Sarajevo is extraordinary.
That’s the first thing that struck me on arriving in the capital of Bosnia & Herzegovina: walking along cobbled streets squashed between tall, imperial townhouses, at times reminiscent of Vienna, before emerging into fountained plazas where the call to prayer wafts down from Ottoman minarets – reverberating in market squares where stray cats stalk amongst fabrics and spice – and quite suddenly I could have sworn I’d been transported to Istanbul. When travel guidebooks roll out that overplayed line about East-meets-West – usually in reference to somewhere like Prague or Budapest – I’d wager they haven’t been to Sarajevo; because this is where it’s happening. It is a cultural frontier like no place I’ve seen in Europe, and yet it is as inclusive, as welcoming, as it is alluring.
The city defied any and all expectations I might have brought with me… though I’ll admit, those expectations were mostly negative. Growing up in the 1990s, I, like many others my age, was conditioned with an almost Pavlovian response: whereby even the mention of ‘Bosnia’ would summon images of blood and smoke. As a child I never pictured the vast and dramatic landscapes that define the country, and I certainly had no concept of the real Sarajevo. Rather, the image in my head had been of nondescript housing blocks – the generic Eastern European city – lit up by mortars and muzzle flash.
Those pictures of violence and tragedy proved true enough, at least; but no one had ever told me what Sarajevo was actually like. The news stories never mentioned that these horrors took place in what might just be the most beautiful city in Europe. I fell in love with Sarajevo in a heartbeat… and that made learning about its history all the more difficult.
It’s not just the buildings that make Sarajevo beautiful, though – the minarets, the bridges, the steep streets filled with the smell of fresh pastries – nor even the dramatic landscape that wraps about it from north and south; but there is moreover a feeling of community here, a multiculturalism writ large in crosses and crescents and stars, spelled out in Latin, Cyrillic, Arabic and Hebrew text.
Ironically, it was this same multiculturalism that made Sarajevo such a fertile battlefield for the nationalist factions that would come to dominate the region in the wake of a disintegrating Yugoslavia. In that time of uncertainty, fear of the Other would become the driving force of atrocity… and in Sarajevo, a city that stood for everything nationalism isn’t, 11,541 citizens would be murdered over the course of the longest city siege in modern history.
I’ll warn you now, this story won’t always be an easy read. But I feel I owe the victims (both living and dead) that much – the world media might have stopped talking about the war in Bosnia long ago, but people here are still living with its effects. And besides… with nationalism once again on the rise across the Western world, I believe this might be a conversation worth revisiting.
The War Hostel
I rang the bell, and our host answered the door dressed in full UN military uniform. He was solemn as he ushered me into the regular-looking apartment tucked back from a quiet road in the south part of the city. Other than the scribbled address I held in my hand, there was little to suggest that there might have been a hostel inside.
By now it was my third day in Sarajevo and so far, I had made a point of not digging too deep into the history of the war. I had wanted to make my own impressions first, to experience the city as it is now; but with just 18 hours left before our bus to Montenegro, I felt it was time to embark on what I suspected might be quite a challenging tourism experience.
I had read about this place online – the Sarajevo War Hostel – and I’d wondered how I felt about that concept. “Pay to Get Shelled in Your Sleep,” read the dubious headline written by one visiting journalist. The hostel promised an authentic recreation of siege conditions, as well as a whole catalogue of tours… and every review I could find for the place was a glowing five-star recommendation. Apprehension aside, this certainly seemed like the place to go if I wanted to learn what happened here.
Our young host preferred to be known as ’01,’ after his father’s wartime call signal – pronounced Nula Jedan in Bosnian. On the staircase a graffito scrawl read, “Welcome to Hell.” I recognised the script from newspaper photographs of Sarajevo under siege. “Help Bosnia Now,” read another piece.
Following 01 up the stairs to our room we passed guns and bombs that hung from wall fixtures, imitation bullet-holes punched through the plaster and chunks of crumbling masonry suspended on threads of twisted rebar. Our room was made up with camp beds and military issue blankets, a mortar shell embedded in the wall above my pillow.
We dumped our luggage and then two minutes later we were on the building’s top floor, stood around a counter in a room decorated with barbed wire, flags, sandbags and newspaper clippings. 01 pulled out a glossy, laminated folder and started flicking through it. Each page detailed a different tour, all of them lasting 2-3 hours and with set start times: one ran at 10am each day. Another was only offered at the weekend. All of them sounded fascinating but as he turned the pages, I realised that we would only have time to fit in one, maybe two, of the tours before our bus at 2pm the following day.
I was wondering if I’d made a terrible mistake, allowing so little time for the War Hostel. I explained my concerns to 01 and he thought for a moment, before answering:
“If you’re serious about this, then maybe we can do them all.”
And so began a marathon of horror. Five tours, back to back, through most of the night: some of the worst things I’ve ever heard, the most shocking, upsetting history that I think I’ve ever encountered, in one relentless barrage of caffeine-fuelled, rapid-fire education.
We’d barely put our bags down, hadn’t eaten, but already 01 was ushering us out to the waiting car. “We’ll grab a burek to eat on the way,” he said, and then we were off.
[Before I delve into the history here, please note: I appreciate that the politics behind the break-up of Yugoslavia are still the subject of heated debate. What I present here is a simplified summary, and one reported from the perspective of Bosnia & Herzegovina; I'm telling this story as it was told to me.]
Slovenia was the first country to break away from Yugoslavia. It was 1991, when Slobodan Milošević was consolidating his power as President of Serbia – and by winning the support of Serbian minorities scattered in communities across the other Balkan countries, Milošević was quickly establishing himself as the most influential leader in all of Yugoslavia.
His politics were toxic though; a nationalist rhetoric that appealed to the very fears and insecurities which Tito had kept in check for so long – under the former leader’s policy of ‘Brotherhood and Unity.’ But Milošević fed those fears, harnessing the anger of dispossessed Serbs to build himself an army of loyalists, sleeper cells positioned all the way across the Balkan peninsula.
Many of Milošević’s followers identified as ‘Chetniks’: a name borrowed from the militant bands who had fought the Ottomans, and later the Nazis, in the cause of Serbian independence. The more extreme of these nationalists subscribed to the idea that Serbia was the one true descendent of the Orthodox Southern Slavic (or Yugoslav) peoples; and that Bosniaks, Croats and Slovenes were merely Serbs who had been tainted by the influence of invaders. Just as those Ottoman-era čete had done back in the 19th century, these new Chetniks were ready to resume the war on foreign infections such as Islam – in the process, ‘helping’ the other Balkan nations to rediscover their true heritage.
But already, Yugoslavia was slipping between Milošević’s fingers. Slovenia broke away after a brief 10-day war for independence (sometimes referred to as the ‘Weekend War’). Croatia followed soon after… and then Macedonia surprised everyone by suddenly breaking off from the other end.
Bosnia & Herzegovina would be next, and a 1992 independence referendum confirmed it. It was here though, that Milošević had the highest density of followers: a 1991 census showed the Bosnian population as 32.5% Serb, to a 44% Muslim Bosniak majority. While it’s crucial to understand that not all Bosnian Serbs subscribed to the Chetnik philosophy, there were enough who did as to ensure that Bosnia & Herzegovina’s independence from Belgrade would not be won so easily.
Later, 01 told us how the nationalists had prepared for war. Under the banner of the Yugoslav People’s Army, Milošević’s forces spent seven months building fortifications around Sarajevo. It was all “to protect the city,” the army would say, when questioned by locals.
These forces, many of them identifying as Chetniks, were initially composed almost entirely of Bosnian Serbs: and though loyal to Belgrade, that put them under the direct leadership of Radovan Karadžić (then President of Republika Srpska, an ethnically Serbian territory within Bosnia & Herzegovina). Despite his assistance in arming and radicalising the nationalists, Milošević himself would consistently deny any accountability for their actions.
In the case of Sarajevo, those actions were simple: the liberal, multicultural Sarajevo could not lead Bosnia out of a Serb-controlled Yugoslavia, if Sarajevo was destroyed. “To kill the snake you cut off its head,” said 01.
The War Hostel’s ‘Urbicide Tour’ started virtually the moment we set foot outside – as 01 began pointing out the bullet holes and mortar scars that peppered Sarajevo’s streets. He talked us through the city’s wounds while his father, Jasmin, drove. In a formerly Serb-controlled district of the city, we saw apartment blocks whose balconies had so many holes they looked like cheese graters. I wondered how they hadn’t fallen down already.
The word ‘urbicide’ means exactly what it sounds like: violence against a city. It first appeared in a work of science fiction (Michael Moorcock, 1963), but later it was adopted by the news media as the best description for what was currently happening in Sarajevo. Between 5th April 1992 and 29th February 1996, the city was hit by an average count of 329 mortar shells per day. Some 35,000 buildings were destroyed, and 11,541 people were killed.
The Bosnian Serb general leading the assault, Radko Mladic, told his troops to aim for Muslim neighbourhoods. “Shell them till they’re on the edge of madness,” he is heard saying over the radio in a 1995 BBC documentary.
As war raged across the rest of Bosnia – nationalists fighting to drive Muslim families out of ‘traditionally’ Slavic, Orthodox lands – Sarajevo went into lock-down. The Chetnik forces destroyed the city’s post office, seized the airport and cut off phone lines. Snipers and cannons positioned in the surrounding mountains fired on Sarajevo’s citizens day and night.
Only Bosnian Serbs were permitted to escape the sieged city. While Muslim women could potentially discard their headscarves and pass as Christians, men fleeing Sarajevo would be told to undress – if they were found to be circumcised, they’d be executed on the spot. Those who passed were given a weapon and ordered to fire it into the city, as proof of their allegiance.
If the Chetniks expected a fast victory however, then they had underestimated Sarajevo’s resilience. The city’s loyal Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs and Roma began forming defensive brigades. Anyone with access to a weapon joined the resistance – so that police officers, soldiers, hunters and criminals were suddenly all fighting side-by-side in a makeshift militia. They called themselves the ‘Defenders of Sarajevo’… and in an unlikely gesture of defiance, they even put out a music video to promote their cause.
As we walked, 01 told us how strange it was for him to visit somewhere like England – where the buildings were smooth, and free from bullet holes. For him, he said, this was just normal. He showed us the ‘Rainbow Hotel,’ a colourful, modern retirement home that had been utterly decimated before it could ever be put to use; and the badly damaged newspaper building, where Bosnian Serb nationalists had ignored the international rules of war by firing at foreign journalists.
The thing that stuck with me most though, was the roses.
Where mortars had landed in streets and roads, they gouged out craters in the tarmac. Rather than cover them though, the survivors had memorialised them. Painted red, or sometimes filled with a red resin, in time these concrete scars became known as the ‘Sarajevo Roses.’
Sarajevo’s War Cemeteries
Our tour took us next into the Lion Cemetery; where hundreds upon hundreds of graves were lined up in rank and file. I asked 01 exactly how many citizens had died in the siege, but he stopped me. “They didn’t die,” he said, “they were killed. It’s different.”
Sarajevo’s Lion Cemetery was originally built for victims of WWI, though as 01 explained, these early interments were later evicted by the communists to make room for political heroes and partisans buried under the red star of Yugoslavia. The politicisation of the dead seemed to be a recurring theme in these places.
I asked 01 how he felt about communism, and more specifically, about the former Yugoslav president, Josip Broz Tito. “He wasn’t a bad leader,” he replied – noting that under Yugoslav communism, there was no tolerance for extremes, for radicals or nationalists. It wasn’t hard to imagine how, at least from Bosnia’s perspective, communism might have seemed infinitely preferable to the division and conflict that came after.
As we walked through the lower lawns of the Lion Cemetery, we passed row after row of graves that all ended with the same date. 1992. Hundreds of them. It might have looked like any regular graveyard at first glance, but those carved stone numerals couldn’t help but hint at some terrible event.
There were more personal stories to be told here, too. We stopped by a long, shared grave, where six stones rose from a bed of purple blooms. These people had been families and neighbours, 01 told us, killed together in the same blast. The assorted body parts recovered were buried in one mass grave.
Elsewhere he introduced us to Sarajevo’s own ‘Romeo and Juliet’: the Muslim Bosniak Admira Ismić and Bosnian Serb Boško Brkić, a mixed-ethnicity couple trapped in the middle of an ethnic war. The pair were shot by snipers while trying to escape the city in May 1993; they died in each other’s arms. Sniper fire prevented anyone else from getting close, and so their bodies lay on that bridge for almost four days. Later, the fate of Admira Ismić and Boško Brkić was picked up by the world’s press, and became a powerful human story amidst the tide of unimaginable carnage.
Kurt Schork, the American journalist who’d shared that story with the world, had his own grave nearby.
We visited another cemetery just over the road, where a football stadium had been converted into one colossal burial ground. As we walked, 01 told us about the peace he felt in these places. “I’m at home here,” he said. “These are my people.”
And that went for Serbs, too – 50,000 Bosnian Serbs had fought on the side of Sarajevo and its people during the siege.
“I love Serbs,” said 01. “But Chetniks are not Serbs. They’re not even human. How can they be?” he asked. “When a man rapes a child in front of its family, he beats it, pisses on it, cuts off the head and burns the body… he can no longer be called ‘human’ after this.
“And this actually happened, by the way,” 01 added, as he looked at each of us in turn.
Before we left the cemetery, Jasmin showed us a grave that belonged to a friend of his. Jasmin hadn’t know his friend’s fate until just recently – hadn’t known that his friend died in the siege until discovering his name etched onto a stone.
Nearby, a plaque carved in Arabic text commemorated the sacrifice of those who’d fallen on the ‘Path of Allah’; or words to that effect.
“It’s not right,” Jasmin told us, with clear frustration. Despite having a Muslim name, his friend had not been religious – yet here his death had been politicised, and offered to a god he hadn’t believed in. The way 01 put it, the people of Sarajevo hadn’t been fighting for god; they’d been fighting only for their right to live as they chose. Religion was the cause, not the champion, of this violence.
As we exited through the gates and back onto the road, Jasmin told us that he wouldn’t be visiting this place again.
With two tours behind us – and already feeling somewhat shaken – we headed back to the hostel for Round 3. What 01 called his ‘Bunker Tour’ was a performance of sorts, part lecture, part theatre, and conducted in a converted ground floor room of the hostel. When we were ready, he led us into a small, curtained chamber and switched off the lights.
“Wait here,” he instructed. “When you hear the siren, stand up and walk through the curtain.”
I won’t spoil the effect of that performance by detailing it here (you should visit Sarajevo and experience it for yourself) but what followed was innovative, educational, moving, and featured the most comprehensive – yet clear, convincing – explanation I’ve yet heard for the rise and fall of Yugoslavia.
Over the course of nearly four hours, 01 untangled the complicated threads of Balkan nationalism; from the 5th century arrival of the Slavs, to the wars of the 1990s. We saw clothing, maps and artefacts. News clips played on a screen, mixed with segments of family home video: one showed 01 as a child, playing in the yard while explosions echoed in the background. Another showed his neighbour’s body, lying torn and broken in the street.
There were weapons on display, too: our host showed us a disposable, one-use bazooka from his collection – as well as an example of the kind of homemade shotgun carried by many of the Defenders of Sarajevo. (The latter, though ingenious in design, nevertheless suffered from an alarmingly high risk of exploding on use.)
At the end of the presentation, 01 asked to take a photo with the three of us. Later, he emailed me a copy: there he was in the middle, smiling and making peace signs, while us visitors looked ready to burst into tears.
Once we were finished, I asked 01 if there were any shops still open nearby. “I could do with a drink after all that,” I confessed.
“Okay,” he said, “I’ve got something for you upstairs.” 01 fetched out a bottle of rakija and a few glasses, then we sat drinking it with him into the early hours. It was harsh stuff, but it helped to settle my nerves – as we talked about travel, families, relationships, and other reassuringly mundane topics.
It was a relief to see him out of his military uniform, out of his sombre tour persona. I asked 01 if it helped him, sharing his story with visitors. “I think so,” he nodded, “it’s a kind of therapy.”
We finally turned in for the night at 3am. I slept badly – my mind still full of awful pictures – so that when Jasmin came to wake us at 7.25am I barely felt I’d rested at all. 01 was still asleep, and wouldn’t be joining us that day… but between father and son, the two of them made a formidable tag team.
“Are you ready?” Jasmin asked from the door. We pulled ourselves grudgingly from our beds, and within moments we were back on the road again.
Sarajevo Siege Tunnel Museum
Driving out towards Sarajevo Airport, we hit a speed bump in the road.
“What do you call these?” Jasmin asked. “We call them ‘dead policemen’ here.” I told him how in Britain, they were sometimes referred to as sleeping policemen.
The car hit another bump in the road, and Jasmin said: “Well, he’s dead now.”
Between March and June 1993, the Bosnian Army dug a tunnel out of Sarajevo. It ran for 800 metres, beneath the enemy-controlled airport and out to (comparative) freedom on the other side; a supply line that could be used for bringing weapons, food and humanitarian aid into the besieged capital. The city-end of the tunnel started in the cellar of a private house near the airport, and today that building is preserved as the ‘Sarajevo Tunnel Museum.’
Jasmin would not join us inside the museum. He’d been down there before, during wartime, and had no interest in going back again. Instead, he dropped us at the entrance to the house and waited nearby.
The museum itself was an impressively modern affair. Audioguides were available in a range of languages, accessed by way of an open wi-fi network. We were greeted near the entrance by a smiling young Bosnian man in jeans and aviators – I couldn’t tell if it was a costume, reminiscent of clothes worn by the Defenders of Sarajevo, or just his own choice of apparel.
In the garden at the back of the house, now forming the central courtyard of the museum, we were surrounded by other tourists; most of the women wore headscarves, and the language they spoke sounded Arabic. I had a flashback to the large Jewish tour groups that I’d encountered on a visit to Auschwitz, and realised then that for some groups, tourism to Sarajevo was a deeply religious event; a pilgrimage, of sorts.
I was glad to see the place busy – but it didn’t quite provide the atmosphere of solemn reflection that I’d expected. I found my way into an exhibition space towards the back of the complex, where newsreel footage was playing to the darkened room in a perpetual loop.
A group of men stood between me and the screen, their shadows interrupting the projector. They were British – three of them dressed in business suits, stood around their Bosnian guide. I felt a certain discomfort as they smiled and joked. The loudest of them, dressed in over-sharp pinstripes, began comparing events in Sarajevo to the plot of a Hollywood film he’d seen. For some reason it made me angry, and I left the room.
The house itself contained museum exhibits: papers, food packages and first aid kits. Mannequins were dressed as refugees or bloodied soldiers. Beneath that, a section of the tunnel had been opened up for visitors, some 20 metres of shaft propped up by wood supports. I walked the length of it, from the house down to the exit point in the courtyard.
It was difficult to move in that confined space; between the low ceiling, and tracks beneath my feet for pushing trolleys loaded with supplies (on the way in) or stretchers (on the return journey). Suddenly the tunnel began ringing with voices – Turkish, I think – and a group of children came thudding down the steps behind me, let off the leash to play while their parents pored through written texts above. It was time to leave.
Back in the car, Jasmin told us how the city had been looted. Under siege, with supply lines cut off, some citizens of Sarajevo began raiding shops for food. Jasmin had not participated, though… and he regretted it.
“It was stupid of me,” he told us, “but I couldn’t do it.” He had believed in maintaining some degree of social order, to the point that he could not bring himself to steal – though over time, he’d come to realise that such sentiments had to be abandoned for the sake of feeding his family. “Things are different in war,” he said sadly.
He told us how one day, the market in Sarajevo started selling grass. The city’s food had run out, so people were boiling up grass to eat it. (That same market was later shelled on two occasions, killing 68 people and then another 43.)
The tunnel would become a lifeline for the city’s residents… though it wasn’t long before the operation was taken over by opportunistic smugglers. They’d venture outside, and stock up on supplies – before selling their wares in Sarajevo for extortionate profit. Packs of sugar and oil could be bought for a couple of Deutsche Marks outside the city, but would resell for 40-50 Marks inside the siege lines. People payed as much as 120 Marks for a pack of ground coffee.
Jasmin had run supply trips through the tunnel himself. “We called the other side ‘America,’” he said with a smile. At the far end of the tunnel, Chetniks were waiting with .20, .30, .40 calibre guns; an enemy canon was positioned somewhere above. Many people never came back from these supply runs – but Jasmin was one of the lucky ones. The first chocolate 01 ever tasted had come into the city that way, a little treat hidden inside his father’s jacket. Jasmin told us to picture him loaded up with a heavy backpack and two rifles, dodging snipers with a tray of 30 eggs cradled in his arms.
But that all came to an end when the government took control over the tunnel. Soldiers like Jasmin were no longer allowed through, as they were needed on the front lines. The incoming supplies were regulated, but the new system was no less corrupt. “People don’t know this,” said Jasmin, “but 90 per cent of traffic through that tunnel was by pirates.”
We were driving now, back into the city along ‘Sniper Alley’: Sarajevo’s main boulevard, which for four years had been lined with enemy sniper positions. The citizens had eventually dug trenches the length of it, in order to get about the city without being shot at. Today, busy traffic flowed between manicured grass verges, under the shadow of towering glass-and-steel shopping centres; the place had certainly changed in 24 years.
For the last stage of our tour, we were heading out of town… up Mount Trebević, to the abandoned Olympic facilities which had marked a frontier between the Chetniks and the Defenders of Sarajevo; and where, for the latter part of the war, Jasmin himself had been stationed on the front lines.
The Front Lines
In 1984, Bosnia & Herzegovina had hosted the Winter Olympics. They built ski jumps, stadiums and bobsleigh tracks around the capital, all the way up into the mountains that overlook Sarajevo from north and south. When those same mountains, a decade later, were taken by the Chetniks laying siege to the city, these Olympic sites were caught in the crossfire; they became minefields, bunkers, or improvised sniper positions, and they’ve mostly lain abandoned ever since.
We had already seen the bobsleigh track on Mount Trebević. Our second day in Sarajevo we hired a car, and it was the first destination on our list – we walked the length of the tube as it twisted and curved through overgrown bushes, a graffitied concrete ribbon winding snake-like down the mountainside. What we hadn’t understood then, was the true horror of what happened here; we were naive, too, to the number of unexploded mines that still lurked in long grass only metres from our feet.
Revisiting the place with Jasmin, two days later, would be a sobering experience.
For four years the Chetniks had surrounded Sarajevo, firing on the city day and night from their mountain camps. They’d had unlimited ammo, Jasmin explained – enjoying access to the full reserves of the Yugoslav People’s Army, not to mention the Serbian factories where most of those weapons had been produced.
The Chetniks also had a practically unlimited recruitment pool. It had been Bosnian Serb propaganda that painted this as a religious war; the people of Sarajevo were simply fighting for their lives, but their oppressors spread fears of an Islamic state, a rebel nation striving to bring Sharia law back to the Balkans. The call was heard in other Orthodox nations, and soon there were new recruits arriving from Montenegro, Russia, Ukraine, Romania; all travelling to Bosnia to help put down an Islamic threat. As many as forty or fifty thousand nationalists had held the siege lines at a time.
Some stayed for a year, others only for as long as they could take off work (Jasmin called these the Weekend Chetniks). Fresh recruits would be plied with alcohol and given a gun. There would be music, drugs and barbecued meat, a real festival spirit, as Orthodox brothers stepped up and did their part… like the prominent Russian writer who visited the front lines in 1992, and was caught on video taking potshots at the city.
The War Hostel’s ‘Front Lines Tour’ was perhaps the most personal of them all; as Jasmin showed us around the trenches and bunkers where he’d served for the last years of the war. We drove up mountain roads, thick with forests and gutted buildings. A modern hotel, now abandoned; the remains of an Austro-Hungarian fortress: built centuries apart, they all looked the same now. Broken stones and bullet casings.
Every so often, the trees would clear and I’d look out the car window to snatch a glimpse of Sarajevo cradled in the valley below. The view was breathtaking; but the experience soured by the knowledge that these scenic viewpoints would have also made for the most effective sniper positions.
Jasmin stopped the car, and led us into bushes beside the road. Tumbled stone walls topped with beams marked the position of a former Chetnik bunker. The grass around was still littered with rakija bottles, empty tin cans and the grey, standard issue food containers supplied by the Yugoslav People’s Army. Nearby, Jasmin gently lifted a rock to show us an undetonated shell beneath.
Over the course of the siege these front lines had been constantly moving; Chetniks advancing with tanks and artillery, while the Defenders of Sarajevo struggled to push them back. Unwary sentries had their throats cut in the night. Grenades were tossed into enemy bunkers, killing a dozen at a time. The forests were scattered with landmines… many of which still sit there to this day.
“Mines are the perfect soldiers,” said Jasmin, as we walked the overgrown path. “They don’t sleep, don’t eat, they wait for you forever.”
We stopped at a red sign post, bearing the image of a skull and crossbones along with warnings in English and Bosnian (Pazi Mine!). Beyond, the wooded mountainside rolled on with innocent charm; but Jasmin warned that going past the sign, we’d be dead within five metres. The Chetniks had arranged their mines in groups. The idea was that the first would blow your leg off, then the others would take you apart in pieces as you fell across them. Sometimes, a drunk Chetnik would wander off into the bushes to piss – he told us – triggering their own traps in the process.
There have been efforts to clear up the minefields surrounding Sarajevo, but it isn’t easy work; and as Jasmin explained, much of it has been completed by government employees earning a pittance of a wage. They didn’t always do a good job of it – clearly evidenced by the live mines now lurking within areas marked with a yellow ‘safe’ tape. Some of these mines have rusted out, stopped working over the years – but others have only become more temperamental.
Near the foot of the bobsleigh track, no more than five metres from the concrete, Jasmin showed us another landmine sat there quietly waiting to take someone’s leg off. Even since the end of the war, he told us, as many as 500 people have been killed by the landmines left behind. They hide in gardens, parks, in children’s playgrounds – and only last year, one tourist was critically injured when his paraglider landed in an unswept minefield near the city.
Somewhere near the top of the mountain, Jasmin showed us the concrete entrance to a bunker. During the war, the president of Bosnia’s Serbs had hidden inside. Now, on the back of the entry shaft, red lettering spelled out: “Make Burek Not War.”
As we stood there another man wandered by – mid forties, perhaps – and watched us with an inquisitive look. Jasmin threw him a curt military salute and the man simply nodded then moved on.
“Maybe he’s a Chetnik?” Jasmin muttered to us. “I don’t know.”
This is the reality now in Bosnia. The perpetrators of these deeds went largely unpunished, and simply melted back into Bosnia’s Serb territories. Jasmin told us how one of the former Chetnik leaders now ran a holiday park nearby – Serb nationalists would go there to sleep in tents, drink rakija and sing along to national folk music. The only difference now, was that shooting Muslims had been crossed off the itinerary.
Before we finished, Jasmin showed us a grassy trench that he knew only too well. He had been a factory electrician before the war, and so during the siege his role had been to repair and maintain the telephone lines connecting bunkers. Jasmin had been lucky – 12 of his friends were killed, while doing exactly the same job. He would spend 48 hours on the front line at a time, then go back to the city, dragging all the firewood he could manage, for 24 hours with his family before the next rotation.
Though he wasn’t a tall man, Jasmin moved across the hillside in long, leaping strides… and we must have looked ridiculous, the three of us striding in line behind him, mimicking his every move for fear of stepping outside his footprints and landing on a mine.
There wasn’t much left of his bunker. It had looked much like the converted room beneath the hostel… only with twenty men squashed inside, all eating gone-off beans from tin cans.
“Everyone had diarrhoea,” he said. “The only light was from cigarettes. It was smoky and it smelled of farts.”
The men had joked about weaponising their bad guts; launching toxic fart attacks on the enemy. They were eating dog food too, spreading it onto bread with a knife. It tasted awful, so people would eat as much as they could force down and then hide the rest for later. Invariably the mice would find it though, and some of the men decided they were better off eating the mice instead.
Jasmin had us all laughing, and it came as a welcome relief – but it never lasted long. The next moment he’d tell us about the time he saw a baby thrown out the window of an apartment. A Chetnik was trying to rape the mother, but the baby’s cries were putting him off. It broke like an egg on the pavement.
He told us about a game of cat-and-mouse he’d played with a Chetnik sniper – dodging bullets until he was safely out of sight, then popping back up just to give the shooter the middle finger. We laughed. Then he told us about a pregnant woman he discovered in the street, belly sliced open to reveal the unborn child inside.
I was still laughing after he said that, before I could really process it, and the noise hung awkwardly in the air. My brain was exhausted – after 18 hours of intense war tourism (with just over four hours of bad sleep in the middle), I no longer knew when to laugh, when to cry. Jasmin and his son, 01, had been two of the kindest, most genuine hosts I’d ever met. They were funny too, great entertainers; but the things they’d lived through were worse than anything I could ever have imagined.
The whole experience left me an emotional wreck, and all I had done was listen… so I wondered what effect all this still had on the Bosnian people now, 20 years after the war had ended.
“We’ve all got problems now,” Jasmin said, with a smile and a shrug. “We’re all a little bit crazy.”
A few days later I was sat in a restaurant in Podgorica, the capital of neighbouring Montenegro. There was some kind of national festival going on – that afternoon the streets had been filled with dancers in traditional costume, and children had stood on a stage in the city centre to sing folk ballads to the crowd.
Now, sat around long wooden tables in an old-style national restaurant, a troupe of musicians – men in their 40s and 50s, dressed in woollen jackets, caps and knee-high socks – were performing drunken renditions of national folk songs to a cheering hall of diners.
A couple of men in the audience were already on their feet and dancing. Restaurant staff ran this way and that delivering huge trays filled with meat fresh from the barbecue, while the rakija was sloshed into shot glasses with bacchanalian glee.
I’m guessing those popular travel guides I mentioned earlier would have called this The Real Montenegro.
For me though, this atmosphere was impossible to enjoy. I hadn’t been sleeping well since leaving Sarajevo: only the night before I’d dreamt my feet got tangled in the tripwire of a landmine – I was just trying to free myself when my roommate coughed and I woke up suddenly, sweating and shouting in the darkness.
Now, as I looked around this Montenegrin restaurant, I found myself thinking about the Chetnik nationalists who’d laid siege to Sarajevo in the 1990s; and I wondered, not for the first time, what they were doing now. Most likely they would have retired home to Republika Srpska, or Serbia itself, or Montenegro, to live out the rest of their lives in comfortable anonymity. By now, most of them would be in their 40s or 50s… they’d probably be sat in some traditional restaurant tonight, drinking rakija and singing old, nationalist folk songs.
Of course, these folk musicians in Podgorica probably had nothing to do with the Siege of Sarajevo; but tens of thousands of people from this region did, and most of them simply retired without ever facing justice. After my long month travelling around the Balkans, it was likely that I had met at least a few of them (tour guides, shopkeepers, grill chefs, petrol station attendants) and the thought made my stomach turn.
Nationalism can sometimes look endearing from the outside – take this Montenegrin restaurant for example, all old-time woollen clothes and booze and accordions. Nationalism celebrates tradition, it seeks to preserve authentic culture; but I couldn’t stop thinking how just 25 years ago, people who looked much like this had been butchering babies and executing Muslims in the name of tradition.
As the folk songs kept coming – each one quicker, more frantic than the last – the conversation around our table moved on. We began to talk about Brexit, about division in Britain and the alarmingly rapid rise of Donald Trump in the United States; and I realised that these lessons Sarajevo taught about the dangers of nationalism were as relevant now as they had ever been.
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