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Dear Sarajevo: I Love You.

August 30, 2010

My son is inconsolable to be leaving his Bosnian* land. His favorite kitten has been getting dropped off at our doorstep by it’s mother every morning for play dates and chickens have been laying eggs for his breakfast…for the kids, this place is heaven.

Our driver shows up in a luxurious van to take us to Sarajevo, but he’s more than a driver – he’s also Bosnia’s best kept secret: his knowledge of the area is unprecedented. We get a running commentary of the area accompanied by beautiful folk music playing in the background.

His generosity is touching – he offers to make us a copy of the CD and give us a tour of Sarajevo the next day at no cost, simply because he loves his city and enjoys sharing it with people.

Sarajevo is a gorgeous, vibrant city. It’s nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains and hosted the Olympics in 1984, just a few years before war broke out. We’re staying with my husband’s aunt, who lives on a mountainside. Another aunt (her sister) lived on an opposing mountain and for the duration of the war, these sisters never saw each other, even when the husband of one aunt died.

Much of the city has been rebuilt, but there is still work to be done. I get only a small glimpse of the devastation and it is heartbreaking. It’s not only random bullet holes that I see – there are countless abandoned houses, gutted by grenades and mortar fire. Some people have tried to fill in the holes, but you can still see the scars.

The city has a disproportionate number of cemeteries, each one with a sea of headstones. One cemetery is particularly poignant because most of the people had to be buried in the dead of night, to avoid sniper fire. There are numerous lookout points offering outstanding views of the city, but I’m told these were also military posts.

What makes this particularly maddening is that, according to people we spoke with, most are now living much as they were before: aside from going to a church or mosque, most of the people work and play together as they did prior to the war. It all seems so pointless and unnecessary, but I suppose that applies to many wars.

It would all be too much if not for the beauty that remains, not just in the land but also the people. My husband’s family is amazing, with cousins and neighbors coming to see us (at one point, I’m ushered to the house of a woman who speaks no English, but then her daughter informs me that I’ve been invited for coffee).

The location is unbelievable: they have apple and plum trees along with a few cows and pigs. They make their own cheese (uh oh), bread (oh dear) and hooch (I’m screwed). Watermelons as big as my daughter’s bike back home are full of seeds and cost pennies to buy – food here is grown in people’s backyards, and the taste reminds me of my childhood.

We have a balcony off of our bedroom and the view is breathtaking. Bosnia, to my surprise, has pulled neck and neck with Novi Sad as my new favorite place.

* A quick note about geography (since I wasn’t sure myself and it seems to change every few years): Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro & Macedonia were all part of Yugoslavia. After the war, they all became their own countries (and since then, Kosovo has also claimed independence). Our trip includes Serbia (Belgrade, Subotica & Novi Sad), Bosnia (my son’s land in a rural area and Sarajevo) and Croatia (Dubrovnik, on the Adriatic Sea).

A reminder of the war on our way to Sarajevo.

One of countless cemetaries. Notice the bullet holes in the railing...

This kind of devastation isn't everywhere in Sarajevo, but when it's there, it really stands out.

So many bullets...

Apparently people in homes being attacked would simply move to another part of the house/apartment, but they still went to work, buy food, etc.

Life goes on around the reminders that war sucks.

This looked like WWII to me...

The cemetery where people buried the dead at night to avoid snipers.

And now, for some happiness - our aunt's house on the mountainside.

Their backyard. No...seriously.

Plum tree!

The view from our balcony.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Debra Kenly Troescher permalink
    August 30, 2010 10:24 am

    WOW – what an experience you will never forget. Can’t thank you enough for sharing your trip.

    • August 31, 2010 4:13 am

      Thank YOU for reading! So nice to know I’m not blogging to to empty air… 😉

  2. August 30, 2010 2:00 pm

    This post is not helping me quell my travel bug. Thanks for sharing your trip!

  3. marinasleeps permalink
    August 30, 2010 2:06 pm

    I loved this. Your trip was so interesting. You blogged about it so well!

  4. August 30, 2010 2:43 pm

    Thank you for sharing your trip with us. It’s hard to believe that’s the same place that was at war a few years ago. It’s like full circle. I remember the 1984 Olympics. Then the devestation. And now things get back to normal.

  5. August 31, 2010 8:13 am

    I know precisely how you feel about the consequences of war you are witnessing. I was in Bosnia in 98 with the US Army peacekeeping forces during SFOR2. The fighting was over, but it was still fresh in everyone’s mind and you could feel that dark energy in the air. There were still mines everywhere. Initially, my unit was stationed near Bosanski Samac, then moved to the camp near Brcko during the final month or two of our deployment.

    I saw the bombed out houses, blown up trains, bullet riddled buildings, and the mass graves. In one instance I saw a three story house with the roof blown out and a gaping hole in the first floor where a mortar or artillary round hit. On the second floor, the lights were on. It appeared that someone was still living in this shell of a home, perhaps trying to rebuild or just holding on to what remained of their property.

    The effect that this war had on the population really hit home for me at that point.

    I also got the opportunity to meet some of the people, be they our translators, local military, or local citizens. They all seemed to have a great spirit to overcome and I never saw the anger or hatred displayed that caused the war in the first place.

    Thank you for sharing your trip. It’s reminded me about this important time in my life that I had not thought about recently. Having seen all this makes me wish more people got to visit places like this and see the results of war, especially the leaders. Even though at times war is inevitable and may even be justified, perhaps leaders would be more reluctant or circumspect in making those decisions if they could witness the human consequences first hand.

    • September 1, 2010 7:56 am

      PD – thank you so much for your thoughtful comments and sharing your experiences. I’ve been reading other accounts of people who traveled to Bosnia right after the war and it sounds like everything has changed so much in terms of rebuilding. I can’t imagine being there right when everything was happening (not sure my heart could take it). My husband was stationed in Brcko and had an interesting time leaving…we returned and now it’s a pink administrative govt building. He pointed out places where he had to lie in a trench during the night looking for snipers…so surreal to this sheltered little Canadian…

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