Saturday, June 29, 2013


NOTE: Although this is a post about traveling, today it is necessary to include quite a bit of history because one cannot begin to appreciate Sarajevo without a basic understanding of its past.  I'll keep the lecture as short as I can.

Aside from hosting the 1984 Winter Olympics, Sarajevo is probably best known for two things: for being the site where World War I began, and for being at the heart of the Bosnian War of 1992-1995.

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the massive Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife Sophie were assassinated as they drove in an open-topped car near the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo, fulfilling Otto von Bismarck's prophesy that "One day the great European war will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans."

Ottoman territories in the Balkans had been annexed in 1908 by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which enraged Serbian nationalists who thought these lands should be united with the newly independent Serbia.
Map from the Sarajevo Museum of the Assassination of Franz Ferdinand

When the Archduke planned a trip to Sarajevo to inspect the royal forces there, a group of seven Serbian nationalists plotted his assassination, which started with a failed attempt in the morning. However, later in the day, when Franz Ferdinand and Sophie's driver took a wrong turn en route to the hospital to visit one of the injured from the first attempt, they happened to drive by another one of the assassins, 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, who jumped out of his seat at a cafe and fired shots into the open car at almost point-blank range, fatally wounding both of them. The Austro-Hungarian Empire decided to use this event as a reason to settle the Slavic lands question once and for all, and then Russia came in to support Serbia, and the rest is history.  (If you are interested in a three-part dramatization that goes into detail about the events of this day, go here, here, and here.)

In general, Bosnians are not too fond of the Serbs. From the Bosnian perspective, they do seem to be a hot-headed lot. However, it is clear that Serbia had felt for a long time that Bosnia should belong to them.

A small museum commemorating the event is at one end of the bridge.

The coat of arms and flag of Bosnia during Austro-Hungarian rule, 1878-1918, seems to indicate that the Bosnians can't blame all the fighting on the Serbs. (Either that or they use a big knife to cut their cake.)

The museum has pictures that were actually taken on that fatal day, along with a reproduction of Franz and Sophia in all their finery:

There are also portraits of the conspirators, with the assassin on the left.
This 22-caliber Browning pistol started World War I and led to 37 million deaths, almost a million of which were Yugoslavians: 
Princip was captured as he tried to commit suicide directly after the attack, but because he was only 19 and the law stated a death sentence could only be given to criminals aged 20 and above, he was given a life sentence. He died of tuberculosis in prison a few years later.

After World War I, Bosnia was pulled into the union of Southern Slavic nations that became Yugoslavia. However, in 1941, the Nazis invaded and conquered Yugoslavia. Allied forces supported a very effective Yugoslav resistance group led by Marshal Josip Broz Tito, and after the war he was named the ruler of the region that had comprised Yugoslavia before the war, somehow managing to fend off Stalin, who snatched up other Slavic countries on Yugoslavia's eastern border.  
Sarajevo's Eternal Flame commemorates the victims of World War II. (Look closely inside the arch. Those are bullet holes from the war that came next.)

Tito, who to his credit managed to unify a very disparate group of people, ruled from 1945 until his death in 1980. After his death, nationalistic sentiments that had been lying dormant slowly began to resurface.

Which leads to the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. After Slovenia and Croatia seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the most culturally diverse country in the union, declared their independence in February of 1992. However, the Bosnian Serbs, who made up almost a third of the population, wanted to remain united with Serbia, and soon civil war broke out, fueled by troops and weapons sent by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic (a name and evil reputation I remember well).

As a key part of the war, the siege of Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina's capital city, lasted almost four years. It was the longest siege of a capital city in modern warfare. All roads were blocked, preventing food, water, medicine, and supplies from entering the city. Electricity, phone lines, and heating were cut off, even during the three long, harsh winters.
Picture taken from this site
Foreign aid was given, but food distribution was often pretty sketchy and rations were very, very scarce. Bombing was carried out daily, and snipers regularly picked off random victims, including women and children.

The bombing of this market on February 5, 1994, killed 68 people and wounded 144 more. It drew much needed international attention to the city, which at this point had been blockaded for almost two years:

There was no safe place, not even along the side walls of the Catholic Cathedral:
Note the shrapnel damage on the stones of the cathedral shown below.  The red puddle on the sidewalk is called a "Sarajevo Rose." These can be found throughout the city. Our guide told us that they mark the spot where a person was killed by a mortar shell explosion. The resulting indentation was filled with red resin as a kind of memorial to the victim. There are about 100 Sarajevo Roses still in place, although many are being removed or covered as part of reconstruction:
In her book Logavina Street, Barbara Demick explains, "The Serbs let loose on the densely populated city with an array of weaponry. They used anti-aircraft guns of up to 40 millimeters to shoot at apartment buildings, trams, cars, pedestrians--'almost everything except airplanes,' as one UN officer put it. They also used 120-millimeter mortar shells. The projectile was about the size of a golf bag, a chunk of fast, hot metal that splintered into thousands of shards of sharp metal--the shrapnel. It could shred the body organs of anyone standing within fifty yards. Sarajevans said that every time they went outside, they were playing Russian roulette."
Apartment buildings in Sarajevo approximately four months after the end of the war.
Picture from Wikimedia Commons
To add to the horror, there were what were known as "sniper alleys" in the city. Professional snipers could sit in the upper floors of tall buildings or in the hills that surrounded the city and pick off individuals walking (or running) to get water, fuel, or food.  People obviously had to move about to survive, and during the long siege period it was never safe.

An average of 3,000 shells were fired on the city each day.  Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander, is reported to have said, "Shoot at slow intervals until I order you to stop. Shell them until they can't sleep; don't stop until they are on the edge of madness."
March 1996, three months after the end of the war. Picture from Wikipedia Commons
There were no homes or buildings that were not damaged in some way.  Many of the wounds remain. Perhaps they are there to remind the city's residents of what they survived. Maybe they have no money to fix them. Maybe the damage is so common that they have ceased to see it.

 Occasionally we saw a building in the process of being restored:

It is hard to imagine that this horrible war occurred so recently. When I look at pictures of the city taken during the war, it is difficult to believe it is the same place where we walked down peaceful streets, and where everyone we met was friendly and helpful. We felt safer in Sarajevo than we have in many big cities in the United States. It was a rather bizarre disconnect.

Next: Religion in Sarajevo today

Postscript: In researching another topic, I ran across a New York Times article dated June 8, 1992, describing the beginning of the siege of the city. It is horrifying to realize that the siege continued for three-and-a-half more years.


  1. This is a wonderful recap of the war. The map of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was very helpful, I'd never had that piece before. Interesting to see how the Ottoman Empire, Serbia, etc. all fit in. Having been there, of course, makes it come together much easier now because I have a context for the map.

  2. In Lyon, a small cathedral had a big crater near the top of the door, where it was shelled during the WWI. I, too, have often wondered why these momentos of war still remain, and why it is important to see them. What I saw was ONE cannonball. What you show is tons of bullet holes.

    I was also interested in the fact that many countries want/expect the US to intervene as a way of solving the conflict (we are seeing that now in Syria). Don't know the answer to that one. One of our ward members spent a couple years there (military service), one year, then home, then another year. Russ is a 4th grade teacher with a family, and they missed him while he was one of the "peacekeepers."