Rolling in to Sarajevo on its ruffled highway, you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve made a huge mistake. The pot-holed road pops out of the attractive and varied Bosnian countryside to nestle in between uniform skyscrapers, which shoot upwards like perpendicular extensions of the monochrome pavement.
It is here where the scars of the country’s most prominent events are cut deep. Bosnia has become synonymous with the wars it went through during the fall of Yugoslavia, and it is in the capital of Sarajevo where this past meets its present in a conflicting yet astoundingly beautiful manner.
It is a city beyond compare for me. Most similar to Istanbul in its fusing of east and west, but utterly unique in the way its turbulent past has moulded its form; its fortresses and graveyards sitting in scattered proximity with its orthodox churches and grand, thinly spired mosques.
‘Fusing’ is actually quite a misleading word. There is a very definite dividing line on Sarajevo’s main boulevard where the grandeur of the European smooth granite buildings gives way to rows of tiny, pale-tiled shops and restaurants of cottage-like proportions – literally half the size but with double the character.
As with every other country in the ex-Yugoslav post-communist Balkans region, Bosnia has embraced capitalism with unfaltering confidence as if it was the way things were always supposed to be. High-end brands like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger line the European half of the main walkway, which teems with young, affluent Bosnians looking to show off. It was a more than unnerving realisation that these people, roughly the same age as me, would have spent just under a decade of their life in the grip of war and under the threat of genocide. The twin ideas of globalised brands and expendable income are relatively new here, and I think the people probably deserve to treat themselves.
The real contrast between new and old towns lies beyond the mere aesthetics. Despite the bustling streets and heaving marketplaces, the more Ottoman side of the city has a simple, relaxed vibe. This might be something to do with its clientele, who are considerably older than their neighbouring counterparts and tend to consider anything remotely related to showing off, or even movement, a futile endeavour.
Their firmly settled presence here among the narrow alleys that snake weblike from the town’s congregational focal point, the Baščaršija, suggests a refusal to let go of the past. They are plopped on stools in communal cafes and hookah bars, in silent reflection in church or called to prayer at mosques. These are people who know their place in modern Bosnia and are exceedingly happy for it to be a more peaceful continuation of Yugoslav times.
Of course, peace is an incredibly valued asset throughout the country, more so here because of the way that Bosnia and Herzegovina is woven so tightly into modern world history. It was here in Sarajevo where the bubbling unease in the lead up to World War I came to a head with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. It was a pivotal moment that unfolded in tragic comedy.
One Serbian conspirator of a group of seven had failed to kill Franz Ferdinand with a bomb during a parade through Sarajevo, and as the Archduke understandably lost heart in the whole celebratory venture, he decided to go a different route home. Unfortunately, he failed to tell the driver of his new plan and was taken the planned parade route. When the driver was made aware of the mistake, he paused long enough for another dejected assassin, on his way home believing the plot had failed, to count his lucky stars and shoot Ferdinand in the neck.
If there was any hint of humour in that occasion, the other end of the century provided an unbelievably grave act of barbarism by troops of neighbouring Serbia during the fall of Yugoslavia. The aftermath of the genocide at Srebrenica, where over 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered for their religion, is etched into the surrounding hills of Sarajevo. It is evidenced by the thousands of Muslim graves ending ubiquitously, heartbreakingly, in ‘1995’.
I was far too young to understand at the time, but even at the age of 24 I found myself stood in front of a photograph of a Serbian soldier kicking a fallen Bosnian citizen in the ribs, still struggling to grasp what drives such a shocking lack of humanity.
It is really the outskirts of Sarajevo that show any sign that the city was ever encumbered by conflict. The inner suburbs have employed tourist-friendly façades, but it was on my way to a football derby on a horrendously ramshackle tram into the outlying areas that I saw the true scale of devastation. Here, the only decoration to the myriad concrete high-rises is a peppering of irregular shrapnel scars that coat their exterior. Most of the strays more closely resemble wolves than dogs, and a few more closely resemble bears than wolves.
The atmosphere at the football game itself was pretty reliably on edge. There were walls, fences, stewards, and seemingly every member of Sarajevo’s police force and riot squad keeping the fans away from each other, but in curiously endearing Eastern European style, the match was stopped twice for crowd violence and extended by 20 minutes of added time.
The overriding barometer of a country’s resilience to disaster is the friendliness of the people in the aftermath. I met old and young Sarajevo residents with varying degrees of pride in their country, but also a common and utterly unwavering kindness. There’s a general feeling of optimism among young Bosnians that, regardless of the tensions they share between other Balkan nations, the darkest days are behind them. Despite everything I’d seen, as I listened to a group of 18 and 19 year-old Bosnians describe Sarajevo as a rejuvenated wonder – one of the best cities in the world – it was hard to disagree.