Grad Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Reading “Sarajevo” on my map triggered images of those seventh grade history flashcards: Site of the assassination of the Archduke of Austria sparking WWI (flip card) Sarajevo.

Beyond these flashcards, Sarajevo was not a city I had heard too much discussion about. Before visiting the city, I was dimly aware of the recent Bosnian War and could vaguely recall that the city once hosted the Olympics – but other than that, Sarajevo was just a city on the map connecting me on my journey.

In fact, I had no intentions of even visiting Sarajevo, it was not on my original route and was not a city I circled as a desired destination. While in Dubrovnik I decided that going from Dubrovnik –> Sarajevo –> Belgrade —> Sofia was my best bet, and changed my plans to head to Sarajevo.

While I was the holder of a rail pass, it was fairly worthless when traveling through this region. Trains don’t run; all the transportation is focused around buses. The bus takes a very, VERY long time, mostly due to passport controls. Holding an American passport proved to be to my disadvantage as I faced numerous questions in the Croatian then Bosnian languages. The ride was not too bad, since I had made friends with two boys from Russia who filled the time with broken English conversation.

First views of Bosnia:

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The country has natural beauty that is only rivaled by the beauty of its people. Bosnians have gone through hell and have emerged as a strong, welcoming and proud people.

History records show that Sarajevo was founded by the Ottoman Empire in 1461. At which time, many Christians converted to Islam – which still remains the cities prominent religion with roughly 50% of the population categorized as Muslim (Bosniaks) according to the 1991 census. The remaining 50% is divided between Serbs (typically Orthodox Christians) Croats (typically Catholics) and a very small Jewish population.

This uniquely diverse religious and social composition of Sarajevo gives the city its charm and character today. Within one square, one can turn around in a circle and face a Mosque, Catholic Church, Orthodox Church and Synagogue. It is an incredible feat that there is, for the most part, peace today in such a diverse region.

Peace has not always defined Sarajevo, it has endured a dark recent history – and the struggle can still be seen and felt throughout the city today. Please read the following excerpt from Global Edge that does a good job of summarizing the recent history and transition from Yugoslavia to an independent Bosnian State:

The three constituent peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina are Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats, and languages are Bosnian, Serbian, and Croatian. Religions include Islam, Serbian Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Judaism, some Protestant sects, and some others.
For the first centuries of the Christian era, present-day Bosnia was part of the Roman Empire. After the fall of Rome, it was contested by Byzantium and Rome’s successors in the west. Slavs settled the region in the 7th century. The medieval kingdom of Bosnia emerged in the 12th century and ended in 1463, when Ottoman Turks conquered the region.

During Ottoman rule, many Bosnians converted from Christianity to Islam. Bosnia was under Ottoman rule until 1878, when the Congress of Berlin transferred administrative control to Austria-Hungary. Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia in 1908. While those living in Bosnia came under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, South Slavs in Serbia and elsewhere were calling for a South Slav state. World War I began when Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Following the Great War, Bosnia became part of the South Slav state of Yugoslavia, only to be given to the Nazi-puppet state, the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) during World War II. Many atrocities were committed against Jews, Serbs, and others who resisted the occupation from 1941-45. The end of the war saw the establishment of a Communist, federal Yugoslavia under wartime leader Josip Broz Tito, with Bosnia and Herzegovina as one of six republics in the Yugoslav federation.

After Tito died in 1980, Yugoslavia’s unraveling was hastened by Slobodan Milosevic’s rise to power in 1986. Milosevic’s embrace of Serb nationalism led to intrastate ethnic strife. Slovenia and Croatia both declared independence from Yugoslavia in June 1991. By late September 1991, Bosnian Serb Radovan Karadzic’s Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) had declared four self-proclaimed “Serb Autonomous Regions (SAO)” in Bosnia. In October 1991, the Bosnian Serbs announced the formation within Bosnia of a “Serbian Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina” that would have its own constitution and parliamentary assembly. In January 1992, Radovan Karadzic publicly proclaimed a fully independent “Republic of the Serbian People in Bosnia-Herzegovina.” On March 1, 1992, the Bosnian Government held a referendum on independence. Bosnia’s parliament declared the republic’s independence on April 5, 1992. However, this move was opposed by Serb representatives, who had voted in their own referendum in November 1991 in favor of remaining in Yugoslavia. Bosnian Serbs, supported by neighboring Serbia, responded with armed force in an effort to partition the republic along ethnic lines. Recognition of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s independence by the United States and the European Community occurred on April 6-7, and Bosnia and Herzegovina was admitted to the United Nations on May 22, 1992.

In March 1994, Muslims and Croats in Bosnia signed an agreement creating the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, ending a period of Muslim-Croat conflict. The conflict with the Bosnian Serbs continued through most of 1995. Many atrocities were committed, including acts of genocide committed by members of the Army of Republika Srpska in and around Srebrenica in July 1995, where approximately 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed. The conflict ended with the November 21, 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, which was formally signed on December 14, 1995 in Paris.

Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the political and military leaders of the Bosnian Serbs, were indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia ( in The Hague in July 1995 on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity stemming from their role in crimes against civilians throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina culminating in the Srebrenica massacre. Karadzic was apprehended and transferred to the ICTY in The Hague by Serbian authorities on July 21, 2008. Mladic was apprehended in Serbia on May 26, 2011 and transferred to The Hague on June 1, 2011.

Bosnia and Herzegovina today consists of two Entities–the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH), which is largely Bosniak and Croat, and the Republika Srpska (RS), which is primarily Serb. In July 2000, the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina rendered a decision whereby Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs are recognized as constituent peoples throughout the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In March 2002, this decision was formally recognized and agreed on by the major political parties in both Entities.

The most recent national elections took place in October 2010, electing new state presidency members; state, Entity, and cantonal parliaments; and the RS presidency. The BiH presidency was sworn in on November 10, 2010. The RS government was formed in December 2010, and the Federation government was formed in March 2011. The BiH Council of Ministers was formed in February 2012. The next municipal elections are scheduled to occur in 2012, and the next general elections will take place in 2014. In October 2008, Bosnia and Herzegovina held municipal elections, where mayors and members of municipal assemblies were directly elected (in all municipalities except Mostar and Brcko District).

The international community retains an extraordinary civilian and military presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) stemming from the Dayton Peace Accords. The Dayton Accords created the position of High Representative, an international official charged with overseeing implementation of the civilian aspects of the agreement. The current High Representative (since March 2009) is Austria’s Valentin Inzko (

In December 1995, NATO deployed a 60,000-troop Implementation Force (IFOR) to oversee implementation of the military aspects of the peace agreement. IFOR transitioned into a smaller Stabilization Force (SFOR) in 1996. With the end of the SFOR mission in December 2004, the European Union (EU) assumed primary responsibility for military stabilization operations. Approximately 600 EU troops remain deployed in Bosnia ( NATO maintains a small headquarters operation with responsibility to assist with defense reform.

The April 5th, 1992 armed attack of Sarajevo started with a sniper shot from a Holiday Inn skyscraper killing Suada Dilberovic – a medical student. The Holiday Inn where the Serbian sniper was stationed is still standing and marks the Sarajevo skyline with a bright reminder of a tragedy not too many years in the past.

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Through my hostel I met a Bosnian girl a few years older than me. She was four years old when the Siege of Sarajevo started. Her father was a serving member of the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and fought against the much better equipped Serbian army that encircled the city.

She told stories about life within the seized city. For her birthday, her father traded a pack of cigarettes for a bicycle. She couldn’t ride her bicycle outside because of the danger of shells and gunfire from the Serbian army an estimated average of 329 shell impacts occurred per day.

This is a preserved shell i saw in Sarajevo:

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Many facades and building corners show shell impact marks throughout the city.

She also explained about daily challenges – electricity was often cut off, even to hospitals. Food was scarce and people lived in constant fear of leaving their homes or where the next shell would strike. It is estimated that 12,000 Bosnians died during the Siege, with roughly 1,500 child deaths, and another 50,000 were injured.

To militaristically understand the Siege:

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Holding the mountains was a key military success for the Bosnian Army and led to the construction of the Sarajevo tunnel. The tunnel connected Sarajevo with United Nations controlled territory and was the only way for humanitarian aid to enter the city and for people to exit.

I visited the tunnels after hearing about their wartime significance. I was anticipating a massive network to allow a large movement of supplies and people, but was shocked when I had to duck down into a very small, one lane tunnel. It required me to hunch my shoulders and keep my head down to make it through the tunnel. For the two minutes I was underground, I felt uncomfortably claustrophobic.

It took about two hours to walk from the beginning of the tunnel to make it to the Bosnian Territory side. Foot traffic could only move in one direction, so each side had to alternate sending people in and out. I can’t image that a large quantity of humanitarian aid was able to make it into Sarajevo with a tunnel so small. I also don’t want to entirely imagine the condition the tunnel must’ve been – the injured and dead were carried through, people where essentially trapped ducking underground for two hours of crowded movement forward.

War is not pretty. Sometimes throwing yourself into learning about a difficult time in history can be easily avoided by enjoying natural scenery and the delights of foreign cuisine. But, to visit Bosnia and not spend some time learning about the country’s history is a disservice to your trip and a missed opportunity to understand the devastating events that have shaped the modern Bosnian people.

Smart, charming, proud and most of all: strong. The Bosian’s remember their past as much of the population lived through the Bosnian War. My Bosnian friend pointed out how much of the older population smokes – and I soon noticed how prevalent smoking is. She attributes the high amount of smokers to the remnants of stress from the war. The eyes at the tip of the cigarettes are alert and darkly alluring. The Bosnian War is a chapter in the life story of the Bosnian’s who call Sarajevo home.

And, it is a chapter in the tale of the city. Since the Siege, Sarajevo has taken on the enormous project of rebuilding. New modern buildings are bringing renewed life to the city that existed as rubble less than two decades ago. The city is winning all kinds of awards, and I am excited to see what growth and success the future holds for Sarajevo and its incredible people.

Posted on by Reagan J Payne in Part II, Uncategorized

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