I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I decided to travel through the Balkans. I learned about the breakdown in Yugoslavia while in high school, but most of those lessons were long forgotten. And while I could recognize most of the countries by name, I’d be lost if you asked me to point them out on a map. I knew that Game of Thrones was filmed in Croatia, but I didn’t know anyone who had been there.
Sarajevo, however, was one place I did remember with some confidence – it was where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, sparking the beginning of World War I. Beyond that, I’ll admit that I didn’t know much. It was a place that I never thought I would visit.
Then, in October 2016, I found myself pulling into the Sarajevo bus station. A personable taxi driver laid the groundwork for my experience in Sarajevo. He was courteous, passionate, and proud. He described the main attractions of the city as we drove by, told me how recent restoration has improved the city’s infrastructure, and gave a brief primer on the country’s notorious history.
I was caught off guard when the driver pointed out the car window at multi-story buildings that were half destroyed and covered with bullet holes – a reminder of the brutal conflict, Europe’s bloodiest war since WWII. I’ve seen plenty of movies with gunfire and explosions, but seeing firsthand the damage created from heavy machine gun fire and artillery shells quite literally took my breath away. It was a humbling moment I’ll never forget. The bullet holes, I would learn, were the result of the Bosnian-Serbian conflict, where Sarajevo was ground-zero to the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare.
And it was a conflict that took place recently; a tragedy that occurred during my lifetime. It was difficult to process the enormity of this event.
During my time in Sarajevo, I discovered that the conflict is still very much a part of the city; one could argue that it defines it. Locals do not pretend it didn’t happen, nor shy away from discussing it. They embrace its significance, and are not afraid to speak their minds or share their opinion. I got the sense that to them, the story of Sarajevo was less about hardship and catastrophe, and more about perseverance and unity.
The trip with our taxi driver ended when I arrived at the War Hostel, which was designed as a bunker during the war. It offers the unique opportunity to experience how civilians lived during the war, without the danger. Instead of beds, there are foam mats on the floor; pillows are replaced with folded military blankets, and the shower consists of a faucet and bucket. The limited electricity is run by a car battery, and the only way to find your way at night is a flashlight. Graffiti, guns, and newspaper clippings cover the walls.
The hostel is owned by a father and son; the former was a soldier in the Bosnian army, the latter a child during the siege. Upon arrival, I was greeted and brought to the room by the son, Arijan, dressed in full military garb. He later escorted me downstairs to the bomb shelter, now converted into a museum, which was filled with everything from helmets to grenades to heaters.
Arijan spoke about what it was like living through the siege as a child. The constant, loud explosions and living in constant fear of your apartment being hit by artillery (Sarajevo was bombarded with 300+ artillery shells a day); running from building to building to get water, unsure if you were in the crosshairs of a sniper rifle (over 2,000 people were injured or killed from sniper fire); and being perpetually hungry and feeling helpless. I couldn’t imagine growing up in such a volatile, hostile environment.
Interested in learning more about the conflict, I decided to visit the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide during my first day in the city. The exhibition displayed documents, accounts, pictures, and videos related to Bosnia’s gruesome wartime history. It was quiet and everyone appeared in slow motion as they moved about the twelve thematic sections.
We learned that the wartime atrocities during this time extended far outside Sarajevo, including country-wide genocide. There were personal items on display, exhumed from mass graves (many of which are still undiscovered), and testimonies about the horrors that took place inside concentration camps located across the country.
This is one of those rare places that you leave feeling like a completely different person than when you entered. As I thought about what I had just learned, a quote came to mind, “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” The museum brought a true sense of the devastating reality that this country and its people experienced… I could only begin to comprehend.
The day ended with a trip to the Tunnel Museum, another of Sarajevo’s popular attractions. It’s located at the site of a half-mile long underground tunnel that was built to transport supplies in and out Sarajevo during the siege. It was the city’s only lifeline to the outside world and vital to its survival – moving water, food, humanitarian aid, and (most importantly) weapons.
It was another example of Sarajevo’s resiliency: built with very little time to plan, completed in less than 3 months, and dug by hand, in 24-hour shifts by workers paid in cigarettes. We were allowed to walk through a portion of the tunnel that was restored – I couldn’t even stand upright.
Learning about the Bosnian-Serbian conflict, and interacting with the people who survived its destruction, was truly an eye opening experience for me. I couldn’t imagine what it would have been like if my family and I had to survive in that type of environment. While travel is often associated with positive experiences and new adventures, I discovered that it can also sobering and humbling; it can change your perspective on life. Experiencing recent history in Sarajevo reminded me just how fortunate we are in the United States. Seeing, hearing, and feeling only amplified the experience and reinforced the reality, something that I could never hope to achieve from watching the news or reading a textbook.