Cities / Towns Visited: 61
Countries Visited: 17
Steps Taken Today: 15,627
Steps Taken Around the World: 2,147,328
Awaking at a somewhat more reasonable time than the previous day, we quickly ate from the spread of free breakfast offered at the hostel, which on this day included small, freshly cooked Balkan style doughnuts made by one of the ladies who works there. It was a welcome addition considering the rest of the choices were a little less to our tastes as breakfast options. With enough fuel to start our day we headed down the hill and into the city once more.
The beginning of our day began rather leisurely with a visit to the small but interesting 1879–1918 Museum. The city has a number of different museums which cover different periods in the history of the city, and this one just happens to cover the short but noteworthy period when this, along with many of the Eastern European countries, were ruled by the Austro-Hungarian empire. Poetically it is located on the very corner from which Archduke Franz Ferdinand (of the Austro-Hungarian ruling Hapsburg family), and his wife Sophie, were assassinated. This act, as I have explained previously, was a catalyst to the start of World War I, as it resulted in the Austrian empire declaring war on Serbia; the nation from which the rebel assassin originated. This war would not end in revenge for the death though, as I’m sure they had hoped, but rather the entire dissolution of the Hapsburg monarchy, the freeing of the countries under the thumb of the Austrian rulers, and the creation of a democratic republic in Austria itself.
The museum explains how Austria came to rule this small but important country, and also explained how Bosnia, and Sarajevo in particular, was seen as an important trading point, and as such was given special privileges and leeways under the reign of the monarchy. It was also interesting to learn the backstory of the unfortunate Archduke, who was destined to be the next ruler of the Austrian empire (as his uncle Franz Josef’s only son committed suicide). Franz Ferdinand had fallen in love and married Sophie, who was a lady in waiting to the wife of Archduke Friedrich (another member of the Hapsburgs). It created quite the scandal, as it had been generally thought that he was courting Friedrich’s eldest daughter. Emperor Franz Josef forbade the marriage to Sophie, but after Franz Ferdinand refused to denounce her, and with much pressure from other members of the family, it was eventually allowed. However, as it was custom that the heir to the throne could only marry someone from a reigning, or formally reigning, family in Europe, it was enforced that Sophie would not be able to hold the title of Empress upon Franz Ferdinand’s ascension to the throne, nor would their children be able to go on to hold royal titles. As it happens, all of the ado would be for nought as the dynasty would collapse before any of that really mattered.
In a cruel twist of fate, the day of the assassination was the first time the couple had attended an official visit together since their marriage, as often Sophie was put off to the side as to not make a stir. Its hard to believe but the shooting which took their lives was not actually the first assassination attempt on them, it wasn’t even the first one that day; as there had been a botched attempt to throw a hand grenade into the car in the morning, which missed and ended up exploding under another car, seriously injuring the occupants of said other car, as well as a number of bystanders. On their way from the City Hall later in the day, to the hospital to see those injured in the morning’s explosion, the plans were changed to change the driving route to bypass the city centre, however the driver wasn’t informed until he had just made the turn at the Latin Bridge, and as he was reversing, the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, stepped forward and shot twice into the car; wounding the couple who would later die in the hospital they had been heading towards to begin with. The museum, along with a number of other interesting artifacts, displays the very gun used; a gun which changed the future of the entire world for the part that it played that day.
Taking our leave, having exhausted the information on display, we took the opportunity to use the spare time we had to explore the city a little more, before we headed to once again grab a quick ćevapi for lunch. At this point it was time for us to head down a rather questionable little alley, to meet up with the tour which would be filling the remainder of our day. Meeting with our small group, and our guide, Skender, we were soon bundled into a minivan and off we went. As we whizzed through the town we passed by an ambulance stopped at the side of the road, and a most confronting sight caught my eye; they were performing CPR on a man right there on the pavement within view of everyone. Before I even had time to register what I’d seen, we were off down the road; but if anything was going to set the scene for the topic we were about to delve, into it was that.
You see, we had joined this tour to go out to see the Tunnel of Hope, along with a few other sites. For those of you unversed in the intricacies of the Siege of Sarajevo, allow me to give you the brief overview. During the Bosnian War, Serbian troops surrounded Sarajevo on almost all sides, save for the small section which was the airport and was being held by UN troops. On the other side of the airport was a free zone of Bosnian held territory which was not under attack, but was cut off from the trapped civilians of the city who could not escape to there. For those asking the most obvious question, no the UN would not let them simply leave and go to the free zone; as I’m sure you can imagine, if all of the cities people began to cross the airport runways they would be easy pickings for the Serbians, the free land would inevitably be invaded to stop them leaving, and lastly, if they all left the Serbian’s would be able to easily capture the city. To be fair the Serbians had the weapons to wipe out the city, but a flattened city is of no use to anyone, and to be honest their main mission was to make the lives of the residents hell with relentless and unsystematic shelling and shooting day and night for 1425 days straight (that’s almost four solid years), from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996. So what is the Tunnel of Hope, you may well ask? Well, it was a tunnel painstaking hand dug in secret from either side of the airport and meeting in the middle (by way of some very good mathematics by an engineer), in order to smuggle in supplies, food, medical equipment, and weapons to the besieged Bosnians in the city, and smuggle out a few of the more vulnerable people into the free land. It wasn’t completed until 30th June 1993 though; more than a year into the siege.
As we made our way along, our guide explained how he had been a soldier in the city during the siege, at only 19 years of age. He, much like Žika in Mostar, was also shot and wounded in the years of fighting, and hearing him speak of the war as we drove along was heartbreaking. Stories of the Serbian forces using illegal rocket launchers to decimate buildings; stories of night after night of broken sleep, being startled awake by another explosion; stories of years of closed schools, and unsafe streets; of their water supply constantly under sniper watch; people cut off from electricity and running water; people trapped in a warzone just trying to survive with almost no possibility of escape. The Serbians wanted them to suffer, to starve, to live off little sleep and in a constant state of fear. That being said it is important to remember that there were rogue Bosnian soldiers who murdered Serbian civilian trapped in the city during the first year of the siege. I am not saying that the siege was justified, but it is important to remember that not all of the Bosnian soldiers were totally innocent either, and played their part in exacerbating the issue. There are always three sides to the story, either sides, and the truth.
Skender explained that if we see anyone in the city during our visit talking to themselves, or otherwise looking mentally disturbed or shells shocked, its because they still are, even all of these years later; a fact which thoroughly pierced my heart with sadness. In the minds of the people who lived through the siege for all of those years, the demons will likely never leave their side, and the sound of thunder, or a car backfiring, will always strike a deep fear into their hearts.
We arrived presently and parked. We were now in the area which had been the free zone, and just over the field sat the airport, now once more simply being used for commercial flights. We walked over to a rather unassuming house; this was where the tunnel exit was hidden, and the property is still owned, and the museum cared for, by the same family, and the very same old woman who gave water and comfort to those terrified civilians and battered soldiers who emerged. Although the tunnel was dug in secret, it was not long after its completion that the Serbians found out about it, and this house was often peppered with shells, but luckily to little avail in regards to destroying the tunnel. That being said, there are still obvious signs of the damage inflicted, by way of walls peppered with holes, and divets in the concrete on the ground outside the house. These cold reminders of the war are visible in a number of places around the city, not only around this house where the divets are painted bright red to represent the bloodshed in the fighting. They are rather poetically known as Sarajevo Roses, for their roselike appearance.
Entering into the backyard of the home, Skender gave us a brief run through of the history of the 800 metre tunnel, of which only 20 metres is accessible to view now, as they had to close and fill in the rest when the airport was expanded, as the extra weight of today’s heavier planes would have most likely have caused its collapse. Although I’m sure everyone would like to see the entire length, keep in mind that this was not an engineering masterpiece, it as a hand dug tunnel, quite close to the surface, not even high enough for an average person to stand up straight in, with groundwater seeping up and making the ground wet, and with a rail track for running carts of supplies through. So in short, not exactly tourist friendly. Going back to the water issue though, the fact that they almost constantly had to pump water out of the tunnel was also a problem, as the sound of the rather loud generator running the pump, or the loud music used to try and drown it out, was a further giveaway that this was an important site. Luckily the Serbian’s never discovered where the entrance was in the city, as they would have simply bombed it into oblivion, something they couldn’t do to the free area.
Skender took a moment to tell us about the fact that although the UN was holding the airport and were there purely there on peacekeeping grounds, a number of innocent civilians who tried to run across the airfield in the cover of night to escape, had lights shone on them to see who they were, but as a result basically gave the Serbian soldiers a clear view of where to shoot; and shoot they did. He also explained the daily trials and tribulations of the people trapped in the city; a topic he knows a great deal about, as he was one of those unfortunate souls. He told us of the fact that food was so scarce that people had to turn to catching pigeons and rats to eat, and that the provisions given to them by the UN were often left over tinned rations from the second world war, and as I’m sure you can imagine they were barely edible by this point. He explained that because people were cut off from electricity some residents were haphazardly plumbing gas into their apartments, a treacherous endeavour which resulted in more than a handful of deaths. For those who were left with no choice but to burn their furniture and belongings to keep warm and cook their meals, people were often forced to even burn their shoes. Just try and imagine the flavour of rubber smoked rat. He explained how a number of rather despicable people in the city made money off the unfortunate situation, setting up a black market of necessities, and charging exorbitant prices, while there was any money to be had, for alcohol and cigarettes (two things that were probably very much wanted to temporarily ease the pain of such trauma as was occurring on the daily). With quite a sneer, Skender explained how these men are still some of the wealthiest in the city; how they sleep at night, I will never know. And finally we were told a somewhat more heartwarming fact, that although the schools were shut down, many of the teachers still gathered the children together when they could, in secret, to at least attempt to offer them learning and distraction from the horrors they were stuck in.
At this point we made our way into one of a number of rooms set up in the backyard in which two videos play on loop, one after the other. The first is a reinactment showing a young boy living in Sarajevo during the siege, who is sent off to collect water in plastic bottles from the water tanker truck (their only source at that time). Just as he is filling them up another shelling begins and her drops the bottles and runs to hide where he can, flitting behind burnt out cars and pockmarked buildings as he makes his way back home. By the time he reaches his house though, he runs up the stairs of his apartment building as the shelling finishes, slipping through the arms of a neighbour who tries to stop him. As he scurries into his home he is faced with the place destroyed, and his mother, father, and baby sister all dead. A rather sobering watch, doubly so when you realise that this was a reality of life for many children and innocent civilians for 4 long years. The second video shows real life, and rather grainy, footage of the tunnel during its use, filmed from the exit at the very house we were currently visiting. Images of soldiers receiving water from the lady who owns the house; of elderly civilians being delivered to freedom; of livestock, food and weapons being sent back through into the city. As bleak as the images were, you could also see the hope that the tunnel gave to those who needed it the most, and the pained look on Skender’s face, and the slight waver in his voice when he ushered us out afterwards, made it all so much more real.
From here we headed over to another part of the yard where they have a number of different disarmed land mines on display. As I have explained previously, there is quite a sizeable area of land in this country which has not yet been cleared of active mines. At this point our guide reiterated how important it is to keep to marked paths if you go hiking here, and also told us how every year a number of people die from accidentally activating hidden mines, many of these poor victims being farmers.
At last it was time for us to head over to the tunnel itself. As we made our way towards it, we passed displays showing crates used to hold the medical supplies, and a room which showed the stark difference between the weapons and uniforms of the Serbian fighters as opposed to the Bosnians. The Serbian’s of course had military grade weapons and proper uniforms, whereas the Bosnians were toting whatever jumble of inferior weapons they could get their hands on, from shotguns to small pistols, and were wandering around in everyday civilian attire, usually jeans, a jacket, and a pair of Converse All-Stars. They really were outmatched in almost every way, except maybe for resilience. As we clambered down the steps to the tunnel it became clear just how much effort not only went into building this livesaver, but also how tedious and hard it must have been to clamber through its entire length, hunched over in dim lighting, propelled only by sheer will power and the promise of freedom.
With our visit to the tunnel complete, we all piled back into the van and trundled off to our next stop. As we drove along we passed into the Serbian territory of the country, Republika Srpska. You see, the country may technically have stopped warring, but it is still seperated into unofficial territories for each of the three combatant groups, the Croatian Bosnians in the south (although unlike the Serbians they don’t insist on acting like a completely different country and calling themselves a republic), the Bosnian Muslims in the centre, and in the north-east near the border to Serbia lies Republika Srpska. As I explained a couple of blogs ago, their government has three leaders, one representative from each group, and when they’re in power for one month out of each three, they tend to only do things that benefit their section, instead of the entire country as a whole. This is one of the major hurdles to the country finally uniting. But back to what I was saying, it was clear we had ventured into the Serbian area due mainly to the fact that almost all of the signs are written in Cyrillic.
Making our way up a mountain we soon found ourselves at a viewpoint near the top, looking down over the city. With the rain somewhat pouring down, the photo stop was brief, and soon we headed back down the hill slightly until we came to a reminder of the successful winter Olympics held here before the war; the massive concrete toboggan track. Usually you are able to walk along a small section, but the weather made that too dangerous of an endeavour. Regardless, it was quite the sight; with graffiti covering it, many pieces a call for peace, it was quite reminiscent of the Berlin wall; a reminder that much of the youth are looking for a more united future, despite the battles of their parents.
Into the van we jumped once more, and made two more quick stops on our way back into the city; the White Fort and the Yellow Fort. Both of these are remains of old medieval fortresses which once protected the town, but have now somewhat fallen into ruin. This is not exactly unsurprising in a country where even a fair amount the modern buildings sit in ruins aswell. Regardless they do command a stunning view of the city below.
With our tour at an end, we heartily thanked Skender for sharing his experiences and knowledge with us, then took his advice and headed for a borek shop that he assured made the best in the city. We were surprised and amused to discover they make it in massive trays and sell it by the kilo. Only needing a snack, as dinner was not too far off, we ordered a kilo of the meat borek to share. Skender was right, it was delicious, and by far the best borek we’ve had on the trip. When we went to pay they charged us way less than we’d expected, but with them literally handing the extra money back, and with us unable to speak Bosnian we left. Our only regret being that we would be leaving tomorrow and wouldn’t be able to have any more.
Dinner was a quick homecooked affair, and with an uncomfortably early start to come the next day, we were soon in bed attempting an early night. As I lay in bed listening to my thunderstorm soundtrack I use to drown out background noise, I took a second to imagine that each crack was a shell falling on the city. Even in my mind it was difficult to imagine that reality, and I know I am extremely lucky to struggle with that. Tomorrow we would be leaving Bosnia, but I must say, despite having my reservations about visiting this country initially, and regardless of their slightly questionable bus services and somewhat lacking infrastructure, I would, in fact, be sorry to leave. This small country of extremely friendly people, had changed me more than any other so far on this trip. I have learnt many hard lessons here, and yet I am thankful for every heartwrenching one of them.
I am from a country where Muslims are often looked at by many with fear and often contempt because of the actions of cowards hiding behind Islam’s name on the other side of the world. I have never personally felt that way, and am proud to be the first to call out my friends and family on any anti-Islamic rhetoric. Like every religion, there are always extremists, and you cannot judge all of the law abiding religious followers by the abhorrent actions of a small minority. I wish I could bring those xenophobic and intolerant people here, and show them that the media paints an unfair picture of a religion which preaches peace just as Christianity does. The bible spews just as much sexist and racist assertions as any other holy book, and much like most Christians, most Muslims do not take all of it to heart and follow it to the letter. I wish I could show those who fear the Islamic faith the hardships these people have gone through and yet, despite it all, how caring and hospitable they still are. Religion does not make people do terrible things, only a lack of a personal moral compass does that. Good people will always take the good parts from the story, as bad will from bad. People are responsible for their actions, book or not, thus fear based on religious beliefs is unwarranted and ill-informed. Only through education and exposure will we ever dispel the us versus them mentality, only then will we rid ourselves of unfounded fear and be able to properly target the true evils of the world and strip them of their falsely religious veil.