Taking a 3 hour bus from Mostar, we arrived in Sarajevo; ready to explore Bosnia & Hezegovina’s capital city! Sarajevo is an interesting city, most prominently known for the siege that occurred during the Bosnian war. It is also the city where the assassination of Franz Ferdinand took place, triggering the commencement of WWI. However, the city has more to offer than just war stories. It was founded by the Ottoman Empire in 1878 and as such has strong Turkish influence, including a Turkish style market place in the old town, Turkish coffee houses and of course delicious Baklava!
While in Sarajevo, we were eager to learn more about the horrific Sarajevo siege that lasted a total of 1,425 days during the Bosnian War. We booked the Complete Sarajevo War Tour with Toorico Tours – a five hour tour that included many points of interest related to the siege.
Our first stop was Yellow Bastion (Yellow Fortress), a defensive fortification used strategically until the Austro-Hungarian conquest of Sarajevo in the late 18th century. The purpose of our visit to the fortress was to view the entire city and appreciate the context of the Sarajevo siege, during which the Forces of Republic of Srpska (Bosnian Serbs) surrounded the city from all sides for 1,425 days. With all the mountains and hills under the control of the Forces of Republic of Srpska, the sprawling and spacious main street of Sarajevo soon became known as ‘Sniper Alley’. Driving down this road, it was easy to see why the locals feared staying out in the open for extended periods during the siege, a fact corroborated by the frequent bullet holes atill visible in all of the unrefurbished buildings. All around the city you can see grave sites where those who died during the war are buried.
With the mountains out of their control, the citizens of Sarajevo were forced to construct a tunnel in order to maintain contact with the outside world. This tunnel stretched 800 metres and was built underneath the existing airport runway. We visited the rural entrance to the tunnel, from which villagers dug through to reach the outskirts of Sarajevo. It was an somber experience walking in a section of the tunnel, knowing that not all within the city had the opportunity to see freedom. The remains of mortar shell attacks are painted red to signify the blood spilled by the attacks.
Travelling further into the countryside, we reached Mt Igman, an area controlled by the Federation during the seige. Prior to the war, this mountain also hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics; complete with two ski jumps and a luxurious hotel for officials, both of which are abandoned and unused today. After taking some pictures on the Olympic podium, we ventured into the abandoned hotel to explore what remained – to our surprise there was a miniature forest growing on the top floor!
On route to our next stop, Mt Trebevic, we passed by an area littered with landmines, another constant reminder of the brutal conflict. We were shocked to learn that 2.2% of the entire country’s land area is considered to contain landmines, totalling approximately 120,000 unexploded mines. Our destination at Mt Trebevic was the Olympic Bobsleigh and Luge Track – a 1.5 kilometre course constructed in the early 1990’s. However, like most of the infrastructure in the mountains surrounding Sarajevo, the track was partially destroyed by the Forces of Republic of Srpska during the siege, and it did not appear to be operable. We were then surprised to hear that, despite its rundown state, the track is a popular training location for both cycling and dry runs of luge (in the summer months).
Our war tour came to an end at the base of Mt Trebevic at the Jewish Cemetery, a location that was used as a sniper nest during the siege. Reflecting back on the tour, the experience had a profound impact on us, and after absorbing all of the information and visiting some truly traumatic sites, we were left really wondering about how such an atrocity took place in the world (let alone Europe) in the 1990’s – much food for though. We were thankful for our guide, Ervin, who was extremely knowledgable, light-hearted and full of many facts and anecdotes about the war and general life in Sarajevo and Bosnia. Fun Fact:– following the end of the Bosnian War, Bosnia & Herzegovina now have three arms of government: a Croatian arm, a Serbian arm and a Muslim arm. Each arm of government controls political power for 8 months at a time, with the three arms rotating political power over the 4 year term of government. During elections, the population can only vote for the arm of government consistent with their racial background.
Whilst in Sarajevo, we also visited Gallery 11/07/1995. This is the first gallery/museum which aims to preserve the memory of the genocide that took place on 11 July 1995 in Srebrenica. Despite the UN Resolution 819, the Army of the Republic of Srpska overtook the town of Srebrenica and began systematically killing the Bosnian Muslims who had taken refuge in this town. The exact number of Muslims killed is unknown as the Army of the Republic of Srpska began a process of exhuming the bodies from the primary mass graves Into secondary or tertiary graves in order to disguise their actions. The process of identification continues today, although present confirmed deaths total 8,372. Unfortuately we were unable to take photographs in this Gallery. The Gallery is presented through photographs and interactive displays as well as a few short films. We spent a few hours in this Gallery and could have easily spent longer had time permitted.
On our last day in Sarajevo, we decided to journey to Lukomir, the highest village in Bosnia & Herzegovina. It is one of the only villages unaffected by the war due to its remote location. The people of Lukomir only live in this village in the summer months due to the isolation in winter from the rest of the country. In order to get to this village we took a tour with Green Visions, a local company that runs various tours all year round departing from Sarajevo. Once we reached Lukomir, our guide provided us with further facts about the village, and we were interested to learn that originally the village only consisted of two families who would marry outsiders to expand their population! Just beyond the last house of the village lies a breathtaking cliff that overlooks Rakitnica Gorge. Luckily for us, the local bear population is present only on the other side of the gorge – so we were safe for the day! Following our short walk through Lukomir, our guide Nedim took us on a 3 hour hike around the beautiful mountain region, with a short stop for a picnic lunch. The scenery was beautiful and we shared the landscape with only a lone shepard and his herd of sheep – this certainly added to the ambience and our experience! After our lovely lunch and a visit to one of the many natural springs, we set off back to Lukomir! We would definitely recommend the Green Visions tour should you decide to travel to Lukomir (which you should!), and if you are lucky to have Nedim as a guide you are in for a fantastic tour!
A four hour journey north of Sarajevo took us to a small town called Jajce. This village was built in the 14th century and served as the capital of the Kingdom of Bosnia at the time. It is a popular tourist destination due to the Pliva Waterfall which sits just outside the city walls. There is also a fortress on the hill which overlooks the village and provides beautiful views. The town caters for multiple ethnicities, and although it was damaged by the Bosnian Serbs during the war, the town is known as one of the more multicultural towns in the country, with both a mosque and orthodox church. With amazing views, a dramatic waterfall, well-preserved city walls and a fortress, the town of Jajce was definitely a worthwhile destination and we would recommend visiting for at least a day!
With our time in Bosnia & Herzegovina at an end, we travelled east on some long bus journeys, eventually reaching our next destination, Romania!
Until next time,
AP & DT