There are a lot of things that surprise me about the city of Sarajevo, and the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole. Although there are areas of the city that seem to have never witnessed any type of conflict, it doesn’t take long to find yourself stumbling over concrete scars still left in the pavement from the thousands of mortar shells that were dropped on Sarajevo during the siege. Walking around certain parts of Sarajevo, you don’t even realize that a war ever took place. The streets are filled with tourists, trendy clothing stores, and tons of cafés. But when you take a closer look, you realize that the buildings here are still riddled with tiny holes and pockmarks from bullets that once littered the city.
When you venture out further from the city’s center, it becomes obvious that the war is still haunting most of the country. There are a number of homes that were destroyed and never rebuilt. Windows are boarded up, and some buildings still stand tall, despite their structures being utterly destroyed and charred from the war. Physically, mentally, and emotionally there are a number of Bosnians that are still recovering. “Everyone here is crazy, they all have post-war syndrome,” one restaurant owner told me. He himself still has small pieces of shrapnel in one of his legs. “I get goose bumps every time I hear that damn cannon,” he admitted, referring to the loud bang that signals the end of the day’s fast during Ramadan. Every individual I meet has their own unique story, and their own way of coping with what happened here. Some people choose not to talk about the war. Others are eager to share their stories, in an attempt to teach and inform an outsider like myself of what happened here. I learned quickly that it’s better not to ask anyone about the war, but for a lot of people, it’s an inevitable subject that they cannot avoid. For most people here, their lives are split into two parts: Before the War, and After the War.
I can’t really put into words what I thought Bosnia would be like before I got here. But it’s definitely a lot more comfortable here than I imagined it would be. A lot of things in Sarajevo are very similar to what you would find in the United States. The girls here love Michael Kors, and almost every café has staple “American” food, like pizza and French fries. When people aren’t drinking Bosnian coffee, Coca-Cola is the drink of choice here. I didn’t think there would be such an active nightlife culture here, but alas, the street that our hostel is on turns into a crowded tunnel of cigarette smoke and thumping music almost every night. While girls in tiny miniskirts and four-inch heels make their way down the street, I find myself running down the stairs of our hostel in sweatpants and a dirty t-shirt for some late-night pizza. Without any make-up on and dressed like I just crawled out of bed, they stare at me like I am committing a crime against humanity—or at least basic girl code.
I’m surprised that so much of this city’s history remained preserved throughout the war. Although there was massive intentional destruction of cultural and religious property during the war, there are a number of things that somehow survived. Ottoman mosques from the 15th and 16th centuries still stand throughout the city, and although it has been long-abandoned, the bobsled and luge track from Sarajevo’s 1984 Olympics still remains to be a popular tourist attraction—despite being used as a sniper nest by Serbian forces during the war. Once seen as a symbol of great success (the 1984 Winter Olympics were the only Olympic games to ever be held in a communist country), the track is now a tribute to locals and tourists alike, who come to spray paint their professions of love and political frustrations up and down the track’s walls.