Fourteen years after the end of Sarajevo’s besiegement during the Bosnian War, one writer finds a country uniquely capable of embracing the past while moving into the future.

The air conditioning on the bus to Sarajevo is broken. In Dubrovnik, Croatia, at seven in the morning, it’s already ninety degrees. The wad of euros in my back pocket starts to sweat; the currency exchange at the station doesn’t deal in Bosnian marks. I have to wonder about a country whose next door neighbors don’t recognize its currency.

I alternately read and fan myself with my guidebook. The “must dos” for Sarajevo include touring the site of the marketplace massacres, sniper alley, and the Holiday Inn, which, despite multiple bombings, remained the only functioning hotel for war correspondents. This trip won’t be like lounging on the white Croatian sands or touring the Coliseum. I’ll be sightseeing skeletons.


Image via “Flickr”:

As the bus mimics the roll of the nearby Dinaric Alps, I keep thinking that I’m about to spot something magnificent in the distance, but we dip away a second too soon. The bus descends into the Valley of Sarajevo, and I peel myself out of my seat and claim my backpack. A kid, maybe fourteen or so, with decimated Nikes and the sparse sprouts of a first moustache, taps me on the shoulder. “Hostel Ljubicica?” he says. “I’m Alex.” His handshake belongs to someone twice his age. I follow him to a white van where a man with a shaved head sits behind the wheel smoking a cigarette. “No English,” the man says.

Imagine synopsizing London’s history without mentioning the World War II bombings. Imagine a place so assaulted that one can leave out the Nazi invasion when describing its history.

Alex makes chitchat, asking whether I’ve been to Eastern Europe before, where I’m from, what I do. He thinks it’s funny that I’m a teacher. “You are maybe eighteen?” he says. I have to refrain from hugging him. He wants to know if I’m familiar with Sarajevo’s history, and I say I know only a little bit.

“The Bosnian War began in 1992, yes?” He waits for me to nod, then recites the condensed version of Sarajevo’s recent history: Bosnia declared independence from the Yugoslavian Republic (which was then comprised of modern day Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Bosnia). Serbia, intent on absorbing Bosnia, began attacks to wipe out the non-Serb population. The Serbian siege of Sarajevo lasted until 1995 and is “the longest in modern military history, yes?”

Alex doesn’t falter in voice or lapse in language. He has told this story before, and it is neither sad nor taboo nor demanding of any particular response. He doesn’t mention what came before—that during the 1941 German invasion of Yugoslavia, the Nazis bombarded Sarajevo and occupied the city until 1945. Or that, once a principal city of the Ottoman Empire, Sarajevo also became a major battleground in the Great Turkish War of the 1690s, when the Habsburg Empire ransacked and set fire to the city, destroying all but a few mosques and the Orthodox Church and greatly reducing the population of Sarajevo.

Imagine synopsizing London’s history without mentioning the World War II bombings. Imagine a place so assaulted that one can leave out the Nazi invasion when describing its history.

On the street I see scars left by exploded mortar shells from the Serbian siege, which have an ironically flower-like shape. They’ve been filled with red resin in places where one or more people died, and are known as Sarajevo Roses.

We drive by the National Library, which is shaped like a castle, boxy and broad-shouldered, gold like a candlelit painting of the sun. Alex explains that in 1992, Serbian forces set fire to the library and dropped dozens of shells on the surrounding streets to prevent the fire brigade from reaching it, which resulted in the largest book burning in history. He points out, as though identifying a rare beetle, the charcoal-smudged edges where fire licked sky as it ate all the books.

I study the back of Alex’s head, the thick black hair that can’t quite decide if it’s wavy or straight, the sunburn on his neck, shoulders just starting to thicken. I ask him how old he is, and he tells me he’s fifteen. The siege ended when he was four; he was born in it, and out of it. We cross the Miljacka River and drive up a steep stone hill that turns into a Muslim cemetery. Before they drop me off at the hostel, Alex asks if I’d like a guided tour of the city the next afternoon. Even though tours aren’t usually my thing, I agree. Some scars are hard to see.

Later that afternoon, I cross the river into Bascarsija, the heart of the city. On the street I see scars left by exploded mortar shells from the Serbian siege, which have an ironically flower-like shape. A unique feature of the city, they’ve been filled with red resin in places where one or more people died, and are known as Sarajevo Roses. Half-blood and half-flower, half-death and half-birth; they look like someone’s splattered insides, yet they are lovely.

The city could have repaved these roads and tried to erase evidence of attack, but instead, has chosen to not only preserve them, but to draw attention to them by coloring them red. The roses represent a physical claim to the past—trauma, death, and all.

The main square opens into a labyrinth of Moorish shops, stalls, and eateries. I hear Bosnian spoken around me, as well as Croatian, and a third language I don’t recognize but later learn is Serbian. The choppy cobblestones demand a slower pace, which everyone seems happy to assume. The old town of Sarajevo doesn’t have streetlights—instead, as the sun dims, the city glows from under awnings and overhangs, soft bulbs angled to illuminate the lines and the curves of the buildings. The orthodox cathedral’s ground lighting makes its spire appear to rise out of the light, twist and bend into gothic suggestion, and then touch the clouds. Right across from the cathedral is the mosque, short and round, but also pushing toward the sky.

The Muslim call to prayer sounds and everyone—Muslims, Christians, tourists—stops. Faces turn toward the call, eyes close, breaths unite. After a few minutes we collectively resume, like a limb waking from sleep.

Public water fountains sprout from carved pillars and the sides of buildings and mosques. I stand awkwardly with my water bottle, hesitant—in Istanbul, a woman screamed at me for trying to drink from a public fountain (I wasn’t sure if the water was unfit or if I was). The woman drinking from the other spigot smiles at me and gestures me over. People wash their hands and playfully splash one another. The metaphor is impossible to miss; Sarajevo could offer lessons in rebirth.

The embracing of true multiculturalism accounts for a substantial part of Sarajevo’s emotional and spiritual recovery. A history of invasion and ethnic cleansing has provided the people of Sarajevo with myriad justifications for cynicism, resentment, and suspicion. However, I find in the softly lit streets where mosques and cathedrals share space and Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks hold open doors and carry groceries for one another evidence that rather than making a habit of suspicion, people here have decided to be both curious and kind to one another, to tourists, and to Serbs. Solidarity breeds strength, helps to extinguish or tame fear, and reinforces the belief that one can overcome destruction.

Bosnia, especially Sarajevo, has come back from the brink three times because its history of hardship has provided considerable practice in rebounding and rebuilding, as well as in prioritizing, separating the wheat from the chaff, the revenge from the healing, the bitterness from the resolve.

Someone asks Alex if he would flee should conflict arise again. “Of course not,” he says, as though to a silly child. “We stay.”

The next day, Alex takes six of us on a tour chauffeured by the man who speaks no English. Alex points out the bridge where Serbian gunmen killed the first Bosnian civilian in April of 1992. We follow red signs painted with skulls into hills that are so thick with landmines that the only safe path is the dilapidated remains of the 1984 Olympic bobsled track. Concrete holes—gun rests—dot the sides of the track that face the city. We climb sniper bunkers and stare down into the naked basin of Sarajevo.

They take us to the Sarajevo tunnel built in just four months in 1993—an umbilical cord through which residents smuggled food, medicine, and other supplies that kept them alive during the siege. Twenty-five meters of the tunnel have been preserved, a wound kept open for anyone who wants to see.

I eventually get up the nerve to ask Alex about being born and growing up during the siege. With matter-of-factness incongruous with his babyfat cheeks, he says that his father and brothers were often gone for days sneaking through the tunnel or pursuing other means of getting food, candles, and blankets. He didn’t go to school or play outside or run errands for his mom; until he was four his entire world was a dark basement.

Someone asks if he thinks the current peace will last. Alex says he wouldn’t be surprised if in a decade or two it happens again, because even though Serbia and Bosnia formally reestablished diplomatic relations in 1996, ethnic, religious, and nationalist tensions still exist between Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia. Someone asks Alex if he would flee should conflict arise again. “Of course not,” he says, as though to a silly child. “We stay.”

After the tour, I walk around the city, raw and brimming and tight in the chest. I don’t know if it’s Alex or the roses or the way people look and smile at one another here, but I feel this city. Like people, some cities have a predominantly aesthetic appeal, some are challenging or even adversarial, some are the equivalent of acquaintances, and some get under your skin and make you whisper fevered promises to return. I know Sarajevo is the latter when the spray-painted words “stand your ground, old town” on a crumbling wall make me teary.

What is left to fear after you’ve survived three sieges, the most recent being four years long and perpetrated by your next door neighbor? The people of Sarajevo have had to learn how to fight both fear and enemies, how to survive, and most importantly, how to triumph as a people. How to share water. How to continue evolving.

Evolution is not about winning wars or hanging turncoats. It’s not about political policy. It’s not about rebuilding towers, which, as we all know, can still be blown apart in an instant; however, evolution is about the tunnels people dig to keep each other alive. Evolution is about people such as Alex who, like the Sarajevo Roses, embody and embrace the good, bad, and ugly of their country’s history and identity. It’s about reassembling every child and adult of the siege together, not in the context of tragedy, but of recovery. Evolution is the growth of what can’t be destroyed with a bomb—the humanity that, when cultivated collectively, generates hope and compassion and, in time, perhaps even forgiveness.

On my last night in Sarajevo, I walk into town, past the library glowing beneath its own reflection from the river, illumined like a vision. I follow the corona from the mosque into the courtyard where shadows flicker across old stones and grates. A Caucasian tourist enters the courtyard, camera resting at his hips. His little girl, her hair in a sprout-like ponytail, toddles over to a little Muslim boy sitting with his parents on the steps of the mosque. The children stare at each other and do not make any sounds. The couple stands up and the mother gently nudges her son. He walks toward the girl, and after a few minutes, they begin to mirror each other’s movements. The parents look at one another, smiling first in surprise, then in universal recognition of a transcendent hiccup in time and space and the logistics of life. Everyone in the courtyard watches. We are transformed into wide-eyed children ourselves, playing our parts in a silent dance that makes a leap of faith feel like the simplest thing in the world.

Joelle Renstrom’s work has appeared in Carousel, The Means, The Allegheny Review, Sycamore Review, The New York Inquirer, and others. She is a recipient of the CBC Television Jim Burt Prize in Creative Writing, the Hopwood Award for Poetry, and the Virginia Voss Writing Award. She is currently working on a book of essays.

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3 Comments on “The War and the Roses

  1. Thank you for portraying my home town in such a whimsical way (it’s not actually all so peachy currently, but that could be the subject of an entirely different article). It is a great place to visit, and it IS a place that makes you promise to return. There is a saying about that fountain you described, “who drinks once from it, will return to it”.

    I would like to comment on a few things. The languages, Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, are (still) the same language. I find it very funny that you write “I hear Bosnian spoken around me, as well as Croatian, and a third language I don’t recognize but later learn is Serbian.” That would be like saying “I hear British spoken around me, as well as American, and a third language I don’t recognize but later learn is Australian”.

    Secondly, Serbs were, are, and will be a part of this city. They, just like all other citizens of Sarajevo, lived through the siege, even though they were being shot at by the Serbian army. Not all Serbs are bad. To extend your own Nazi analogy, not all Germans were Nazis.

    And lastly, if the terror of a civil war was ever to happen again, and if Alex had a chance to flee, I am sure he would flee. Nobody who has a chance to flee stays. It’s hell on earth.

  2. This essay was published in February 2010. Two years later, on January 23, 2012, I emailed the author, and pointed to the same sentence that the first commenter did; “I hear Bosnian spoken around me, as well as Croatian, and a third language I don’t recognize but later learn is Serbian.” I asked Renstrom to elaborate, but she never responded.

    But then, oddly, ten days after I emailed her, and two years after the story was published, the very first comment to her essay was made, by TO. TO pointed to the same thing, although in a rather joyful way. Obviously TO is/was a Sarajevo resident, and even though she makes a remark on that flaw, she pretends in her comment that it’s not a big deal. It’s nothing. It’s as if Renstrom mixed up two parts of the city, or said that the war started in 1991 as opposed to 1992. She just got confused a bit per TO’s observation. But it still begs the question: how is it that no comments were made for 2 years, then within 10 days of me emailing the author and pointing to this, someone accidentally comments on the same thing… gotta wonder.

    It baffles me that someone would dear play this game that Renstrom does. This could have gone unnoticed, and may have already been addressed by someone and ignored by all. But it just happened that two years after the essay was published, another (former) resident of Sarajevo read the article, laughed hard at first at the sentence, then got rather mad. I have seen many holes in many people’s accounts of their visits to former Yugoslavia, which occasionally can be explained, but Renstrom’s account cannot. It’s obvious what she does here. This one sentence puts Renstrom’s essay into a fiction section. This whole thing is one big lie. A question for Renstrom: what would you have said had you gone to Bosnia in 1991 (the year before war started)? Would you have “heard” Bosnian, Croatian and even Serbian? Or would you have heard only Serbo-Croatian? I’m sure that confused you pretty badly now.

    Editors, I emailed you as well, and I hope you will act on this fraudulent piece of writing. Or at least file it under fiction.

  3. “I hear Bosnian spoken around me, as well as Croatian, and a third language I don’t recognize but later learn is Serbian. ”

    As all other previous commenters mentioned, I am baffled that this has been published by a magazine such as Guernica. This really should be filed under fiction, and not a good one either. I am deeply offended actually as a human being, and a former citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Yugoslavia with the level of ignorance and false pieces of information. Please consider removing this piece of ‘art’ from your pages.

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