During a trip to Sarajevo in April, my first visit to the city, I was in the middle of Rebecca West’s long, erudite, poetic travel memoir about the Balkans, written in the late 1930s but covering hundreds of years of history in the region. For her, and for me reading it, Sarajevo was where the Archduke of Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg, were assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb, on June 28, 1914, provoking a continent to war. But the Bosnian war — more recent history in the 1990s — ended up being just as compelling.
From 1992 to 1995, a tunnel was built out of Sarajevo. In one direction flowed refugees. Coming the other way were guns, supplies, electrical and communication lines. The city was under siege, and the situation couldn’t have been bleaker. Sarajevo sits at the bottom of a bowl formed by high mountain peaks, and Bosnian Serbs were stationed all around with heavy artillery. The passage built to connect central Sarajevo with the free suburbs on the other side of the mountains was called the Tunnel of Hope.
Now it is a museum, and one of the proudest sights to show off for Bosnians welcoming a growing flow of tourists. The Tunnel Museum is a top pick on the Lonely Planet’s Sarajevo sightseeing page, and is described by one VirtualTourist.com user as “a very touching and inspiring place that everyone should visit in order to make the world a better place.”
In Sarajevo, 20 years is a stretch of time that’s hard to wrap your head around — things couldn’t be more different, and yet on certain street corners and in certain moments, recent history feels closer than it should.
Our hotel owner told us about the tunnel first. Valide greeted us in the downstairs cafe when we arrived early on a Thursday morning, and she overflowed with stories and advice. She had a pointer and a large map on the wall, and many different portable maps. We know that we’re not the first American tourists, but the way Valide grabbed hold of the narrative, we felt as if she had been waiting a long time to tell someone her stories, or the stories of Sarajevo.
During the Siege of Sarajevo, working the tunnel meant walking in 840 meters underground through tunnels and trenches, 500 meters combined covered trenches on either end and 340 meters underground — easily flooded, with no ventilation; and eventually when the tunnels had progressed, trudging alongside pipelines carrying in oil and cables bringing in electricity and communication capacity. It was so low that you would see people on the street with a wound on their temple, and know they had been in the tunnel. Valide’s father and husband both had bumps on their foreheads.
Valide told us how to deal with munitions, as if it’s a lesson we might need on our short weekend here. She told us that with land mines, if you hear a click, it’s too late. With mortar shells, if you hear a whistle you’re fine because it’s going over you. When it’s getting you, you don’t hear a sound. These are things any Bosnian over the age of roughly 26 can tell you quite readily.
Just that morning, she heard three explosions nearby and her husband called her to see if she and her son were all right. Half-jokingly, he asked if war were starting again.
I can’t imagine that people who lived in the city at the time of the war can look at those hills without thinking of sniper fire. I once watched part of a very silly-looking Wes Craven horror film called “The Hills Have Eyes,” and the title would’ve gone to better use for a documentary about the Bosnian war. I couldn’t get the phrase out of my head.
The city is a patchwork of recovery. We saw the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina in its final stages of re-emergence. It would open in May, and has in the meantime garnered enthusiastic response from tourists:
“It is sad to see such a beautiful [city] was gutted down as a result of an ethnic conflict. However, the restoration has been carried out to the best of available resources. It’s a masterpiece even today.”
“The heart of sarajevo is back!!”
“This place, rebuilt and just reopen(ed) in … 2014, tells you about a beautiful city and a foolish attempt to destroy memory and identity. A warning, forever.”
After lunch in the lively, nearby bascarsiya area — the old, very Ottoman-feeling market — we went to another dot on Valide’s map of morbid sights, the old Jewish cemetery. It’s quite a walk westward down the riverbank and then up into the southern hills, and during the war it was a no-man’s land, with Bosnian Serbs using it as an artillery position.
Devastated by shells and gunfire, it was also completely land-mined during the war. With a form of joking that I’ll call Bosnian gallows humor — the desire or need to joke about danger casually — Valide had insisted we visit the cemetery while in the same breath exhorting teasing cautions: “I wouldn’t wander around too much — stick to the cement paths . . . ,” all said with a smile.
Climbing the south slope of the river, I almost missed the cemetery as we came up to it — a high wall of grass on the left obscured the path upward to the giant gate. As we entered, I knew that Valide wasn’t really serious about land mines, but I still scampered quickly over the grassy patch at the entrance. And then we were completely by ourselves.
That evening, from our lovely little apartment, with windows facing the southern hills, we enjoyed a view that for three years had brought nothing but terror and now was completely magic.
Of course, no history buff can visit Sarajevo without visiting near the site of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, by the Old Latin Bridge. Because it is not only in recent history that Sarajevo serves up lessons in the gruesomeness of war. On June 28, 1914, young Serbian boys goaded by separatists eager to free Bosnia and Serbia from the yoke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire clumsily attempted an assassination of the unpopular (even within his own family) Archduke and one — Gavrilo Princip — almost accidentally succeeded.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire gave an unreasonable ultimatum to the Bosnian government, which nonetheless immediately capitulated on all points except for one impossible edict that would require more time; and so, the Austro-Hungarian Empire (whose ambassadors were supposedly on a train back to Vienna before even receiving the answer) used this flimsy excuse to start a war that would eventually claim 16 million deaths.
The spot feels disappointingly normal, even banal. The bridge is small, quite pretty but not monumental, and only a stone nearby bears a small plaque commemorating the event. We sat for a while, looking around, trying at least to recall the moment, what it must have looked like. Another couple came by, watched us watching, and asked what we were doing in that spot.
My husband responded: “Merely contemplating the immensity of history.” They looked puzzled. They were just hoping we were waiting for the same tour guide they couldn’t find.
In the northern end of town is a cemetery at the end of a park where you don’t expect to see a cemetery till you actually stumble upon it; this is the Christian cemetery. And in a little stone house overshadowed by a nearby overpass, lie Gavrilo Princip and 10 others who died with him. They were all so young, all so misguided and desperate and justified and wrong-minded. It’ll happen over and over again.
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Maria Luisa Gambale, a graduate of Harvard University, lives in New York City. In addition to writing, she produces film and media projects and is director of the 2011 film “Sarabah,” about the Senegalese rapper-activist Sister Fa. She has produced and directed video for National Geographic, ABC News, The New York Times and Fusion Network. Gambale’s work in all media can be viewed at www.veradonnafilms.com.