Context: I spent a (too short) three days in the enchanting and devastating city of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina in July 2014. This is what I learned:
To visit Sarajevo is to witness the aftermath of a devastating miracle. For three years, from 1992-1995, a near-constant barrage of bombs fell and bullets sped and bled through Sarajevo while the city was surrounded almost entirely by the Serbians during the Bosnian War following the breakup of Yugoslavia. The tragedy is famously known as the Siege of Sarajevo.
Surrounded almost entirely by Serbian forces perched in the encompassing mountains, Bosnians were, for the most part, trapped and unable to move in and out of the city. Going out on the streets to fetch water meant dodging a barrage of sniper bullets tfrom the surrounding mountains. The people built underground networks of tunnels to safely navigate the roads. Gas stations were empty and cars, therefore, inoperable.The only way to safely enter or exit the city was through a secret underground tunnel, or by sprinting through the night by the UN-occupied airport, more than hoping to go unnoticed. Today, cemeteries fill every spare nook and cranny of open space in the city, mostly from deaths between 1992-1995, when the siege happened. Buildings still show signs of heavy destruction.
(side note: I know there have been no bicycles in this story yet, but I promise we’ll get there!)
To a traveler visiting for a few days, every experience is painted with the ramifications of the siege and the war. The siege ended less than 10 years ago with Bill Clinton and other international parties convincing former Yugoslavian leaders to meet in Ohio to sign the Dayton Agreement to end the Bosnian War. Former chaos is preserved in architectural open wounds from the bullets and bombs of the 1990s.
It’s incredible that the Sarajevans were able to maintain any semblance of normalcy while under siege. They played music, put on plays, brewed their own beer. A quote from Alija Izetbegovic is displayed at the exit to the tunnel that served as the esophagus in and out of the city: “Once the analysis is made, and when the miracle of the Bosnian resistance is solved from an historic distance, it will be found – and I am sure of that – that the secret was somewhere in the souls or character of the people.”
The only ‘safe’ way in or out of the city during that time was through a secret tunnel that traveled under the UN-occupied airport. Sarajevans also had the option to sprint for their lives through the narrow corridor that led to the small section of the surrounding mountains that the Bosnians didn’t control, but the UN had a habit, as the story goes, of shining a spot light on people who fled, thus making them easy targets for sniper fire.
And then, of course, I notice the bicycle.
Visiting the Sarajevo History Museum is a really heavy experience, but so is almost any city tour you take of the place. This exhibit, Sarajevo Under Siege, brims with stories and artifacts of really gruesome and tragic events. A single bicycle sits in the middle of the room, accompanied by photos and this description:
“Mr. Irfan Selman from Sarajevo donated this bike used during the war (1992-1995) to History Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as evidenced by his photo taken in April 1995 in Kralja Tomislava street. Along with this bike that was the only safe way of transportation during the war, Mr. Irfan brought cigarettes packaged in paper from biology books and in muffin wrapper, which has enriched the permanent exhibition Sarajevo Under Siege.”
Intrigued by the description of the bicycle as a useful tool for safe transportation, I brought it up to our Balkan Han hostel-owner, Unka. He had remained in Sarajevo for the first three years of the siege, and told me that the first year or so during the siege was actually a rather good time because he got to know his neighbors better than ever before and because they, being the crazy guys they were, made a good time of it despite the chaos – music and theater and moonshine abounded! After three years, too much was too much, so he finally decided in 1995 to risk the sprint past the sniper fire and UN-controlled airport. He survived the flight and moved to Russia just a few months before the siege would end (who could have known!).
The siege ended shortly after Unka escaped, but he stayed in Russia for 10 years before moving back here to his old place and turning it into a hostel/guesthouse. Being the bicycle fanatic I am (and because I believe that looking at the bicycle can be a starting point leading to/tied to conversations about other truths and realities- transportation touches everything, after all!), I asked Unka about the role of the bicycle during the siege:
Comment #1: Surviving Sniper Fire
“If you had a bicycle during that time, it was like having a Ferrari.” Having a car during the siege meant you had nothing because there was no gas in the city. With a bicycle, you were faster than a person walking or running, which is good for dodging bullets and fetching water. On the other hand, a person on a bicycle is also a smaller target than a car.
Comment #2: Electric Power
“We didn’t have electricity much of the time, so we would power our radios with electricity generated by pedal-powered bicycles. It’s how we got news of the outside world, and word of what might have happened to someone we knew. We spend a lot of time gathered around that radio.”
Although the bicycle is spoken about in these stories as the safest mode of getting around the city during the siege, it certainly wasn’t safe. Renowned photographer, Annie Lebowitz, took the last photo posted below that is singed with tragedy, apparent innocence, and human presence.
And on a final note, it really would be quite interesting to visit Serbia and see how they speak about and present the Siege of Sarajevo, and the larger Bosnian War, in the 1990s.