Friday 18 July 2014

Sarajevo Siege

We are taking time out from cycling to spend a few days in Sarajevo with New Zealand friends who are on holiday.

Sarajevo Under Siege

"It's a great book," said the young woman in the Insider information office in Sarajevo, Bosnia. 

She explained that the book I had mentioned - titled "The Cellist of Sarajevo" - captured perfectly what life must have been like during the siege of the city during the early 1990s.

As the woman was speaking, her offsider was on his Ipad pulling up a photo of a man playing a cello in a bombed out building.

Cellist Vedran Smajlovic plays in the bomb damaged National Library in 1992.

"That's the cellist there. The picture was taken in the library and city hall building," he said. "It's been rebuilt."

He gave me directions and I set off - another satisfied visitor engaged in some "post conflict tourism".

The rebuilt National Library and City Hall, which reopened its doors today.

A plaque at the entrance to the building sums up events this way.

Such tourism is impossible to avoid in Sarajevo. There is a museum, a gallery showing photos and films, and monuments and sculptures remembering the dead. Red blobs of paint known as a "Sarajevo Rose", mark the footpaths where four or more people died in attacks during the three year siege.

A "Sarajevo Rose" - painted on the footpath to show where four or more people died at any one time during the siege.

And all that's before we even start talking about the what happened in Sarajevo in 1914 when, as any history student knows, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated - the incident that triggered WW1.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand on the visit to Sarajevo that ended in his assassination.

To take in these sights is fascinating - the history is so recent and the events are so well documented.

It's also slightly uncomfortable.

What are we? Voyeurs taking an unhealthy interest in the terrible tragedies that have befallen so many? It's estimated 10,000 people were killed during the siege and five times as many were injured.

The Holiday Inn has been given a coat of fresh paint but not visible in this picture are the bullet scars that remain on the facade on the left hand side.

We visited the History Museum, out past the Holiday Inn where many of the journalists covering the siege were based. The hotel has been repaired, although high on one facade bullet and shrapnel damage remains. The museum too, had signs of damage - so much so we thought it had been abandoned until we glimpsed figures moving inside. It contains photos and exhibits that show how residents of the besieged city survived - with food aid and improvisation.

War weary. At first we thought the History Museum had gone out of business.

In the central city, a gallery has an excellent display of war photos and runs a couple of short films - one complete with special effects and a sound track that includes rock music. The effect just reinforces the feeling that somehow this is war as entertainment and that we are like the drivers who slow down to peer at road accidents. 

Despite my discomfort, it is fascinating and no doubt a revenue earner for a city that needs every convertible mark it can earn. 

And if there is anything else positive that can be taken from it all, perhaps it's this. The woman guiding us around the gallery is asked how the different factions in the city get along now, two decades on. She says that unlike other parts of Bosnia, Sarajevo has always had a mix of religions - Muslims, Orthodox and Catholic. They lived side-by-side in the past and they are doing it again today.

The Cellist

"The Cellist of Sarajevo" is a book with controversy of its own. A best seller by Canadian author Steven Galloway, it uses the real life story of musician Vedran Smajlovic as it's starting point. During the siege of Sarajevo, Smajlovic took to the streets of rubble to play his cello as an act of protest, despite the obvious danger to himself.

Smajlovic claims Galloway stole his name and identity for the book and that as a result he has had to live with constant, unwanted publicity. The two men have met once, in Northern Ireland where Smajlovic now lives. The meeting was strained, but according to someone who was there, Smajlovic did manage at the end to shake Galloway's hand.

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