Friday, 28 July 2017

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Three is a Magic Number in Sarajevo

Text and photographs by Ekaterina Petrova   
While attending the Sarajevo Film Festival this July, for an afternoon, I escaped the red-carpet razzle-dazzle, the glamorous cocktail parties, and the sitting in front of the silver screen in dark cinema halls, which transported me to other times and worlds, and went on a tour of Sarajevo. The tour also brough me to another time - through the city's distant past and recent history, and then back to its hopeful future. Though of the same city in which I had already spent several days, I visited a Sarajevo that had belonged to the Ottoman Empire, then the Austro-Hungarian one, and finally to a city under siege, in which the festival had started 16 years ago. This last Sarajevo was, expectedly, different from the one hosting this year’s festival, where the streets are clean and bustling, most of the building are renovated and carefree citizens and visitors window-shop and drink coffee in the outdoor cafés.

We start off on the tour, led by General Jovan Divjak, former Commander of defence of the city. We drive past the Vijećnica, which now stands as a shadow of its erstwhile glorious splendour: its windows all boarded up and a scaffolding raised along one of its sides, bearing a large blue covering that lists the European Union, along with the names of cities, governments and national libraries that are cooperating to restore it.

The Vijećnica, which first served as the City Hall and later as the National Library, was built in a pseudo-Moorish style by the Austro-Hungarians in the 1890s, in their attempts to develop a “new Bosnian” identity. Some historians call it an unmistakable “tip of the hat by one colonial power (Austro-Hungary) to its predecessor (the Ottoman Empire),” which in turn resulted in an entirely different, third kind of creation, which resembles, as UCLA art historian Carel Bertram said, “no known Islamic architecture in either scale, plan, or decoration.”

Its ornate, now peeling façade, still bears the scars of a night in August of 1992, when the building was shelled, burned and largely destroyed. The ashes of the millions books and manuscripts have settled a long time ago.

We cross the Miljacka River and drive past the building that houses the Academy of Sciences and Arts of Bosnia and Herzegovina. “We have three science academies here in Bosnia. We should try to enter the Guinness book of records,” General Divjak attempts a joke.

Then, I remember meeting Salih a few days earlier. “We have three presidents,” the young actor-to-be told me then, as we walked around the Old Town, and I showered him with questions about Sarajevo, the 44-month siege and the current divisions in the country. The Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina consists not of one President as is the international norm, but of three members: one Bosniak and one Croat elected from the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and one Serb elected from the Republika Srpska.

Three is a magic number here in Sarajevo, it seems.

Sarajevo as Jerusalem, Damascus and Berlin?

As we continue upwards on the hill, General Divjak says Sarajevo was called “the Jerusalem of Europe,” by its Sephardic Jewish population, who coexisted alongside the city’s Muslims and Christians, thus making another trio.

Some writers used to also refer to Sarajevo as “the Damascus of the North,” such as Thomas Milner, who explained in his book “The Ottoman Empire: The Sultans, the Territory and the People,” that the reference came from Sarajevo’s “beautiful situation and numerous gardens.”

Later, as we drive along the hills, I see a sign indicating that we are exiting Canton Sarajevo (a part of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina) and then, as we enter East Sarajevo – the de jure capital of the Republika Srpska political entity, there is another one proclaiming “Welcome to Republika Srpska.” Though there is no border control and one passes from one side to the other quite easily, images of Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie, with its infamous sign “You are leaving the American sector,” pop into my mind.

Cemeteries: Old, New and Jewish

But before that, the minibus climbs the steep narrow road, sometimes having to stop and back up in order to let cars from the opposite direction pass. We reach the Žuta Tabija, or Yellow Bastion, get off the bus and climb the steps onto its grassy top, from which a broad view of the city is revealed. I see the number three again. This time it is cemeteries, wedged right between the houses, of which three are visible in the immediate vicinity – two seemingly newer and denser ones and an older Muslim one, where the gravestones are more intricate and placed further away from each other.

From there, we head to city’s old Jewish cemetery, which is said to be Europe’s largest, after the one in Prague. On one side of the gate, a plaque explains that these burial grounds opened in 1630, while “the cemetery was closed to further burials in 1966.” On its other side, a graffiti sign reads what I understand to mean “Entry Strictly Prohibited.”

Nevertheless, we push the heavy ornate iron door open and take a walk around the cemetery’s peaceful, quiet grounds. The dead were laid here over a period of more than 300 years and the tombstones, partially covered in grass, testify for that – some are more modern, while others seem ancient, tilted this way and that, with parts missing, or even entirely fallen down on the ground. “The tombstones of Bosnia’s Sephardi Jews differ in form and in the motifs they bear from other Jewish tombstones in other parts of the world,” according to the explanatory plaque at the front. “The likely reason for this is the intermingling of diverse cultural surroundings in which the Sephardim lived with their own Jewish traditions.”

We have to leave the cemetery in a rush, as we need to make it to the Tunnel Museum, to which we are ultimately headed, in time before it closes.

A Train Connects Two Cities Through Three Countries

As we drive through East Sarajevo, I remember arriving here a few days earlier. In a trip from Sofia worthy to serve as an example of the continuously poor connection between the Balkan countries’ capitals, the bus from Niš drove past the centre of Sarajevo and, upon reaching the city, passed it and dropped me off at a faraway station in its Republika Srpksa part.

I remember reading and writing about the train line between Belgrade and Sarajevo, reinstated last winter, 18 years after the war had shut it down. Although giving hope and being used as a symbol of the warming relations between the countries of the region, even that train journey is a reminder of the region’s lack of integration. As the train passes through three countries – Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia, the journey involves crossing two national borders and undergoing four passport checks, locomotives from four separate railway companies (including the Republika Srpska one) and takes more than eight hours to cover the less than 500 kilometres.

The Tunnel

We drive through Eastern Sarajevo and reach the Ilidža suburb, thus re-entering Canton Sarajevo. Here, starting from (and ending at) its Butmir neighbourhood, a 800-metre long tunnel was dug by the besieged citizens of Sarajevo, using only picks and shovels, in 1993. After it was completed, it linked the besieged city, then cut-off by Serbian forces, with the supposedly neutral Sarajevo Airport area, then set up and controlled by the UN.

This side of the underpass is now located on a street called Tunel and a part of the private house whose basement was one of its entry points has been turned into a museum.

There, about 20 metres of the tunnel have been preserved, but they are enough to give one a claustrophobic sense of walking in a passageway sized about 1.5 metres in height and one metre in width, though I am sure this was among the last concerns of the people who passed through it during the siege, as they pushed food and weapons into Sarajevo and their injured out.

General Divjak tells a story that illustrates how essential the tunnel was for the survival of the city. It is again a story of three’s. Passing the 800 metres between the besieged and the UN-controlled part of Sarajevo over ground could take hours of crawling around in the bushes, and people willing to take the risk would usually split into three groups – one to be caught, another – to serve as distraction, and a third one – to hopefully make it.

Sniper Alley, the Holiday Inn and Military Theory

After the tunnel, we climb back onto the minibus, descend back into the valley and drive along the main boulevard that connects the industrial part of the city to the Old Town. It used to be known as “Sniper Alley” during the siege, as it was lined with snipers’ posts, targeting civilians walking or riding the trams.

We pass by what became known as the Matchbox, which still bears bullet scars along the façade of its top floors, and the Holliday Inn hotel – from which the first shots of the siege were fired and which later housed many of the journalists covering the siege. “At that time,” General Divjak says, only half-jokingly, “the most expensive room in the hotel was the one in the basement, without any windows.”

We drive back into the Old Town. Our tour is over and we pour out of minibus in front of Sarajevo’s Military Club, one of the festival’s main venues. There, journalists are rushing in and out, guests are running into each other, with outbursts of handshakes, hugs and kisses, and well-dressed people are heading to the next cocktail party – “Directors’ Drink – Wine Hour.” I stand there, a little stunned from the travelling in time, and wonder how this euphoria is possible considering what took place here just a decade and a half ago.

But General Divjak had a story about this too: when the festival first started in 1995, Sarajevo was still under siege. People would go and see depressing war movies only to come out of the screening and find themselves in a situation as grim as the one in the movies, only this time this was their real life. And then I realized: this euphoria is possible precisely because of what took place here in the 1990s.

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