Sarajevo. We almost didn’t make the trip because I was flying on my own with the girls and Austrian Airlines was worried about protocol. I did not have a letter from my husband saying I could travel with the girls, but I could produce their birth certificates immediately. And because the girls have both my name and their father’s, and because I assured several people that D was meeting us at the airport, they let us board the plane. “There are some not nice people there,” the one man told us after looking at our papers. The younger man was nearly sweating with worry. “There was an incident a few months ago,” he said, somewhat cryptically, after apologizing profusely for the concern.
And this is the reputation that Sarajevo has, that every article about the city begins with. Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, was the center of a horrible war and ethnic cleansing in the early 90s. And while the country was absolutely beautiful to fly into — mountains dotted with picturesque red-roofed houses — the massive graveyards were unmistakable even as we flew in. At first they look like snow spread out on the green hills, and then you begin to make out the grid of thousands of stones. Living under siege by Serbian forces for four years, and witnessing the atrocities committed, of course there would be not so nice people. Many of the buildings still have bullet and mortar holes in them, and you can’t help but think of how the effects of war have been passed down even to the children who are the same age as my children. Everyone was touched by the war in some way.
But, young people kiss openly on park benches, men enthusiastically hug each other or walk arm in arm. Children play on swings and slides, and parents and grandparents feed them thick, greasy slices of pizza from napkins before they leave the park. Our first day, the girls were running happily from the swings to the seesaw to the slide and were oblivious to the evening call to pray from the Mosque across the street, something we’d hear often as we walked the streets. It’s a lovely, calming song.
Sarajevo is a Muslim town. And it’s a very very old town in the middle of a valley along the Miljaka River. Clouds gather along the tops of the mountains, some of which are still covered in late-spring snow, and then tumble high above the valley, blown by fast, invisible forces. There are fortress walls in the hills, and minarets rise from perfectly shaped domes every few blocks.
To really feel the history, the endurance of the place that has seen numerous wars and occupations, that has been razed by fire over hundreds of years and built back up each time, that has welcomed Muslims, Jews and Christians, you have to visit the Baščaršija. It’s a long low stone building sunk underneath the street that was first erected in the 15th century, and it still acts as a bazaar, with dozens of tiny stalls to buy touristy things like sparkling jewelry, Turkish coffee sets, and counterfeit toys. We came across it after walking along a wide marble street lined for at least a kilometer with vendor stalls selling baklava, coffee, jewelry and scarves, and in the night, it seemed ancient, the stone walls almost electric with so many centuries of ghosts, but still full of so much possibility.