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Saturday February 9, 2013

The spirit of Sarajevo

Can Sarajevo, once known as the ‘Jerusalem of Europe’, reclaim its soul to become a shining beacon of peace after the ethnic violence of its recent past?

THE crackle of what sounded like gunfire in the distance made us duck under a phalanx of parasols lining Coppersmith Street (Kazandziluk) in Sarajevo’s Old Town. The sound resonated around the hills of the Sarajevo Valley, making it impossible to pinpoint the source.

Ermin, the local guide, gathered everyone and assured us that it was just firecrackers set off on the day of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. He had a look of annoyance rather than amusement on his face.

Pardon us for being a bit jumpy but we were on footpaths that not too long ago had been the site of a horrendous bloodbath. The Seige of Sarajevo lasted four years, during which time more than 100,000 civilians died in an ugly campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Bosnians.

Today, landmines still remain buried in places unknown, so watch where you step. And the wounds of war are scattered across the country. Although major re-construction has been completed, battered and bullet-ridden structures can be spotted alongside re-built ones.

Elsewhere, mounted on shop walls, shimmering plaques display the names of war victims while on the pavements, “Sarajevo roses” mark spots that had been shelled.

City of tolerance

Sarajevo is the capital and largest city of the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a breakaway state from the former Yugoslavia. It now has a population of over 400,000 comprising Muslim Bosniaks (the majority), Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Jews.

When the war ended 17 years ago, it was a city in ruins. I had come to see for myself how a people, abandoned and scarred, had done more than just pick themselves up.

Our start was at the Bascarsija neighbourhood, the old part of the city. We got off the bus, proceeded down a cobbled path and turned into the GaziHusrev-bey Mosque. Designed by a Persian architect who employed an early Istanbul style from the 16th century, it’s the country’s largest and oldest mosque.

Worshippers and visitors mingled around the water fountain, their conversations drowned out by the call to prayer blaring from the loudspeakers. From its courtyard, facing west, you couldn’t miss the city’s Clock Tower (Sahat Kula) which displays not the actual time but the prayer times.

It was built during the Ottoman rule but re-fitted subsequently with a new clock from London.

We left the mosque, continued down the paved streets and passed the Old Jewish Synagogue (the Old Temple). Built in 1581 of stones, it was restored in the 19th century and is now a museum.

We heard the sound of bell chimes, followed it and, after a short stroll, encountered a yellowish brown stone building. Looking up at the two towering spires, we deduced that we had arrived at the steps of the Cathedral of Jesus Heart, a Catholic church completed in 1889 in Neo-Gothic design.

Rounding a corner, we came upon an open court area, at the end of which was a stately ochre building, the Serb Orthodox Church of Nativity of the Theotokos (Sabornacrkvaetc). It has five domes and was commissioned in 1862 with the approval of Sultan Abdulaziz, then ruler of the Ottoman empire.

Moving outside the central district, we visited The Bare Cemetery (Groblje Bare), a beautiful graveyard where headstones are immaculately spaced – white marble obelisks to mark Muslim graves and black flat plaques for Orthodox Serbs. These lay side by side of each other, signifying that citizens of Sarajevo share the same piece of earth in life and in death.

We strode past visitors paying their respects at the grave site, and hiked up a hill to the remnants of a fortress overlooking the cemetery and the entire city. Sitting on the Jekovac cliff, the polygon-shaped Yellow Bastion (Zuta Tabija) was built using rough-hewn stones and served as a lookout for soldiers in the 18th century.

It now offers visitors a panoramic view of the city and the distant mountains.

For more than 400 years, Sarajevo has existed as a capital of pluralism, a melting pot of people of different nationalities, cultures and religions. Today, despite its capricious ethnic undercurrents, it is stirring to regain its former status as the “Jerusalem of Europe”, a city of diversity and tolerance.

History and haunts

It is a commonly flaunted fact that Sarajevo was the place where an international incident sparked World War I. On June 28, 1914, the Archduke of Austria, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife were assassinated by a local Bosnian Serb.

As historians would have us believe, “one thing led to another” and, with the declaration of war on Serbia, a bloody history was set in motion.

We stood on the street corner of Zelenih Beretki 1, at the doorstep of the Museum of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, where exhibits recall the splendour and infamy of Sarajevo from 1878 to 1918. Here, diagonally across from the Latin Bridge (Latinska cuprija), was the spot where the Archduke and his wife had met their fate.

They had earlier narrowly escaped a bomb attack, but then their car later stalled near where the assassin was lurking...

Following the tram lines north on Obala Kulina Bana alongside the Miljacka River, we stopped to admire the Old Town Hall (Vijecnica), which used to be a library. It was completed in 1894 but, according to the guide, only after an acrimonious tussle with the landlord who refused to sell a portion of the land to the Town Council.

When he finally did, one of his terms was that his house be relocated, brick-for-brick, to a site across the river. There it stands now at the east end of the Vijecnica Bridge (Seher-Cehajina cuprija), dubbed the “House of Spite” (Inat Kuca). No prizes for guessing why.

We moved to the mid-point of the bridge to get a better view of the city. The city is split in two by the Miljacka River and hemmed in by the foothills of the Dinaric Alps. From where we stood, it became clear that the Seige of Sarajevo was a battle that the city was doomed to lose. The city folks were practically sitting ducks corralled in a valley of death.

A touted “must-see” is the Historical Museum of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was established in 1945 as the “Museum of Revolution”. Exhibits depict the chequered history of the region from the time of the Slavs to the present day, and includes gruesome coverage of the 1992–1995 atrocities. I decided to give the museum a miss.

Other tourist attractions

The Canton of Sarajevo is delineated by several streets. The Old Town, Bascarsija, comprises buildings from the Ottoman era. Also called the Turkish Quarter, it has become a pedestrian haven crowded with locals and tourists patronising the shops and bazaars selling souvenirs, handicraft, antiques and cloth.

There are also plenty of eateries and cafes. Beware of pickpockets and beggars, though.

Follow Ferhadija Street to the more modern part of town, and you will find a blend of Austro-Hungarian architecture with contemporary designs. Loud upscale brands bring back a sense of urban familiarity.

The Eternal Flame (Vjecna Vatra) is situated at the end of Ferhadija Street. Here, a small cauldron is perpetually lighted to commemorate the heroes of Sarajevo and all the victims of World War II. It also represents the liberation of the country from Nazi occupation and the beginning of the Yugoslav Union.

At the Gaj’s Square (Writers’ Square) or Liberation Square (Trg Oslobodjenja), a sculpture of the “Universal Man” raises his arms skywards to proclaim peace for the world – caged in a half-globe, symbolically surrounded by doves – some cast of metal, some live.

Watch carefully for the flutter of wings and bird droppings to tell one from the other.

It’s fairly easy to get around in the central district. You can enjoy a walking tour or ride the tram. The central district is linked by a tram line established in the mid-1870s.

Another place of interest is across the Miljacka River, where you’ll find the Sarajevo Brewery, home to the Sarajevsko Pivo beer. It is in a red building that amazingly escaped damage during the war. Apparently, it played a part in the defence of the city when its underground spring supplied water to the besieged inhabitants who feared the river water had been poisoned.

Have a beer at the bar to cool your senses.

Sarajevo is at once relaxing and intense, reflecting its heritage as the crossroads of both Western and Eastern cultures. This was where, for centuries, great but disparate civilisations co-existed and clashed.

Although better remembered these days for the Bosnian War, Sarajevo is home to a celebrated list of Nobel Prize winners, Oscar winners, international musicians and composers and sports personalities. It was the host city of the 1984 Winter Olympics.

As a tourist destination, it is often overlooked. This despite it being billed by Lonely Planet as a Top 10 City in 2010 and 2011.

Curiously, it has been nominated as the European Capital of Culture for 2014, even though it has not been accepted into the European Union.

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