story and photos by CLARKE BOWLING
“Our city is known for three things,” a tour guide explained during a family trip to Sarajevo. “World War I started here, we held the 1984 Winter Olympics here, and our city was under siege for four years.”
Generally, our family vacations have been a fair mixture of typical destinations. However, in recent years, the obligatory family holiday has surpassed the level of trips to Las Vegas and Florida and become something more exotic: the summer prior to our trip to Croatia and Bosnia had brought us to the Galapagos Islands. Before that, it was a cruise through northern Europe. My experience of the world had increased tenfold in just a few short years. But it was Sarajevo that taught me most.
In history class, I learned that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo was the immediate cause of World War II. The exact spot, however, did not have a statue citing the events that had occurred there nor was it particularly well marked. A simple engraving on the wall adjacent to it read, “From this place on 28 June 1914 Cavrilo Princip assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia.” People passed by it. We would have passed by it.
My brother’s fascination with the Olympics was one of the main reasons that we came to Sarajevo. We had to drive out into the surrounding mountains to see where the skiing events had been held. Nestled there, amidst rapid redevelopment of resorts, we found the site of the 1984 Winter Olympics—however, the ski jumps were not the part of this side-trip that continues to stand out in my mind. Alongside the road, posted on the trees, we saw signs that were red, with a skull and cross-bones reading “PAZI-MINE.” Unexploded land mines still dot that area surrounding the city, an unimaginable idea to me, but an unfortunate reality for those living there.
The siege from which the land mines remain left other impressions on the landscape of Sarajevo. One morning during our stay, we visited another not-so-prominent site known simply as “The Tunnel.” This tunnel was dug during the siege underneath the Sarajevo Airport runway to get food, electricity, and supplies from the unoccupied outer regions into the terror-ridden city. Almost a modern-day Underground Railroad, this tunnel, too, saved lives but on a grander scheme: as an entire city starved, this small hole in the ground was the only way to embezzle food. The citizens who currently run it as a museum and on whose property it lies, are not in the business of tourism. They are just a simple family who happened to be at the right place at the right time to help their entire city and want its story to be heard.
To a visitor, it seemed as though these physical reminders of the siege were all that was left. Yet, nightlife in Sarajevo was undeniably happy. Deeply rooted in Muslim culture, the city’s streets were filled with arabesque music. Walking down these streets, the outdoor seating of restaurants poured out of their designated terraces. The aroma of beef, lamb, and chicken––staples of Arabic cuisine––swirled around us. And, nearly every dish on the menu was overflowing with kebabs, sausages, and fire-roasted steaks. On our first night when my mother ordered a glass of wine, the waiter laughed…but what else can you expect? There was lightheartedness in this country that is somehow able to smile after going through such a terrible history.