Red Roses of Sarajevo
The parks in Sarajevo double as graveyards, though the clean white obelisks that mark Christian burials are kept separate from the slanting mushroom-headed plinths of Islam, which look unfathomably old, stained by dirt and weather. There was nowhere else to bury the dead during the four years under Serbian siege (1992-5).
I went to the Holiday Inn where all the journalists stayed, it being the only hotel still open at the time. It's on the Zmaja od Bosne road, a wide highway that goes from the city to the airport, and that was affectionately renamed Sniper's Alley during the siege. Serbian marksmen in the hills targeted civilians, who had to run through the marked sniper zones on their way to work, school, church, or the sparsely supplied grocer.
It's vertiginous and unreal to see a city so recently affected by war, where many bear the physical scars of the conflict and everyone has a veteran's cold disillusionment. Everywhere are bullet-holes, piles of rubble, and collapsed buildings. The Serbians targeted cultural landmarks, and the Bosnian National Library remains half rebuilt.
The most colorful reminders of the war are the Sarajevo Roses, which look like splatters of red paint on the sidewalks. The Bosnians filled in the scars of mortar shells with a red concrete resin to make a rose-like shape.
Sarajevo is crowded, polluted, overgrown, bombed out, boarded up, and still alive. It's twice as big as the long, narrow Miljacka River valley that it has been crammed into, and stone Bosnian houses with red rooftops creep up the sides of the forested hills that were once a haven for mortars and sniper teams. Signs warn pedestrians to stay on the pavement, since thousands of landmines remain undiscovered, and to be careful of packs of stray dogs, which is unfortunate because the hills are beautiful.
For all this, Sarajevo is a charming city. I stayed in a hostel in the Baščaršija old town, which looks like a Medieval marketplace. There are streets for leatherworkers, for carpets, and for artisans who make pots and stoves and more delicate items out of metal. With a chorus of tinking, metalworkers chisel crosses, florid arabesques, and the images of sacral buildings into plates, cups, and coffee sets of copper and brass and silver that gleam on wood shelves behind the alley's glass walls.
The minarets and domes of Turkish mosques, the competing riot of Arabic prayer songs that drift over the smoky city five times a day, and the storefront displays of mannequins bearing hijabs and Eastern sensibilities all remind that this is as much a Muslim city as a European one, with as many Muslims as Orthodox Christian Serbs, and five times as many of those as Roman Catholics. They say Sarajevo is the most Eastern city in the West, and the most Western city of the East.
Anyway, I stayed in a little hostel, in a cheap single room with cable TV, a phone that wasn't plugged into anything, and all the comforts of a monk's cell. Downstairs Bosnians drank coffee and played checkers and Counter-Strike 1.6. I don't mind sharing accomodations, but it was exquisite after my all-night bus ride across the howling mountain tracts and sleepy black towns of barking dogs to lie down on my bed -- which was really more of a couch with a sheet on it -- under the glow of a trans-Atlantic Celtics-Cavaliers game, and fall asleep.
I spent most of my waking hours walking around the city.
I went to the Skendereji courtyard and watched dozens of old men encircle a chess board half as big as a basketball court. Some stood on the nearby dumpsters for a better view. They argued with each other and shouted unsolicited advice to the two contemplative players, who moved the bucket-sized pieces with a fencer's flourish when performing some trick.
There's a lot of stuff going on -- I just missed "Mortal Kombajni [Kombat]," a drama by Dino Mustafich -- and a lot of cool bars like Club Bill Gates, the Pirate Bar, and Cheers. I sat out the frequent downpours in cafés and cheap restaurants, drinking Bosnian coffee (which they serve with the grounds) and eating hearty Slavic fare and Turkish pide. I looked at the homemade guns and terrifying stuffed animals at the National Museum and the History Museum. I climbed up the remnant walls of toppled fortresses at the top of the hill on the city's western end and wondered at the crowded cemeteries.
On Tuesday I went to the Sarajevo brewery (their well provided much of the city's water during the siege) with two Americans I met, one of whom became enamored with the titanic beer steins.
"I'll give you 30 marks for this," he told the serious Bosnian waiter.
"How much do you want for it?"
"It's not for sale."
"How much would you charge if I broke it?"
The waiter smiled and said, "I would beat you to death."
"What if I just stole it?"
"I will take glass now."