The sun was setting in the Sarajevo valley in Bosnia-Hervegovina and it was then that I heard the low crescendo of the muezzin floating on the soft summer breeze. A moment later the bells of Sacred Heart Cathedral began to ring and I understood why Sarajevo has been called the European Jerusalem. It is a city that hosts mosques, a synagogue, and Serbian Orthodox and Catholic cathedrals all within a few hundred meters of each other and for hundreds of years was the picture of peace and tolerance.
This all changed in 1992 during the Bosnian War when Serbian forces surrounded Sarajevo and started the longest siege of a capital city in modern warfare. The siege lasted from 1992 to 1996 and I was fortunate enough to hear about the history of the city during that time from a local who had experienced and survived the war.
We went on a walking tour of the city and our 27 year-old guide, Lelja, was not shy about pointing out Communist-era apartment blocks riddled with bullet holes and the remnants of bomb blasts making them look like moldy, Swiss cheese. She told us that when the city was first under siege she was seven and needed to go to school. “I went to school in an old ale house because it was the closest large building to my house. We had to go to school very early because we had to be home by 10 a.m. when the shooting and bombing started. We don’t know why, but they didn’t start shooting until 10 a.m. Maybe they wanted to sleep in,” she joked.
She also pointed to a large, red paint splatter on the pavement. It was a “Sarajevo rose” and the city has more than 100 of them. Each rose marks where mortar shells fell and killed between 3 to 20 people. 11,500 people were killed during the siege, many of them children out to collect water or food for their families.
After the tour, I could not help but notice the groups of people sitting outside on park benches and along the small river that runs through the city. There were women with headscarves having a picnic with women wearing shorts and tank tops. There were teenagers flirting outside of a mosque, while old men sipped Turkish coffees and played chess. The war cost many people their lives and left its mark on buildings and locals, but the people of Sarajevo have proved their resilience by steering the city’s history back to one of tolerance and peace.