Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Welcome to Sarajevo

The train from Zagreb passes through a landscape that seems unlike anyplace else I’ve visited in Western Europe. I don’t recognize the names of towns to come: Velika Gorica, Banja Luka, Maglaj, Visoko. Shortly after leaving the station most signs are in Cyrillic only. The door to the train compartment is thrown open by a man in uniform. We’ve reached the border with Bosnia-Herzegovina. I feel strangely intimidated during an exchange which requires no speaking on my part. After a moment he hands me back my passport. “Hvala.” Thank you.

Beyond the train, old women work dry fields, sowing seed by hand. Thin, leathery men rake and hoe beside them. A goat or two meanders around a yard. A river runs alongside the tracks and the rocks and branches are hung with thousands—perhaps millions—of plastic bags, representing all the colors of the rainbow. However, I notice that most are blue or yellow. Bags way up in the brush along the bank show the high water mark. Sometimes there are signs warning of landmines and buildings pocked with the scars of artillery fire.

The attendant from passport control has been looking closely at the identification of the man on the other side of the compartment. The attendant turns and asks me something but I don’t understand. He sees this and laughs. “You are okay,” he says, pleasantly. The man across the compartment smiles and winks at me as he is handed back his ID card. “Do viđenja.” Good-bye.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is a land marked by war and Sarajevo, its capital city, reflects this history. Near the city center is the bridge where Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophia, were assassinated. Shortly afterwards Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, starting WWI. Not far away is a second bridge where two young women, Suada Dilberović and
Olga Sučić, became the first Bosnian civilian casualties in Sarajevo of a much more recent war.

It is hard to imagine that less than a decade after hosting the 1984 Winter Olympics Sarajevo had become a bloody warzone, the cities dead nearly reaching 10,000 by the start of 1996. Today the Olympic buildings remain, though some have had to be rebuilt. The Olympic Village can be seen under the snow-capped peaks of the Dinaric Alps beyond and the Olympic flame is now re-lit each year to commemorate the games. Yet across the street is a cemetery with row after row of graves, each bearing a similar date: 1992, 1993, 1994... Above the markers, now made of stone to replace the flimsy old plywood memorials, sits a lion; it, too, partially repaired in the last few years.

Yet the city of Sarajevo is vibrant, feeling to me as much like Western Europe as my first glimpse of the surrounding landscape did not. Tourists have returned to Baščaršija, the Old Town, where ancient mosques and minarets flank cafes and souvenir stores. Cobbled streets lead to dessert shops and internet clubs. The baroque Cathedral Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos, one of the largest Orthodox churches in the Balkans, stands majestically, waiting for the faithful, as it has for nearly 150 years.

On the other end of town are the headwaters of Vrelo Bosne, several gushing mountain springs that provide drinking water for all of Sarajevo. I fill my water bottle and drink the impossibly clear water all day. A ridge rises above the spring, where once ran the “Road to Salvation,” so-named because, if one could just cross the hills alive, on the other side was free Bosnia. Now a horse-drawn carriage transports us back and forth along a tree-lined avenue and vendors line the small streams that join to become the mighty river that gave Bosnia its name.

The “yellow Holiday Inn” still stands, formerly the last refuge of foreign journalists reporting on the unfolding carnage in Sarajevo. Alongside is the infamous “Sniper Alley,” an open street that made easy targets out of anyone trying to travel it, even at a dead run. But the thoroughfares now bustle with cars and people, cell phones in hands, attend to the day’s business.

High above the city sits the Vraca WWII Partisan Memorial, formerly an ideal vantage point for soldiers firing into the city, and utterly destroyed by the war’s end. No effort has yet been made to repair this place, the building stripped of anything of worth and strewn with garbage. But one can’t help feeling that this is the Sarajevo of yesterday, when the future was at best uncertain, at worst something to be feared.

On the train back to Zagreb a young Muslim boy hears me speak and enters my compartment. He says he speaks some English and tells me he would like my address and phone number so that when he visits America he can look me up. He enters the information in his mobile while telling me that wants to travel and “live a life like Indiana Jones.” There are many other things he tells me; his English is actually quite good. He loves animals, especially dolphins. His father’s best friend from the war drinks too much and lives in Texas. There is a hotel by his home where I could stay if I don’t have reservations elsewhere. (I do.) He has already visited Switzerland, Canada and South America. Much of what he says is surprising to me, though, in the way of kids, it must seem perfectly natural to him. As the train pulls into the station and we say good-bye I can only hope that his life will not be marked by the kind of war his father has known, that he will get the chance to live the life he desires. And, if by chance he arrives at my door several years hence, it will be a life that I will be very anxious to hear about it.