If I had any doubts about how fragmented the kaleidoscope of Bosnia’s ethnicities was, a drive to Sarajevo was all I needed to dispel them. My passport was stamped at a crossing in Šamac, in the Republika Srpska and as I sped along the countryside, seemingly asleep in the afternoon heat, all I could see – hanging from windows, flying above roundabouts or petrol stations – was Serbian tricolours. Further afield the view remained the same, but the human landscape changed: the Cyrillic names of towns and bridges had been crossed out from street signs, and the red-white-and-blue drapes had been rearranged with the addition of an ornate shield, showing the presence of a Croatian community.
It wasn’t until I reached Sarajevo that the Bosnian flag appeared but, by that time, I’d learned to tell the villages apart, by their cemeteries. Serbian graves were marked by low, severe swabs of dark stone adorned with golden letters; Croatian tombs were similar in shape and size but were made of a whiter shade of granite, often showing a large Latin cross. Bosniak ones, finally, were shaped the Turkish way, thin white poles of limestone or marble. In this land, as I was learning, cemeteries occupied the same footage dedicated to fast-food joints, service stations and other shops that litter our Western European suburbs.
I arrived in Sarajevo in a strange mood, a cocktail that was part elation – for it had been a long day on the road – part excitement, part curiosity and part guilt. During the war Bosniak families were hosted, as refugees of war, in city-owned accommodation in my hometown. I recall my mother and teachers giving us precise instruction to be kind to these kids, for they had been through a lot. Then, as an afterthought, they always added “I just cannot believe that no one is doing anything for them”. I was only a pre-pubertal teen then, but those words always struck a cord in me, for we could’ve done something about it, and didn’t. It took years, many disasters (remember the Dutch peacekeepers in Srebrenica?) and the US-led NATO to start a bombing campaign to finally end the war. In the meantime, about 100,000 people died.
Towards dusk, the torrential downpour that welcomed me in town finally relented and a timid setting sun appeared. As I set off, bound for the Baščaršija, it struck me how exposed the city was: a conglomerate of homes and roads huddled in the long valley dug by the Miljacka, with mountains on every side. Almost every road, every junction, every staircase, every house had open views on one hill or another: twenty years ago walking those roads that meant entering the scope of a sniper’s rifle or the landing target of a mortar bomb.
It’s at that point that I began noticing them. A tall grey building, one of those ugly, Brutalist blocks that sprouted like mushroom in every city in Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, sported a large dark spot on one of its short sides, with a constellation of smaller blobs at random intervals, irradiating from the main one like spokes of a bicycle wheel. It looked like a water infiltration, only that it wasn’t. It was the remnant of a large hole, possibly left by an artillery shell or by a rocket that had subsequently been filled with concrete.
All other sides of the building bore similar scars, smaller holes that penetrated through the bricks-and-mortar façade, symbols of the fact that this tall block had been targeted at by all sides. I had always known that Sarajevo had been besieged for almost four years, from 1992 to 1996, but I had never really grasped the true meaning of being besieged. This city of half a million souls had, literally, nowhere to go.
Unable to conquer such a target with the forces they had, the Serb Yugoslav Army and its allied Srpska militiamen decided to encircle the city, amassing heavy weaponry on the hills surrounding the lowlands where Sarajevo lied defenceless. From there they rained death on the city at a rate of, according to some estimates, at least 300 artillery shells per day, for 1425 days, the longest in modern warfare. This left, according to the Council of Europe, 35,000 buildings destroyed to the point of being inhabitable, and basically everything else turned into Swiss cheese.
Holes can still be seen today, either filled with plaster or still left there, untouched. Despite an impressive reconstruction effort, it was hard to turn a corner and not see some. Every angle, every street seemed to have received its dose of lead; even those nooks that looked well hidden away turned out to be wearing little scars, where shrapnel thrown by a shell or a mortar landed. Some walls, perhaps more exposed, were pockmarked so heavily that they looked like some sort of lunar landscape.
I found myself wondering how living here during the Siege might’ve been like, and failed. Those bullets, those rockets, hadn’t been fired in acts of wanton vandalism; those who fired them weren’t playing darts with the buildings ad boards, they were aiming at those living in those buildings. In facts, those were the bullets, the rockets that had missed. How many more hadn’t? How many more bullets, how many more rockets didn’t leave a crater behind them?
The answer, unfortunately, is many. There’s a monument in Veliki Park, dedicated to the murdered children of Sarajevo, with seven steel cylinders standing on a small stone plinth. On those wheels, vaguely reminiscing of Buddhist praying-wheels, are carved some of the names of those who died in Sarajevo, a sample of the estimated 11,541 citizens killed during the siege. If this doesn’t quite give you an understanding of the numbers at play here, then the cemeteries will do.
Even by Bosnian standards, cemeteries in Sarajevo are omnipresent. Islam gives a great deal of importance to the act of burying one’s body, and if you add the fact that a trip to the outskirts of town – where you’d normally expect to find a graveyard – meant suicide in the besieged city, then it’s not that surprising to see that almost every other plot of open land in town has been filled with the thin, elegant Ottoman tombstones.
I walked past one on my way to the centre. A modest handkerchief of land, sandwiched between a road and a few houses, overlooked by a hotel cursed by a preposterous name (Bosnians of all ethnicities seem to have a thing for gracing their businesses with names such as “Memphis”, “Best”, “Dallas”). A few leafy trees gave shadow to the plot, possibly shielding it from unwanted onlookers, possibly the reason why the place had been chosen as a graveyard. About a hundred tombs were crowding the space, huddled with one another as if to protect themselves from the cold. I stood there for a little while, looking at the names and at the elaborate Arabic inscription chiselled on the stones. They were men, women, boys, girls from all ages and all walks of life; all they had in common was their date of death: 1993, 1994, 1995. There was only one tomb, slightly on the sidelines, whose date was 1999; every other one said that the life they represented had been taken in those three years.
I stood there for a little while, whilst the city buzzed and whirred around me, surprised how no one else seemed to be doing the same. Then I looked around and, behind a bullet-ridden house, I saw a rainbow rising. Time to move on.