Sarajevo, the capital of the small Balkan country, possesses a peculiar robust charm, distinctive for cities of rich history, struggling with demands of politics and economy. While people do what they do best, daily endure the existential dread; the town is slowly evolving, but into what?
We arrive at the city in the evening, just early enough to see the outlines of the surrounding green hills, glimmering in the face of thousands of street lamps, resembling early summer fireflies. There is a familiar smell of grilled meat in the air, combined with the trace of rain, washing the streets recently. The daily hustle is slowly retreating to the night whisper, but the city is far from going to sleep. Undoubtedly is the Balkans, remember!?
Sarajevo is changing. One can no longer hear the loud singing of Mu’adhins, their song remains quiet, noted only in the neighbours near mosques. The buildings are slowly getting a new skin, the kind without scars and debris this time around. But not all of them, one can still find tired, dusty houses, squeezed between modern facades, their inhabitants living their lives exactly the same as they used to.
Modestly, slowly and carefully, because you never know, who you can trust. It used to be the neighbours, but since the war, no more. Stray dogs gathered in gangs, now oversight the streets on the outskirts of the city centre. Only the bravest ones wander off into the tourist hustle and bustle, distrust gleaming from their eyes, bleakly being used to persecution and the struggle for survival. Young men, dressed and styled up in the similar recognisable manner, cautiously but proudly march on the sidewalks. Although the atmosphere is calm, the conflict can inflict any time. The graffiti on the house facades state that there are many contradictions in this country, even if they smoulder underground, it’s impossible to fail to notice them. The past is still way too painful, poverty as well. The cemeteries scattered all over the city, some even in parks, are a manifestation of death that never left the town. Violence remains, no matter how people manage to live on.
Love and conflict most often flare between forces which perceive one another as something contrary, even though this holds valid only on the surface. In Sarajevo, antagonisms lie everywhere, on the road, inside of the people, in history. Polished vehicles of expensive brands, parked alongside rusty remains of another time, another common country, are not an unusual sight to see. The modern city centre is filled with restaurants and cafes, furnished in style of the latest interior design guidelines, as well as same fashion stores that supply most of the European cities.
The West is fairly close, but a thorough view reveals its ways hasn’t really absorbed profoundly in the pores of the social life yet. Cafes, known as “kafane,” are full of men of different ages. Spending their days drinking, conversing and engaging in table games, stirring up the everyday events and scouring for the possible intruders. Women are not in sight, they linger in the modern part of the city and residential neighbourhoods, being subjected to some other rules. Home and family for those who follow tradition, or cosmetic salons for younger generations whose primary goal is the look of a plastic doll. The dolls are by far the most sought-after commodity in this part of the world. Silent beauties, supporting their alpha males from the background. Although proverbial Balkan explosive temperament doesn’t skim over the women population, a female’s mind or opinion is still generally a trifling matter.
In the modernized part of the city, amidst cafes, a large black sign invites the courageous to visit the first memorial gallery in BiH. An invite to another world, a place of feelings, impressions and tears. The inscription in the elevator, “You are my witness”, recalls what people would most like to forget. But they can’t, at least Bosniak not. The initiator of the Gallery 11/07/95 project is Tarik Samarah, noted Bosnian documentary photographer and the author of the photographs which compose the permanent exhibition in the gallery, mostly dedicated to the Srebrenica tragedy. A wide range of multimedia content such as the Map of Genocide, the sixteen-meter Wall of Death with the names of all buried victims, portraits of sufferers, various shots, and photographs, keep the memory of 8372 people who lost their lives in the summer of 1995.
By cause of, they were different as those who killed. By reason of, they believed that the supreme heads of the country would know how to resolve the situation before it was too late. In addition to the permanent exhibition, the gallery space is filled by various authors such as Ron Haviv, Narciso Contreras and Paul Lowe, as well as other foreign and local names. The purpose of the gallery museum is not to accuse, but to draw attention to the problem of violence throughout the world: “Srebrenica is a symbol, not just of the war in BiH, but a symbol of the suffering of innocent people and the indifference of others who could help.”
Let that sink in. The indifference of others who could help.
Vijećnica City Hall
The biggest architectural gem in Sarajevo is undoubtedly the Vijećnica City Hall. The building with distinctive triangular layout opened its doors to visitors again in 2014, after a 15 year period of restoration. The eclectic architectural style combines influences from Islamic art, distinctive for Spanish, south Italian and Northern African regions, but represents the power of north, since it was built to assert the Austro-Hungarian reign in the country. During the siege of Sarajevo, the grenades of Yugoslavian and Serbian army struck Vijećnica building several times, with the culmination of war terror taking place on the night of the 25th August 1992, when the significant part of the city hall burned to the ground. The fire seized most of the collections of the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as much as 80 percent of the documents giving evidence about the history of the country. Today a memorial of cultural genocide, as the building is sometimes called by the locals, is thriving again. Sandwiched between Baščaršija area, the roads and a river, its glory is best admired from a distance. Successfully revived, like only Balkan people know how the Vijećnica City hall is as intriguing as only young ladies can be. But books, burnt in the fire, will not be written again.