Sunday, September 25, 2011
Bosnia: The Burdens of History
Having just written an article about the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and poring over documents describing the destruction caused by urban warfare in cities, it is doubly unsettling to remember that Sarajevo went through a much longer, much more destructive trauma a mere fifteen years ago. The Siege of Sarajevo lasted three years, as Bosnian Serb militias backed by the Serbian Army ringed the hills over the city and poured shells into the downtown areas to which the Muslim majority had fled for safety. In Budapest we could listen to the reports on the BBC, or if we wished something more immediate, to the live broadcasts of Radio Sarajevo on regular AM radio. It was that close. Today Sarajevo is alive again, but the scars are still obvious for all to see. Aron and I went to the Sarajevo City History Museum, located across from the gaudy Yellow Marriot Hotel in the narrow strip of downtown that used to be called “Sniper’s Alley. One exhibit was dedicated to objects concocted during the siege of Sarajevo, and to the will to survive while dodging bullets in one’s own apartment or trying to feed a family on meager rations smuggled in through the enemy lines.Without access to resupply of guns, locals came up with their own home made weapons, zip guns on a military level. Electricity was provided by a variety of jerry rigged devices, from car battery generators to crank powered flashlights made from bicycle lamps.On entering the museum, there was a wall where it seemed that local residents had donated personal mementos – photographs of family members lost during the siege, newspaper clippings, and a blood stained sweater that had obviously belonged to a child.There were several fresh hand-made posters calling for the unification of the two separate Bosnian governmental zones now that Ratko Mladic had been arrested and handed over to the International court in The Hague for trial. After the museum, more history. I hailed a cab and took Aron up to the Jewish cemetery in Grbavica, up along a hill just above the city center. The cemetery occupies a hillside that slopes steeply down to the river and exposes the city center itself.During the siege, Serbian militia snipers used the protection of the cemetery to shoot and shell into the downtown of the city. Until a few years ago the cemetery was heavily mined and unsafe to visit but like most of Sarajevo it has been demined now. Although most of the names on the stones reflect the Sephardic majority of Sarajevan Jews, the Ashkenazic element is obvious by the appearance of Hungarian Jewish names as well. Not surprising, since Jews from Hungary and Galicia went to Bosnia in the 1870s after it became a protectorate of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I wrote about Jewish Sarajevo on the blog here, so I won’t repeat myself, but in the spirit of presenting too much history, there is one photo from the Jewish museum that bears repeating.During WWII the Jews of Sarajevo were forced to wear yellow Jewish stars. Here we see a Rivka Kabilo, a Jewish woman being escorted by Zenejba Hardaga, a Muslim woman, who held her arm to obscure the incriminating star. Today Hardaga and her sister are both recognized as “Righteous Gentiles” at the Yad Vashem museum in Israel. And of course, if that isn't enough history for you, remember that Sarajevo is where the first world war began when Gavrilo Princip assassinated Grand Duke Ferdinand of Austria on the Latin Bridge crossing the river in downtown Sarajevo. From a dispute about Serbian nationalism grew a typically silly bush war that quickly became a pointless tragedy. Within a month of the assassination Europe was at war, and nobody has ever explained exactly why.Nobody knew what they were actually fighting for. All that history makes you hungry. And the reason we were in Sarajevo was that I had promised to show my son the Glories of Sarajevo Cevapi, which we covered in the last post. But man does not live on cevap alone, although it is not inconceivable that I could. There was burek to be had, usually for breakfast, and our Hotel was located a full thiry seconds from the alley that is home to Sac Burek, which I crowed about the last time I visited Sarajevo.A sac is a metal pan hung by chains above a charcoal fire, kind of an Ottoman dutch oven. While most burek is now baked in a pizza oven, Sac Burek does it old school, meaning the burek is probably the best in the old city, and served with a ladle of slightly soured kaymak cream.After breakfast, coffee! Coffee shops are usually tiny, and located near to other eating places. You don’t get coffee where you eat, you go to a specialist for it. And then, just when you think you will never see a vegetable again, there are the Ascjinicas.These are small restaurants specializing in stews and soups.The most famous is Asem, which serves up some fine okra and veal stew, to be sopped up with spongy somun bread. Alter we tried the Sofra, just off the Sebilj square. Aron ordered the mixed plate of stuffed peppers, but also stuffed onions and stuffed grape leaves served with a dollop of yoghurt.Did I mention that we visited during Ramadan? Yes, and it was a hard one – with temperatures in the area of 38 (that’s around 98 Farhenheit) and the days long, a lot of people simply closed up their shops and waited the day out. But nobody ever worried themselves about the people who do eat during the day. Bosnians are like Turks in their attitudes towards Islam – rather easy and tolderant.This is not Wahabi run Saudi Arabia or fundamentalist Iran. At around 7:45 a canon – yes, a real canon – would go off signaling the end of the fast and the time for the nightly iftar feast, and Sarajevo’s old city would fill up with families looking to stuff themselves through the relatively short night in order to fuel up before the next dawn.