Travel

Notes from Sarajevo

Photo: Getty Images/ iStock

Photo: Getty Images/ iStock  

For now, Sarajevo is basking in a sunshine moment as a new-found stop on the Balkan tourist map

Much like cities that shaped modern history, Sarajevo is a survivor. Given that the city prompted World War I with the assassination of the Austrian prince Archduke Franz Ferdinand, it’s fair to assume it should have had a larger role in world politics. The powerplay between Serbian and Austro-Hungarian empires, the latter under whose rule the city was, escalated tensions between European nations after the assassination and reshaped world order.

“Every fifty years there’s some kind of conflict here, in the Balkan area,” declares my tour guide, an enthusiastic youngster in her 20s, standing in front of the Eternal Flame that celebrates the city’s liberation from Nazi Germany after World War II. The latest one, called the Siege of Sarajevo, lasted for four years from 1992 to 1996. The city was shelled by ethnic Serbians from within Bosnia who laid siege to the city soon after Yugoslavia broke under its own weight.

Some scars still remain. The most obvious ones are borne by the city’s surviving concrete structures that stand pock-marked from shelling. The shell explosions also dented the city’s streets. They are now filled with red resin and are euphemistically called Sarajevo Roses, not unlike the Stolperstein — the Jewish name plaques — on Berlin’s streets.

But modern-day Sarajevo’s beaming pride seems to rise from the laurels of having successfully hosted the winter Olympics in 1984. It is the pride of having hosted the games when the city was part of a bigger entity, Yugoslavia, which was once ruled by the communist revolutionary Tito. Needless to say, every middle-aged Bosnian is dreamy-eyed when they reminisce about Tito’s Yugoslavia while chain smoking in restaurants. Smoking in public (and restaurants) is one of the few legacies of the Yugoslavian times. “Everyone had a job and housing was never a problem. Tito stood up to Western countries in the world stage. There was no homelessness and poverty,” a resident tells me.

Now Sarajevo’s mosques are funded by Saudi Arabia and malls by Qatar, and the city increasingly draws tourists from West Asia. Sarajevo also seems to be happy to lean in to Turkey as we saw recently, when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was allowed to campaign for the Turkish elections when the EU refused to let him. There is palpable scepticism about whether all this will stiffen the liberal Islamic values the city is so known for and drag it towards populist conservatism.

Meeting of cultures

For now though, Sarajevo is basking in a sunshine moment as a new-found stop on the Balkan tourist map. There’s also a swell in Chinese tourists: the 1972 Yugoslavian war cult classic, Walter Defends Sarajevo, was hugely popular in China when it was released.

As we walk into the city’s bustling bazaar, the motif on the pavement declares: ‘East/ West: Sarajevo Meeting of Cultures’, referring to the coexistence of midtown Viennese architecture and the Ottoman era bazaar. A little ahead, we stop by at a mosque, a synagogue, and an Orthodox Church and my guide refers to this area as ‘European Jerusalem’.

Rich history and culture aside, a complex election system, multi-ethnic tensions and high rates of unemployment have prompted the city’s youngsters to migrate to mainland Europe for opportunities. Very few stick around, like Adna Ganibegovic. “I don’t want to leave Sarajevo because the country needs a new generation who retell a contemporary history in which war does not loom in the background,” Ganibegovic, a journalism student and television presenter tells me at a café overlooking the undulating hills around the city.

But that’s in the hands of the city’s politicians and lawmakers. “There is no future if there’s no unity,” says the city’s deputy mayor on a ‘meet the press’ event. “Everything that has happened here holds meaning for the entire world,” he added. It sounds unnervingly like a prophesy. I think to myself — let’s just hope it doesn’t take another world-altering event for the city to find its footing.

This Stuttgart-based writer is as happy on the road as he is tending to his houseplants, which often breed fruit flies.

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2020 9:55:48 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/travel/notes-from-sarajevo/article25271647.ece

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