Thoughts on Sarajevo

I went to Sarajevo last year, which I wrote about here and here, but I had some thoughts on the city that I started to write down, but never got round to finishing. One of the prompts for this week’s Writing Challenge was to break the silence on a post you haven’t got round to publishing, so just the right push.

I enjoyed my time in Sarajevo, it is a city that is open and welcoming. Until recently it was made up of a large mix of people, from different nationalities, ethnicities and religions living together peacefully, earning it the nickname of “Jerusalem of Europe”. Its modern identity does not seem to be as clear-cut as it was in the past, with people still coming to terms with events and changes here, as well as in the wider world, in the past couple of decades – but also stretching back over a century.


A city of juxtapositions, shaped by conflict

It is the fastest growing city in the region, and this, combined with the need to rebuild after the siege, means that there is a new, modern centre with large, glass fronted shopping centres and offices, which could be placed in any modern city centre without feeling out-of-place.

New construction

New construction

This centre is sat right next to the old town, which is full of the allure of the orient and has the main tourist sights, such as the Grand Mosque, Baščaršija, Sebilj and various churches, synagogues and museums. As well as being one of the main tourist draws it is full of locals – drinking Bosnian coffee in the cafés, eating ćevapi or burek in a ćevabdžinica or buregdžinica, and wandering around the old town streets with friends or shopping at the bazaar – so it is easy to feel like you fit in.

Sebilj in Baščaršija

Sebilj in Baščaršija

It seems that the modernisation and rebuilding has not completely respected what has come before, and feels like a façade is being projected, to show Sarajevo as a new, regenerated city, that fits within European and western ideals and standards – it is a ‘potential candidate country’ for EU accession, and it has received a lot of support from the US since the war, and retains a large, militarised, US Embassy. The rebuilding effort has apparently not extended to the local population, as despite investment for large shopping centres many local people are unable to repair or rebuild their homes that were damaged during the war, and have never received compensation.


Two wars, two treatments

The War of Independence and siege of Sarajevo are often not talked about. There are memorials, museums and information on the war, but generally people don’t talk about it. This is understandable; it was a recent conflict, taking place in the early 1990s, and it was a war that turned neighbours and friends against each other, and these are not the sort of wounds that will heal quickly.

Compare this to World War I, which effectively started in Sarajevo when Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated by a Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip. This was in the distant past, so a more measured view can be taken of it, and it was more of a power struggle between larger nation states. At the time Bosnia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so it was in opposition to Serbia, but the idea of a unified South Slavic state was gaining popularity before the war, and this was to include Bosnia and Herzegovina with Serbia. There are many museums and landmarks that point to the part Sarajevo played in World War I, such as information around the Latin Bridge, where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. There are also places – cafes and bars – that can be seen with names alluding to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, such as the tea shop Franz & Sophie. That, to me, seems a little strange.


As well as changing the city’s physical identity, and resulting in large areas being rebuilt, the siege also changed the identity of the inhabitants. In 1991, the last census before the war stated there were around 525 000 residents of Sarajevo, made up of:

  • 49% Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims),
  • 30% Serbs,
  • 11% Yugoslavs,
  • 3% Croats, and
  • 3% other ethnicities.

By 2002, estimates were of around 400 000 inhabitants, with:

  • 80% Bosniaks,
  • 11% Serbs,
  • 7% Croats, and
  • 2% other ethnicities.

It is not clear whether the state turned Muslims who may have identified as Yugoslav (or other) into Bosniaks, or if the people themselves made this switch in identity.


This change in population has come with a corresponding change in attitudes since the war. Previously, people of different religions, ethnicities and backgrounds had lived together well, and mixed marriages were common, but this has not been the same since, as shown in this article by Maija Koski:

The country is now split in two by the peace treaty, and many people have raised their children to distinguish themselves and their backgrounds from others. … Schools implement three different syllabuses depending on the children’s ethnic background. … A small part of Sarajevo is now a part of the Serb Republic, and there are not many old Sarajevo residents who would set foot there.

This points to some drastic changes in the mindset and identity of Sarajevans, and a destruction of the communality of Sarajevo and the people living there. An example of this lack of tolerance, in a city which used to accept anyone, can be seen in this blog by Elvira Jukić, about being spat on whilst taking pictures of flowers laid by Serbs during a commemoration of both Serbs and Muslims killed during the war, and the indifference of people who saw it:

At least five policemen saw it, as they were already looking at a person walking around the Serbian flowers and taking photos, but they all pretended it did not happen, as did a group waiting for public transport, all just metres from me.

These highlight that war is only able to divide, and propaganda and manipulation are used to turn people against each other for leaders to increase their power.

In the film Twice Born, partially set during the siege of Sarajevo, there is a scene in Sarajevo, after the war has started but before the siege in which one character (an American) advises the others to leave Sarajevo before the war reaches them. This advice that is rebuffed by one resident, who claims that Sarajevans are Sarajevans, and that they will not be turned against one another, to which the first replies that wars are started in the villages, where manipulation works.


The protests in the last month show that Bosnia and Herzegovina is still in transition, and it could be said that this transition started over a century ago; moving from being in the Ottoman Empire, then annexed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, being part of Yugoslavia and then to independence, Bosnia has not had much chance to hold onto one identity.

One last story, highlighting how Bosnia’s identity has been affected by factors not in its control, is one I read in Rebecca West’s book Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. It describes the first visit of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk after his reforms of Turkey. The visit was seen as the arrival of the leader of the Ottoman Empire, so the Bosniak population spent time preparing themselves – cleaning their best clothes, pressing their fezzes – only for Atatürk to arrive dressed in a suit, presenting the image of modern, secular Turkey. The image and reforms was unknown to the Bosniaks, who were unaware of the reforms (or perhaps didn’t understand their full extent), and subsequently appeared lost.

As an independent state now, with the right direction, leadership and investment – which the protestors are demanding – Bosnia may be able to develop its identity, and with its growth, Sarajevo may once again become Europe’s Jerusalem.


7 responses to “Thoughts on Sarajevo

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  6. Very interesting summary and I especially valued the picture of Sarajevo. You help us to understand the land where you are, but we realise you face frustrations too. These must be hard to bear, when you want to do so much more than you are “allowed” to. We think of you as our prayerful thoughts wander around the world to a multitude of stopping-off places where family and friends are to be found. All blessings be upon you. Your present experiences will pay back handsomely in surprising ways in years to come.
    With our heartfelt love
    G & G

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