Where Worlds Collide Good and Bad

Trip Start Aug 09, 2009
Trip End Oct 23, 2009

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Flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina  ,
Monday, September 7, 2009

My overnight bus ride came to an end here about ten miles short of town at some remote bus depot in a suburb called Obrinja.  Obrinja is in the Republika Srpska which is not officially recognized as its own country (yet).  Keep in mind it was 5:45 in the morning and the sun was just barely coming up.  It was cold, too since Sarajevo is high in the mountains.  And I mean probably upper 30s type cold.  I had thought the bus would come into the main train/bus depot in town but later found out anything from Serbia and Montenegro ends here.  Now we all know.

I did have directions to the hostel and along with directions from where I had thought I would end up, they vaguely indicated that from this other bus station there is a trolleybus 300 meters away that would take me right into town no worries.  300 meters.  Great.  Which way?  Left, right, behind the building, in front of the building?  Luckily the first person I asked spoke English and she was hauling two giant bags up to the depot.  She said, "You are in East Sarajevo" with a hint of distaste as she emphasized the East part.  Later I would see why.  She went on to explain this neighborhood was not suitable for a trolley line and they were lucky to have one running through it.

After she asked around I was pointed in the right direction and found the trolleybus line which is just basically a regular bus with a thing that sticks up to touch the wires for power.  It's basically a trackless tram but in citybus form.  Of course here city bus form requires revisiting the 1940s. 

I had no Bosnian money and of course there was no bank or ATM or anything around except miles of those typical Communist built highrise apartments.   I handed the ticket booth lady a 2 Euro coin and she pushed it back towards me.  She had absolutely no sense of humor and I tried handing it back.  She said no again and slammed her window shut.  This has probably been her job since Tito was dictator.  I was beginning to see why the lady who gave me directions didn't care for the area.

I was fearing a ten mile walk into town at this point and was about to hop on the trolleybus with no ticket.  It's an honor system anyway and I wasn't in the mood after two overnight bus rides in a row, no shower, no food and no sleep.  All of a sudden her little glass window slammed open and she was waiving a Euro bill between her meaty forefinger and thumb.  I figured out she takes Euro bills but not coins for people like me who dare show up with no Bosnian Marks.  I finally had my ticket, some Bosnian change and was on my way.  Hey, I'd be a cranky bitch, too if I had to hawk trolleybus tickets some freezing cold tiny wood booth full of splinters to unprepared Americans.

I just chose the first trolleybus that came along and hoped it was like other Eastern European cities where these suburban lines are one way into downtown with no unexpected branching off into parts unknown.  I couldn't get the machine to validate the rectangle piece of paper serving as my ticket. Normally you just stick it in and a computer prints the time and date on the ticket.  Not in this retro piece of 1950s crap they use over here.  A lady got up and showed me you have to actually slam the machine shut so a piece of carbon paper makes an imprint, much like a credit card imprinter from decades ago.  She went on to explain this for ten minutes in Bosnian.  And loudly I might add so everyone at each stop could stare at me and shake their heads in disbelief.  Whatever lady.  If that made your day, so be it!

I found the hostel that had come recommended after walking a few blocks and got the last bed they would have for the day.  And it was only 7:30am by this point.  I was told my bed would be available at 1pm but luckily they let me shower and relax there in the meantime.

I have three facts about Sarajevo to pass on...World War I started here.  The 1984 Winter Olympics were held here.  And the city was under 24 hour a day shelling by the Serbs from 1992 to 1995 right after Bosnia-Hercegovina declared its independence from Yugoslavia (which was controlled by Serbia).

The shelling damage was evident on about 100% of the apartment buildings lining the trolleybus route through East Sarajevo and maybe this is why that lady had such distaste for the place.  The buildings are repaired as best they could be but the damage is still highly noticeable.  The actual city was gutted and destroyed and the downtown area is largely restored.  Only some of the buildings have mortar damage nowadays, but there are a few larger government type buildings completely gutted still. 

I'll try to keep the history lesson about the siege as interesting as I can because it is important to understand it if anyone visits this city.  First off, Sarajevo is surrounded by mountains on all four sides and there is one narrow pass where the airport is located.  When Serbia started attacking, this pass was all that separated Sarajevo and its 700,000 people from the free part of Bosnia on the other side of the mountains.  The Serbian Army shelled the city 24 hours a day for three years straight and blocked the pass.

The UN took control of the airport (and pass) early on and would not allow any Sarajevans to cross the runways to safety or those in the free side to cross into Sarajevo with food or supplies.  Even crossing the runway meant being shot by the Serbs who were in the mountains on all sides of the city.  The UN blocking passage was done under the guise of being "neutral" and not taking sides.  They actually would turn people back who were seeking freedom from that hell.  Here you have a city where for three years the Serbs had cut off all water, power, fuel and roads.  The Sarajevans had nothing but what they could come up with inside the city for survival or what few supplies the UN let in to the airport by air.

All the trees except for one park were cut down for fuel, and one spring where the beer factory was located supplied water for the entire city.  Getting to the water meant up to a 14 mile roundtrip for many residents and also meant crossing an area called Sniper Alley.  Sniper Alley was the main boulevard with all trams down the middle and anyone who dared run across it was shot at. 

The Serbian Army played a sick game there, too.  The first person would get shot in the knees but not killed.  Those that went to rescue the person would then be shot and killed.  Sarajevans are proud that no one was left to just bleed out in Snipers Alley.  But even in their own homes no one was safe sense all the apartments and houses were under constant fire.  All this was taking place in a world with no heat, power or tap water keep in mind.

Desperate Sarajevans built a 3/4 mile tunnel under the airport from the sniper alley area to the free area of Bosnia and the project took four months.  There was even a rail line laid inside it so that heavy supplies could be rolled in underground.  Most items were hauled in on people's backs though and many men to this day have chronic back injuries.  The tunnel was only about 5 feet tall because anything taller would have caved in.   Picture people hunched over with a heavy load and walking this way almost a mile day after day.

I spoke with several people from here and they each said life went on as normal as best it could.  They held plays with candlelight, schools were held in secret locations so the Serbs wouldn't kill anymore children than they already had (1,601 to be exact).  And nightclubs still operated and people danced amid the rubble. 

Fast forward a few years and Bosnia-Hercegovina is rebounding and I wandered around most of the day taking it all in.  One minute I was on a street with architecture that would be at home in Vienna or Budapest.  Then turn a corner and mosques and Turkish style buildings line narrow alleys.  Keep walking and 1960s concrete junk lines the streets.  

This place is really a collision of all worlds and all cultures.  At noon I was sitting in a park eating lunch and several church bells started ringing.  Then at the same time the Muslim call to prayer played over loudspeakers from the mosques not all that far away. Not a minute later a nun passed a woman dressed head to toe in a black veil.  Only in Sarajevo.

I am going to sleep in a real bed rather than upright on a bus for the first time in a few nights and I am excited.  I am off to Zagreb, Croatia in the morning on yet another quest to figure out what makes the former Yugoslavia tick. 

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