Back in the USSR (Day 12)

09Jul08
Monday, July 7, 2008.

Sarajevo is like no other European city. There is no geometrical logic to its layout, other than the obvious need of the city center to be on the river. For the most part, the city is shaped like a loaf of French bread, with three main east-to-west streets. Outside of these three streets, it’s dog-eat-dog up the mountains on the north and south sides.

We do a walking tour of Sarajevo, starting at an Orthodox church made famous during the war by several press shots. (Even the Jesus icon has a bullet hole.) This was followed by a visit to Miki’s neighborhood – where the Sarajevsko Brewery served as the only source of water uring the 1,425 day seige. Across the street is a Franciscan church and Miki’s apartment building – where the flat above his was bombed and burned. Next we cross the Latin Bridge, formerly the Princip Bridge, across from which Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. After a quick but expensive vegetable buffet lunch, we meandered through the financial district, stepping over Roses of Death – shell craters in the sidewalks that have been filled in with red asphalt.

We met with two women from the Research and Documentation Center, an NGO that works to establish the exact number of killed or missing persons from the war. They document people from Bosnia (but not including Serbia or Croatia) who were killed or are still missing between 1991 and 1996, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity. They track both soldiers and civilians. They include deaths only from direct acts of violence and warfare: combat, torture, shelling, bombing, execution, etc. They don’t include soldiers’ suicides or starvation or anything unrelated to direct fighting.

The Center is fascinating and their research methods are surprisingly effective. So far, they’ve documented 96,000 killed or missing. This number really surprised me. I’ve always thought the total toll was much higher. Apparently there has been a lot of number manipulation from various sources in the past few years. The number I had previously read was somewhere nearer to 200,000. The people at the Center are not liked too well by some members of the Bosniak population: the Bosniaks would like to see a higher number if only to better quantify their suffering and grief. You can’t really blame them for that. But the Center’s research is so extremely detailed that it’s hard not to trust their numbers to be accurate.

After the Center, we go to the Hotel Hecco Delux, our Hotel Hecco’s downtown counterpart, to take in the view from the ninth floor cafe and patio.

A lot of people say Sarajevo is the eastern-most city of the West, others say it’s the western-most city of the East. From here, it’s easy to see why.

The hotel stands right at the intersection of Old Sarajevo on the east side and New Sarajevo on the west side. The old town is sprawling with mosques, cathedrals, and Orthodox churches. The houses race upwards into the hills that were not so long ago infested with Serb snipers. The Old Town Market is huge and gently tucked between the river and the old library. New Sarajevo stretches to the west, seeking space and air; building up (into the sky) rather than out (into the hills). The famous Holiday Inn is hidden between two skyscrapers and Olympic complexes can be seen in the distance. Progress can be seen in the west, but the city’s heritage, and its heart, are clearly to the east.

We have a little free time to hang out and it’s nice to relax in our air conditioned room – even though it’s quite a hike from downtown. Some of us group together to attend a Sephardic event at the oldest and only functioning synagogue in Sarajevo. It’s too crowded to get in or see, but the music is melodic and peaceful. The event is part of a month-long festival in Sarajevo – and as part of this festival, Joan Baez is holding a free concert at the Library on July 16, our last night here. This trip could not get any better.

York, Liz, and I grab dinner at the equivalent of a fast food restaurant in the old town square. We have doner: thinly sliced sheep’s leg in a pita with tzatziki sauce, cabbage, cucumber, tomato, and onion. It is hot and delicious and so cheap it’s almost laughable. We share a few of them between us and wash it down with water from the square’s fountain. The night is still surprisingly hot and humid, but the water is clean and cool, and deliciously refreshing.

This week will be a little crazy. Tomorrow we’re meeting the (first female) mayor of Sarajevo. After our morning meetings, we’ll visit the secret tunnels that served as the only civilian access point to Sarajevo during the seige. And then, be still my heart, we’ll see the Holiday Inn and Snipers Alley. This is my inner history fiend’s ultimate adventure.

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