On our second day in Sarajevo, our lovely local guide, Jadranka, took us on a lengthy walking tour of the city, and while (as a first-time traveler to this part of the world) there were so many new things to take in, I couldn’t help but keep noticing how much graffiti was everywhere. I know many cities tend to have a good amount of graffiti–particularly in areas or times when strong social, cultural, or political divides exist–but I found the amount here in Sarajevo (and other cities we’ve visited here in Bosnia) to be astonishing and impossible to ignore. While I often find most graffiti difficult to read or interpret anyway, the language barrier makes it even more difficult for me to discern what the exact messages and uses of Sarajevo’s graffiti are. Regardless of the reason for it–whether it be to memorialize events, for the achievement of a political goal, for social emancipation, as avant-garde artistic expression, or simply boredom–it leads me to feel that the people here have something weighing on them that they want heard or need to get out (despite the lack of talking about their problems) and that more appropriate and beneficial avenues for doing so are perhaps lacking. So it is let out on just about every surface of public space (aside from any official buildings or statues-there does seem to be some graffiti etiquette), and Sarajevo’s 1984 Winter Olympic facilities are no exception.
Knowing that we planned to go see Sarajevo’s old Olympic bobsled track during our visit here, I decided to do a little background research on the Olympic games in Sarajevo. I learned that Sarajevo (the first communist city to host the winter games) was chosen over Swedish and Japanese candidate cities, because as a city in the non-aligned former-Yugoslavia it was less likely to be boycotted by Cold War countries. Because the Sarajevo games were taking place during this time of high tensions, these games in particular were seen as a symbol of world peace.
However, just eight years later, Sarajevo’s glorified Olympic facilities morphed into bloody battlegrounds, with the bobsled track (a portion of which is seen in the picture below) serving as a stronghold for Serbian snipers. Once hosting some of Bosnia’s proudest moments, the bobsled track is now left crumbling and marked with bullet holes, drilled out sniper points and, you guessed it, graffiti. Given the amount of graffiti that is found everywhere in the city, it’s easy to at first see the bobsled track as yet another surface found available to “tag” with one’s unspoken problems. But then I came across this piece of art on the bobsled track which caught my eye and made me smile:
Then as we were leaving, Jadranka explained to me that for a long time the bobsled track, and Trebevic Mountain where the track sits, was a place of great sorrow meant to be avoided due to the war damage that serves as a constant reminder of the unimaginable trauma so many went through, but that now the graffiti there makes it a happier place that people like going to again. Her saying that to me coupled with seeing this simple yet positive message made me wonder if I’m thinking about the cause of the graffiti in Sarajevo all wrong. Do I still think there is an unmet need there? Yes. But perhaps the graffiti serves to distract people from the other damage, the war damage, that is all around them, so they can see past it and move on from it as they seem to so badly want to do. Or perhaps it’s a way of taking back power and ownership over their city in some way. I doubt I will get to the bottom of it before our time here ends but do intend to explore the idea further.