Sarajevo: West meets East

We are overjoyed to wake up in Sarajevo. Getting here was a challenge: changing plans, booking flights, stashing the rental car in a parking garage in Zagreb, being homeless in the rain waiting for our flight out. A lightning storm delayed many of the flights out, so even once we got to the Zagreb airport we were unsure we’d get to Sarajevo.

The Hotel Europe – – where we are staying, was destroyed in the Bosnian war in the 90s. It has been rebuilt in a weird modern style with lots of zebra wood and orange carpets and accents, making it look like an A & W. I’d originally booked it because of the location and the availability of parking, which we don’t need now. But the location is perfect, the room is spacious and the buffet breakfast is huge. Although who eats rice and chicken at eight in the morning? Um, well, Craig does, actually.

The name, Hotel Europe, suggests a desire for western acceptance. The Balkans are rife with hotels, cafes and restaurants named this way, either “Europe” or, more often, “Europa”. There is a self-consciousness that this part of the continent is too far east to be truly part of Europe. Bosnia, or rather Bosnia & Herzegovina, as it more correctly called, is not yet part of the EU and the feel on the street is more middle eastern than it is European. Which suits us just fine! We enjoy the food at Grandma’s Kitchen and Dveri, both serving Bosnian food that has a distinct Turkish flavour.

Sarajevo is not that old and dates back only a few hundred years, when it was a trading town linking Europe with the east. The Ottomans occupied it for hundreds of years until the Austro-Hungarian empire acquired Bosnia in the late 19th century. That lasted for only 40 years, until the end of WW1, when it joined Yugoslavia.

During the Ottoman years, Sarajevo flourished as a centre of religion, culture, commerce and education. Known as the “Jerusalem of Europe” it is the only European city that boasts a mosque, synagogue, Roman Catholic church and an Eastern Orthodox church within blocks of each other. Until the 90s Sarajevo was mostly a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, harmonious place to live. That all changed when Yugoslavia ceased to be and Bosnia Herzegovina declared independence. The Serbs, both those living in Serbia and those living in Bosnia, had different ideas.

The Bosnian war of 1992 – 96 was long and bloody. Sarajevo was under siege for almost 4 years. Every imaginable kind of artillery, including snipers and rocket launchers, bombarded the city from the surrounding hills. In total 500,000 bombs were launched. Individual civilians were shot when they dared to be out in the open. Almost 14,000 people were killed.

We spend a few hours with Nenco, our guide for a  tour called “The Time of Sorrows”. He was a policeman during the siege and has first-hand knowledge. It is sometimes hard to listen to him tell us about his experiences. The family members he lost. The shrapnel scars on his leg. The cold, hunger and privation. The game of Sarajevo roulette: dashing across the airport runway (a UN safe zone) to the part of Sarajevo outside the siege area for food and other supplies. He takes us to the tunnel that was built under the runway which, for the remainder of the siege, was a conduit to the outside world. It is especially hard to listen as he talks about the genocide at Srebrenica.

I think back to my life in the early nineties and how ill informed I was about what was happening in Bosnia. I remember hearing about the UN sanctioned arms embargo, intended to keep the conflict from exploding into war. Unfortunately, Bosnia was most affected as Croatia got munitions by way of the sea and the (former) Yugoslavian army supported Serbia. An estimated 100,000 died in the war and an additional 2.2 million were displaced.

One of Bill Clinton’s biographers quotes the former president as saying that Europe was slow to interfere in the war partly because there was little appetite for an independent muslim majority state in Europe. The UN did not act because Russia vetoed intervention. The arms embargo, the lack of UN support and the reluctance of Europe to stop the war meant that what started as a civil war ended up a genocide.

The Sarajevo Museum houses photos and posters that tell the story graphically. Some of the photos are too graphic. Mangled bodies. Dead children.

Bono and Pavarotti collaborated on a song and a video called “Miss Sarajevo”. Click the link to watch it:

The locals lament that war happens every 50 years: the Balkan wars in the late 19th century, WW1 (started in Sarajevo when a Serb shot archduke Ferdinand of Austria), WW2, the Bosnian war of the 90s. Many wonder what will happen in 2040.

Today, the city once again feels like a diverse, peaceful, tolerant place, at least to us. Not that we ever really know what lies beneath the surface, of this, or of any of the places we visit.

The turkish-ness of the shops and restaurants reminds us of Istanbul. The Ottoman influence is very evident in the many mosques, the small alleys full of carpet shops (can we resist buying one?), copper and silver crafts, spice shops, and cafes where coffee is served black and strong in tiny cups with a cube of sugar on the side. In fact, if you can’t make it all the way to Istanbul, Sarajevo is a reasonable facsimile. And much safer these days!



  1. Sharon B. says:

    Fascinating! Loved both books you note here for the sense of time/place/events. The library is beautiful. War every 50 years would be a daunting sentence to live under. We lived in France 93/94 and the little fighter jets would screech over “our” mountain doing their war exercises and sometimes on the way to the Balkans. It felt nearer and scary to see only a little evidence of what was horrendous for others.

  2. Charlotte says:

    Sarajevo looks beautiful. It is nice to see how they flourished after the Bosnian war of the early 1990’s. All those victims that died during that time.
    I think I would like the shopping!!

  3. So. To go back to the topic of Turkish coffee. Clayton once took me for a tour of a Turkish freighter, sitting at a wharf on the North Shore. We were offered coffee at the end of the tour and I, like the adventurer I am, tried the coffee. I can’t really describe it — very dark, grounds seemingly in the bottom, bitter ….. but I drank it !

  4. Wow. Very moving and thought provoking pictures. Reflecting on what I was up too at that time… life without a care in the would. It makes me immensely grateful and also very sad.
    On a happier note you both look so great! Are those Dolmades I see??

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