Sarajevo, Bosnia

Amid The Ruins Of War In Bosnia & Herzegovina

Derek Bosnia & Herzegovina 46 Comments

Sarajevo, Bosnia
As a long-term traveler, I have certainly witnessed a great deal in my life, however, there are some things that, no matter what, I will never be able to truly understand. And one of those things involves what it feels like to experience war first-hand.

While I’ve traveled through Pakistan and Afghanistan post-9/11, ventured to the front line of the battle for Kashmir, roamed the bombed out neighborhoods of Beirut, the killing fields of Cambodia and areas of Central America that have seen much fighting over the years, I’ve never actually lived through war. My travels certainly allow me to gain a significant amount of knowledge about many of the conflicts that have taken place on this planet, or are still taking place, but I will always remain an outsider looking in, unable to comprehend watching the destruction of my country, of my home, of my family or perhaps even of my own life.

Sadly, there are far too many human beings on this planet who know perfectly well what it’s like to live during a terrible war and for many of these people, wondering whether or not they’ll live another day becomes as common as wondering what they’ll be eating for their next meal.

WELCOME TO BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA

From the moment I entered Bosnia and Herzegovina, until the moment I crossed the border into Serbia some 10 days later, I had no choice but to constantly think about the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. There’s no avoiding it, no matter what your motivation for traveling to this region, not when almost every single building in the country is covered with bullet holes, when the aftermath of heavy shelling and deadly bomb explosions are still ever so present and when the situation in Bosnia during the years since the war ended has clearly been filled with immense challenges and struggles for the 3.5 million inhabitants of this country.

Destroyed buildings, both partially and completely, line many of the streets in Sarajevo, as well as those in dozens of other cities, towns and villages. In fact, the destruction, which was more than I’ve seen in any other country, made it terribly difficult for me to believe that this war took place some 15 years ago, especially when there are still empty buildings littered with broken glass, bullet shells and even business files left scattered on the floor, as if these places had been attacked yesterday.

Bullet Holes, Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina

Bullet Holes, Mostar

A VERY BRIEF SUMMARY OF THE BOSNIAN WAR

This war, which resulted from the breakup of Yugoslavia, began after the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence in 1992. The referendum was signed by the political representatives of all of Bosnia’s ethnic groups, including those of the Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic faiths, except for one, the Bosnian Serbs. The Bosnian Serbs then decided to create their own Republic, which they named The Republic of Srpska. Following this declaration, and with the direct assistance of the Serbian Forces, the Army of the Republic of Srpska attacked Bosnia and Herzegovina in order to gain and secure as much land as possible.

And so this brutal war, which involved the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims, repeated massacres and four years of almost non-stop shelling of Sarajevo and other cities and towns, began.

Map of Sarajevo During Bosnian War

Despite having superior strength, in both manpower and weapons, the Serbian Forces eventually lost momentum when the ethnic Bosniaks (the Muslim population) and the ethnic Croats (Catholic population) of Bosnia joined forces by creating the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Then, in 1995, shortly after the Siege of Sarajevo and the Srebenice massacre, an instance of genocide in which 8000 Bosnian Muslims were killed by members of the Army of the Republic of Srpska who were under the control of a Serbian General, NATO joined the war by attacking key Srpska positions. These attacks helped bring about an end to the fighting.

In December of 1995, the Dayton Agreement was signed, an agreement that effectively led to the official creation of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, as if this situation wasn’t already complicated enough, the Dayton Agreement, the aim of which was to bring peace to the region, created a double layer political structure in which the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina would consist of two separate entities, The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (mostly consisting of Bosnian Muslims and Catholic Croats) and The Republic of Srpska (consisting of Bosnian Serbs), each of which were given approximately 50% of the overall territory.

These days, all three ethnic groups have equal status within the entire territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina and one can easily pass between the two as if they are one unified country. And according to locals I spoke with, all three ethnic groups, for the most part, co-exist in harmony, preferring to live in peace than relive the fighting that took place in the 90s.

SO MANY BULLET HOLES

Bullet Holes, Bosnia
Even though the situation is relatively quiet today, again, it is basically impossible to avoid thinking about or talking about the war every day while visiting this region. For every bullet hole, of which there are millions upon millions, there is a story to be told, so many of which involve the loss of life, of constant sniper attacks and non-stop shelling, of concentration camps, indiscriminate and unnecessary killing, ethnic cleansing and human beings inexplicably behaving at their very worst.

Upon watching the videos that document some of the events and upon hearing these first-hand stories from those who witnessed the war, I often found myself transported right into the middle of the struggle. It all seemed so real when I would look into the hills where the Serbian Forces launched their attacks and when I would pass yet another building that has yet to recover from the war. But even during those moments when I really could imagine the bombs landing and the missiles flying above, I still remained an outsider, only able to listen and watch, to ask questions and make observations about the past.

As much as I learned about this war, I still don’t know what it feels like to have sniper bullets whiz by my head as I run across an intersection or to watch my friends die in an explosion while buying bread at the market.

AN UNEXPECTED DISCOVERY

Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina
As I walked around Sarajevo, from Bascarsija to Kovaci, from Bistrik to Mejtas and over to Grbavice, day after day amid the ruins and results of the Bosnian War, trying to understand this land and its people, through both its history and its present-day situation, I naturally found myself feeling quite distraught quite often.

However, at times, as I struggled to accept how cruelly humans can act, I must say that it seemed as if I was the only person dwelling on the fact that life in Bosnia and Herzegovina, from the start of the war up until today, has been extremely difficult to say the least. With the widespread destruction that took place, this region lost almost all of its industry, leaving it unable to compete with other countries and severely struggling in terms of its economy and the ability of its citizens to create new lives for themselves.

But, no matter where I looked, who I met or where I went, I seemed to always end up surrounded by Bosnian people who, despite what they have lived through, have opted to greet and spend each day with such a positive attitude, with so much laughter and with the brightest of smiles.

While I’d certainly hesitate to conclude that their laughter and smiles are the result of a genuine happiness with their current situation, which, as I mentioned, is not an easy one, I do believe that Bosnians have chosen to focus on appreciating what they do have instead of dwelling on what has happened in the past or what their lives now lack.

Old City, Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina

And again, this is a remarkable occurrence, especially considering that the older generation almost unanimously wishes for a return to the stable times under the rule of Josip Broz Tito and the country’s youth know only war and a constant struggle to survive. Yet, despite the differences in opinion, and even despite the religious and ethnic differences, Bosnians seem to have accepted the current situation with a relaxed shrug of the shoulders and a ‘let’s make the best of it’ attitude.

As a result, I often found myself surprised, and even inspired, by the warmth of the Bosnian people I met, by their light-hearted outlook on life and their decision to try to enjoy their lives as much as possible. If the people of a war-torn country can smile in the face of such a recent history, then someone such as myself, who has not dealt first-hand with war, should be able to do the same.

Upon reaching this conclusion, I soon discovered that the bullet-holes, the crumbling buildings, the war memorials, the heart-breaking stories, while they all felt so recent and troubling at first, eventually faded somewhat into the background for me, just as they have now done for most Bosnians. Despite appearances, that war has ended.

And by the time I finally left Bosnia and Herzegovina, the truth is, I left not as a traveler disturbed by the horrific tales of devastation and death, but as a more knowledgeable and appreciative traveler, one who realized that even the brutal destruction caused by unnecessary war is still no match at all for human beings determined to find a way to live in peace and to smile.

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Comments 46

  1. sudu

    Hi Earl,

    I have been to Bosnia and I can find myself in your story…i kept thinking about how the war must be, because there were so many visible memories of the war…but for me, i dont want to go back..not because it was not beautifull, but as a high sensitive person, i felt too much pain. Its been 2 months i came back, but still I am too busy about the bosnian war and cant let go…
    It is nice to hear that the bosnian you spoke to are very positive and hopeful! Its so nice to hear that…
    I really hope that no one ever will go through war…

  2. Justina

    Hi Earl!
    As usual, very good and mature piece, I love Bosnia and Bosnian people so much, Sarajevo is one of my favourite european cities and I could live solely on Banja Luka cevapi and rakija from Visengrad which you can buy in the old town 🙂 from what I gathered speaking to locals, they are not happy with the situation at all. Their country is Bosnia yet they have 3 presidents – Bosnian, Serb and Croat and it goes for every government position. This amounts to Everest size of a paperwork mountain no matter what you want to achieve. So not much is being achieved. Bosnian Muslims are really the only ones calling themselves Bosnian and it is crazy – aren’t all citizens of Bosnia Bosnians?? I don’t like this isolation tendency some Serbs and Croats are promoting. Yet some people with serb/cratian heritige do call themselves Bosnians, we need more of that attitude, who cares what religion we support in XXI century! I’m not sure if any of the horrible events from the 90’s can really be forgiven but I met many Muslims in Sarajevo who are willing to put the past behind them to work on a better country. The problem is the inability of many Serbs to admit to what they have done which has to happen in order to move on. We need a museum in Omarska and we need a real museum IN Srebrenica, not just a monument in Prijedor. everyone has to be educated about what happened to prevent it from ever happening again. The problem is not really with normal serbian people – it is people with any sort of power (government or non government) who prevent people from reuniting. They benefit from this division and the entire country suffers

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  4. Larissa

    Very beautifully written, Earl. Couldn’t have said it better myself so I won’t even try when I finally get around to writing more about the time I spent there. Sarajevo is hands down one of my new favorites in Europe and although there is so much to see there in terms of interesting sights, it’s the people who left the biggest impression on me.

  5. Earle

    I’ve been a visitor to BiH and Sarajevo off and on for close to 40 years and seen it through its various transitions from Olympic city to surviving city- what is always remarkable is the resilience and the unique outlook of the people. It was the first city to introduce the ‘cafe society’ to Europe and it has never lost that ability to wax lyrical about life, over a slow coffee, even when dodging the death wishes from their surrounds. You would have noticed their cemeteries, they position them on a hillside, plant fruit trees within them and flower beds on the graves to remind them that life always continues- they make a garden where others make a museum. (Yes I kid thee not about my name.)

    1. Earl

      Hey Earle – I was wondering about that for a moment, the name that is 🙂 And it must be quite interesting to have been a visitor to Sarajevo for so many years. I found it fascinating with just one visit and would love to go back and learn some more.

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  7. Jenna

    I’m glad I came upon this post today. I have not been there but it’s a place I’m more and more interested in visiting, partly from hearing great things about it from Ashley (NXOP). I lived in the Czech Republic just a few years after the Soviet Union collapsed, and though there wasn’t an actual war there, the oppression the people endured for so long was a painful wound. Like the people you described, the Czechs really wanted to move on, but when asked about it, they often expressed plenty of anger and sadness related to their suffering under Soviet rule.

    1. Earl

      Hey Jenna – There was definitely some anger with some of the Bosnians, as you’d expect, but usually they would just laugh it off and say that they no longer care. They just want to make the most of life now and not spend time thinking about the past. Hopefully you’ll get a chance to visit Bosnia at some point!

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  9. Dijana

    Thank you for your sensitive view and splendid description of the spirit you captured while traveling through Sarajevo & Mostar.

    I had family in Mostar, my father was born there, and we used to spend every summer in my grandparents house till the war broke out. Last week I ve visited Mostar & Sarajevo, (same time as you), after 15 years of trying to forget the ruins of the place called home, family, friends. It was very touching and beautiful to see, hear and feel the long time not seen but again found close standing survivors. singing, making fun and being indiscribable warm and wealthy strong in their spirit. In Sarajevo i was told> here no one knows what the night or day might bring….so close but so far. Huge amount of purest direct existential intensive wondering.
    For me ruins became precious lines.

    Be happy

    1. Earl

      Hey Dijana – Thank you so much for the comment and to be honest, it’s nice to hear similar thoughts about Bosnia from someone with a much greater connection to the country than I as it helps confirm that what I observed was correct. That’s excellent that you recently spent some time there as well and as I read your own description about the current spirit and attitude of the Bosnian people, I once again found myself thinking about how powerful of an experience it was to visit that country.

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  11. Greg

    This has been one of my favorite of your posts Earl, I think the second picture from the top is fantastic. While I was in Istanbul a Brit chatted me up about how moving Sarajevo was to have traveled through, I must admit I’m too young to have any memories of the conflict but I really enjoyed your brief history lesson.

    Safe travels,
    Greg

    1. Earl

      Hey Greg – Sarajevo really is unlike any other place I’ve ever been as it’s the only country where I have not been able to escape thinking about war and its effects every single day. And I also wanted to learn as much as possible because, similar to you, I don’t remember much about the war, not because I was too young (I was 16 or so) but because I had not yet understood the value of following world events. Luckily this trip gave me a chance to make up for that.

  12. Jeremy Fischer

    Incredibly well written. I am impressed by your thoughtful reflection. Thank you for sharing.
    Be well and be sure to give us more to stoke our thoughts.

    1. Earl

      Hey Jeremy – More stories and experiences are surely on the way, from all of the regions I’ve visited so far. As always, I appreciate you reading and still looking forward to a time when we can finally meet up again!

  13. Brian Wadman

    I appreciate how you took us thru the misery of war and its destructiveness to a point where we can and should appreciate the happiness and good fortune that is given to us. Humanity rules!

    1. Earl

      Hey Brian – Well said my friend! There is always something to be thankful for and if we focus on those things, no matter what, our days will certainly be filled with more happiness. It’s a good lesson to remind ourselves about as often as possible.

  14. Ashley

    This is a fantastic! I’ve seriously been waiting for you BiH posts! Feel like you were able to capture what I was feeling while I was there and put it eloquently in to words in a way that I just could not do.

    BiH is the first and only placed I’ve traveled where war was so present…and unexpected. I was well aware of the war (it was one of those contemporary events that I was really interested in as a child), but just thought that it had been so long since that it would be just a history by now. At first enjoying myself among the ruins felt wrong…like I should be more serious and somber while there. But the people were so wonderful and so open about discussing their history that, like you, the ruins just faded away. BiH was just one of those places that instantly grabbed me…and is the one place that I’m constantly trying to convince friends to travel to! My first taker is going next summer (can’t wait to her how much she loves it there). And I’ll definitely be back 🙂

    1. Earl

      Hey Ashley – It’s interesting because at one point, when I walking around the sniper tower in Mostar, I was walking quietly as if I expected to find people still crying inside the building. But then, a group of people, around 20 years old or so, came running up the stairs, laughing and shouting out. And when they saw me, they started talking to me and were very happy to answer any questions I had. Before I knew it, we were standing on the top floor, admiring the view of the city and enjoying our conversation and the atmosphere was anything but serious. So I know exactly what you’re talking about and I too shall begin recruiting people to visit BiH as well! It is one of those countries that should really be experienced by more people, especially if someone is already traveling in the region!

    1. Earl

      Hey Mike – I know, the same thought goes through my head all the time. I try real hard to imagine how a person can commit such atrocious acts and of course, it’s difficult to do. And that’s why I think more people need to visit such places in order to see the results of such brutality first-hand. It’s a shocking experience, as you know.

  15. Amanda

    Great post, Earl. Really great post.

    As you were describing the attitude of the Bosnians today, I couldn’t help thinking back to when I spent some time in Christchurch, New Zealand this past spring. I was there 3 months after the earthquake that devastated the city. And, while an earthquake can’t really be equated with war, I noticed things similar to what you did in Bosnia. Even though hundreds had died in Christchurch and many people had lost their homes and their places of work, they seemed to already be at peace with what had happened. Instead of lamenting the things that were lost, they had already dusted themselves off and were busy looking toward the future, when they hope to being rebuilding a better, more beautiful city for themselves. There was so much HOPE there, just after three months. After their lives changed, arguably, forever. Buildings were still piles of rubble, people were still out of work, and not all the bodies had even been found yet. And yet the attitude of the city was so hopeful. It was a very inspiring place to visit, and I think the resilience of the people there is really what has stuck with me. It sounds like a similar case for you in Bosnia.

    1. Earl

      Hey Amanda – It is incredible how people can find such hope in the aftermath of such destruction but of course, it is completely inspiring as well. Having never lived through anything like that at all myself, it only feels natural that I would lose hope when faced with such a situation, but perhaps it is natural for human beings to find a sliver of hope and build upon it, even when everything seems to have been destroyed. The more cases of this that I hear about, the more convinced I am that this is the case.

  16. Farhad Navkhoda

    I was a teenager growing up in the UK at the time of the Bosnian war and vividly remember the pictures coming out and was shocked to see something like this happening in the heart of Europe.
    I visited Sarajevo a few years ago and was taken aback my the extent of bullet holes and war damage. On one of the destroyed building I saw, someone had graffited the simple question ‘why?’
    Sarajevo survived the siege and remained ethnically intact throughout, that vibe of survival and endurance can still be felt in the city today.

    1. Earl

      Hey Farhad – I completely agree and that is what gives this city such a powerful vibe. Somehow, despite four years of constant shelling, they remained intact and managed to come out of the ordeal without having lost all hope for a better life. And that, to me, is such an impressive and inspiring thing to witness as a traveler.

  17. Catia

    Your writing is touching and the story haunting. I appreciate that you share the not-so-lovely experiences of traveling. There is a lot to learn from them.

    1. Earl

      Hey Catia – Visiting places such as this can be difficult and I firmly believe that I need to try and learn about the situation around me. So even if that situation is disturbing, it still needs to be understood and shared with others who may not know the complete story. Thanks so much for reading!

  18. Tim N

    Thanks for posting this interesting article. I’ve actually wanted to travel to the region for some time, but haven’t been able to convince any of my travel friends to go with me. Looks like it’ll be a solo trip.

    1. Earl

      Hey Tim – You definitely don’t need to wait for others to join you on a trip to this region as there are plenty of other travelers out there to meet. While it’s not the most popular of destinations, there is no shortage of travelers in Bosnia at all!

  19. Steve Kovach

    This was very moving to read, Earl. I just arrived in Sarajevo last night and I’m having the same thoughts as you. It was great meeting you the other night back in Belgrade, and I wish we could have had more time to talk (I’m the American guy at the hostel, by the way). I’m loving your blog. Keep on livin’ the dream, man!

    -Steve

    1. Earl

      Hey Steve! Good to hear from you and that’s great that you’ve made it to Sarajevo. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts after you spend a few days there wandering around. And I highly recommend taking one of the local tours of the city with someone who lived through the war. I know they offer such tours at a couple of hostels and they are well worth it.

      Perhaps we’ll meet up somewhere else on the road one day and continue our conversation! Until then, safe travels and enjoy your stay in Bosnia…

  20. lors

    Wow….. What a story… I’ve been lucky enough and have never lived a war but can’t imagine being there and the strugle for simple things as eating, resting and living. As you mention, it must be impressive to see how despite all those experiences life must go on.
    Keep on traveling and posting, every week I’m expecting your stories!

    1. Earl

      Thanks for that Iors! It certainly is impressive to see how people dealt with war, especially when locals would tell me that for the first few days they would just hide in the basement of their houses but after that, they were no longer afraid and they tried to live a normal life even with all of the bullets and bombs flying around them.

  21. Andrea

    I too was surprised to see so many damaged buildings and bullet holes when I was in Mostar last year. But agree that the people have well and truly moved on, even if that hasn’t been easy for them. I’d love to back to Bosnia, I found the history and culture fascinating.

    1. Earl

      Hey Andrea – I never realized how little I knew about this country which is why it’s a tough place to leave. You end up learning so much every day and you don’t want to head elsewhere until you can make some sense of it all. I too will be returning to Bosnia one day, I’m sure of that!

    1. Earl

      Thanks for reading Henry. I’ll actually be writing a post about Mostar soon as well…that was another fascinating, and even quite shocking, experience.

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