Can You See?

Some things are worth reiterating. Can you see? This oft-repeated question from our tour guide Jadranka was, it seems to me, filled with a certain weight and a meaning that does more than simply draw our attention to the stunning scene that is Sarajevo. Of course, there is much to see in this city — as much hidden as visible — but some things are impossible to miss. Five minutes outside the airport, Jadranka steered our attention to the pock marked buildings that were once a part of the Olympic village, 23-year-old scars from bullets and mortars dotting the walls and offering a poignant welcome to this beautifully city.

Can you see?

For me, it then became impossible not to search the buildings for war damage; the reminders are everywhere, whether in the bullet holes or vast rows of white memorial pillars. It is omnipresent. Indeed, it seems it is built into the city’s history. Can you see? Just there, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia were assassinated — the spark of World War I. An inevitable war, they say. Or here, one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the world, with headstones carved in the 1700s that provided cover for snipers in the 1990s. And here. There is the library, burned during the siege along with its 2 million books. The ash rained pages.

All of these landmarks are visible at multiple high points around the city, lookouts offering truly unbelievable views. And it is exactly these views that made the spots so appealing for snipers and mortar launches. We watched footage of tracer rounds launching through the air from such vantage points, but what felt so far away in the photographs and videos are in reality so close. The proximity is profound.

For me, there is suddenly so much more meaning in the bustling market, as full as goods as it is with people, and I suppose it’s easy to get lost in cliche here. Amidst such normalcy in such an amazing city it really is impossible to imagine the siege here, and there is so much to be taken for granted, none of which should. Yet an astronomical unemployment and poverty rate belie this normalcy, and growing nationalistic rhetoric underpin the fragility of a fabricated peace. Still, it seems to me there is much commonality that is ignored. Those rates of unemployment and poverty are felt equally by Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats alike, but as Mr. Amer Osmić noted, the placement of the presidential office is more likely to dominate the political debate.

Such contrasts, both political and physical, make the experience surreal. The city is vibrant, it is alive, but sometimes I find myself imagining the echoes of laughter bouncing of walls the same way bullets must have ricocheted off them. I find myself scanning the faces of the people of Sarajevo, trying to render the unthinkable, to understand the impossible, projecting an emotional experience that I can truly never imagine. 

But what can we really see? What happens when we only look for evidence of an unimaginably horrible war on the facades of buildings and the faces of people? The city and its residents are so much more than a three-year siege, than the war, than trauma; it does no one any good to be pigeonholed. As much as we must never forget the genocide, we must also cherish the daily life that bubbles in Sarajevo because that vibrancy is in all of us.

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