Bosnia and Herzegovina is one country made up of two geographic regions: Bosnia in the north and east, roughly; Herzegovina in the south and west.
But since the Dayton Accord that ended the Bosnian War in 1995, the country is also made up of three autonomous regions: the Republika Srpska — two swaths ringing three sides of the country which are the largely ethnic Serbian parts; the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the rest of the country consisting of the ethnically Croat and Muslim Bosniak parts; and the city and district of Brčko, which was unable to be negotiated at Dayton and was placed under an international supervisor.
Sarajevo, as the national capital, was always a multi-cultural city. However, since the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the wars of independence, it has become majority-Muslim or Bosniak. The greatest reduction was in the Serbian population, which as a percentage of the city’s total population went down by almost two-thirds — presumably people leaving or forced to leave for Republika Srpska.
Nonetheless everything seems to get done in three parts representing the three historic ethnicities and religions — Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosniaks. The national government even has three presidents.
Our hotel, the Hotel President, is nearest the old Ottoman part of town; in the closet, along with the extra pillows and blankets, there is a prayer rug. I kept meaning to use it for my morning yoga stretches but kept forgetting it was there. My window looked out on the Abu Dhabi Hookah Lounge, which is popular with young people here — young men in black leather jackets and jeans and young women in tight jeans and heavy make-up.
Asked by one of our group about her ethnicity, our young local guide demurred — she is a native of Bosnia and Herzegovina, she said. Later, when asked about ethnic tensions today, she minimized them — everyone gets along. Our tour guide said they have to: they fought each other to the death, and nobody won, everybody lost.
Reminders of the 1,425-day Siege of Sarajevo by the Bosnian Serbs are all around. Many buildings are pocked from shells shot from the Serb tanks surrounding the city. Where there is a spot in the pavement where a shell hit and killed at least three people, the shell marks have been preserved and outlined in red — they call them Sarajevo Roses.
On our free day in Sarajevo, many of us visit the City Hall, which was formerly the National Library. Built by the Austro-Hungarians in the late 1890’s, it was destroyed by shelling in 1992, most of the national collection of historic manuscripts and texts lost. It was rebuilt to its former glory — and eclectic mix of fin-de-siecle Vienna and faux-Moorish Orientalism — and re-opened as the City Hall in 2014.
The Siege of Sarajevo was made very real to us when we visited the site of a tunnel that was dug from inside the besieged city, underneath the airport, which had been placed under the supervision of the United Nations to allow humanitarian flights such as medical evacuations. The other end of the tunnel was in territory just beyond the airport that was in the hands of the Bosnian National government that was fighting the Serbs.
Of course, no visit to Sarajevo would be complete without a visit to a spot that was one block from our hotel — the corner where Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie were assassinated by a 19-year old Bosnian Serb in 1914, who was part of a group advocating the unification of Bosnia with the Kingdom of Serbia. That assassination, and Austria-Hungary’s subsequent declaration of war on Serbia, is considered to be the start of the first World War.
We started our trip with bad weather in Belgrade in Serbia, and we ended it with rain and a plunge to near-freezing temperatures in Sarajevo. On our last day, we had a wonderful lunch of filet mignon at an old house in a fashionable neighborhood in the foothills above the old town. As we were eating, it began to snow: big, wet flakes that stuck to the evergreens and the shrubbery, but disappeared the moment they hit the ground.