Taking Back the Hills

Overlooking Sarajevo, Past and Present


There is a sense of imminent adventure — or, should I say, collision — every time a car takes you up one of the hills surrounding Sarajevo. The narrow streets are lined with houses, mosques and little grocery stores, spilling people, cars, and minibuses, past non-existent sidewalks, onto the bending roads. As the car climbs uphill, night falls and the city below becomes a kindled fireplace, and we smoke and trade stories, surrounded by ashtrays, cups of coffee, tea, and rakija, while the radio plays Yugoslav pop songs from the 80’s. That is how you choose your friends in Sarajevo: people you want to be with in a near–accident on your way to the highest seats in the amphitheater.

Why do we go uphill to socialize? Aside from the beautiful view, I’d like to think of those outings as unconscious acts of decolonization from the chock of a war that besieged the city and its inhabitants 21 years ago. The Siege of Sarajevo was inaugurated from these very hills on April 5, 1992 when the Bosnian Serb Army began to use already deployed artillery  — a month after the country declared its independence. The war began a day after. Life under the siege — the thunder and whistle of explosions, running from one shelter to another, surviving without food or water in candlelit basements – lasted 1,425 days. Numerically these days set a record — the siege would become the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. Ontologically, these days marked 10.000 headstones.

From behind trees and shrubbery, bearded men in military uniforms — a psychiatrist turned president, even a Russian writer — shot at the tinny human figurines of the besieged city. Most of the men in uniform survived the war and went on to lead uneventful lives marked by depression and absence of remorse. Radovan Karadzic, the poet-psychiatrist turned president, became a fugitive who successfully evaded justice for twelve years. In those twelve years, he became a practitioner of alternative medicine. Today he is serving a forty-year prison sentence for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. His last book of poetry, “‘Under The Left Breast Of The Century” was published eleven years ago. The Russian writer, Eduard Limonov, described in one instance as “a little insect who writes pornography,” moved on from supporting the Bosnian Serb Army to form the National Bolshevik Party back home, which was eventually banned, as well as Limonka, a newspaper whose name is a play of words on his last name and the Russian idiom for grenade. Today he could be shooting from a Russian machine gun at Ukrainians. I really don’t know.

And Sarajevo, well, it is still where it was, in the valley. I could put the cigarette down and touch its rooftops and houses, trace its snake-like streets with my finger, but I won’t.

Once I’m back in the valley, life is condensed in a way that at times misleads me to think that, at some point in its history, the city suffered an overdose of history, diversity, people, and flavors. This is a popular notion propagated by tourist guides, but I always end up rejecting it. There isn’t too much of anything here except concurrent intensity that imposes itself as you go about your day: at the tram stop, in the tram among the commuters, or as your mother waters her flowers and recounts all the ways you hurt her feelings last month.

Our lives here are not immune to time; we are just not too concerned with it. The clock tower in the old bazar keeps lunar time, so there, in the parameters of the old bazar, the day begins at sunset, when the Gillett & Johnston clock, brought from London, sets its needles on 12 o’clock. Elsewhere in the city, time is Gregorian, solar, expandable and removed from the basic disposition of our lives: life before and after the war, and the consecutive loss and delay that defined “life during the war.”

Aside from aimless walking, taking the tram is the best way to experience the short-circuit of commerce and leisure that defines Sarajevo today. The seven tramlines run in a loop along a single-track route, making it almost irrelevant what tramline you take. The trams that run counter-clockwise provide a beta version of Sarajevo time travel starting in the present. As the tram moves forward, one moves further back into history. One tram station after another, empires and ideologies are replaced by the architectural implementation of those that succeeded them. It’s an imperfect regression through history, but costs less than two American dollars.

You achieve peak time travel when the tram turns left from the neo-Moorish building of the National Library onto Telali Street, a street named after the announcers of news during Ottoman times. There is this shade — somewhat blue, somewhat gray — that fills the space of that street and shrouds its old buildings, shops, people and tram commuters with privacy, modesty and honesty. You see, the whole trouble with this city is its perpetual incompleteness – its many climaxes that were interrupted with new beginnings. Many of our houses are never fully constructed or furnished. Why bother with when it all can go up in flames?

The cape of calmness or the shade of honesty, or what have you, stretches till the Eternal flame, Sarajevo’s World War II memorial. The flame was ignited on the first anniversary of Sarajevo’s liberation from the four-year-long occupation by the Nazis. Forty-six years and one day after, the flame was extinguished, literally and metaphorically, with the beginning of the siege.

Somewhere along the way, the rain will fall, and Sarajevo is a city “where when rain falls, it is not simply rain,” according to the warning of a local poet. So, when it starts to fall, look for cover, and watch the street. Since the war ended, rain is the only time we run. Among the many who will rush by you, with and without an umbrella, there will be one beautiful woman whose elegance will defy the predicament of humidity, possible wind, and wetness. Unhindered by it all, she will wait for the tram. Follow her in, take it all the way to the National Museum and its pavilions of archaeology, ethnology, natural history. After you have promised yourself to go inside tomorrow and see the 600-year old Sarajevo Haggadah exhibited on the second floor, take the street running alongside the left corner of the museum.

Wait for the rain stop at Tito’s café (right behind the museum), and when it does, smoke a cigarette along Wilson’s promenade. The promenade changed names with each new political period. During the Nazi occupation,  it was even called Mussolini’s promenade. During the last war, it was named after U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. The promenade stretches along the Miljacka River that passes through this city carrying a peculiar smell and brown waters.

Between Café Tito and Miljacka is an empty lot with a memorial to the food aid delivered during the siege. The ICAR Canned Beef Monument’s inscription reads: “Monument to the International Community by the grateful citizens of Sarajevo.”  Many of the people who had to eat it during the war will tell you today: if there is another siege, I would rather die than eat ICAR, the barely-edible canned “meat,” expired over 20 years ago — at times actual left-overs from the Vietnam War.

Once you have passed the monument, you will inevitably end up on the promenade. Don’t stare at teenagers kissing on its benches and don’t pet its stray dogs. Instead, walk up to the Latin Bridge, where Gavrilo Princip murdered Franz Ferdinand, kicking off World War 1. From there, take a cab to the hills and join us in the best seats, overlooking the theatre past and present.