The ride through the countryside was quite amazing. If you did not know, you would swear you were driving down a back road in Pennsylvania. The only visible difference were signs written in Cyrillic for little shops along the road. As the contours of Sarajevo came into focus, you could not miss the gaping, rubble-filled holes that were once buildings. I was not ready for the scenes of destruction that I was about to witness. I have hiked the hollow fields of Gettysburgh, read stories of the war in Vietnam, listened to stories from friends and colleagues that had served in Panama and Somalia, and watched the “100 Hour War” on CNN.
Who really witnesses the effect and the price a city pays years after the bombs stop falling? As you walk around the once beautiful city, five years after the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords ended the war, the physical, damage cannot be ignored. On April 5, 1992 Sarajevo, the capital of the Republic of Bosnia- Herzegovina, was attacked. The city lies in the valley of the Miljacka River and is surrounded by mountains. The 260 tanks and many other weapons placed on these mountains could destroy the city. On May 2, 1992 Serbs completely blockaded the city.
The parts of the city that could not be occupied by the Serbs were exposed to a barrage of shelling and artillery fire. Everyday the city was hit by some 4,000 shells. Targets included hospitals, schools, mosques, churches, synagogues, libraries, and museums. As you cross the last crest coming into the city, the first image you see is the Unis Skyscrapers. These two skyscrapers are of equal height and were built to symbolize the brotherhood and unity of Sarajevo. Before the war, citizens called the buildings by the names of two famous characters from Sarajevo jokes, Momo and Uzeir.
The names are of different national origin to show the multi-ethnic background of the city. The skyscrapers were continually hit by artillery fire because of their equal height to break apart the united spirit of the city. Both still stand like skeletons above the city. The progress of rebuilding is slow as only the first ten floors have been repaired. Fragments of concrete and glass still hang from iron pillars high above the street. The Grabavica Cemetery, which dates back to the 17th century, was used extensively by snipers. The cemetery offered clear fields of fire at civilians fleeing to the airport.
The place exchanged hands between Serbs and Bosnians throughout the war. The Jewish Memorial Chapel in the cemetery received quite extensive damage. There is a large gaping hole in the roof and wall in the back of the chapel. Shards of stained glass are scattered all around. Scorched walls are evidence of the explosions from the artillery rounds fired at it. The desecration of the final resting-place of many was visible. Old tombstones were dug-up to fortify artillery positions for the besiegers or were damaged beyond repair from bullet holes.
The most astonishing place on my trip to Sarajevo was the Olympic village built for the 1984 Winter Olympics. Zetra Sports Hall, the place of the closing ceremony, was completely destroyed. Although rebuilt, there is still evidence of damage received by repeated attacks from the hillsides. The lands that once had many tennis courts, soccer fields, and baseball diamonds is now scattered with thousands of graves from the siege of the city. Buildings that held the participants of the games are now occupied by hundreds of families that have been displaced from the war. Scaffolding is everywhere as the city repairs from the war.
Craters in the streets show the impact of shells. Filled with red plastic and called “Sarajevo roses,” they serve as a reminder of the dead. Ricochets of bullets are on almost every building. The Bosnian capitol-city of about 350,000 people is still recovering from the siege. It is quite amazing how life goes on in the city as if to say “what war”. As I was leaving the city, I could not help to think what if this happened in any number of American cities. What kind of change would occur to our everyday life? You might say, “that could never happen here” or “our nation is too strong”.