22 years after the conflict ended, has Sarajevo and its people recovered?

May 4, 2017 5:45 PM

18056665_1654742621205433_8059233021466078221_n“I saw the soldiers; I saw and heard the bombings but I could not believe this could happen. Nobody could. War was something that happened elsewhere. It felt so removed,” a woman told me on the plane as she reflects on her experiences during the conflict. I came to Sarajevo to document the lives of people still dealing with the effects of a conflict that left around 100,000 dead and find out how the country was progressing just over two decades on. When I stated in my broken Bosnian that I was a 20-year-old aspiring photojournalist and documentary film-maker from England, an elderly woman from the seat in front of me introduced herself and said that she was from Srebrenica. She told me that her brother, father and son had been killed in the genocide of more than 8,000 Muslim Bosniak men and boys in July 1995. As she began to explain further, the woman next to me became my translator and even though I could not understand the entirety of what the woman was saying, the pain and sadness in her voice needed no translation.

I knew from then on that my time in Bosnia would have a deep impact on me; little did I know that from the moment I stepped on the plane, my life would be forever changed.

My drive into Sarajevo from the northern city of Tuzla was almost surreal. I’d seen the photographs and watched the news reports from the time of the conflict; but nothing could prepare me for the enormity and sheer beauty of this culturally diverse city; Mosques, Synagogues and Churches all within a few yards from one another. All at peace. The snow on the mountains high above held much remembrance to the Winter Olympics held in Sarajevo in 1984. The Olympic centre now lies in ruin, awaiting refurbishment that might never come. The contrasting looks of the buildings, ranging from those built during the Ottoman Empire to those in the Austro-Hungarian, each scarred with bullet holes. Then, as we drove further over the hill, the cemeteries, and the rows upon rows of white marble gravestones… “They dug up the football pitch for the graves. Thousands and thousands across the city,” my driver explained as he lit yet another cigarette while Stevie Wonder played on the radio. It hardly seemed appropriate for the topic of conversation.

I have fallen deeply in love with this country and its people and will forever be humbled by their courage and strength. This makes learning about Bosnia and Herzegovina’s past all the more painful. Yet one thing is clear; the Bosnian people are fighters: “Everyone has a story to tell,” my translator tells me over drinks on the rooftop of the BBI shopping centre in the centre of Sarajevo as we discuss her life as a young child during the four year conflict that saw over 11,000 people killed within Sarajevo alone. We talked about the challenges facing many of the Bosnian people today, such as unemployment and corruption: “It’s easier for the younger generations in Sarajevo now, they have more opportunities. For me and my generation we did not have these opportunities because of the war,” my translator tells me as we take a walk around Baščaršija: As we continued talking, I could clearly see the peace that she had and the strength that comes, in time, from tragedy. Only one question came to mind: How can you move forward?

Despite the challenges currently facing this nation, Sarajevo, I’ve found, is progressing. The grandeur of the impressive National Theatre, the beauty of the Churches, Mosques and Synagogues. The bars, restaurants and cafes that line practically every street corner mean that Sarajevo is a constant hub of activity. The sweet smelling aroma of freshly baked Lepinje (Pita Bread), the bustling market stalls where residents come to buy their fruit and vegetables and the parents trying desperately to stop their children from chasing the pigeons in the appropriately named ‘Pigeon Square.’ It’s an adventure of travellers keen to explore all Bosnia and Herzegovina has to offer. Moving away from the city, in the mountains, the breath-taking views are a photographer’s dream. It’s not difficult to understand why people fall instantly in love with this city.

As my time in Sarajevo draws to a close, I find myself lost of words when I try to think about what being in this beautiful country has meant to me. This country has broken me, made me and challenged me in ways I never thought possible. Healing takes time and the people here have suffered, but nevertheless, they are determined to move forward and on with their lives. And that, for me, is the most inspiring aspect that I will take away from this incredible country of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Written by Elizabeth Pennington

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