Revisiting the 20th century’s bloody history in rainy Sarajevo.

April 6th is a very important date in Bosnia. It is a day of both celebration (the 1945 victory) and commemoration (the start of the 1992-95 Bosnian war).


This monument to the dead of wars past has always had an eternal flame burning in front of it. But during the Bosnian War, the flame was out, as the Bosnian Serb Army besieging the city had cut off the gas supply.


This was hardly the first war in which Sarajevo played a key role.  The street corner where this museum is located is the exact spot where The Great War started. Anarchists from the Serbian organization known as the Black Hand had planned to murder the heir to the Empire and had, that very morning, attempted to do so about where I was standing when I took this picture.

As far as terrorists go, Gavrilo Princip was not the most competent. If he had lived today, he would have been the Underwear Bomber. In the June 18 1914 plot, his colleagues had thus put him as the back-up guy number 7, in case the first 6 failed! For the record, the author of the first attack was no Jason Bourne either. He threw a grenade with a 10 second delay directly at his moving target! Obviously, it exploded under the fourth car behind, injuring the occupants and 12 spectators. He then swallowed a cyanide pill and jumped in the river. However, he had purchased a lot of expired cyanide, which only made him a little sick, and there was only 10 cm of water in the river, so he just smashed his face in the mud.

So after the morning’s failed attack, young Gavrilo went to the museum, which was then a cafe. A short while later, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Duchess Sophie made their way out of the palace to visit the hospital where people injured in the attempted assassination had been taken. A confused driver took the wrong route and stopped in front of the cafe. Seeing the unexpected opportunity, Gavrilo leapt out of the establishment and shot the Archduke dead. Gavrilo’s poor marksmanship also cost the life of the Duchess, as he apparently admitted at his trial that he had no intention of killing her (he was firing at a range of 1.5 meter, just saying). Anyway, most conspirators were sentenced to death, but in the relatively progressive Empire, Gavrilo (and the first grenade thrower) had not reached the minimum age for capital punishment, 20. It turned out to be a moot point, as they both got tuberculosis in jail and died shortly thereafter.

But, as amateurish as their performances were, they did ultimately accomplish their mission and while both died before seeing it, the chain of event they initiated did result in the ultimate dismantlement of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


The remnants of a much more recent war, this abandoned building in a very central part of the city. It still lays in ruins not for lack of potential or capital, but because of persisting legal battles over ownership, a direct consequence of all the ethnic cleansing that occurred during the Bosnian War.


The Pijaka market, where 68 people were killed by a mortar round in 1994, and 43 more in 1995, an event which triggered the NATO bombing campaign against the Bosnian Serbs, which resulted in the end of the open conflict and the signing of the Dayton Accords. Bosnian Serb leaders always pretended the Muslims had fired on their own people to create international outrage. All I can say is that if true, it certainly worked.


Right next to the only remaining synagogue in Sarajevo stands this building, known as the ugliest in the city. Rents are higher than the area’s average, because residents have the benefit of not having the view of their own building!

Sarajevo was under Ottoman rule for centuries, but part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for only 40 years. However, a lot of development took place during that time. For example, the city became one of the first in the region to have a tram system and electrified lighting in the streets. Apparently, this was done in Sarajevo first to determine wether or not the technologies were safe, before implementing them in Vienna!


This enormous Orthodox cathedral was built in the last years of the Ottoman Empire. It is unusual because while the Empire at times was relatively tolerant of infidels and allowed the construction of churches and synagogues, it normally did not allow bell towers and the buildings had to be of modest size. But during the construction, when the tower was completed and citizens realized it was slightly higher than the city’s main mosque, protests irrupted. Aware that downsizing the tower would be architecturally difficult, the authorities simply removed the minaret’s roof at the main mosque, built the tower up one meter and put the roof back.

While the city was quite ethnically diverse in the old days, now the vast majority of the people in Sarajevo are Muslims. But like in Mostar, this is hardly a breeding ground for fundamentalism. My guide once asked his mother about the meaning of a religious holiday they were celebrating with special food. She said: “I don’t know, but I like to eat baklavas”.


In the 16th century, Sarajevo flourished as a commercial hub. There use to be 45 commercial streets, each populated with merchants selling a single type of items; silk street, spices street, etc. Many of the original market buildings were destroyed by fire, but the old cloth market remains. Today it has become the sunglasses made in China and refrigerator magnet street.

Next to the old commercial buildings stood 40 hostels where traders could stay. In the tradition of hospitality, and to encourage traders to come, the first 3 days were always free. But to sell all their wares and buy what they would import in their town of origin, traders usually took a week or two. Unfortunately, some traditions do not last and today if you stay only 3 nights at the Hotel Bristol Sarajevo, it won’t be free.


This is the interior of a surviving hostel. It is designed completely differently than modern hotels, with a hallway as wide as possible and minuscule rooms. The idea was that traders would simply pile up one next to another in the rooms to sleep, but would talk, conduct business, eat and drink in the hallway.


In Sarajevo, as in Mostar, Dubrovnik and Kotor, the selfie was taken under an umbrella. Andrew, a British UN translator based in Vienna, was taking a week-end off in the city. Talking about my travel plans over a coffee, we realized that we would both be in Zagreb and Vienna at the same time, and agreed to try and get together for a drink in both places. Then I changed my travel dates to Zagreb and completely changed my northward itinerary, replacing Vienna and Salzburg with Venice and Innsbruck!


Speaking of coffee, this is how the Bosnians drink it. First you eat the little chewy candy (I think), then you pour the brew into the little glass, trying not to get too many grinds, as it is unfiltered. The water helps wash down the bits you unavoidably miss.


Next to the cafe, locals and tourists alike were visiting the seed peddler and feeding the flying rats.


We tried to hike up the surrounding hills, but the rain got too heavy and we took refuge in the new city hall, which you can visit for a small fee. It used to be the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina but an enormous collection of books and archives were lost when some Serbs set fire to it in 1992. Unlike the destruction of the Mostar bridge, there is no case to make about military necessity here.


The country might be poor, but they didn’t seem to spare any expenses in renovating the building. Although I don’t know what materials they used; there are signs everywhere warning visitors not to touch the walls!

Finally, after my short visit, I took a rather long bus ride and  returned to the coast, to the Croatian city of Split.


Somewhere along the way, perhaps in Bosnia, perhaps in Croatia, we stopped at a roadside restaurant where I saw my first waterwheel operated pig roaster! Sadly, eventually I noticed the chains and realized it was electrically powered. But it must have been one busy place, as they had at least 8 whole pigs on the go.

In my story about Mostar I said I would talk about the political and economic situation in Bosnia, so here it is. In short, it is a mess. The country has four levels of administration: the Federal level, the two divisions known as the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska, the cantons and the municipalities. On top of this, a lot of power is held by the Peace Implementation Council’s High Representative. Not complicated enough? At the Federal level, there is no Head of State, but a triumvirate of three Presidents (Croat, Bosnian and Serb), who alternatively hold an 8 month rotating chairmanship. This administrative nightmare has helped create Bosnia’s main development problem, corruption and bureaucracy. ranks the country 174th worldwide in “Ease of starting a Business”, behind places like Mauritania, Iraq and Libya. (Since I plan to start a new business soon, I was happy to find Canada at number 2, between New Zealand and Singapore). It only does OK in the ease of obtaining credit, in part due to massive investments in the banking sector, coming mainly from Western Europe.

Compared to the rest of the communist world, the economy did quite well under Tito, a period which many elderly people recall with nostalgia. Despite the solid heavy industrial base, the 1980’s were not as good and the 1992-1995 war resulted in an incredible 80% contraction of GDP. Almost 20 years later, unemployment still stands at about 45%, higher for young people.


2 thoughts on “Revisiting the 20th century’s bloody history in rainy Sarajevo.

Leave a Reply