It has been a few weeks now since I have returned from my latest visit to the Balkans. While there I continued where I left off on my previous visit- talking with anyone who would talk, seeing as much as I could see, and further developing my own ideas about the region.

Most of my visit was spent in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. But I also went on to Mostar, and then to the island of Vis in Croatia. I was in Sarajevo late last year, but I felt a need to return, that I had not accomplished all I needed to do there.  I still feel that way, but after a couple of weeks alone in the city I feel I understand the city, the country, and the region a little better. It would take endless pages to record all my reflections; this post is but a snippet, an encounter or two recorded during that time.

Walking-
Journal entry, 13 April, 2018:
It is evening in Sarajevo; the sun has set, but its faint glow causes the still-wet streets to shimmer. Outside my windows, across the Miljacka River is one of the main east-west routes through the city. The Obala Kulina Bana not only moves cars, trucks, and buses through the city, the Sarajevo tram rails share the road. The tram, or tramvaj, is a natural part of the city, public transport being a necessity in a city of this size.  It is an easy way to get from one end of the city to the other, or to get one stop to the next cafe or market. Sarajevo has not only the tram, but trolley buses, and regular buses- all running very efficiently from my experience.  There are routes covering every neighborhood, and you can get just about anywhere in a very reasonable amount of time, if not by public transport, then by taxis which are everywhere. If you don’t feel like catching public transport, Sarajevo is a very pedestrian-friendly city. I have been walking and walking in every direction, discovering more than I ever imagined, and certainly more than any guidebook can relate.

Obala Kulina Bana, Sarjevo, Bosnia- Gerald Trainor photo

The Obala Kulina Bana and the Miljacka River, on a cold and snowy day in Sarajevo.

Yes, Sarajevo is a pedestrian city, and being so, it is a city where the openness of the people can be felt as you walk down the street. People are out every day, on their way to jobs, to the market, to meet for coffee where they talk and reflect and debate, to… walk and meet other people along the way. I was compelled to walk myself, everywhere, and at all hours of the morning, mid-day, and night, from one end of the city to the other.  What about safety? Sarajevo is a city that feels remarkably safe- not once did I feel uncomfortable anywhere I ended up. In fact, I was surprised time and again at how open and helpful people were.

Bsonian coffee at a cafe called Ministry of Ćejf, Sarajevo BiH. Gerald Trainor photo.

Bosnian coffee sitting outside at the Ministry of Ćejf cafe at Kovači 26, just up from the Sebilj- an absolute must if you visit the city.

Carpets-
On this visit I was introduced to the traditional weavings of Bosnia- the carpets that have long been a part of the culture, but seem curiously missing from guidebooks, from most online posts, from everyday discussions, and even from museums. I had heard nothing about the tradition on either of my previous visits. But this time, after finding the carpet below on the floor of the apartment I rented, I immediately started asking questions.

detail of Bosnian carpet- Sarajevo, BiH- Gerald Trainor photo

Detail from the corner of a 2 by 3 meter “Bosnian” carpet showing traditional patterning. Although I am calling this a Bosnian carpet, it may in fact have been produced in Pirot, a town in southeastern Serbia known for its weaving. Priot is on already on my agenda for my next visit.

Bosnian carpets have a long history, with their roots in Turkish kilims. In Sarajevo, there was the famous Sarajevo Carpet Factory, where rugs were made for over 100 years. Styles changed with the times, but the importance of the carpet did not, at least until very recent times when it seems the “new” has replaced the old. Yes, younger people seem to be turning away from the old styles and trending towards mass-produced, “stylish” rugs from Ikea and the like. At least this was what one person stressed to me.

Another reason for the declining importance of traditional carpets might be the fact that they were an essential part of the dowry, which I assume is no longer important in itself.  Still another factor might be that the important events and entertainments where the carpets were used are no longer centerpieces of life. Carpets were an integral part of both the dowry and  gatherings- they were woven, handed down, or purchased as a sort of investment in wealth. Thus the fact that some very beautiful, 100 year old carpets can be found in almost pristine condition if you look in the right place. You will also find newly woven carpets in a few shops in the Baščaršija. Just ask around for directions if you don’t see them.

Museums-
The bottom line: if you get a chance to visit Sarajevo, do it. The people there will welcome you, not just as a source of income through tourist dollars- which is incredibly important to the city, country, and region, but as a visitor to their city. While there plan to walk; you won’t be sorry no matter where you end up or what you see.  Some highlights for visiting: be sure to visit any or all- if you can handle it- of the war museums. I visited the War Childhood Museum for the first time on this visit, not an easy task, but necessary. There you will find items donated by people who were young during the war, along with their written and video accounts of that time. The war is ever-present and cannot be forgotten. It is a part of everyday life there, with reminders on every street in the city.

Histoey Museum of BiH. Gerald Trainor photo.

The History Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I saw the permanent exhibit on the siege of Sarajevo. In serious disrepair, dark and cold inside, it felt like I might have stepped back into Yugoslavia. Don’t let that stop you from visiting!

Visit the Zetra Olympic Hall, the stadium, and museum and reminisce about the 1984 Olympics. See the National Museum with its fine collection of artifacts from the region’s early history, and the History Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina- be sure to go below the museum to the Caffe Tito Sarajevo for an espresso and a look at their museum-like collection. If it is the right time of year, take in a football match- FC Sarajevo or Željezničar– either one will do. See the ancient fortresses, walk along the Miljacka, and sit for a while drinking coffee in the Baščaršija. And be sure to take the cable car up Mount Trebević. It was damaged during the war and has just reopened after more than 25 years!

Wrapping Up-
For current news from the Balkans, see the Bosnia and Herzegovina page at BalkanInsight.com, for what appears to be some of the most impartial and unbiased reporting I have come across.

My first “report” from Sarajevo and the Balkans can be found here. I have also written book reviews on Beyond NATO: A New Security Architecture for Eastern Europe (The Marshall Papers) and Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz, both of which are pertinent to the region.

For more reading on the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, see Silber and Little’s The Fall of Yugoslavia. It is an excellent place to start. For a more concise version, see The Collapse of Yugoslavia by Alastair Finlan. For guidebooks, I recommend the Bradt Bosnia and Herzegovina guide by Tim Clancy.

 

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My family and I have just returned from another trip to the Balkan countries of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The highlight of the trip was my time in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and especially in the capital of Sarajevo, my first visit there. Truthfully, using the term “highlight” is problematic at least, considering the focus of my visit. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Sarajevo I visited the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide, I rode the tram back and forth down sniper alley, and walked the entire way as well, I visited cemeteries, and towns where the mass killings took place, stood on the hills above Sarajevo where the shells were lobbed on the city, and visited Gallerija 11/07/95, dedicated to those murdered in Srebrenica on that day.

Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo by G. Trainor.

Quote on the wall of the Galerija 11/07/95. It sums up the painful exhibit on the atrocities that took place in Srebrenica quite well.

With that said, Sarajevo is one of the most interesting places I have been in my life, and most of my time in Bosnia and Herzegovina was spent there. A week seemed so very inadequate for developing an understanding of the country now and in the past, the people and cultures, its multiple overlapping and parallel histories, and most important of all, the recent events that are so prominent, were prominently ignored, and are prominently forgotten by most of the world today. It was enough time to be introduced, and to create along list for my next visit.

I have been following events in the Balkans since the late 1980’s, have read extensively about the history of the region, have visited the region before and have family from there. Still, no amount of knowledge can adequately explain the terror that swept the Balkans and the suffering of the people there in the 1990’s, nor answer the questions of why it happened, and most important, why it was allowed to happen. My visit to Sarajevo turned out to be largely about trying to understand just that. I am not sure that I understand it even now. Of course, from a historical perspective, or a psychological perspective, or as a social scientist one can break it down any number of ways, to simple cause and effect, and technically understand what happened.  But from a Human perspective, it just doesn’t make sense.

If the history of the country and region escapes you, here is a summary of just some of those recent events:

  • 04 May 1980- Josip Tito, ruler of the Federation of Yugoslavia dies leaving a power vacuum
  • 1998-1991- collapse and dissolution of Soviet Union, with independence for all former states, (more of less) further adding to unrest in the region
  • 1991- breakup of the Federation of Yugoslavia- on 25 June, 1991 Slovenia and Croatia are first to declare independence from the Federation of Yugoslavia, a move immediately countered by the Serbian controlled Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) beginning the violence that will devastate the region for the next ten years
  • September 1991- United Nations notes that atrocities are being committed
  • 01 March 1992- Bosnia-Hercegovina holds a referendum on independence; fighting begins there within weeks
  • April 1992- war overtakes Bosnia-Hercegovina, lasting until November, 1995
  • late 1992- UN establishes commission to examine situation
  • 25 May, 1993- UN establishes International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY)
  • 11 July 1995- Srebrenica massacre- the UN declared “safe zone” is abandoned by the UN soldiers protecting it, leaving many of  the 20,000 residents at the mercy of the Serbian army.  Some residents are evacuated with the UN, others escape on foot to Bosnian-controlled areas, but some 8,000 are captured and murdered by Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic and his troops. This is the biggest, but one of many such incidents of inaction- of abandonment and murder repeated around the country and region during the 1990’s.
  • 28 August, 1995- the second Markale Market massacre, in which 37 people are killed and 90 wounded, becomes the final straw in the siege of Sarajevo. UN General Sir Rupert Smith- who essentially could no longer tolerate standing by and watching the killing- initiated airstrikes on Bosnian Serb artillery positions around Sarajevo on that very day. This action effectively ended the siege of Sarajevo, which lasted for over 1400 days, and signaled a change in the way the UN, NATO, and the world at large addressed the Homeland War, as it is known in the Balkans.
Austro-Hungarian architecture in Sarajevo- photo by Gerald Trainor

Two Austro-Hungarian style buildings along the River Miljacka-the law school and post office. Both are beautiful examples of the architecture style and both are repaired and represent the new face of the city today.

The city of Sarajevo is beautiful, full of life, vibrant, engaging, and inviting in so many ways. It is considered to be literally where east meets west- with the Ottoman empire to the east, and Rome and Austria to the west. The mix of cultures and history, the food, coffee, sweets, the churches, mosques, minarets, the art and architecture, and of course the people make Sarajevo a city like no other. Seeing it today, walking the streets, visiting its monuments, sitting at its cafes drinking coffee, one might never guess what it looked like 20 years ago after being under siege for over 1400 days.  Seeing images of the city then, and standing in those very places now- something I made it a point to do- was absolutely mind boggling. Revisiting the city through wartime images made the past even more poignant. But still, it was almost unbelievable considering the city as it is today.

Sniper alley highrises in Sarajevo, Zmaja od Bosne Street- photo by Gerald Trainor

Communist-era highrises along “sniper alley”, on Zmaja od Bosne Street, Sarajevo. These buildings were used by snipers during the conflict, ending up without any windows and full of holes from return fire. Many of the repairs, even 20 years later, appear cursory. Holes from small arms, rocket, and tanks rounds are still visible up and down the street and throughout the city.

There are countless resources for learning more about the Balkans, the former Yugoslavia, the Homeland War, and the region today. I cannot say enough about the importance of understanding what happened there- learning about it might just prompt us to pay closer attention the next time that murderous political regimes are preparing their campaigns of genocide and torture.

Clearly the UN faltered in their mission in the former Yugoslavia. Whether or not that would have been different in today’s world, with social media, instant communication, and- I hope- a growing awareness to the world around us, is pure speculation. But from where I sit there are plenty of other possibilities for this to happen again. And to be more to the point, that same has happened again, and is currently happening- just open the newspaper and you will find the same stories of chaos and murder, the same images of destroyed cities and fleeing  refugees reported as a normal, daily event. The question is whether we continue to let it happen, and most importantly, what do we do to stop it. In today’s complex world, with all of our knowledge and power, decisions to act are no less difficult to make than they were in the 1990’s. And with global repercussions to those decisions looming around every corner, taking action to liberate the oppressed puts us everyone more at risk every day, making those decision even more difficult.

anit-UN poster on Sarajevo street- photo by Gerald Trainor

An image taken in downtown Sarajevo- the large poster was displayed in a prominent enough location and states clearly how many in the city felt- and feel- about the UN’s role there. For all its beauty, tensions are still high in the city and the region for countless reasons.

Finally, here are a few links to specific pages on the ICTY website that explain the tribunal, those who were on trial, and to Wikipedia on the fall of the Soviet Union. The final trial, that of Ratko Mladic, was recently completed. The verdict will be released soon at which time the ICTY will be disbanded.

Key figures in the trial

The arrest of the final hunted war criminal, Ratko Mladic

The announcement of Mladic’s verdict scheduled for 22 November, 2017

Dissolution of the Soviet Union, Wikipedia