I’ve been trying all week to write this post on Sunnyland, but something seemed wrong. Every time I started to write about the huge pipe slide or what was essentially a high ropes course for kids on the Trebević mountain, I wasn’t telling the whole story.
The two times we went up to Sunnyland, the trip began with each of our different hosts pointing out where the Serb controlled area was during the war. The houses there are not riddled with bullet holes like the homes in the city. And to drive to Sunnyland, our taxi driver had to remove his light because he wasn’t allowed to work in what is essentially a different country even though it’s literally a line down a mountain, a line that we crossed more than once given the way the road snaked. One moment we were in the Federation of Bosnia Herzegovina and the next we were in the Republika Srpska, the Serb aligned part of Bosnia Herzegovina. There’s no border crossing, no need to produce passports, but there’s plenty of tension.
My AirBnB host explained that one day when she was 14, a Serbian armored vehicle stopped at the corner of her street, the street I’m staying on now. Her father told her everything would be ok but a few weeks later, the shelling started and for 44 months, they were cut off from food, water, and the world. Forty-four months. The citizens of the city endured hundreds of mortars a day. Neighbors turned upon neighbors. There were snipers and vigilante kidnapping, rapes, concentration camps and ethnic cleansing. In war, my other friend explained, people do things that are uncharacteristic of them.
Understatement is how we talk about these things here.
It’s estimated that more than 10,000 people died in Sarajevo alone from the war, at least 1,500 of which were children. Many many more were wounded. At the bottom of Veliki Park near we are staying is a memorial to those children, a fountain that has their small footprints leading to a tower of glass and light. Nearby the names and dates of a few are installed on cylinders that make music when turned. Some of the children died from the shelling. At the War Childhood Museum, their stories along with artifacts are on display, including parts of a metal playground that had been blown up by a grenade, killing several children. Other children were murdered by snipers. Men, with long-range guns hiding in buildings shot children near their homes. Let that sink in. Grown men looked through their long-range view finders, saw the faces of children and pulled the trigger.
It took me a while to realize why so many adults stop and gently touch my girls on their heads. As my host said, the war made everyone grow up fast. It was hard as a kid, she told me, but she couldn’t imagine how hard it was on her mother, who would make soup from water and flour, and many days had neither for her family. She tells me this as her six-year-old daughter plays with my five and two-year old girls at the immense indoor playground at Sunnyland. They jump on trampolines and we sip our coffee as evening sets on the mountain and the lights in the city below start to blink on. As we descend the hills back into Sarajevo, I can begin to make out the roads, the landmarks, and calculate the street on which my children will be sleeping that night.
The parents and grandparents here in Sarajevo want the best for their children. They clearly worry about what could happen next. They tell me that things would be better if the economy is better — the unemployment rate of Bosnia Herzegovina is at 38%. When people work together, my friend said, they will learn that they are not that different from each other. But there is too much politics, and three different presidents that serve a four-year term together — one Bosnian and one Croat from the Federation of Bosnia Herzegovina and one Serb from Republika Srpska. And the tension is still palpable, once you spend enough time listening. While the city is built up — it was utterly decimated from the war — and while there are huge malls and modern resorts like Sunnyland, there’s also the abandoned houses and craters from mortars filled with red resin. I don’t think anyone feels like the war is behind them.
For more insightful writing on the topic, you may want to read this article in the Guardian, “Life and Death on my Street in Sarajevo.”