Snow! Our bus was parked for a few minutes as we made our way from Serbia to Bosnia-Herzegovina. We were heading over a mountain pass that put us high enough to see some flurries. The snowflakes dusted the landscape around us and gave a fairytale feel to the landscape. But where we were headed was anything but a fairytale.
After one or two mandatory snowballs, I was back on the bus and huddled close to Hisako as the we descended down towards Sarajevo. It was nearing dusk as the bus pulled into the far side of town, concrete blocks of buildings welcoming us.
The highlight of our stay in Sarajevo was definitely a tour we took with one of the locals. Offering the tours for free to anyone who contacted him through his web site, I was astonished to hear about all the trials and tribulations of this Sarajevo local who had lived for the war. Of course, I wanted to come to Sarajevo when we had changed our plans to come through Eastern Europe. Seeing the images on TV as a kid and listening to the news, it seemed like world away and I couldn’t believe I’d have the chance to see it for myself.
It tears me in two. The reason for my excitement, if you can call it that, was because of the devastating war there. It seems so wrong that something so horrible can cause a destination to be a tourist stop. But on the other hand, I’m glad that the tourist market can lend a hand in getting the city back on its feet.
From what I saw around the city, the town is embracing its tourism industry and sections are thriving because of it. With nearly all heavy industry gone after the war, it seems to be one of the few bright spots for its residence.
This wonderful local took us around to some of the famous sites within the city. Of course, we saw the Holiday Inn where the journalists stayed and the Sarajevo roses which are grisly reminders of the mortars that terrorized the city. But it was listening to Neno talk about the war, how it affected him, how he feels about it now, and where he wants to go that was truly inspirational. Not wanting the past to be forgotten, he has embraced the idea of educating the masses as his personal mission. Between classes and study he makes time for those that would like to learn more about the people of Sarajevo.
It was fascinating to hear how strongly he just wants to move on from the whole conflict, but simultaneously wants the world to truly understand the terror that the people of Sarajevo were put through. It was impossible for me to relate to the situation. Still, Neno opened my eyes with the retelling of his first hand experiences.
Sheltered in a basement for the majority of the war, Neno spent years without proper nourishment, a place to play, or a mother who could stay home. Each morning his mother would creep out of their apartment complex and would crawl, run, and scamper across town while sniper fire and mortars filled the air around her. Each time Neno saw his mother leave in the morning it was always with the feeling that this might be his last time to see her off. And yet, miraculously, his mother returned each evening bringing with her tiny rations, bits of bread, or whatever she could scrounge up for the day.
Neno and many of his fellow residence began to resent the canned beef being shipped in from the West almost as much as the sniper fire from the hills. Tasteless and unchanging, he said that the dogs wouldn’t even eat the canned “meat”, but his family had to subsist on it for years on end. Couldn’t the West intervene? Couldn’t they send them something other than canned beef? The war squeezed him, his family, and the citizens of Sarajevo in every direction possible and somehow he managed to persevere.
And yet, after the mortars stopped falling, the troops withdrew, and peace returned to this city where a World War had started less than a century before, Neno and many like him were quickly searching for a way to move beyond the terror. For him, that step was too keep educating others so that the mistakes of the past wouldn’t be repeated for a new generation.
As an American I often resent the long reach of our government in affairs overseas, but here was someone who believed that it was the responsibility of governments like mine to intervene when a situation spirals out of control like Sarajevo. Thankful that Clinton did finally bring in airforce, but resentful that it was 4 years after the conflict had started. Like I said, it’s impossible for me to relate to the situation and always easier looking back to decide what might have been the “right” action, but it has given me pause to think about a government’s role in oversea affairs.
Between the crumbling facades and bullet holes, Sarajevo gave me plenty to think about. The city and its people stand as an amazing example of the perseverance and wickedness of humans. But for me, it won’t be a place of sorrow, but a place of hope because of a new generation that is slowly rebuilding from the rubble of the last.