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A short visit with history in Sarajevo

Old town Sarajevo, with a view of the Gazi Husrev Beg mosque, which was built in the 16th century.


Old town Sarajevo, with a view of the Gazi Husrev Beg mosque, which was built in the 16th century.

Earlier this year, I was invited to represent PolitiFact at a conference in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I would serve on a panel about fact-checking. The conference was timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the war in the Balkans, in which Sarajevo — and its many Bosnian Muslim residents — were held in siege for three years by Bosnian Serb forces who maintained positions on the ridges above the low-lying city. My visit was short, but it enabled me to learn a bit about the complicated ethnic, political and cultural mix in a city whose role as a diverse historical crossroads has led some to call it the European Jerusalem.

For a visit to the Tunnel Museum, we had a guide who had grown up during the siege of Sarajevo. We drove to the museum from downtown Sarajevo the usual way, tracing the long valley in which the city sits. On the way home, our guide said that most of his fellow guides drive back the same way they came in, through the city. He rejected that idea. There was another way to go, he said, probably a bit faster — but the other drivers were scared off because it runs mainly through Republika Srpska.

Republika Srpska is one of two "entities" that make up present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina, as laid out by the Dayton Accords. The bulk of Sarajevo belongs to the Federation and is predominantly Bosnian Muslim (or Bosniak) and Bosnian Croat. Srpska is predominantly Bosnian Serb, and its boundaries more or less follow the front lines at the end of the war. These two entities are supposed to cooperate on the national level, and they do to a certain extent, but they have a good deal of autonomy to run their own regions of the country. We asked our guide why he felt so strongly about driving back through Republika Srpska. He said for so many years, he couldn't drive that way. Now he can. It was that simple.

At one point, I asked a Bosniak whether increasing nationalist tensions and difficult politics would inevitably lead again to war. He said he didn't think so. But he also didn't see an easy path forward politically. Probably the most likely outcome? People would simply muddle through, he said.

Here are a few of the photographs I took, along with more of what I learned.

Secret passage

This is the Tunnel Museum. The tunnel was the secret lifeline for those inside Sarajevo as they were shelled continuously from the surrounding hills. The tunnel was located at the only place where the Bosnian Serbs had not been able to militarily close a ring around the city, and thus at the only spot where the city could reach free Bosnian territory — as long as they tunneled under the airport runway. Because of U.N. restrictions, the only way to move in goods (including arms, but also food and supplies) was through the hand-dug tunnel, its entry concealed by this ordinary-looking house.

A look at the past

Old town Sarajevo, with a view of the Gazi Husrev Beg mosque, which was built in the 16th century.

A fatal year

A cemetery in Sarajevo for victims of the 1990s war, a short walk uphill from the bustling old city. It is eerie to see a cemetery where most of the adjoining gravestones register the same year of death.

Resting place

These are gravestones known as stecci. Medieval tombstones, which lie scattered across the landscape of Bosnia and Herzegovina, are the country's most legendary symbol. In Sarajevo, even the parks are full of the dead.

For the birds

Sebilj Square is the center of the old town. People actually call it Pigeon Square (for obvious reasons).

Indomitable spirit

Sarajevo's comeback is symbolized by a break-dancer on the main walking street. The cafes are always full, at seemingly every hour. The Bosnians truly love their coffee.

A short visit with history in Sarajevo 10/14/15 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 14, 2015 12:33pm]
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