Thursday, October 27, 2011

Not quite a vacation

Back at home, my friends are all going on Fall Break. Most are going home, some are visiting friends, some are on vacation.

My "Fall Break" was a lot shorter than theirs. Ceca took the other BYP volunteers and me to Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina for a four-day trip. On Thursday afternoon, we piled into a van driven by Željko, our fearless pilot whose driving I've gained a lot of respect for after this trip. We cruised through the flat fields of Vojvodina, the province around Novi Sad, until we found ourselves at the foot of a mountain range. We crossed a bridge on the Drina (not this one) and passed through the border checkpoint without any problems. Just like that, we were in another country.

We stopped for a bathroom break, and I stretched my legs and enjoyed the scenery. I glanced up the nearest hill and asked Ceca, "Is that an old fortress?" She looked up and answered, almost dismissively, "Yes, yes, probably Turkish. They're on every hill here." I'm not sure exactly when the fortress was built, but it's probably older than the United States.

The ruins, slightly obscured in fog
We spent most of the rest of our ride to Sarajevo singing along to whatever music came out of our laptops. I recall that "Party in the USA" was popular as we rode down the Bosnian side of the Drina (Yes, I sung along too).

It was just after sundown when we entered the Sarajevo valley. All around us the hillsides were lit up with apartment buildings, houses, stores, and mosques. Though Sarajevo is roughly the size of Novi Sad (give or take a bit-- reliable census data is hard to come by here) it felt larger upon our arrival, simply because we could see all of it at once.

We dropped our bags off at our hostel and went for dinner to a restaurant that serves traditional Bosnian food. I don't recall exactly what I ate, but I remember it was delicious. The restaurant also had traditional Bosnian folk music by a live band. Some of the other diners were really into the music, and even danced along.

Dancing on the tables. Photo credit: Dominique
The next morning, we set out on a tour of the city. Our tour guide, Amir, was quick to paint a portrait of Sarajevo as a multicultural city. The first few stops on our tour were to a Catholic cathedral, a Serbian Orthodox church, and the largest and most prominent of the city's multitude of mosques.

Serbian Orthodox church
Catholic cathedral
One shot of the mosque-- too big to get in one picture!
We also stopped by the corner where Gavrilo Princip, the Bosnian Serb nationalist, shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, leading to the first World War. Amir explained to us that, depending on who ruled Sarajevo, the monument at this space has historically alternated between a memorial to the Archduke and a monument to Princip. At one point, there were even footprints in the sidewalk so that you could literally stand where Princip was. Today, a compromise plaque marks the site, simply stating the facts.

Neutral wording
Latin Bridge, roughly where the Archduke was
Getting ready to charge the Archduke's car.
We walked up a hill and past a fountain where, if you drink, you'll come back to Sarajevo (but you have to believe in legends, Amir reminded us).

Needless to say, I drank. Photo credit: Dominque
We all drank from the fountain. Mom and Dad, I don't know when I'm going back to Sarajevo, but know that it's in the plans sometime.

Further up the hill was what used to be a public park. Amir told us that when he was a kid, he used to sled down the slope. Now, that's entirely impossible. During the Siege of Sarajevo from 1992 to 1995, Serb snipers picked off anyone who was within range, and their range included the traditional city graveyards. The citizens of Sarajevo used this park and many like it to bury their dead. After the war ended, it simply wasn't feasible to transfer all of the bodies to the old graveyard, so the park was officially converted.

This was the first graveyard I had visited that wasn't covered in crosses. Mostly Muslims were buried here. All were either killed during the war, or relatives of those who died.

Extending up the hill. Usually, Muslim graves point toward Mecca. Because of the circumstances, the bodies aren't oriented in any particular direction. 
A small creek runs through the graveyard
The inscription is from the Quran, and reads, roughly, "And do not say about those who have died in the way of Allah, 'They are dead!' No, they are alive, but you do not perceive it." The fleur-de-lis at the bottom is a symbol of Bosnia.
Visible from the graveyard: a mosque, the Orthodox church, and the Catholic Cathedral.

At one point when we were talking about the siege of Sarajevo, Amir mentioned his own experience. "I consider myself lucky," he said, "I only lost my father, my grandmother, my cousin, and our apartment." I wasn't quick to agree with him about luck, but compared to the 11,000 who died, I suppose he was.

Though the city has been largely fixed up since the siege, it still has its scars. Amir, who, like the other Bosnians and Serbians I've met, appreciates dark humor, told us that for a time, Sarajevans referred to their city as the "Swiss cheese city."

Swiss cheese
A "Sarajevo rose"

In the afternoon, after a nice large lunch of ćevapčići, we visited a professor from the philosophy faculty at the University of Sarajevo. We discussed the role of identity during and after the conflict. Before, under Tito's rule, all three religions lived more or less in harmony. When Yugoslavia began falling apart, the national/ethnic identities that Tito had suppressed came surging forward. Though Catholics/Croats, Orthodox/Serbs, and Muslims/Bosniaks are indistinguishable by looks, they quickly found ways to differentiate themselves. The primary way was by name: a man named Amir or Sulejmanović was probably an ethnic Muslim, for example.

The professor told us about his own experience living in Sarajevo. His name was slightly Serbian, so he was somewhat ostracized within his own faculty. But when his young son, who has an even more Serbian name, was in preschool, the teacher treated him far differently from the others. He would get punished more often than the other kids, with time-outs where he had to sit in a dark room by himself. When the professor finally found out about his treatment, the preschool teacher claimed that it was the child's natural agressive Serbian blood, and not her fault at all.

The irony in all of this is that the child is incredibly ethnically mixed. Croat, Serb, Bosniak, Turk, like many other Bosnians, he's all of the above. His discrimination wasn't even ethnic-- the kid just had the wrong name.

Amazingly, Yentli has a friend who lives in Sarajevo. They met when she was an exchange student at Yentli's high school in Lancaster, PA. The two met back up, and we all joined her friends in a café. Our curfew was unfortunately early (~10:00PM) both nights, so we didn't get to hang out with them as much as we'd have liked.

On Saturday morning, we visited the Tunnel Museum. During the war, Serb forces nearly completely surrounded the city. The UN struck a bargain with them: the UN would control the airport and allow aid relief as long as they ensured that no Bosnians went across the airstrip to the free Bosnian territory. The Sarajevans then dug an 800-meter tunnel under the airport, through which they smuggled food, people, and weapons. One side of this tunnel is preserved.

The house hiding the entrance to the tunnel
The tunnel itself
We then visited the Historical Museum, which was housing a special exhibit on the siege. There was also a "Wall of Truth" where Bosnians posted photographs, messages, and information about friends and families who had died during the war. It was originally timed to coincide with Ratko Mladić's plea at the ICTY, but it has been left up since then.

Flag of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (not the current political entity) with battle scars
"Watch out-- sniper!"
A European watchdog mission accidentally left their satellite phone when they fled during the war. This phone was the only link that the President of BiH had to the outside world during the siege.
Part of the Wall of Truth
More of the Wall of Truth
Jacob and I pose with Tito

For the rest of the day, we had free time. We explored the city and did a bit of shopping. Walking down a major touristy street, we heard some singing/chanting. Glancing around the corner, we found some sort of march with people waving the Turkish flag. The marchers were shouting something in what I presume was Turkish (though even if it were in Bosnian, I wouldn't have understood) but all I understood was "Allahu Akbar," the global refrain of "God is great." I'm still unsure what the protest was about.

It struck me that if we had a group of sixty Muslims carrying a flag and shouting "Allahu Akbar" in the United States, the media would freak out about it. Here, it's not even news.

We also stopped by the large mosque during prayer time to hear the muezzin's call. This was the first time that I had heard the call to prayer in real life, and I found it quite beautiful.

On the way back, I noticed a crate of Jelen Pivo (literally "deer beer," one of the more popular brands in Serbia) at a gas station. I realized that I hadn't noticed either Jelen or Lav, its major competitor, served or advertised anywhere in Sarajevo. What was different about that gas station? Simple. It was in Republika Srpska, the Serb-dominated sub-national entity, while Sarajevo was in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Muslim and Croat section. It was telling that the rift between the two regions is so deep that they don't even serve the same beer. Also noticeable when we crossed into Republika Srpska territory: suddenly, everything was written in Serbian cyrillic, not the latinic script common to Croatian, Bosnian, and Serbian. From names to drinks to alphabets, everything has an ethnic connotation.

No comments:

Post a Comment