No – it was not love at first sight! How could it be when even the city’s own publicity says the best things about it are the surroundings and the inhabitants? The city itself is, indeed, not specially attractive. There is an unremarkable river and not much noteworthy architecture. Many buildings are scarred, damaged, neglected and decorated with graffiti. Of course it does have its good points, like Bascarsija, the historical and cultural centre of the old city. A network of small streets, formerly a bazaar. Too many tourists and far too many souvenir shops for my taste. On the other hand it has a multitude of busy, attractive street cafés and restaurants. Ideal places to do what Bosnians everywhere like doing best: meeting friends, drinking coffee, chatting and watching the world go by.
From Barscarsija it is well worth taking the walk up the steep hill to the Yellow Fortress, even in the blistering heat. There you can sit on a pleasant grassy, tree shaded terrace and have a cool drink while looking out over the whole city.
The trams, I feel, have to be included in the list of attractions. Sarajevo is a long, narrow city and the tram lines run along the whole length of it. Rickety, shaky, creaky and noisy these battered streetcars, some have survived the siege, some ‘hand-me-downs’ from other cities, provide a regular, frequent, colourful, and popular means of transport and a mobile meeting place.
By chance we were staying at the wrong end of town, in Butmir, close to the tram terminal. The ride into the old town took us through parts of the city we would otherwise have missed. One day we just did the round trip – a 23km city tour for just €0.80!!!!
Another advantage of being at the wrong end of town was being close to the Tunnel of Hope.
I should point out a few things here. Firstly I avoid monuments, museums or places related to genocide, massacres, atrocities and human suffering. Secondly: without avoiding the issue it was not our intention to visits museums or monuments related to the Balkan War and thirdly, to be honest, I had never heard of the tunnel. However, several local residents recommended it and it was within walking distance……..
Built in 1993 this badly lit, badly drained, cramped tunnel under the NATO controlled airport was the only connection between the inhabitants of Sarajevo and the rest of the world during the longest siege in modern history. The Serbs had surrounded the city and after failing to capture it in a few days, as they had expected, they turned to a policy of demoralisation and attrition. Daily, random rocket attacks and snipers targeting anyone who moved. The world watched on as the citizens of Sarajevo held out for nearly four years with no gas, electricity, little food and few weapons. Many were killed by sniper fire while trying to fetch drinking water.
Arguably this tunnel, supplying food and weapons, saved the city.
The museum is in a small, remote house that hid the entrance.
This simple and somewhat understated exhibition: 25 metres of the original 800 metre tunnel, a diagram map, a self-explanatory film and a modest collection of artifacts, stimulated a variety of emotions. It gave the battle scarred buildings a context. The suffering of the inhabitants during years of constant bombardment, sniper fire, hunger, cold and lost lives became a stark, close and recent reality.
We went in the morning. It was not the most uplifting way to start the day!
But the siege is also a story of courage, commitment and cooperation. Sarajevo has for centuries been proud of its multicultural society. A city where east meets west and churches, Catholic and Orthodox, stand alongside Mosques and Synagogues. Where tensions between religious and ethnic groups were rare and ‘mixed’ marriages common place. Unlike other conflicts resulting from the demise of Yugoslavia, the citizens of Sarajevo: Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats, fought and suffered together, united in the defence of their city and its way of life.
For various reasons, including some boundary changes, Sarajevo is demographically less of a multicultural society than it was but that does not mean that attitudes have changed. It is a city populated by friendly, welcoming, easy-going and open-minded people. There is a relaxed, tolerant and generally optimistic atmosphere. Ethnic and religious backgrounds, like elsewhere in Bosnia, seem not to be an issue. I began to believe that there may, after all, be an antidote to racism, xenophobia and religious bigotry. Over the days I warmed to the city, yes, even to Barscarsija.
Sarajevo is a town with a big heart and an important message.
It is not the prettiest city I have ever seen….
but hey…..looks aren’t everything!