Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Cherishing My Good Fortune

My visit to this city has been an incredible eye-opener. I knew very little about the history of the area before coming here - that the Winter Olympics were held here in 1984, that there had been a civil war from 1992-95, and that it was regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe - even winning the Lonely Planet's top city to visit ... anywhere ... in 2010.

With all the charm of other European capitals, Sarajevo is understandably a popular destination. It is most definitely walkable, with great shops, intriguing markets, and a café on every corner.  Everyone smokes! And they smoke everywhere: cafes, restaurants, hotel lobbies, even in stores. It's an affordable destination: we noted the city has a decided café mentality - when you can have two fabulous coffees, meat strudels, and spectacular pastries and cakes for a mere $6, well, who wouldn't linger?  OK, I don't, because of the incessant smoke, but you could sit all day and people-watch if you were so inclined. And many were.

But we wanted to know more about the history, and to understand the uneasy peace that exists in a city where Bosnians, Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Roma and more live side by side. So my daughter and I took what is known as a "dark tour." A guide and his driver took us on a wide-ranging four-hour drive that took us up in the hills where the snipers had set up during the war, to the "Tunnel of Life" (that's a photo of me sitting on ammunition cases, after watching a video of the building of the tunnel) to the sad remains of the Olympic bobsled run to the Jewish cemetery now sadly in ruins to the Olympic stadium now overlooking two very large cemeteries filled with those slain during the war.
We struggled to understand how armed forces could launch shells at apartment buildings and schools and the city library and how snipers could pick off unarmed civilians lining up for bread. Our guide showed us this retirement home riddled with bullet holes - even as he described the disintegration of the warring factions of the time, he patiently explained that it was not a case of man being evil, merely men following the orders of evil men. When the soldiers were given 2,000 rounds of ammunition and told their shift was not over till all the bullets had been shot in town, they would come to a deserted building like this and use up all their ammunition there.

Still, even with that hopeful story, there is the story of the Russian poet (a poet!) named Liminov, who joined the Serb troops in the hills, took a rifle and allowed himself to be filmed shooting those defenseless civilians, and claiming with pride, "I know I hit some." And he has gone unpunished. It boggles the mind. I checked my facts and saw the video for myself on Vimeo.

What gets me is the juxtaposition of this heavily shelled building and the modern hotel right next door, 17 years after the war. Now there are so many political parties involved in making decisions, they are paralyzed as they can achieve consensus on nothing, and corruption abounds. So nothing gets repaired. Outside groups, Russian, Arab, and others, circle like vultures, buying property and lying in wait to take advantage. I felt helpless by the end of the tour, filled with sadness for the people who endured such hardship during the war with little help from the outside world. And I felt incredibly privileged to come from Canada, a land of peacekeepers and freedom.

It will take me a good length of time to be able to digest all I learned today.

Tomorrow, a trip to Dubrovnik, then a last day in Sarajevo and then home.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


  1. Love your descriptions Mary - and your journey - thanks for sharing the beautiful details. Ali

  2. you'll have to send me the contact for the dark tour for when I go in June (or is it July?). Thanks so much for your description and thoughts, Mary--fascinating.