Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there stood emerald peaks woven with crystalline rivers, hillsides garlanded with stone villages, and canyons joined by lofty bridges arcing toward the heavens.
This enchanting realm even had a suitably enchanting name: Bosnia and Herzegovina.
But Bosnia, of course, isn’t exactly a fairy tale.
As much as I’d prepared myself, it didn’t register when I first glimpsed it: an apartment block a few minutes from Sarajevo’s airport, its otherwise unremarkable facade speckled with unseemly blisters. Soon after, a building with a gaping chasm where a window might have once been, and then another, with chunks of plaster gouged out like missing teeth.
“Are those from the war?” I asked my cabdriver.
He didn’t understand me, or chose not to respond, but some questions don’t need answers. The lingering scars are reminders of an evil transpired not once upon a time but just a quarter of a century ago, from curses that were the doing of neighbors and friends, not the spell of some spiteful witch.
In a time when much of Europe is racked with a suspicion of my faith as a foreign entity breaching its shores, I’d come to Bosnia to see what a homegrown Muslim community, with 500 years of history rooted in the heart of Europe, might feel like.
Sarajevo, a City Reborn
In the Bascarsija, the labyrinthine old quarter at the heart of Sarajevo, I strolled through various lanes of the 16th-century, Ottoman-era bazaar that had once been demarcated for different artisans.
These days, the shops blur into an endless expanse of tea sets, leather slippers and artwork. But what caught my eye most were the door knockers embellished with brass and silver.
“Maybe because of the Islamic roots here, the people are warm,” Reshad Strik, owner of a cafe called Ministry of Cejf on the fringes of Bascarsija, told me over a pot of Bosnian coffee, thick with a bitter sediment reminiscent of its Turkish forebear. “Maybe that’s why there’s war here all the time. We’re too welcoming.”
Bosnia has had more than its share of visitors, welcome or otherwise:
The Balkans’ coordinates — where the East spills into the West — means the region appears in the footnotes of major chapters in the histories of other countries and empires. It ricocheted from Romans to Goths to Byzantines to Slavs before being conquered by the Turks in the 15th century, becoming the westernmost outpost of the Ottoman Empire — until the Hapsburgs came along and it was swallowed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
World War I detonated after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand near Sarajevo’s Latin Bridge; after World War II, Bosnia was fused with Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Slovenia into Communist Yugoslavia.
Then, in the 1990s, as Yugoslavia dissolved, so did human civility.
Orthodox Christian Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks, who had lived for generations in a multiethnic society, suddenly became dangerously aware of their differences.
Sarajevo found itself trapped in the longest siege in modern warfare, during which Serb forces, bolstered by the might of the former Yugoslav army, rained fury down on a defenseless city from the surrounding mountains. For 1,425 days, or nearly four years — from 1992 to 1996 — the city smoldered under a blitz that killed more than 10,000 people.
And yet, Sarajevans endured. “The city was living, people were psychologically fighting,” said Zana Karkin, the owner of Bazerdzan, a fashion boutique in the old quarter. “People were wearing nice clothes, having parties, having concerts.”
One of the most enduring images I’ve seen from the war is of a musician in tails cradling a cello; where there should be an orchestra lies only rubble, where there should be an audience stand the skeletal remains of pillars and arches, and where there should be a gilded ceiling there is only sky peeking through mangled rafters.
Vedran Smailovic, who was a cellist in the Sarajevo Opera, became a symbol of perseverance when he played amid the ruins of Vijecnica, Sarajevo’s obliterated 19th-century city hall turned national library.
The landmark was a neo-Moorish fantasy conceived by a Czech architect under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the spectacularly reborn atrium, perhaps in the very spot where Smailovic himself played, I watched a bride and groom dance in solitude for wedding pictures.
Like Vijecnica, much of the city was resurrected from the embers. When I glanced one way down a street I was convinced I was in Istanbul; if I turned my head, I traveled to Vienna; hemmed in by mountains, it could be a Swiss diorama. The historical layering of religions has earned Sarajevo the designation Jerusalem of Europe. On one street, a synagogue, a mosque and Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches stand within steps of one another.
But at each step I also found haunting wartime relics, preserved to ensure memories aren’t swept away with the ashes: Petal-shaped craters left by shelling, now embalmed in red resin and dubbed Sarajevo Roses. Toy tanks made out of bullets on sale at souvenir shops. And cemeteries — so, so many cemeteries.
A year’s worth of tourists seemed to have joined me in Mostar on the day I arrived. Thousands of day trippers flood the historic quarter to cross the 16th-century Stari Most bridge, receding come evening to nearby Dubrovnik or Split.
The wounds of the war are more obvious in Mostar, a city that sustained some of the most intense bombing. And the Stari Most itself was among the victims, buckling into the Neretva in 1993 after relentless Croat shelling.
The imposing bridge standing today is a replica, rebuilt in 2004 using the Ottoman-era techniques of the original, which had been commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent.
It’s now Bosnia’s most recognizable landmark, and the tangle of quaint lanes spilling around it are quintessential tourist catnip à la Santorini or Bruges, packed with taverns plying travelers with everything from mediocre gelato and pasta to excellent cevapi (a type of kebab) and a fig cake called smokvara.
That evening, sitting in a restaurant on Mostar’s western cliff, with the bridge aglow under the crepuscular sky and the call to prayer echoing around it, I was, well, enchanted.
For a moment, I let myself indulge the fantasy that I was in a fairy tale, and that, for Bosnia, happily ever after might finally be within grasp.