Bosnia, until recently, had only conjured visions of war and depression for me. What changed my mind? Is seeing it for myself. Now I know the real Bosnia. A country so beautiful, the natural landscape literally left me speechless. The culture and history tells so many different stories of so many different civilisations that have occupied this land over the centuries. At the same time this appreciation is bittersweet. Amalgamated with the beauty are the scars of civil war, which are clearly evident and plentiful. But this is one story of many that this amazing country has to tell.
I only had four short days in Bosnia with the charity Remembering Srebrenica. I had the itinerary in advance and knew that the days would be busy and tiring. But I did not expect it would be enough time for me to fall in love with a country, its people, and culture. So my initial interest in the country was from an historic and social perspective. I wanted to understand the factors that led to the war and the situation that the Bosnian people have been living with since. Naively, I did not know that Bosnia had so much more to offer, including art, architecture, religion, natural beauty, and history. My first impression of the country was before we had even landed. The view from the plane was simply breathtaking. Endless green hills and snowcapped mountains guided us into Sarajevo International Airport.
My first stop was Sarajevo Old Town, or ‘Stari Grad’. At its heart is the Bascarsija, the old town market sector, where the city was founded by the Ottoman general Isa-Beg Isakovic in the 15th century. This Turkish style market specializes in brass jewellery, plates, and typical Bosnian coffee sets. It was busy, people everywhere enjoying food with their family or drinking the delicious strong Bosnian coffee with friends. The smells of barbecued meat and fresh bread led the way to a network of restaurants and cafes, most serving their famous dish, ‘Cevapcici’. This is a barbecued beef sausage flavoured with spices and served with warm naan style bread, onions, and a Bosnian cream cheese. This description does not do justice to the delicious first meal that I had in Sarajevo’s Old Town.
When it was time to pray, a beautiful ‘Adhan’, call to prayer, led us in the direction of the Gazi Husrev Beg Mosque complex. The mosque is impressive without being ostentatious. It displays Ottoman features both inside and out, the complex includes an impressive fountain, Muslim primary school or ‘Mekteb’, a room for ritual washing, domed burial sites, 45 meters high minaret, and clock tower.
This famous Bosnian landmark would not have been possible without Gazi Husrev-Beg’s ‘Waqf’ or religious endowment. This was typical of Ottoman municipality leadership and in spite of stereotypes, the Waqf institution could be argued to be one of the greatest legacies the world has inherited. In a poetic irony, the Ottomans themselves once stated on the institution of Waqf: “If you would like to get to know us after our era, please refer to our endowments (as these are our best works that present us)”. [S. Yassir, The European Jerusalem: Sarajevo, where Muslim heritage flourished in Central Europe]
During Ottoman rule, Sarajevo was heralded as the “European Jerusalem”, as its invaluable contributions to civil engineering, industry, trade, and architecture attracted people from various ethnic and religious backgrounds. Aesthetic beauty alongside scientific ingenuity made, and indeed makes, Sarajevo a hub for civilisation.
Outside of the Old Town Sarajevo is a mixture of new and old buildings. A myriad of architectural styles can be taken in and enjoyed on foot around the city, including Ottoman, Secessionist, Communist, and Modern. Sarajevo is a busy city centre like any other. But the hustle and bustle of the city belies a tragic past. On closer inspection, evidence of the civil war is everywhere. Building after building is covered with bullet holes, taking in the beautiful scenery again, I noticed that the white pillar tombstones are everywhere. Part of the 1984 Olympic arena is now being used as a mass cemetery with crumbling tombstones marked with dates between 1992 and 1995. A stark reminder of how quickly times have changed and how they continue to change.
One of our days on the trip was to be spent in Srebrenica. The town in Bosnia is now famous for being the only legally recognised genocide of the civil war. It is several hours drive from Sarajevo to Srebrenica. The time gave me an opportunity to ponder the history of Srebrenica and its significance in the war and post-war years.
The landscape changed, and somewhat prophetically so did the weather. Dark clouds loomed as we spiralled the small roads up the hills, passed empty factories; a reminder that once upon a time Bosnia was part of the communist state of Yugoslavia. Scattered up the hillside were small compounds of half built houses, most of the tiny gardens were being tended to by older and tired looking women.
The last landmark we passed before reaching our destination is the vast and dramatic river Drina that separates Bosnia from Serbia. The bridge, one of the locations of the many massacres, has become symbolic of the war and the post-war struggle in the country.
As soon as I arrived at Srebrenica I had a strange feeling of de-ja-vu. Not that I had ever been anywhere like this before, but it was a landscape I had seen many times on television reports and in books. On one side of the road is the ominous looking battery factory that was used by the Dutch peacemakers during the war, it has since been turned into a museum and memorial centre, but the structure has been left eerily unchanged for twenty-one years. On the other side is the cemetery, thousands of white, uniform gravestones, each one representing a life lost in the civil war.
A small hut at the entrance to the museum was the gift shop. It was run by one of the town’s many war widows, although we could not communicate through speaking, as neither one of us could speak the language of the other; we were connected in other ways. She made coffee for me and we hugged; she held my hands and enthusiastically showed me her merchandise. Her face was friendly and welcoming but I wondered what sadness and loss she had experienced. I selected my purchases and we hugged goodbye like old friends. As I left Srebrenica I had tears in my eyes and a different perspective on the war and the country. It was evident that recovery from the war is very different for Bosnians in Srebrenica compared with those in Sarajevo.
As we scaled the green valleys on our way back, I pondered the connection between beauty and pain. Bosnia is a country that seems to inextricably link the two. Is the beauty of this amazing country heightened because it is juxtaposed against such pain? I thought about the places I had seen and the people I had met. What I remember about Bosnia and what I had come to love about Bosnia is the beauty of the natural landscape, the spirituality, the art, the culture, the pain, the hospitality of the people, and the history. The words of our tour guide echoed in my thoughts: “Love will move us forward, love is the best way”.
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