Voices of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Sarajevo from Mount Trebević
A Fresh Perspective

Sarajevo to Srebrenica

Our journey begins and ends in Sarajevo.

The voices I share are those of Sarajevans.

You must come here to see. It is not something you can imagine. You must see it for yourself.

You are welcome here.

~ Almir Ahmetagic, Sarajevo Funky Tours

Sarajevo ruins and wild horse
A wild horse in the remains of a former hotel on Mount Trebević. The hotel was used by Bosnian Serbs against Sarajevo during the siege and later bombed by NATO during the Operation Deliberate Force air campaign in 1995.

Bosnia is a beautiful country. Mountains, rivers, waterfalls, a rich history, good food, and most of all, down-to-earth people whose voices and warmth remain long after the journey ends.

While our time in Mostar centered around our stomachs, Sarajevo touched our hearts.

Sarajevo Changed Me

Many people who travel talk about having been changed by a place. For me that place is Sarajevo.

I cannot adequately put into words the positive affect that Sarajevo had on me. Nor can I guarantee that you will have the same experience. I do know that I’m not alone in having been changed by Sarajevo and the wonderful people who call it home.

The voices and the kindness of the Sarajevans I met stay with me. I write this to honor those who lost their lives and those who continue to live with the memories and losses. I write this to remember Srebrenica.

Of War and Genocide

Nearly everyone we met in Sarajevo has memories of the Bosnian War and the Siege of Sarajevo. Some survived the Srebrenica Genocide. Whether they were 5 or 19 years old during the 90s, they survived something most of us cannot fathom. Many of them live with daily reminders of a time when the simple act of getting water was a matter of life and death. They live with these reminders with incredible poise, especially considering the perpetrators of the genocide continue to deny that it happened.

Srebrenica Genocide Anniversary

We went to Srebrenica with Sarajevo Funky Tours on the 24th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide on July 11, along with thousands of Bosnians, who were mourning loved ones killed during the genocide. That day, the remains of 33 more victims were laid to rest at a collective funeral at the memorial center in Potocari.

One of the most shocking aspects of the Srebrenica Genocide is that Srebrenica was a designated “safe area” under the protection of UNPROFOR (United Nations Protection Force). In this, the UN failed.

For those interested in reading more about the failure of UN Peacekeeping at Srebrenica, I’ve included a link to a Human Rights Watch PDF report at the end of this post.

Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial Center & Cemetery (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial Centre & Cemetery

A Day at the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial Centre and Cemetery

This day was not about us. This day was not for tourists. No matter what we saw or did, no matter how bad traffic was, we would not be disappointed. Each time something did not go according to plan, our guide apologized and thanked us for understanding when we said, “It’s no problem.”

Crowds were thick when we first arrived, and navigating the cemetery was difficult. The ground was wet and slippery from water used for ablutions. Temperatures were high and shade was difficult to come by. We struggled to stay with our group and kept our eyes on the tallest member so we didn’t get lost.

Traffic was bad, with cars and buses sitting with their engines off, not moving. We were hungry and thirsty, but it didn’t matter. Porto-pots were gross, but so what? Thirty-three more families were finally able to bury the remains of their loved ones. These 33 were being added to more than 6,600 others. This day was not about us.

It was their day. There were busloads of people. Our driver, Saudin, who had made the drive from Sarajevo enjoyable with his knowledge, wit, and humor, dropped us off near the cemetery and went to find parking, saving us from walking like the people we had driven past. Later, he would catch up with us, and when it was time to leave, he would retrace his steps to retrieve the van and pick us up.

Meanwhile, we had time to take pictures of the rows of gravestones and walk around inside the former Potočari UN base, now a memorial center with displays of pictures and survivor testimonies.

We also had the honor of meeting Hasan Hasanović, genocide survivor and curator of the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial Centre. We cried as we listened to Hasan’s story. We tried to understand how he spoke with love and not anger at what had been done and what had been taken from him and so many others who lost so much. We felt anger on their behalf.

On the Road to Srebrenica

There is usually a lunch stop on the tour, but we had been warned in advance that it might not be possible due to the sheer number of people who make their way to Srebrenica on Memorial Day. While Saudin went to get the van, we walked in the direction of Srebrenica town, where there was a possibility of getting lunch.

I thought of the thousands of people who walked here in the nineties in hopes of finding a safe haven, only to be killed in what has become known as The Death March. I thought of those who walked 110 kilometers in the annual 3-day Peace March (Mars Mira), reversing the path of the column of 10,000 plus Bosniak men and boys who tried to flee Srebenica in 1995.

Our guide apologized as we walked in the sun. She stayed in touch with Saudin, who was stuck behind a wall of buses. This day was not about us. We took breaks, stopping in the shade before setting off again. It was hot. We rationed water. We did not complain.

The Kindness of Strangers

After about 30 minutes of intermittent walking, we stopped in the shade of a tree by a chain-link fence. On the other side of the fence a group of people where having a picnic. Some sat around a picnic table, others relaxed on blankets. I assume they were a large family.

Before long, one of the women started handing platefuls of food over the fence. There was so much food. It was passed over to us nonstop. We graciously tried to decline, but she soon walked over to our side of the fence and offered the plates with a look that told us we better eat up. Lamb, chicken snitzel, burek, cake, water, soda…all of it was delicious.

There were 16 of us in the group of tourists. We ate with our hands, standing outside the chain-link fence, feeling grateful and loved as the people on the other side of the fence smiled and spoke warmly and happily in a language we didn’t understand.

I don’t know what this woman has endured or seen in her life, but I do know that she is one of the kindest, most generous people there is. We didn’t share a language, but we shared a moment that will stay with me forever.

Kind woman passing plate of food through chain-link fence in Potocari, Bosnia

Voices of Sarajevo

Voices of Sarajevo is a compilation of quotations gathered in answer to the question below during our short time there. I wish I’d had time to talk with more people. My hope is that more voices will continue to be added.

I wanted the voices to stand alone, but I realized that there was so much more that needed to be conveyed and that much of it was centered around the day we spent in Srebrenica. It’s my hope that the story above enriches the voices below.

What is one thing you want people to know about Sarajevo or Bosnia?

While there is still work to be done to achieve reconciliation, the common thread in the conversations I had with locals is that the war is over.

After making our way through the Sarajevo War Tunnel Museum on the Seige Tour, I asked our guide Damir what he most wanted people to know about Sarajevo and Bosnia.

Inside the Sarajevo tunnel
What it was like inside the tunnel

Damir’s answer was thoughtful and informative, emphasizing that the war was over. He talked about how often he encounters misconceptions of life in Bosnia today.

I have to give you a funny answer. When I travel and say I am from Bosnia, people always ask, “Do you have electricity?” We hope these terrible things will never happen again. You can come here. We have a lot to offer: nature, history, tours. And we have some vegetarian restaurants. That’s the spirit. And I hope Celtic will defeat that club tonight.

~ Damir

Damir also spoke eloquently about the shift in focus that occurs when people from Bosnia and Herzegovina meet while traveling abroad.

When we’re home, we have coffee and bicker because of our small differences. When we’re abroad, we connect on our many similarities.

~ Damir, Sarajevo Funky Tours

Many people who have never been to Bosnia continue to associate it with war, as if the war continues. It does not. People sip coffee at outdoor cafes and discuss the news of the day as tourists snap photos and set off in search of the next discovery.

Pigeon Square with Sebilj Fountain in the background

Scars Remain, but Life Moves On in Sarajevo

While it’s true that scars of the war remain, Sarajevo has rebuilt itself. It has done so by incorporating memories into the fabric of the city. Mortar shell impressions on sides of buildings and red resin-filled craters known as Sarajevo Roses act as silent visual reminders of a tragic past.

Sarajevo rose on pavement behind pink car
Sarajevo Rose

Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.

~ Elie Wiesel

Unity Amidst Complicated Politics

Bosnia’s political situation is complicated to say the least. With 3 presidents (Yes, you read that right!), 3 languages, and more political divisions than linguistic ones, Damir said that when people from Bosnia and Herzegovina meet each other abroad, no matter what their differences, they ask, “Do you speak our language?” He emphasized our.

While division still exists, there are many, like Damir, who focus on unity and who hope for continued peace.

During our time in Sarajevo, I asked more of the locals I encountered what they would like people to know about Sarajevo or Bosnia. Here is what they had to say:

There is no more war here.

~ Ema, Sarajevo Funky Tours

Sarajevo Funky Tours

What the World Needs

From Hasan Hasanović, curator of the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial Center, who survived the Srebrenica Genocide, but whose father and twin brother did not, to Almir Ahmetagic, who recalls hitting his head on the low clearance of the Tunnel of Hope during the war, and who like me, finds healing in nature and poetry, the people of Bosnia exemplify all the best qualities of humanity: warmth, generosity, humor, kindness, forgiveness, love – these were all things I felt in abundance in my interactions with the people I encountered during my time in Sarajevo.

According to legend, if you drink from Sebilj Fountain in Pigeon Square, you’ll return to Sarajevo. While I didn’t drink from the fountain, I have no doubt I’ll return. Until then, I leave you with the voices of Sarajevo that I carry with me.

Kenan Hidić

I met Kenan while wandering around Sarajevo. As I walked down Kazandžiluk Street, the sound of metal striking copper drew me into his shop. You can read more about that experience here.

Kenan Hidić

In most situations, people still connect it with war. I would like people not to connect Bosnia with war. People live together happy. And trust me, for these people, is not important religion. You be just man. When it’s Christmas, I visit my friend for Christmas. When it’s Bajram, my friend visits me. If you come here, you will see and feel what is real life here. When you traveling, you break stereotypes.

~ Kenan Hidić, Coppersmith

Enisa Horo

Minasa Dibek Kahva was just around the corner from our Airbnb. I was happy to find a nearby coffee shop where I could bring my Hydro Flask mug and get single origin Bosnian take-away coffee on days when I didn’t have time to sit and relax. There, I met Enisa Horo, who explained the art of making coffee in the authentic dibek (mortar) stone-ground style.

Enisa does everything from roasting to grinding the Brazilian-sourced beans right in the shop, both by machine and by hand. While only at this location in Baščaršija for a few months, her family has operated another shop in the neighborhood of Ciglane for 25 years, both before the war and again after the war.

Enisa Horo

Very kind people. Come and see history and culture because it’s very mixed.

~ Enisa Horo, Minasa Dibek Coffee Shop

Juliet

I met Juliet at her laundromat, Laundro Lounge, not far from Pigeon Square, Sarajevo Funky Tours and Minasa Dibek Coffee on Mula Mustafe Bašeskije. We talked for about an hour and half. If I hadn’t left E locked up at the Airbnb (oops!), I would have probably stayed even longer.

If you’re in Sarajevo and need your laundry done, this is the place to go. Juliet is also happy to help if you are in need of advice while in Sarajevo. I was happy with her barber recommendation! I also really loved playing with Laundrokitten 💕.

Juliet at Laundro Lounge
Juliet and Laundrokitten

I appreciate here how liberal people are with each other’s religions. One of the things that a lot of Western tourists kind of don’t believe is that most of the people they run into out there are Muslims, but they don’t look like Muslims, so they don’t identify them. I guess it’s that thing of…we’re all the same really, you know? It’s not uncommon here for two teenage girls to be walking together and one to be wearing a headscarf and one to be wearing a mini-skirt, and they’re best friends, and they’re both Muslims, and no one has an issue with it.
~ Juliet, Laundro Lounge

View of Pigeon Square, Sarajevo and beyond

Sarajevo: The Gift of Perspective

Many of us have a tendency to find fault and feel slighted at the smallest and most insignificant occurrences: a delayed flight, a rainy day, a long line. All the small annoying things that feel big in the moment really don’t matter, and while we know this rationally, visiting Sarajevo (and Srebrenica) and hearing firsthand accounts of what people endured provides a unique perspective. I hope that perspective comes across in some small part.

If you’ve ever wondered whether or not to give Sarajevo a visit, I hope this has helped you decide. Finally, I hope I’ve managed to convey the warmth and resilience found in abundance in Sarajevo.

I’ll end the way I began, with one of the voices I came to admire the most.

You must come here to see. It is not something you can imagine. You must see it for yourself.

You are welcome here.

~ Almir Ahmetagic

Additional Resources

I’ll be adding additional posts on Sarajevo down the road. Until then, here are some recommended websites, things to do, and additional resources.

The Fall of Srebrenica and the Failure of UN Peacekeeping is an 81 page PDF report by Human Rights Watch.

Funky Tours Sarajevo – Separate post coming…but you can also check out our TripAdvisor review.

Srebrenica Web Genocide Museum will take you on a virtual tour of the complex. Trigger warning: certain images may be upsetting. Avoid the graffiti rooms if this applies to you.

Mountains: Once a Place of Fear, Now a Beacon of Unity – This is a good read on the work being done (such as removing landmines) to reestablish BiH mountaineering and trails through projects like Via Dinarica, which brings people together for the united purpose of preserving the natural beauty the region has to offer. (McKell, Kaleena 2019, April 16).

Roses of Sarajevo: Wounds of Remembrance in the Streets of Bosnia – A more extensive read on the Sarajevo Roses by journalist Peter Korchnak. Warning: contains a disturbing image from the massacre at Merkale Market.

The War Childhood Museum – We visited this museum and felt it was well done. I’m not a big museum person as I find them overwhelming because I always feel like I need to read everything, which is impossible. I like museums like the War Childhood Museum where it’s both possible and valuable to read everything. Separate post to come.

Add Your Voice

If you are from Sarajevo and would like to add your voice, you may comment below, or get in touch with me via email at [email protected]

What is one thing you want people to know about Sarajevo or Bosnia?

We hope our experiences help you find yours.

– E and T

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