Especially in the evening, the Austro-Hungarian quarter shows the cool, modern side of Sarajevo—despite, or perhaps because of, the derelict state of some of its buildings. Near the elegant National Theater stands a building that in any other city would probably be condemned as a public hazard; here, the shattered concrete façade hides a hip Bosnian music venue called Mash Eat Club. And then there is Klub Sloga. “Sarajevo before the war” is how it is usually described; Soviet cultural underground is what it felt like to me. A raw, open industrial space with DJ’s pumping out aggressive electronic music and décor that looks like it was slapped up straight from a foundry. Sloga is the very definition of old school. The crowd is almost disturbingly well behaved—many of the girls sip soda through straws in bottles, lest the boys think ill of them for drinking alcohol—and as the music grows to a fever pitch they dance and laugh as if war were inconceivable.
During the siege, from 1992 to 1996, some Sarajevan friends published the tongue-in-cheek Sarajevo Survival Guide, which provided the following gallows-humor advice under the heading Going Out of Town: “Officially, there is no such thing as ‘going out of town.’” There was a clandestine way, which involved a perilous journey to the western edge of the city, past the notorious “sniper alley” and ravaged Holiday Inn and into the suburb of Dobrinja. Here was the unmarked entrance of the tunnel that was dug by hand in four months in 1993—a half-mile long, three feet wide, just over five feet high—and ran under the airport runway, exiting on the far side of the forward Serb positions, in the backyard of the Kolar family house in Butmir. For the rest of the siege, this narrow passageway was the main artery into and out of the city for people and goods, and the Kolars have now opened the small War Tunnel Museum here. The opportunity to walk through the last 65 feet of the tunnel—cramped and harrowingly claustrophobic, even for this short distance—gives a bitter sense of how difficult it once was to leave Sarajevo.
It is a good deal easier to leave town today. I drove 165 miles south to Dubrovnik, in Croatia, and then on to Kotor, in Montenegro (which, during the war, had been united with Serbia), crossing the borders of the former warring states with little more difficulty than I would encounter driving to France from Switzerland. I then circled back to Mostar, capital of the Herzegovina region—roughly the southern slice of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH)—and a place I knew mainly for the famous Ottoman bridge that gave the town its name (which means “keeper of the bridge”) and was destroyed during the war. The bridge has been meticulously reconstructed using the same locally quarried white stone and medieval techniques, and the results are truly breathtaking: a soft curve that arcs high over the Neretva River, making a perfect circle that frames the air and water below. Each side of the bridge is anchored by a trail of quaint workshops selling souvenirs whose irregular stone roofs give them the look of gingerbread houses. From steep riverbanks thick with trees peek the terraces of Mostar’s many restaurants serving fresh-caught fish. Far below, the blue-green river swirls where it intersects with another fork and forms a wide, liquid plateau that gives the town an air of tranquillity.
It’s an impression that belies Mostar’s past. In Sarajevo the Bosniaks and Croats were allies, but in Mostar, after an initial Serb attack in 1992, local Croat extremists betrayed their fellow Bosniaks and reduced the mostly Muslim east bank of the town to rubble. These Croats, too, had a vision of an ethnically cleansed state—to be called Herzeg Bosna—and a walk along the Bulevar, the old front line, shows just how intimate and vicious the fighting was compared with the impersonal siege-from-the-hills of Sarajevo. The buildings here are mere skeletons; small trees now grow through the glassless windows and every stone is riddled with bullets. A few blocks east, the historic Old Town has been lovingly rebuilt, and the tourists who bus in on day trips from Dubrovnik can only see the war damage in pictures on display near the bridge. But walking west, into what is now mostly a Croat area, the graffiti changes from football teams to swastikas and the fascist Croat u, symbol of the Ustase. Clearly, the tensions that led to war have not disappeared entirely.
Returning to sarajevo for my final night in BiH, I went to dinner at Park Princeva, a restaurant high in the hills with a long outdoor terrace that hangs over the city. Sarajevo sparkled in the darkness, looking vulnerable from this sniper’s vantage point. And it occurred to me that it is possible to be in Sarajevo a very long time without realizing that the Republika Srpska, or RS, as it’s called, exists. This is the other official “entity” of BiH, given to the Bosnian Serbs as part of the agreement to end the war. It occupies 49 percent of the country, most of it rural and of little interest to visitors, and its sinuous boundary cuts through the grim outskirts of Sarajevo. There is no border control between the two— I passed through the RS without knowing it on the way back from the War Tunnel Museum—only the stubborn sulking of an unhappy marriage: separate bus networks, education systems, and police forces, among other things.
In Sarajevo the ethnic tensions have faded and even Kosovo’s recent bid for independence was greeted with a shrug. “People here have gone through so much, and are still going through difficulties, that they do not easily get excited, which is both good and bad,” said Professor Lamija Tanovic´, president of the Liberal Democratic Party in BiH. In the RS, however, Kosovo’s independence triggered angry protests and burning of the BiH flag. Since the RS is as close as the extremist Serbs came to getting their ethnically cleansed state, I stop a waiter to ask where it is, exactly.
“Over there,” he says, waving vaguely away. Then he reconsiders, and takes me to the railing of the terrace. “Right there,” he says, pointing at the hills in the northeast. I say it looks the same. “It is the same,” he answers emphatically. “It is one country. We are one people.” He pauses, shrugs his shoulders, and sighs. “But they want war.”
I looked out on the city again and thought of my visit to Sarajevo’s Old Temple synagogue, its mournful interior of unadorned stone walls and long arcades now serving as a Jewish Museum. If Bosniak, Serb, and Croat are the city’s three nationalities and, as Nadim would say, “Sarajevan” is the fourth, then Jewish should have been the fifth. Sephardic Jews migrated to Sarajevo after their expulsion from Spain in 1492 and thrived here until the Second World War, when an earlier, even more vicious spasm of anti-cosmopolitan fervor took hold in Europe. Now the Jews of Sarajevo are almost gone.
The war in the 1990’s could have gone differently: the extremists could have won a total victory. Looking out from Park Princeva, I was grateful that the city had survived the siege, but even more that the idea of Sarajevo had survived because, like Jerusalem or Beirut or ancient Alexandria, it is a cosmopolitan city of multiple faiths, which makes it resonant far beyond its small size. In war, Sarajevo was a measure of mankind’s intolerance and shamed us all. In peace, even if the city is no longer quite a European Jerusalem—meaning the symbolic “Jerusalem,” sacred to many peoples— it is a good thing, for all of us, that there are so many Sarajevans who still believe it was a better city when that was true.
Sean Rocha is a writer and photographer whose work has also appeared in the New York Times, Le Monde d’Hermès, and Italian Elle.