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Sarajevo: City of Hope

Posted on 6/30/2020 12:00:00 AM in Traveler Insights

In Sarajevo, a moving memorial to the longest siege in modern European history left Lester with profound feelings of hope.

We received this story in response to our June Question of the Month: Tell us about a place that moved you to tears—from joy, sadness, or uncontrollable laughter. You can read more answers here.

By Lester G., 10-time traveler from Brisbane, CA

People travel for different reasons—to relax, to meet new people, to see beautiful landscapes and exotic animals—but my main interest in traveling is to experience the history and culture of different parts of the world. While there are a number of different ways to experience culture, from walking a street bazaar to watching a folkdance festival to trying the delicacies in a local restaurant, since history (by definition) is the past, it can be more challenging to experience in the present. Presumably that is why so many people think that history is something confined to dusty books on library shelves. If you travel though, on some rare occasions I have found that while you are looking at a scene in a far-off land you suddenly find that the past miraculously appears before you like a ghost appearing out of thin air. On those occasions it is possible to actually believe William Faulkner when he wrote, "The past is never dead. It isn't even the past."

I had such an experience on the O.A.T. Crossroads of the Adriatic trip. On this adventure through the western Balkans I got to see a region with thousands of years of history—with an incredible amount of that history occurring in the last 100 years. Probably my favorite place during that trip was Sarajevo in Bosnia. Bosnia has always been a borderland: between East and West, Europe and Asia, Christianity and Islam. You can actually stand in the middle of the main street in Sarajevo, and if you look East you see a city that seems like it is from the 15th century Ottoman Empire, while if you look West from the same point you see what appears to be 19th century Hapsburg Austria. And unlike the history that you read about in the books on the dusty library shelves, which focus on the inability of the Great Powers to get along with one another, the history of the borderland itself is a history of people working together so they can build their lives and nurture their families. Sarajevo, the ultimate borderland city, is rightly proud of the fact that a Mosque, Catholic Church, and Orthodox Church are all within a few yards of one another in the center of town and all the city's groups have been able to get along with one another for centuries.

Sarajevo has itself had centuries of history, but what is so amazing to me is that the city has experienced such incredible events in my own lifetime. Indeed, some of the most dramatic events took place in the 1990s—a time when I was already an adult. I refer of course to the 1,425 day siege of the city during the Bosnian Civil War—the longest siege of a major European city in modern history. To hear the descriptions of the siege by the local tour guide, to visit the city's museums, to talk to a family about their experiences in the city during the siege at the home-hosted dinner—it was all amazing. What was just passing TV and newspaper reports to me two decades ago was the lived experience of the people and places I was now actually able to visit.

A scene of modern daily life, juxtaposed with the memorial to children lost in the siege.

And that brings me to the photograph which I have attached. It is of a memorial to the more than 1,500 children that died during the siege. It is located on a plaza near the river. The inscription on the memorial translates as "Commemoration of the murdered children of the surrounded Sarajevo 1992-1995." It is a memorial of a sad and somber time. But if you look more closely at the photo you will see that it is in front of a park. And on a bench at the edge of the park there are a group of Bosnian women eating their lunch. As this picture shows, while the Bosnian War caused great tragedy, the survivors of that war still have friends, still trade the local gossip, still enjoy having lunch in a lovely park on a warm sunny day. In Sarajevo, the spirit of the people has survived; happiness and joy have survived; the human spirit has survived. The memorial to the children is near, just like the history of the war, but the centuries' old spirit of fraternity that this city is known for is still shining from this park bench on this beautiful Sarajevo day. Seeing the present and the spirits of the past through the viewfinder of my camera, this image has made Sarajevo for me a City of Hope, not just for the people of Bosnia, but for the World.

Discover the spirit of Sarajevo and the vibrant present of the Balkans when you join O.A.T.’s enhanced Crossroads of the Adriatic: Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Slovenia adventure.

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