As the freezing fog cleared, I looked down at Sarajevo and got an impression of the ease with which murder once rained down from the hills cradling the city. When the Bosnian war began in 1992, over 400,000 Sarajevo citizens were living in the valley, trapped, facing death from above. Bosnian-Serb forces and their tanks gathered on these hills and for three years – the longest siege of a European city since the Second World War – thousands of civilians were killed. Shooting fish in a barrel doesn’t even come close. The impact of the war continues to be visible in the city streets today, but the evidence of these brutal years has been embraced in creative ways.
I was visiting Sarajevo in December 2014 as a guest of Remembering Srebrenica, a British charitable initiative raising awareness of the Bosnian genocide by organising visits to Sarajevo, Srebrenica and other sites of the war. 2015 marks twenty years since the massacre of Srebrenica, a small town east of Sarajevo where 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian-Serb soldiers over ten horrific days. Our guide, Resad Trbonja, had lived in Sarajevo all his life and showed us glimpses of the war still evident in his hometown. Burnt out shells remain on the outskirts of Sarajevo, where there once stood family homes. In the (almost) pristine centre of town, occasional bullet holes pock the Sacred Heard Cathedral. Sporadic shrapnel scars mark the pavement from where thousands of mortar shells exploded. Rather than repaving over them, the dents have been filled with blood-red resin to commemorate the victims, nicknamed the ‘roses of Sarajevo’.
Trams crisscross Sarajevo, full to bursting throughout the day, in a variety of shapes and colours. The lack of uniformity is a clue to their diverse origins. Most of the tramways were totally destroyed during the siege and since the ceasefire in 1995 cities from across the globe have donated trams to help Sarajevo return to normality. Bosnia Herzegovina has a proud history of being a meeting place between East and West, where people of varied cultures mingle peacefully. This was clearly evident in the high rate of mixed marriages before the war that, while shattered by the war like so much else, is beginning to show signs of returning to its previous levels.
We walked past busy mosques, synagogues and churches of both catholic and orthodox denominations in the dense centre of town, all equally astounding in their extravagance, punching up to the heavens. After a few hours of wandering the cobbled, labyrinthine market lanes, the winter sun was already beginning to dim. We sheltered from the cold in a downtown café with other citizens and travellers, as has been the way in Sarajevo, except for a brutal and unforgettable series of interruptions, for centuries. The citizens I spoke to haven’t either forgiven or forgotten. The history has become part of the city’s fabric, painfully integrated into this vibrant and complex place.