Sarajevo Roses

11 Dec

Shame on me.

In 1995, I was in high school. I was a competent, conscious human being who was learning about history and mathematics and language. I was old enough to understand what was going on in the world and the impact it has on us other humans. Granted, the Internet was in its infancy, but I was old enough to follow the news…and I didn’t.

Sarajevo - on our walk into the old town.

Sarajevo – on our walk into the old town.

Somehow, though I knew there was war going on somewhere in the world, I knew it was far from me. Not my war. And I missed the longest siege in modern history. Modern genocide. Many of us missed it. I missed news of the Balkan War, but we visited Sarajevo this time.
Retribution is still going on. As we were in Sarajevo on this trip – in summer 2012 – the war crimes trials had just begun in The Hague for Ratko Mladic, 17 years after being indicted for war crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina. And I still had to be informed of this by the volunteer at the museum.

Overlooking a graveyard in Sarajevo.

Overlooking a graveyard in Sarajevo.

I’ve visited sites memorializing other tragedies – Nazi work camps in Hungary, the Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal, the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach. I broke out in tears on the top floor of the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. A lingering, sad reverence hangs over these sites. Visitors whisper in hushed, library tones. The air is heavy, even on sunny days.

I expected Sarajevo to feel sad.
I was wrong.

The Miljacka River, Sarajevo.

The Miljacka River, Sarajevo.

Sarajevo feels young, and vibrant, and full of life. It’s a gorgeous city full of history and ornate architecture, nestled in a valley between lush hillsides. Surprisingly less conservative than many of the places we visited in the Balkans, young people hold hands on sidewalks, the shopping malls boast all of the Western brands and restaurants (we ate at Vapiano), children stay out with their parents well past dark. Even the kitschy “Caffe Tito” – a tongue-in-cheek theme bar behind the history museum – has a corner filled with children playing on playground equipment.

Near the old town, Sarajevo.

Near the old town, Sarajevo.

Even when I know I’m planning to write about a place, there are times that I’m so moved that I consciously choose to not take a photo. I just want to be a participant, instead of a documentarian. As if the camera lens puts too much distance between me and what I was there to see.

I’d read about “Sarajevo Roses,” the recognizable crack patterns in the pavement left from the mortar bombings of the city. The residents later filled many of them in with a glossy red paint epoxy, making a bright, flower-shaped exclamation mark in the middle of the sidewalk. Many of them are now fading, or disappearing as the roads get replaced and repaired. I was looking for them, and they’re there. They’re haunting: circular and spattery. But I don’t have any photos.

Sarajevo - on our walk into the old town.

Sarajevo – on our walk into the old town.

The bullet and mortar holes are still there. There are still vacant, bombed-out buildings in the most unlikely of neighborhoods. We dodged construction scaffolding and weaved around as the old sidewalks ended and the new ones began. The modern city is busy renovating and rebuilding; there are just so many holes to fill. Seventeen years later, and they’re still filling holes. Or maybe they’re consciously not filling holes, I’m not sure. We stayed in an apartment a short walk down the river and upon each walk into town, remarked how the center of the city is strikingly intact – and all of the walls facing the hills are eerily pockmarked and crumbling.

The city history museum is in the most unassuming possible building. Intentionally left to ruins – the entrance stairs are broken in pieces and wobble unsettlingly as you step on them; the ceiling tiles are gone; the landscaping is untouched and overgrown. Drafty and abandoned, there are entire floors cordoned off with flimsy plastic tape. A lone elderly woman mans the front door holding a worn cash pocket to take your admission fee. It is as if the building is to be condemned any day. The siege exhibits are an unembellished string of preserved everyday objects – identification cards, plastic sheeting taped to windows, mortar shells, cans of food, newspaper articles. Devoid of any glossy museum packaging, it is an exercise in immersion. Even the chairs in the entrance hall are cracked down the middle.

Surf 'n Fries Sarajevo.

Surf ‘n Fries Sarajevo.

In contrast, the city bustles with activity and modern amusement. We watched an argumentative group of old men shuffle pieces around an oversized chess board in the square. We treated ourselves to the Eastern European fast food craze “Surf ‘n Fries” (a hisbiscus-flower-surf-themed french fry take-out restaurant with your choice of about 10 sauces). We tried out busy Vegehana – the hippie-friendly all-vegetarian restaurant as well as a trendy Asian restaurant. We peered into the bowling alley on the top floor of the mall in the middle of town. The old town has too many silver jewely shops and trinket vendors to count.

The Sarajevo Brewery restaurant.

The Sarajevo Brewery restaurant.

The city brewery boasts an eerie, majestic, two-story restaurant with opulent chandeliers, polished wood banisters and an extensive Western-centric menu. A handful of ex-pats and tourists rattled around in somewhat hushed tones in a dramatic scene fit for The Shining.

We wandered many historical sites and still left Sarajevo with more to come back and see. There are hills and hiking and the tiny, unremarkable tunnel that sustained the whole city during the siege. There’s the site of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the start of WWI (and a succinct, but well-kept museum next to it). We visited a stark exhibition of the events in Srebrenica, and spent some time absorbing its haunting, oversized images and listening to a resident (younger than us) who lived through it.

Tram in Sarajevo.

Tram in Sarajevo.

This visit put Sarajevo on the map for me. I hope I’ll continue to follow the region and its re-growth. I hope now that I’ll be able to name all of the former Yugoslav republics and their capitals. I’d like very much to visit again in several years and see the transformation again. I’m off now to search the news for the outcome of the war trials, as I still don’t remember seeing it here in the news…

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