Peace Signs in Sarajevo
Sunday, March 26, 2006
As darkness fell and a celebratory throng of Bosnians sandwiched in on me from every direction, I had a delightful realization: This was not the Sarajevo I'd known when I'd lived here seven years earlier.
In the Sarajevo of the late 1990s, the effects of war -- the siege of the city that lasted from 1992 to '95, and the ravaging effect it had on its victims -- were still highly visible. But on this summer night, as the masses swarmed toward a stage recently assembled for an outdoor concert featuring a folksy balladeer named Dorde Balasevic (imagine a Slavic Bob Dylan), they were giddy. It was not the giddiness of little girls and daisy fields (no matter how happy, Balkan people are typically an emotionally charged clan), but there was gaiety in the air -- as if the survivors of a great storm were finally all together . . . and dry.
After a few minutes of crowd surfing, I climbed to a better vantage point above the town that was recently honored as the 2006 European Region of the Year by the Council of Europe, the continent's oldest political organization. On a grassy hill next to Sarajevo's Alifakovac graveyard -- an Ottoman-era Muslim necropolis reserved for foreigners buried in the Bosnian capital -- I sat near an ancient cobbled walk, looking down on the city center and drinking a can of locally brewed beer. A plump moon waxed through willowy branches and across obelisk-shaped Muslim headstones, many of them topped with stone turbans and inscribed in Arabic.
Below, on a bridge connecting the town's Turkish quarter, Bascarsija, to the concert stage on the opposite side of the Miljacka River, people were still arriving. They sat on a waist-high stone wall that frames the river and bisects the town. They encased the restaurant patio of left-bank favorite Inat Kuca, a three-story stucco with handsome wooden trim and decorated with intricately patterned wool rugs. They crammed around the National Library, which is still eerily beautiful despite being riddled with bomb scars and being boarded up since the siege that lasted more than three years and took more than 10,000 Bosnian lives. And they lined the streets, cradled in the foothills of the Dinaric Alps, and sang along with songs that reminded them of hope during the war that ended in 1995 and gained them their independence from Yugoslavia, where Bosnia-Herzegovina was once one of six member republics.
Even to the casual observer, the scene was surreal at best. For many, Sarajevo is synonymous with a suffering that seemed impossible in today's Europe. During the Balkan war, religion and nationality spiraled into a genocidal rampage resulting in neighbor-vs.-neighbor fighting and Nazi-like massacres. Still, as Balasevic led his fans into another melody, it was easy to forget about all of that. It was much better to enjoy the sight of Bosnians hooking arms and enjoying life.
The word most often heard from visitors about Sarajevo is "hospitable." After the concert, I walked the city streets, chatting with shop owners selling copper coffee sets and wooden crafts in Old Town, which Ottoman Turks founded in the 15th century. I wondered how a population so recently torn apart by hate could be so warm and inviting. Everywhere I stopped, I was beseeched to stay and share strong Bosnian (Turkish) coffee or something stronger. Who was I to refuse?
Region of the Year
The town that hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics and where the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 precipitated World War I is again under foreign attack. This time, though, the invaders are tourists, and they are coming not merely as thrill seekers in a plundered land. They've come to delight in the cultural riches here. According to Sarajevo's tourism office, the number of visitors was up 40 percent in 2004 alone. By any standard, that statistic marks the turning of a corner for a place once known for bloodshed.
"I felt that the atmosphere in Sarajevo was filled with positivity and warmth," said Hollie Stephen, a recent visitor from the United Kingdom. "The streets at night are filled with people promenading, and the sundown call to prayer from the mosques adds an extra buzz to the soul of the city. . . . It's bustling with life, and you come away feeling like you've been included by the people of Sarajevo."
This is exactly the kind of attitude that Sarajevo's 2006 European Region of the Year recognition hopes to perpetuate. The Council of Europe's goals for the award are "to increase knowledge and recognition of European regional affairs, to make new contributions to regional construction and European integration and, finally, to project the regions designated as European Region of the Year onto the European and international scene, in all their aspects, such as the social, cultural, economic and tourism aspects." Last year's recipients were Ukraine's Kiev and Italy's Piedmont.
From the perspective of tourism, Sarajevo (population 400,000) already seems well on the way to selling itself to visitors hungry for novel destinations in the so-called New Europe.
"Part of the healing process [for Sarajevo] is people coming back as guests and not aid workers," says Tim Clancy. A Bosnian resident since 1992, the U.S.-born Clancy is the author of the book "A Guided Journey Through Sarajevo and the Surrounding Areas" and co-founder of the environmentally focused Green Visions, which leads ecotourism adventures around the country. Clancy says that Sarajevo -- host of such events as the Film Festival in August, the Jazzfest in November and Sarajevo Winter in February and March -- is becoming more popular all the time. "People are coming back for many reasons: curiosity -- to see what it's like 10 years after the war -- and because Sarajevo is still exotic . . . a taste of moderate Islam in Europe."
The next day, just as the rain clouds began to separate and the sun started to burn off a dramatic mist hanging above Stari Grad (Old Town), my tour guide, Amela Muhic , stopped abruptly and said, "This is the exact spot where East meets West." Standing under the stone clock tower, which helps remind Muslims of prayer times -- along with chanting that reverberates through town five times a day -- I looked up and around at the architecture: a hybrid of pastel secessionist townhouses with ornate facades of floral molding, and Oriental domes and minarets woven together with the occasional scars of a mortar explosion along a pedestrian promenade.