More than a decade after the Yugoslav wars came to an end, the once-besieged city finds its way into the future. Sean Rocha reports.

Blasius Erlinger The bridge at Mostar
| Credit: The bridge at Mostar

When the fog that clings to the hills around Sarajevo finally lifts one warm spring day, scarcely a table is to be had at the long line of cafés that stretches out from the Catholic cathedral in Centar, the Austro-Hungarian quarter. The chairs are set eight or ten across, taking over the street as one establishment runs into the next. Friends arrive in twos or threes, but since Sarajevo is a small town without anonymity, they gradually gather new arrivals, and soon the division between one table and another is lost as well. The young men linger; the women parade by as if on their way somewhere, then circle back in case they weren’t noticed. In late afternoon, the passeggiata begins, and the entire town, or so it seems, joins the procession down the pedestrians-only Ferhadija Street, licking ice cream cones from Vatra or Egipat and greeting neighbors.

The view from one of those tables near the cathedral looks a lot like Trieste or Lisbon, except for the black soot still visible above the windows of bombed-out buildings throughout the city. In 1992, as Communist Yugoslavia disintegrated into war, the Serbs set up positions in the hills surrounding Sarajevo and laid siege to the city for almost four years, inextricably linking it in my mind to bodies crumpled by sniper fire and marketplaces obliterated by artillery shells. Since the peace (still militarily enforced, by the European Union)—and thanks to foreign aid—Sarajevo has been repairing the damage at a rapid pace; but for one unaccustomed to visiting a city so recently torn by war, the more striking thing is how much evidence remains. Almost every wall exposed to the hills is pockmarked with sniper fire, and fan-shaped impact craters scar sidewalks all over town. In time, I imagine, the eyes adjust so that the damage becomes mere background and the scaffolding can be mistaken for routine maintenance.

For four centuries this Ottoman city lay at the frontier of the Islamic empire in Europe, its very name—from the Turkish word saraj, suggesting a governor’s palace or court—reflecting its privileged position on old trade routes connecting East and West. Sarajevo became a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 19th century and was under Communist rule for much of the 20th century. The historic heart of Sarajevo lies a few blocks east of the cathedral at the Sebilj, a carved-wood Turkish-style fountain at the top of a sloping triangular plaza leading into Bascar sija, the Ottoman bazaar. I wandered Bascarsija almost every day I was in Sarajevo: the swoop-necked coffee pots, hammered copper trays, and embroidered slippers in the shop windows reminded me of Cairo; the broad-domed white mosques, of Istanbul. I could hear Fez in the call to prayer echoing from the surrounding hills and smell Amman in the deliciously sweet spiced walnuts roasting at a small shop called Badem Butik. But little things suggest this is still Europe: the alleys do not meander but unfold as wide, straight lanes that intersect at right angles, and the shops withdraw under Spanish tiled roofs with overhanging eaves that offer shelter from the rain. The many centuries-old mosques are no more active than a rural French cathedral without tourists—and a good deal less busy than the mosques that have sprung up over the past few decades in Paris, Hamburg, and London. Plus, in Sarajevo no one seems to mind (or even notice) the old men drinking beer at the cafés abutting the mosque walls, or the young couples kissing wildly at the table next to them.

“I am Muslim,” Mustafa tells me, his brilliant blue eyes set off by silver hair, as we stand near the small stone Latin Bridge crossing the Miljacka River, where the Austro-Hungarian heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot in 1914, triggering the start of World War I. “But even now, those of us who were born and bred in Sarajevo don’t want to live in an Islamic city. This used to be called the European Jerusalem, and it was a better city then. My friends were Orthodox, Jewish, Catholic. This is what gives richness to life. Now…” His voice trails off as he looks out at a city changed by the population shifts of the war. Because so many Serb residents left when the last cease-fire took effect—and so many Bosniaks, as the Muslims are more commonly called, moved in from villages that were attacked—Sarajevo is probably more Muslim than it has ever been in its history. But to describe the changes this way is to accept the language of the war, which made the differences between the groups sound bigger than they are. Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks are all Slavs: they speak essentially the same language and, up to the war, lived peacefully in the same towns or villages—in Sarajevo, often in the same buildings, occasionally even married into the same families. The primary differences are religious (Bosnian Serbs, generally, are Orthodox Christians, and Croats are Catholic), and any grievances that welled up from divergent myths and memories were held in check by the government under President Tito’s long rule. In the power vacuum created by the collapse of Communism in the early 1990’s, extremist politicians in Bosnia—egged on by their co-religionists in the neighboring republics of Serbia and Croatia—used virulent propaganda, massacres, and fear of reprisals to turn these slight differences into something palpable. This tactic produced the brutal war that I’d watched on television, the war that gave us the phrase ethnic cleansing. But in some ways ethnic hatred was also a cover, a kind of high canopy under which other forces were at work, unnoticed by the outside world: class prejudice, rural villagers’ resentment of the cosmopolitans in the cities, and competition for a place at the trough as the state-run economy was being shifted to private hands.

Still, Mustafa’s refusal to accept the logic of the extremists—who insisted that he had more kinship with a Bosniak from a village than with the Serb or Croat neighbor he’d grown up with—struck me as quietly heroic. It was a sentiment I would hear time and time again in Sarajevo, and at first I disbelieved it: How could there not be anger toward the Serbs after all that had happened?But almost every Sarajevan I met had a story about Serbs who remained in the city through the war or risked their lives to help them, and I realized that they remembered what I had forgotten: only the extremists believed all Serbs should be on one side. As Nadim, a young Bosniak who lived in the frontline neighborhood of Grbavica during the war, put it, “The Serbs who attacked us were, for the most part, not from Sarajevo. They were from the villages, and they had a different mentality. My friends who were Serbs, they stayed here with us during the war. They were Sarajevan first, you could say, and then they were Serb.”

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.

When to Go

Sarajevo’s weather is best between May and late September, when daytime temperatures range between 65 and 80 degrees.

Getting There

Lufthansa, United, and Austria Airlines fly daily from major U.S. cities into Sarajevo’s Butmir International Airport via Vienna and Munich; Delta connects in Budapest.

Where to Stay

Halvat Guest House

Great Value A sweet family-run hostelry. 5 Kasima Efendije Dobrace; 387-33/237-714;; doubles from $92 breakfast included.

Holiday Inn Sarajevo

Built for the 1984 Olympic Games, and the wartime headquarters for foreign press. 4 Zmaja Od Bosne; 888/465-4329 or 387-33/ 288-000;; doubles from $148.

Villa Orient

Located in the center of town, this boutique hotel has a fitness center, café, and restaurant. 6 Oprkanj; 387-33/232-702;; doubles from $175.

Where to Eat and Drink

Badem Butik

12 Abadziluk; 387-33/533-135.

Klub Sloga

20 Mehmeda Spahe; 387-33/617-632; drinks for two $4.

Mash Eat Club

20 Branilaca Sarajeva; 387-33/521-179; drinks for two $5.

Park Princeva

7 Iza Hrida; 387-61/222-708; dinner for two $55.

What to Do

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus

2 Trg Fra Grge Martica; 387-33/210-281.

National Theater

9 Obala Kulina Bana; 387-33/221-682.

Old Temple

Velika Avlija; 387-33/535-688.


You’ll find it on the main square in Bascarsija.

War Tunnel Museum

1 Tuneli; 387-33/628-591.