comscore Sarajevo survives history's sieges | Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Sarajevo survives history’s sieges

    Sarajevo’s Academy of Fine Arts is fronted by a playful modern bridge across the Miljacka River. Despite the Bosnian capital’s unsteady past
    The Sarajevo Brewery dates to 1864. During the siege of the early 1990s, it was one of the few sources of fresh water in the city, and several civilians were killed by Bosnian/Serb shelling as they tried to reach that water. Now the brewery is at work again, with a restaurant on site.
    On many Sarajevo apartment buildings near sniper positions in the siege of the early 1990s, scars from shelling remain, as so some makeshift window coverings.
    Cajdzinica Dzirlo, a teahouse on the edge of Sarajevo’s Old Town, draws many international travelers with its Bosnian coffee and other regional specialties.
    Shell casings made into pens are popular with tourists in the alleys of Sarajevo’s Old Town.

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina » If you dare to visit here — and I’m glad I did — you’ll eventually stand beneath the elegant geometry of Gazi Husrev-bey Mosque (built in 1530) or sip a beer at the Sarajevo Brewery (founded 1864) or tiptoe atop the stone walls of the White Fortress, staring out at a 300-degree panorama of mountain slopes, red-tiled roofs, soaring minarets and far too many cemeteries.

But first, you’ll probably go where I went first: a short, low-slung bridge that doesn’t look a bit special.

That’s the Latin Bridge. And on June 28, 1914, it lay along the route of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was visiting with his wife, Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg.

As they well knew, Sarajevo has been a cultural crossroads since the 16th century, its mosques and synagogues neighbored by Orthodox and Catholic churches — the Jerusalem of Europe, some said. But the Balkans were never particularly peaceful, and on that day in 1914, the region was ripe for trouble.

The royal couple had already survived a botched bombing attempt that morning. And then, as their open car idled near the bridge, outside the Moritz Schiller delicatessen, a 19-year-old Bosnian Serb named Gavrilo Princip stepped up with a pistol and shot them dead.

His idea was to help neighboring Serbia gain territory. Instead, as is told in the museum where Schiller’s stood, he started World War I.

I reached Sarajevo in April, nearly 100 years after the assassination and just 22 years after Bosnian Serb troops seized the high ground that surrounds the city and started shooting. They killed about 11,000 people in 44 months, the longest siege in Europe since World War II. But many endured, much has been rebuilt and visitors get a hearty welcome.


» Hotel Central Sarajevo, 8 Cumurija St.; 561-800, Rooms for two typically $165.
» Hotel Europe, 5 Vladislava Skarica; 580-400, Upscale rooms with a Vienna-style coffeehouse downstairs. Rooms for two typically $180.

» 4 Sobe Gospode Safije (The Four Rooms of Mrs. Safije), 61 Cekalusa; 202-745, Fusion cuisine in an elegantly converted 1910 home. Dishes $7-$21.
» House of Spite, 1 Veliki Alifakovac; 447-867, Historic house alongside the river. Bosnian specialties. Main dishes $7-$14.

» Sarajevo Navigator,
» Guide Amir Telibechirowich, 61-304-966,

Now a newcomer can head for a $50 lavish dinner at the Four Rooms of Mrs. Safija (4 Sobe Gospodje Safije, opened in 2008) or spend $100 for a simple bed at the Hotel Kovaci, which also opened in 2008. Or you can sit by the fountain in Bascarsija, the oldest neighborhood, and join the children feeding corn kernels to the pigeons.

Old guys play chess in the park with foot-high pieces. Young guys break-dance along the pedestrian promenade. I felt safe at all hours. And as European capitals go, it’s cheap.

But Sarajevo (population an estimated 369,000) is far from easy. As local journalist and guide Amir Telibecirovic warned me on arrival, pedestrians travel on well-worn paths because many land mines remain on the city’s fringes. The record rain and floods in May probably made that worse.

"We have a saying: We have more history than we can stand," said Telibecirovic, 41, who lost three family members in the siege.

International tourist arrivals, still well south of a million, have tripled since 2004. The Hotel Europe, the ritziest lodging in the city’s core, had a major renovation in 2009. In the business district, a stylish new Colors Inn opened in December. Near the former Holiday Inn where war correspondents holed up a generation ago, bold new commercial buildings rise.

In the House of Spite — a restaurant named for a 19th-century real estate transaction — I sampled cevapi, or minced meat. At Cajdzinica Dzirlo teahouse, I tried salep, a creamy drink made with orchid roots, and compared notes with a half-dozen young travelers from the U.S., Australia and Canada.

"Great people," co-owner Diana Dzirlo told me. "And I always steal something from them: their energy."

Sarajevo’s demographics are a sort-of mystery: Even lifelong Sarajevans often can’t tell at first glance who is Muslim, Serbian or Croatian, and numbers from a long-awaited census are due any day. But by a 1991 count the city was 49 percent Bosnian Muslim, 30 percent Bosnian Serb (typically Orthodox) and 7 percent Bosnian Croat (typically Catholic).

With Telibecirovic guiding and translating, I toured several churches, mosques and a former synagogue, now a Jewish museum. We also circled the neo-Moorish national library, built in 1896, destroyed in 1992 and famously lamented by a local cellist who played in its ruins. It’s been gorgeously rebuilt (with help from international donations), and it officially reopened two weeks after my visit.

But there’s still plenty to worry about. Unemployment is officially about 40 percent (though that overlooks under-the-table jobs). Budget troubles have closed the Bosnia and Herzegovina National Museum since 2012. So many abandoned dogs prowl the city that an English charity, Dogs Trust, has stepped up to neuter and tag thousands of them since 2012.

Along Ulica Zmaja od Bosne, aka Sniper Alley, dozens of buildings are still pocked with scars from mortar fire, and some windows are still covered by paper that international aid workers were handing out 20 years ago.

But Sarajevans know plenty about making do and about smiling in the face of trouble.

Along an ancient alley in the old town, craftsmen recycle brass artillery shell cartridges into souvenir pens. By the airport the secret passage that served as a resupply line during the siege is now the popular Tunnel Museum.

At Insider City Tours the most popular offering is the "Times of Misfortune" itinerary. And at the Avlija restaurant, servers mark reserved tables with signs saying "Minirano" — the same word used to warn of mines in the countryside.

I was at Cafe Divan on my last morning in town, thinking about those signs, when Edin and Demir, a pair of students from the Muslim theological school down the block, leaned over to greet me and offer tips on sweetening my Bosnian coffee. They also had questions about America.

"For us it’s strange to imagine a place where you can’t hear the muezzin (the official who proclaims the call to prayer)," Demir said.

For me it was bracing to find such warmth and vigor in a city that’s seen such trouble.

By the way, when you do get to Sarajevo, look downstream from the Latin Bridge a few hundred yards and you’ll see a newer, sleeker span, designed by students Adnan Alagic, Bojan Kanlic and Amila Hrustic at the Academy of Fine Arts, built in 2012.

The locals call it the twisted bridge because it does a loop-the-loop over the river. You can’t look at it without smiling. If any place deserves a bridge like that, it’s Sarajevo.

Christopher Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

A short history of Sarajevo and the region:

15th century: Sarajevo is founded by the Ottoman Empire. The city grows around a Turkish-style marketplace, adding mosques and roadside inns.
16th century: The city’s first Orthodox church appears in historical records. Sephardic Jews arrive, fleeing persecution in Spain and Portugal.
1878: Sarajevo and the rest of Bosnia-Herzegovina are annexed to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
1914: Assassination of Austro-Hungarian Empire’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand sparks World War I.
1918: Austro-Hungarian Empire collapses. Bosnia-Herzegovina becomes a part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later known as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
1939-45: World War II. Nazis occupy Sarajevo, then place it under control of pro-Hitler Croatian fascists, who send thousands of Serbs, Jews and Roma (then commonly called Gypsies) to death camps. The city’s Jewish population, once near 10,000, falls to less than 1,000.
1945: Liberated by partisans led by Marshal Josip Broz Tito, Sarajevo and Bosnia-Herzegovina become part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
1984: Sarajevo hosts Winter Olympics.
1992: As Yugoslavia crumbles, Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats (mostly Catholic) vote for Bosnia-Herzegovina independence. But Bosnian Serbs, mostly Orthodox and backed by Serbia, want Sarajevo and other Bosnian territories to be part of a greater Serbia.
1992: Bosnian Serbs besiege Sarajevo, ignoring U.N. protests.
1995: Dayton Accords end the siege and war by creating a many-layered government that includes a federation of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats that shares power with a republic of Bosnian Serbs. Most of Sarajevo’s territory and more than 90 percent of its residents fall within the federation of Bosnian Muslims and Croats.

» Encyclopedia Britannica,
» Sarajevo Navigator,

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