Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Bosnia and Hercegovina – Gunshots heard around the world

8-9 August

Hello everyone!

From Mostar I took a train – incredibly, my first on this trip and one with some stunning scenery – north to the capital of Bosnia and Hercegovina: Sarajevo. It has been the location of much bloodshed over the centuries and has been the trigger for two major wars in the twentieth century.

View from the Mostar to Sarajevo train

View from the Mostar to Sarajevo train

The old town of Sarajevo sits on the northern side of the Neretva River. It was from this side of the Latin Bridge that crosses this river that a young man called Gavrilo Princip pulled the trigger of a pistol on June 28th, 1914. The shot killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and led the Austro-Hungarian Empire to declare war on Serbia. Various alliances and agreements led to most European powers being dragged into a battle which lasted four years and killed millions. The First World War.

An artistic interpretation of events on June 28th, 1914

The Latin Bridge, where the assassination took place

The spot where Princip took aim is marked by a plaque and the events of that day are commemorated in other ways as well, such as the naming of hostels.

The plaque marking Princip's assassination spot

It is sobering to think that the war was happening one hundred years ago, with all of the damage and suffering it caused. Sarajevo, tragically, has had to endure more recent misery and fighting.

A charred Holiday Inn during the siege of Sarajevo

One of the dozens of grave sites dotted around Sarajevo
Sarajevo, which is situated in a valley, was surrounded by Serbian forces in early May 1992 after it stated a desire to become independent. Bombing and shelling from up high decimated the city. Phone lines were destroyed. Water, gas and electricity supplies were cut. Food stocks shrunk rapidly. The subsequent siege by the Serbian troops lasted for 1,395 days – almost four years, and the longest city siege in modern history. Buildings were battered and torched, including most of the works in the National Library.

The National Library, Sarajevo

In Sarajevo alone, 10,615 people were killed. 1,601 children. Many more were invalidated or gruesomely injured. In our vastly-expanding global population, Sarajevo’s population has shrunk significantly since the last census in the late 1980s. This all happened less than 25 years ago. In my lifetime, and probably yours too.

A monument depicting a man shouting to his child that everything would be OK as Serbian troops advanced in Srebenrica, eastern Bosnia. Their bodies were found over a decade later.

The overwhelming majority of dates on the tombstones are between 1992 and 1995

The eyes of the world were on Sarajevo during the early 1990s, as they also were ten years previously when the city hosted the Winter Olympics. If you’re British, think Torvill and Dean. That happened here.

This sign was in the Marriott Hotel in Sarajevo. Next to the Dean room, naturally...
As with many cities that host these extravaganzas, many of the venues in Sarajevo have fallen into a state of non-use and sorry disrepair. I hiked up a steep hill to visit the bobsled track. Clearly it wasn’t going to be in use when temperatures were positive rather than negative 30 but it was obvious to me that it isn’t used in the winter either. I took time to walk down some of the track, which is laced with interesting graffiti on all of its curved banks.

The final bend of the bobsled track

If they’re no longer into their four-man bobsled, the locals are certainly up for football. A group of us went to watch the local team and champions, FK Sarajevo, take on another team in a league game. I was struck by the shirt sponsor on the replica shirts – Visit Malaysia. Something twigged in my brain and suddenly I remembered why they would have this sponsor. Their owner is a Malaysian businessman called Vincent Tan…who also owns my local team, Cardiff City. Interestingly, he hasn’t changed the shirt colours here. Yet…

Tan (centre) owns Cardiff City FC as well as FK Sarajevo

The large bowl of a stadium had a vociferous singing section (in Britain we might think of them as hooligans) behind one of the goals. Their chanting was choreographed by topless men at the front and was as relentless as it was impressive. They didn’t even stop to realise that the opposing team, Široki Brijeg, had scored the opening goal. Flares were also ignited to ensure that stereotype I have of eastern European football fans was maintained.

The hardcore fans of FK Sarajevo

Smoke billowing towards the pitch after a flare was ignited

Frustrations boiled over even after an early second half equaliser was tucked away. One man slammed his sunglasses into the floor, picked them up and then slammed them down again to make sure they were broken. It wasn’t until a delightful chipped winner from the number 11 that the nerves dissipated. If they ever need a reality check as they bemoan a bad touch or misplaced pass, FK Sarajevo supporters can look just over the far stand and see the bright white plinths of a grave hurriedly formed during the recent war. It’s only a game.

Security guards had to protect the referee when he blew for half-time after he made a debatable decision against the home side

The best player on the team is brilliantly called Harmony, which is a word I’d use to summarise the atmosphere in Sarajevo. Religions live side by side, with large churches (both Catholic and Orthodox) in close proximity to the old synagogue and dominant mosque in the old town.

The minaret of the mosque with the Clock Tower (with Hebrew numbers) just behind

The beautiful fountain in the grounds of the old mosque
Of course people don’t want to forget the horrors of the Balkan Wars and there are plenty of painful reminders of the struggle that Sarajevo went through. Now, however, there is a buzz and happy aura sifting through the narrow streets of the Muslim quarter (though that may be the shisha). The city is moving into the 21st century whilst retaining its Ottoman charm. I only one full day here, which simply wasn’t enough to appreciate its vast and significant history. Important events which shaped our current lives have happened here and they are commemorated well in Sarajevo.

View of Sarajevo from an area close to the bobsled track

Love you all


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