How Did War-Torn Sarajevo Become A City of Hope?

In Sarajevo’s Old Ottoman Quarter, a young woman wearing a headscarf strolls side-by-side a woman wearing no scarf, the two laughing over some private joke.

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I wander by a mosque whose yard is filled with worshipers kneeling on prayer mats. In the distance church bells ring.

And I think to myself, what an extraordinary place Sarajevo is, where religions co-exist in this world of religious strife. Indeed, today Muslims constitute 45 percent of the population, Christians 52 percent, and Jewish and other religions the remaining two percent. Sorry, but you’d think there’d be more friction.

During the 1984 Olympics, Sarajevo shone on the world stage, a dreamy, surreal Balkan Oz.

Islam arrived in the Balkans in the 15th and 16th centuries during the Ottoman Empire. The political climate was such that the Muslims mingled with the Orthodox Christians, living in the same neighborhoods, going to the same schools. During the 1984 Olympics, Sarajevo shone on the world stage, a dreamy, surreal Balkan Oz.

Even during the Bosnian War—they call it the Homeland War hereabouts—the city was held under siege by the Bosnian Serbs for four years. But Sarajevo’s Muslims and Christians clung together, supporting each other, refusing to surrender. And touching tales came out of that God-awful time.

Sarajevo has Its Own Romeo and Juliet Story.

Sarajevo has its own Romeo and Juliet story, for instance. On May 19, 1993, two lovers, he a Bosniak Muslim, she a Bosnian Serb, made a mad dash across Vrbanja bridge, through Sniper Alley and No Man’s Land, in an effort to escape to freedom. They didn’t make it.

One eyewitness described it like this: "The girl was carrying a bag and waving it. They were running and holding hands. It looked like she was dancing. Suddenly, I heard the rifle shots. They fell to the ground, embracing each other."

They remained lying there entwined, in death, for four days, until Muslim POWs were sent out to carry away their bodies. The two were buried together in Lion Cemetery, lovers in death, for eternity. A symbol of the pointlessness of war.

Twenty years later, the classic Yugoslav rock band Zabranjeno Pusenje wrote a song and created a video about their star-crossed love story. I wish anyone who harbors religious intolerance would learn from this:

The times get worse around them; they had no chance.

But difficult times always bring great romance.

They weren’t from the same tribe, nor did they have the same god.

But they had each other and a dream of escaping out from under it all.

Here’s the video. See if it doesn’t bring a tear to your eye:

Elsewhere in Sarajevo during the war, the Bosnian army dug a half-mile-long tunnel connecting the the city, completely cut off by the Serbian forces, with the UN-controlled airport. It ended beneath a nondescript house in the Butmir neighborhood, enabling food, humanitarian aid, and weapons to be brought into the city—as well as allowing people to get out.

For Good Reason, They Call It The Tunnel of Hope

My husband David and I visited this house and met members of the Kolar family who give tours, talking about the days of the tunnel. Every day, some 3,000 to 4,000 Bosnians and UN soldiers passed through, along with 30 tons of various goods. Even the president of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Alija Izetbegović, used the tunnel.

For good reason, they called it the Tunnel of Hope.

Today, Sarajevo remains in the throes of the past. Burned-out buildings, bullet holes, and shell markings on the roads called Sarajevo roses are all poignant reminders of a brutal time in history, when the rest of the world looked the other way.

I know all is not perfect here. There’s corruption and nationalism, it’s hard to make a living. Mismanagement lurks beneath the surface.

But Sarajevo has courage and heart. Talk to any local and they remember. They are proud. The city will rebound. I know it will.

The optimistic name of the Old Ottoman Quarter restaurant “To Be To Be” sums it up best. Originally called “To Be Or Not To Be,” the “or not” was crossed out during the siege, and the name was kept when peace reigned once again. Indeed.

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