It’s 25 years since the war ended in Bosnia – and yet it still bears scars that no country should have to endure.
Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital city, had never made it onto my radar until I started researching it for this trip. What I found was an incredibly interesting city with a harrowing past and indestructible resilience, and it was one of the places I was most looking forward to on the tour.
Buildings are still littered with bullet holes from attacks that showed the Bosniaks no mercy, but more heartbreaking is the scars laid on to the people. What’s even more shocking is many of these people are my age; this happened in my lifetime. They remember what it was like to live through war as children, and what it’s like to lose friends, family, even entire schools. I could have been one of them.
That’s why my first stop in the city was the War Childhood Museum.
The museum is full of items donated by children from the war, accompanied by a story from their life involving that item.
We read in silence, countless stories of children who endured more tragedy in those few years than most people experience in a lifetime. A story of one child who went to bed and woke up with his chalkboard next to his head, smashed by shrapnel. That chalkboard saved his life. A ball that brought joy to an entire neighbourhood because it was the first new toy those children had seen in years. It had the kid’s name on it, and they used it to remember him when he was shot. The last thing someone was given by his father before he disappeared. His body has never been found.
However, amongst the sadness, there was hope. Hope that something like this should never be repeated; hope that they would survive. It was our first sign of the resilience these people had; the determination to lead normal lives. It reminded me of Cambodia, and the kindness of people there.
It was a sobering experience, and we walked out of there realising how lucky we are.
As if to match our mood, that’s when the rain came – and it hit hard.
I had wanted to explore more of the old town – the bazaar and its markets and cafes along narrow streets was almost fairytale-like, and as we ran from awning to awning, I could feel the history seeping through, from the mosque to the stalls. (or maybe it was just the water seeping into my shoes from between the cobblestones, who knows?)
We took refuge in one of the many cafés aligning the streets, and tucked into delicious cakes in the dry.
We were about to learn more about Sarajevo’s tough history though – we had a walking tour planned!
Yep – a good old outdoor walking tour! It was touch and go whether it would even go ahead in this, so let me tell you it’s one of the more memorable walking tours I’ve ever done!! Naturally, I’d left my umbrella on the bus, so I was absolutely soaked before we even started.
The tour was incredibly interesting, and we learned some of the history behind the markets, as well as fun facts like the fact they use three languages in Bosnia (Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian), and everything is translated into all three, despite them virtually being the same language. Our guide gave us an example of warnings on cigarette packets being the same in all of them, so “smoking kills” is just printed three times exactly the same – just to really drill it in!
Luckily, some of the markets were indoors to give us some respite from the rain.
After a quick jaunt to the town hall, which soaked absolutely everyone again, we headed to the Latin bridge, where you might have heard of a certain archduke Franz Ferdinand being assassinated.
We were given an anecdote about the first failed grenade and the attempted killer jumping into the river with an expired cyanide pill. It couldn’t have gone worse for him – the river was too shallow, and he was very much caught and arrested!
Franz Ferdinand took a detour from the planned route to visit injured people from the first bomb, and this almost led to a second failed assassination. Instead, the detour led to confusion and the car stopped altogether – and next to the bridge, Franz Ferdinand was killed; a catalyst that led to the first World War. The successful assassin was arrested.
Our tour ended at a church, where a Sarajevo rose marks a tribute to those lost in the war. People leave roses too, but unfortunately, in the rain, it wasn’t anywhere near as beautiful as I’m sure it normally is!
After the tour, we had some more free time, and with the rain finally subsiding, I checked out some more of the markets.
I was surprised once again by some of the architecture here, but while it felt a lot less modern than Belgrade and Sofia, and pretty buildings like this were a lot fewer and far between, everywhere oozed history and character, whether good or bad.
Sarajevo also feels under construction in places, especially the ground. I found loose cobblestones everywhere, and sometimes there was an entire divide which was especially fun while navigating through umbrellas and puddles! You could tell this was a recovering city.
Back at the main square we bumped into a group from our tour and after a quick tea / coffee to warm ourselves up after the rain (try the Bosnian coffee – I don’t drink it but it’s like Turkish coffee! I wouldn’t have even known what to do with it!), we made a snap decision to go to another museum before we ran out of time.
I wasn’t sure if I could handle another one, especially given that this one is called the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity And Genocide. Geez. How’s that for a heavy name?
It was probably the most important place to visit in all of Bosnia, and I’m really glad I went.
The time, I was reminded more of the War Remnants Museum in Vietnam. This was much smaller, spanning one floor instead of five, but it was just as graphic and hard-hitting.
Like the War Childhood Museum, it was set out in stories from people who lived through the war. There was far less innocence here; no items that gave people their only normal memories and no sugarcoating what had happened to these people. This was full on horror.
But again, there was hope. I didn’t take any photos in the museum because it was all too awful – except this room.
I know museums aren’t for everyone, but I believe it’s really important to visit places like this. To acknowledge that terrible things have happened, because as long as we do, the less likely it is to happen again (and yet here we are with Syria…).
I absolutely loved Sarajevo, and I’m already planning to go back some time. One of the biggest things on my list to do was to go up to the abandoned Olympic bobsled track overlooking Sarajevo – it was going to be tight getting there anyway, but obviously with the rain, there was no way I could (or wanted to) traverse a mountain.
So it’s a perfect excuse to go back with Ash, right?
Anyway, I realise this has been a heavy post. So to continue my theme of the Balkans being colourful, here’s a more cheerful photo to end this post with.
What’s the hardest place you’ve visited? Would you recommend it?
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