Welcome to Sarajevo…

Written by Anna O’Callaghan
(One of the runner-up entries in the City, Town or Village Writing Competition.)

Sometimes the name of a place seduces you. You may dream of visiting Zanzibar, Casablanca, Monte Carlo – the words alone conjure up magic and romance. The place name which has always captivated me is Sarajevo.

Street Corner where First WW1 Started
Street Corner where the First World War Started

But for most people Sarajevo has an image problem, not helped by it being the capital city of Europe’s most unpronounceable country: Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Sarajevo is synonymous with conflict – whether as home to the very street corner which hatched the First World War in 1914 when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated there, or as that place which appeared nightly on the BBC news in the early nineties being decimated by war. All my mother could remember when asked where I was going on holiday was that it was a war zone.

Sarajevo’s recent history is vividly conspicuous. Everywhere we walk we step on the splay marks where mortar shells smashed pavements. Filled with red resin, they are known as ‘Sarajevo Roses’. There are husks of buildings with trees growing through them; blocks of flats peppered with bullet holes.

Indoor Market
Indoor Market

There is a memorial to 68 people massacred in the Indoor Market where today traders’ stalls are a profusion of flowers, herbs, honey and perfect vegetables. Across the road the Cellist of Sarajevo played every day in memory of the 22 people killed in a queue for bread.

I am torn between guilt, grief and outrage standing before the photographs at the Srebrenica Exhibition in Gallery 11/07/95, behind the Catholic Church.

Skender at Sarajevo Funky Tours is our guide for the completely fascinating Total Siege Tour, which takes us up ‘Sniper Alley’ and past the Holiday Inn, where journalists from all over the world holed up during the conflict, now looking like a piece of giant yellow Lego.

At the Tunnel Museum we are joined by Skender’s father, who was one of the partisans who smuggled supplies, fuel and cigarettes along the tunnel which was secretly built under the airport runway. Skender tells us he lived in a basement for two years as a boy, which is why his sight is now poor.

Sarajevo Holiday Inn
Holiday Inn – Like a Piece of Giant Yellow Lego

Next stop is the 1984 Winter Olympic Bob Sled track. Eight years after the closing ceremony it was in use by Serbian marksmen as an artillery point and is now decorated with psychedelic graffiti. We wind down the chicanes of the track being renovated for the 2017 European Youth Winter Olympics. Instead of a bobsleigh there is a rusty wheelbarrow. The sniper’s-eye view from a derelict restaurant pinpoints City Hall where nearly 2 million books were torched in 1992. This landmark has just reopened, its gleaming neo-Moorish architecture and stained glass dome immaculate again.

The scars of Sarajevo’s troubles are raw, but there are signs of optimism. The people are welcoming. Two young lads ensure we get off the tram at the right stop. A woman, overhearing us ask for plasters in the supermarket, takes us to her tiny bar and bandages my blistered foot.

Sarajevo City Hall
Sarajevo City Hall – Neo-Moorish Style

We are staying in a third floor apartment in a grey Soviet-era block. But just a street away the 18th Century Svrvo’s House is set within a cobbled courtyard and replete with Ottoman furniture. Down the hill and a yellow tram trundles past as we reach Pigeon Square, which heads Bascarsija, the 15th century Old Town, a labyrinth of antique emporia and eateries. At Tip Top we try a glass of thick, sweet Boza, a traditional fermented corn drink. In a Turkish Restaurant, the plates lined up on the counter are whisked out to the tables the second the canon fires to signify the end of the Ramadan fast.

Climbing steep Kovaci, we pass blacksmiths’ yards; a group of men chatting in a fug of cigarettes and coffee; the smell of fresh bread as a baker jimmies huge puffed flatbreads from a wood oven.

One of Many Cemeteries
One of Many Cemeteries

We zigzag between the stones in one of many cemeteries where all the death dates are the same and rows of tall thin gravestones are topped by stone turbans. The view across the city is spine-tingling, a panorama of red-tiled rooftops, pierced by minarets, dissolving into the sprawl of Novo Sarajevo in the distance and everything cradled by the once duplicitous landscape.

So this is Sarajevo, with its mosaic of cultures. A beautiful city with a story to tell and lessons to teach as it pulls itself back from the brink and looks towards tomorrow. It may bombard you with emotions, but it will leave you with hope.


Posted 25th July 2015 by Steve Hanson on behalf of Anna O’Callaghan. The photographs were supplied by the author after the Writing Competition had been judged.