolerance, as a sort of “Jerusalem of the Balkans.”
But there are moments when that tolerance wears thin.
We’ll explore a few of those moments.
The next morning we take it slow.
Our tour doesn’t start till 2 PM.
So we read and write and get a little breakfast.
Look up a few things to see.
By 10 AM Caroline is ready to roll.
Out we walk into the modern modern metropolis, past some guys playing chess, taking in the countless styles, some deco, Eastern orthodox, Ottoman and Austro Hungarian, past bars, the Hotel Europe stumbling across some ruins,the Taslihan, an Ottoman era stone inn built between 1540 and 43. Take a right, down a small alley to a bridge over a small waterway.
“I this is it, “ says Caroline, looking around at the historic car parked outside, in wonderment, at the alleyway where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serb anarchist, the whole world picking sides and alliances, in a chess match that ignited the first world war. It's a moment we’d read about our whole lives. There had already been one foiled attempt earlier in the day. Instead of leaving town, Ferdinand stopped for a bite. And the assassin had a second chance at close range.
Rebecca West writes about it and a chain of assassinations, violence begetting more violence.
“Then on June twenty-eighth, 1914, the Austro Hungarian Government allowed Franz Ferdinand to go to Bosnia in his capacity of Inspector-General of the Army to conduct maneuvers of the Serbian frontier. It was strange that he should wish to do this, and that they should allow him, for that is St Vitus’s day, the anniversary of the battle of Kossovo in 1389, the defeat of the Serbs by the Turks, which meant five hundred years of enslavement. But Franz Ferdinand had his wish and then paid a visit to Sarajavo, the Bosnian capital, where the police gave him quite insufficient protection, though they had been warned that attempts were to be made on his life. A Bosnian Serb named Princip, who deeply resented Austro Hungarian misrule, was able without any difficulty to shoot him….and the Great War started.”
And with that assasination came a generation of upheaval and cataclysm, a world war followed by upheaval, by anxiety, another world war, and genocide, followed by a cold war, and another homeland war here.
Was Princep a hero or a villain? It's hard to say. The Sarajevo Museum: 1878-1914 addresses the question, looking at these years and the city, tracing the Austro Hungarian occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1878 and the Berlin Treaty dividing up and restructuring the map of the Balkans. Outside on the corner, we see a monument to the victims erected in 1917, later taken down in 1919. This is anything but settled history here, even now.
Between junk shops selling Turkish and tourist wares, we make our way to Svrzo House, an old Ottomaan home in the exact style of a typical 18th or early 19th century dwelling.
And then we are off, one more museum before lunch, a quiet morning before our 2 PM tour, or so we thought.
The War Childhood Museum was anything but.
Rather than the regular narrative, this is space is built on childhood stories addressing the question:
“What was a war childhood for you?”
The curator received 1013 responses to the question on social media.
Some were earnest and heartfelt, others dark, gallows humor.
Replying to an invitation for a date, one woman responded, “If I died, my mother would kill me.”
They began with stories from Sarajevo, just coming out of a conflict that took the lives of hundreds of children. The call for stories spread to the rest of the country, to the international community, stories form the Ukraine, Bosnia, refugee camps in Syria.
Each addressed the question, how is childhood affected by war?
Beyond the Anne Frank museum there is nothing like this.
The museum presented 50 stories, 44 from Bosnia, another six from Syria,
objects and stories tracing moments in time.
A swing that couldn't be used outside, full of dreams and fantasies and hopes,
Looking we are left to wonder what would have been.
The swing is followed by:
a rubber duck for puppet shows and imaginary theater among kids locked inside,
a note pad full of ideas given by the UN,
a hot pot to keep warm,
a diary, “that way it looked like something happening to someone else,”
a teddy bear her uncle gave her before the war, before he died;
every day she greeted him; he became a sort of replacement.
a pencil case as a symbol of friendship, from a new acquaintance on the bus, who lent her new pencils… a new hope ... still friends today all these years later.
a music tape that kept everyone going, imagining,
knitting needles her uncles gave her before the war, knitting with her mom, learning her uncle had not make it out, fleeing Srebrenica,
a magic want to make the war end,
a treasure from the backyard,
A birthday card,
a humanitarian aid package,
a blue bunny and a lost brother,
a purse made of magic fabric ,
a dog lila,
a medical report reporting he survived by a hair,
reminders of play and friendship and difficult moments
a swing in motion.
In the beginning when you pushed the swing you gave it a kinetic energy - as it reaches up … energy constant…unless an external force hits it, it remains in motion… the swing swings, just as life continues after the war childhood. Life lasts longer than us and our experiences…”
Walking out, we are all in a bit of a daze. I honestly cannot remember the last time I was so impacted by a museum. i think about us all being quarantined for a few weeks during the pandemic. This was years, of losses and gunfire. This half day is already enough. But we have a 2 PM tour.
The owner, an old soccer player who played for Belgium and Turkey welcomes us, bringing us a plate of meats and a salad from his garden.
“We hope you don’t have to experience all those things,” we say toasting over lunch.
The teenager has been to museum where the Hungarians interviewed detainees, even Auschwitz.
It does give us perspective.
Lunch is amazing. Tomatoes don’t taste like this in the US, the cevapi and bread completely unique.
Onward to our two PM tour.
“Do you want to understand what you are looking at,” says Azim, chatting with us about the panorama of styles and influences we are taking in, looking at the city streets.
The city was founded in 1463 and remapped into the Austro Hungarian empire in 1878 with the Berlin Congress.
It kinda feels like Prague or Buddapest or Vienna, I note.
That's right, says Azim, pointing out the ways 1893 historicism informed the way the street was formed, with influences including, neo romantic, neo roman.
All the previous elements were partially destroyed by the 1991-1995 war.
Asim runs through a few familari statistics:
11,541 people killed,
490 missiles, many targeted hospitals, schools and civilians for maximum casualties.
1601 children were killed.
He points out a splotch on a building that looks like a flower.
Thats a Sarajevo Rose, he tells us, bombs that maim around three people per explosion, as much as 68 in one. This one injured 47 he says.
The usual conversation takes place about what happened.
Were we too early or too late, I ask, referring to Clinton’s intervention. Too late.
it wasn’t a civil war; it was a Bosnian border war between Ottoman and Byzantine cultures, says Asim.
A bus drops by.
This is the next leg of your trip, the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Welcome to the tour, says a young Bosniac driving us across town, pointing out the monument to kids killed in the war we saw the night before, stones for mothers and children.
We drive by the Hotel Holiday, a big modern looking hotel.
This is the Sniper Alley, he says, pointing out that journalists stayed here during the Olympics and war, four lanes on each side. Anyone crossing was subjected to bullets.
On we unpack the history of the country, from the birth and infighting in the Kingdom, and new country led by Tito after WWII to the implosion in 1991.
We’ve been reading about this all week, particularly in Rebecca West.
“I had come to Yugoslavia to see what history meant in flesh and blood,” she writes.
I guess we all had.
It was a glorious idea, says our guide, whose family left during the war. It merged six countries into a non allied federation, which favored cooperation and solidarity over religion. It was a socialism for the people, outside Stalinism. Childhill supported it. People could buy property. It worked till 1980 when Tito died.
But then nationalism took hold, with free elections.
Slovenia, Macedonia, and Croatia went their own way. Bosnia tried to follow in 1991.
The Serbs in Croatia wanted to stay in Yugoslavia. Serbia wanted them to stay.
WWI era resentments, about the Croats aligned with the Nazis, emerged.
By May 2, 1992, the Serbs attacked Bosnia, beginning a three and a half year attack, with snipers, ethnic cleansing, mass rape, battles in Mostar, Croates attacking, Serbians attacking, fighting over who gets what as a nationalistic frenzy took hold, over common ground.
By 1994, the Bosnians and Croates signed a peace deal. And in 1995, the Clinton Administration brokered a peace deal in Dayton Ohio, dividing the country into distinct religious regions.
Under siege, the people of Sarajevo dug a tunnel to bring food outside the blockade.
It took four months to dig. Five feet high, no alcohol could make it through, although the rock band Iron Maiden used it to play during the siege. But many people were starving, eating cans of meat from UN packages first canned during the Vietnam War. Many cats turned their noses up to the food.
No one was better off after the war, taking us up to the bobsled run from 1984 , turned sniper range during the war, and graffiti canvas today.
Some German artists are working on it now.
Each conversation takes us back to another conflict here.
There were 50,000 people in Sarajevo, 1 in 5 of them Jewish, before the second World War.
today there are only 750 here.
We walk through the cemeteries, Jewish and Muslim graveyards filled.
These spaces were often the front lines of the war, many jewish graves damaged.
We talk about the ways Sarajevo served a model for tolerance, the fabled Sarajevo Haggadah saved during the war. We are a tolerant people says our guide, pointing out that as a Muslim most of his friends drink after the Ramada fast. Most people here are more culturally religious than orthodox, secular and cosmopolitan.
By the end of the day, our heads are spinning.
I read about Srebrenica sitting on the roof of our hotel, not quite able to process all we’ve seen, watching the sun go down, thinking about the flight from the killings, all night, dreaming about the people fleeing the UN safe zone in 1995, running for five days, until the skin was falling off their feet, wanting to sleep but unable, leaving family, unable to run, behind, never to see them again.
The next morning we take it slow. But the reminders are everywhere, the bullet holes, Sarajevo Roses we start to see, even now, 26 years after it ended. No one is helping rebuild.
On we walk past a street named for Susan Sontag, the American writer who staged a performance of Waiting on Godot, during the siege. Godot never came. But the world eventually did, albeit too late. Europe, wasn’t it enough? 1992 to ‘95 says a sign across from the old graves at Dzamija, along Kalin Hadzi Alim.
It's a question we all ask. Why didn’t the world come? Think about it, said our tour guide, walking away from the old decaying bob sled run. France, Germany, England - any of them could have come before the US. But they didn’t because...Our guide hinted that he was Muslim. The people being bombed and shot at were mostly Muslim. No one is repairing Sarajevo. No one cared if the Bosnians Muslims perished.
On we walk, past a yoga studio, a school for girls that was shut down, posters for a film fest, coffee houses where people are smoking from hookahs, a library with Jorge Louis Borges books on display, mural after mural, bookstores, art nouveau buildings that look like anything you'd see in Prague or Vienna.
“Looks like Prague in 1989,” says Caroline, recalling her trip there in December, after the revolution, or Desden.
Gradually we find ourselves walking along Sniper Alley, looking at the Hotel Holiday where the journalists stayed.
And on we walk to the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Founded in 1884, it's a gem, albeit an almost empty one. A world weary guide introduces us to the facility, where we walk through room after room of Greek and Roman ruins, archaeological secrets, the mysterious Jewish Haggadah, that changed hands as the Spanish Jews were vanquished in 1492 and its illuminated images, fossils from the vicinity, ores, butterflies, and natural history.
We take a few breaks outside, greeting the turtles in the Botanical Garden.
Kids run about, horsing around.
There is a lot to learn from this civilization.
Our world wary museum docent shows us how to use the tram, giving us a tip on a restaurant, Dzenita, serving traditional foods in the old city, and allows us to take his picture. He looks like Michelle Foucault.
The tram ride feels like a trip into another world.
Over lunch, everyone watches Italy and the Serbians play in water polo.
The Italians are definitely more hot.
On we walk after lunch, stumbling through the city, finding our way to the old Synagogue, built in 1591.
The elder docents tells us about the Jews of Sarajevo, those who worshipped here.
The Sephartdi Jews from Spain, who came here, sharing with the Ashkenazi, from Germany and Poland, speaking Yiddish.
Jews and Muslims have lived here together forever, she tells us proudly. We have mixed marriages, no problem.
Why can’t the rest of the world do that, I ask.
I don’t know, she replies.
Upstairs we walk to look at the photos of the congregation. There used to be 10,000 Jews in this country. Now there are only 750. We see old black and white photographs of those who were here, the Partisans, those who fought the wars of liberation, the members of the congregation who perished during the Second World War, during the genocide.
People who look like us, who look like our parents, our kids, young people, gone too soon. It's a lot to take in. The city wears its wars, like scars.
Back at home I sit on the roof, thinking about it all, Sontag’s Waiting on Godot, the War Childhood, museum, the crazy entomology exhibit we saw earlier, somehow revealing patterns of what biodiversity could mean, the kids laughing running around the exhibit, the docents smoking, the bobsled track, turned to sniper range, turned to graffiti, mural wall. I think of what happened in Yugoslavia. Non aligned, they maintained a connection to the world. Workers owned control of the factories and by extension means of production; they could travel and own property, unlike the Eastern bloc under Stalin’s control The one thing they could not do was talk ill about Tito or his prison camp, for fear they’d end up there in the quarry. No one knows how many perished there. And over time, the experiment crumbled. No constitution could hold it - a distinct mode of socialism - without the charismatic leader. The implosion afterwards showed us something horrible, of what we can be, turning our back on another slaughter.
And yet Sarajevo perseveres, splendid still, a tolerant, cosmopolitan city for the ages.
Hopefully the people come back.
A huge travel day ahead, I try to sleep.
The dreams are many.