Well healed: the sights and scars of Sarajevo | South China Morning Post
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Well healed: the sights and scars of Sarajevo

Sarajevo has had a turbulent history and, now laughter has replaced gunfire in the Bosnian capital, locals are showing off the scars. Words and pictures by Tim Pile

 

My tour guide was born 20 years too late. Amir is a member of the local rifle club and, to prove it, he narrows his eyes towards the distant treeline and fires an imaginary machine gun.

The trigger-happy teenager was an infant during Sarajevo's darkest days so his sightseeing spiel lacks any first-hand tales from the frontline. Amir compensates with detailed descriptions of modern weaponry and how he would incapacitate enemy combatants with a single blow.

The Siege of Sarajevo lasted from April 1992 until February 1996. Serbian militia positioned in the surrounding hills targeted civilians and infrastructure with rocket, mortar and sniper fire. Few parts of the Bosnian capital were safe and simply nipping out for a loaf of bread meant risking life and limb.

Sarajevans were shot on their balconies and in their living rooms. They were picked off as they scurried along city streets, as they boarded trams and even at funerals. In 1994, a direct hit on the main market killed 68 and wounded 144 in the worst atrocity of the entire siege.

By the time an uneasy peace had been brokered, 11,000 people were dead and large parts of Sarajevo flattened. But for the ingenuity of a besieged population, however, things would have been far worse.

The suburb of Butmir remained free territory and it was from here that an 800-metre tunnel was constructed linking beleaguered inhabitants with the outside world. The narrow airless shaft enabled defence forces to bypass an arms embargo and allowed food, fuel, medical supplies and troop reinforcements to reach the city.

The opening was concealed in a bullet-scarred house, which is now an informative private museum. Two or three minutes in the claustrophobia-inducing tunnel is more than enough and it's a relief when Amir announces that we're heading for the hills.

Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984, with many events taking place at venues in the nearby mountains. Keeping carefully to trails cleared of landmines, we arrive at the grime- and graffiti-covered bobsleigh track. Ten years after fearless athletes hurled themselves down the icy chute, it was transformed into a Serb artillery position. More grisly still is the derelict medals podium that was used as an execution site.

As we drive back into town via a broad boulevard formerly known as Sniper Alley, it's hard to miss the Holiday Inn. Built for the Olympics, it would become a headquarters for foreign journalists covering the conflict a decade later.

The custard-yellow landmark was regularly shelled, even though its coordinates were given to the Serbians. BBC correspondent Martin Bell described his accommodation as ground zero, adding that from the hotel you didn't go out to the war; the war came in to you.

Throughout the blockade, Sarajevans did what they could to lead normal lives in the most trying of circumstances. A football team, FK Olimpic, was formed, despite not having a pitch to play on, and Inela Nogic became a celebrity after winning the 1993 Miss Sarajevo beauty pageant.

The contest, held in a basement for safety reasons, spawned a documentary and a hit single featuring Irish band U2, British musician Brian Eno and Italian opera singer Luciano Pavarotti. Both served as thinly veiled criticism of the international community's inability to halt the hostilities.

Tourists tend to tiptoe around Sarajevo's traumatic past even though many locals are willing to talk about their experiences. Irina gave birth to her second child in 1994. What should have been a time of great joy was primarily a time of logistical challenges.

"Friends living nearby came with presents and tins of milk powder but my mother lived on the other side of the city," the language teacher says. "We spoke on the phone but she didn't get to see her new grandson for over a year because the streets were too dangerous."

Simple tasks such as doing the laundry were an ordeal as the Serbian stranglehold tightened and deadly marksmen acted with impunity.

"We prayed for rain as the water supply had been cut. I ended up washing clothes in the river at night as there was less chance of being hit by a sniper. I still get déjà vu when I look up to the hills," Irina admits. "But I've stopped jumping every time a car backfires. We've all moved on."

Sarajevo certainly has. Once one of the world's most dangerous cities, it is now one of the safest. There's a bustle on the streets, particularly in the Turkish Quarter, a cobbled warren of workshops, reasonably priced restaurants and cafes where sightseers congregate.

It was outside one of these coffee houses that the course of European history took a decisive turn 100 years ago this weekend. A blink-and-you-miss-it plaque near the Latin Bridge marks the spot where Serb radical Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The event that fast-tracked Europe into the first world war was very nearly bungled, however.

A bomb lobbed by one of Princip's collaborators had a delayed fuse and exploded seconds after the imperial cortege had passed. Pursued by security forces, the hapless assassin leapt into the Miljacka River but it proved too shallow to drown in. He then swallowed a suicide pill, which only succeeded in giving him a stomach ache.

Now in a panic, the archduke's motorcade hurriedly switched to an alternative route and soon became lost. In one of history's more fateful moments, the car stalled in front of Moritz Schiller's cafe, where Princip happened to be sitting with a sandwich in one hand and a pistol in the other.

To escape Sarajevo's past and get a feel for its future, I head to the popular lookout spot known as Yellow Bastion.

There's a high-spirited atmosphere at the grassy vantage point as the sun dips between the minarets. Laughter rather than mortar fire fills the air as groups of teenagers picnic, play ball and pose for "selfies" against a scarlet sky. The giggling and goofing around help bring a sense of normality to a city that has experienced more than its fair share of bloodshed.

Thankfully there's no sign of Amir and his imaginary machine gun.

 

Getting there: Turkish Airlines flies daily from Hong Kong to Istanbul, and from the Turkish city to Sarajevo.

 

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