I first visited Sarajevo with my parents in 1984 during the Sarajevo Winter Olympics. I recall walking through the cobblestone streets of Baščaršija quarter, as if I’ve walked into a fairytale. I remember savoring the sweetest baklava ever at a cake shop. I recollect staying in a high-rise with friends of my parents, in a tiny apartment with air perennially perfumed with strong coffee. I remember burning my finger on hot running water one day and sporting a painful blister for the rest of our stay. I remember the figure skating events we attended. I remember the warmth and famous Bosnian hospitality of all the people we met along the way. What I don’t remember is any talk of ethnicity, in this diverse city of former Yugoslavia where Muslims, Serbs and Croats lived together as one people.
Fast forward. It is 1992 and I am sitting at home in Zagreb with my parents, watching the news of the infamous bread line massacre in Sarajevo. Memories of my Olympic stay start flooding back, as I watch the blood, gore, missing limbs and corpses of a city I recall with tenderness. It turns out to be just one of many massacres that the city suffered over the coming years. I experience them through my Bosnian refugee friends in London in the mid-1990s and then later in the States. There are stories and stories, most involving loss and a great deal of anguish. The war narrative unrolls… but the resilient Bosnian spirit doesn’t give in. In 1995, with the city still under siege, the first Sarajevo Film Festival is held to an audience of 15,000 people, with 37 films from 15 different countries.
Fast forward yet again. It is 2006. Sarajevo is slowly waking up from post-war slumber, recovering from its many wounds. By this time, Sarajevo Film Festival is an internationally acclaimed event, with big names in the movie industry and film buffs flocking to the city each August for a few days of cinematic fun and great parties. With a friend of mine, I make my way from Croatia to Sarajevo that summer, to catch the festival buzz and see the city I loved back in 1984.
We’re awaited by a friend of a friend of a friend who would host us in his house for the next couple of days. In Bosnia, people tend to open their doors generously to friends three times removed. For the next week, there are endless parties, cool events, hidden restaurants and cafés we’re taken to (I won’t reveal the names and locations, as I promised to keep them under wraps), all fueled by copious amounts of strong coffee.
Our hosts, two brothers, had spent the entire war in Sarajevo. They talk about the siege as just another fact of life. And there’s me, who had only visited the city once as a ten-year-old, feeling intense sadness the whole entire time of my stay – during parties, film screenings, walks, talks, coffee breaks… One afternoon as we’re walking through the city streets swarmed by international visitors, our host points out the market where the war’s bloodiest massacre took place in 1994. I stand there for a while, overwhelmed, quiet, wondering how this place of horror turned into a sight, a curiosity, a point of interest for tourists.
On most days, we’d descend into town from the hillside neighborhood where we stayed, passing what I saw as the city’s most wrenching sight: the shattered Sarajevo Library. In August 1992, Serb artillery shelled the library, originally built as the town hall in 1896. Shelves and shelves of books, manuscripts and archives went up in flames, a record of the city’s rich history lost within minutes. With boarded windows and a charred facade, it now stands as a painful symbol of a shattered culture.
I’d urge anyone to go to Sarajevo, don’t mind me. It’s a delightful city, with some of the nicest funniest people you’ll meet anywhere, excellent food (don’t skip the delicious burek meat pastries and cheese and spinach pies!) and lovely cafés. There’s something very serene about listening to call to prayer as you walk the twisting streets of Baščaršija or sip coffee in a restaurant garden. And despite all that’s happened, there’s a definite cheer to the city and its people. Perhaps it was just me coming to terms with the war that ravaged my former country, dealing with a sense of guilt for not having stayed behind, for not having done more for my Sarajevo friends.