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My Sarajevo

I was born in a city at war. I miss it.

By: /
15 July, 2021
Former frontline apartments in Sarajevo, 1997. Chris Leslie/A Balkan Journey

I was born on a typical day in Sarajevo in 1993, when 3,000 shells fell on the city. At the time, the international community was struggling to decipher the Balkans’ geopolitical fault lines and supposedly ancient hatreds, all starkly juxtaposed against their memories of Sarajevo’s glorious hosting of the 1984 Winter Olympics.

Yugoslavia was coming apart, fragmenting along ethno-religious lines as many of its citizens adopted a new and aggressive nationalism that was growing in the Cold War’s aftermath. Bosnia and Herzegovina had declared independence from Yugoslavia in March 1992. Sarajevo was now besieged by the Bosnian Serb Army, which wanted to control and ethnically cleanse non-Serbs from parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  

The author as a child in Sarajevo. Courtesy of Delila Bikic.

Residents of Sarajevo, where many of Yugoslavia’s identities overlapped, focused on survival. Some also struggled to keep the city’s multiculturalism alive. Sarajevans love holidays and festivals. People found ways to continue celebrating during the siege. Bosniaks shared whatever food and sweets they scavenged on the black market to host their Christian neighbours during Bajram (Eid). Like in old Yugoslavia, citizens of different faiths gathered in front of the Sacred Heart Cathedral to attend Christmas Eve mass.

The war, the bloodiest in Europe since the Second World War, ended three years laterwith the Dayton Peace Agreement in which warring parties agreed to the formation of a single state comprised of two entities: the Bosnian Serb Republika Srpska and the mostly Bosnian Croat and Bosniak Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

A generation has now grown up with no memory of the conflict. But those who do remember hold tight to their stories, guarding them fiercely lest they become relics.

Barely a toddler during the war, my perceptions of Sarajevo under siege are shaped by my parents’ stories shared in pieces throughout the years. I never know when I will be granted an audience with my family’s past. Most often, it is when we are back in Sarajevo with extended family on a warm summer’s day. We sit on the terrace of my grandparents’ Baščaršija (Old Town) home overlooking the colourful rooftops that decorate the city’s hillside neighbourhoods in a valley beneath the Trebević mountain. It is difficult not to feel the past and the present intertwining. Sarajevo has preserved it distinct historical faces and multicultural character. Many of its Muslim mosques, Catholic and Orthodox churches, and Jewish synagogues were built in the 15th century. To understand Sarajevo is to understand its history as a cultural hub.

Boy behind a war-damaged fence in Sarajevo, 1998. Chris Leslie/A Balkan Journey

In a place where atrocities from the war are still fresh in the collective memory, my parents, like countless others who lived through the 1990s, speak selectively of what they experienced. They’ll often begin describing what they saw and felt and then catch themselves and stop, adding only that they “wish to God” it never happens again. For my parents, their most vivid memories are about me, particularly the joys and challenges of parenthood without water, food, electricity or heat.

The winter of 1993 was the coldest of them all, my mother remembers. She and my father burned books and furniture to keep warm. Whenever I express a wish to one day collect enough books to build a private library, my parents smile and encourage me to do so, but I can see how painfully they grieve the loss of their own collections.

During the siege, when Sarajevo was under bombardment and snipers in the surrounding hills preyed on civilians, survival meant tapping into one’s inner inat. The Bosnian word might be translated as “stubbornness,” but it means more than that. It’s a typically Balkan temperament of pride and hard-headedness, a determination to persevere in unimaginable circumstances. In Sarajevo, it also meant residents tried to retain the vibrant spirt of their city, even as it collapsed around them. Under the leadership of the indomitable Susan Sontag, Sarajevans staged a production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in the National Theatre. In 1993, young women organized the Miss Besieged Sarajevo beauty pageant in a basement to avoid sniper fire.

Graffiti in downtown Sarajevo about Srebrenica. In July 1995 over 8000 men and boys were massacred by Bosnian Serb forces.

In a time of uncertainty and fear brought by a global pandemic, I find sense of comfort in knowing that in some small part this inat of ordinary Sarajevans lives on in me, remaining a strength that I can draw from as I face my life’s own trials.

* * *

Memory, nostalgia and the search for belonging, I have learned, form the fabric of society in spaces where the past endures in the present. Growing up in a city that never forgets made for an enriching childhood. Sometimes coping meant playfully confronting the hardship of the past with (often sarcastic) humour. It also meant a post-war life shadowed by missing relatives and worried parents.

My early memories of school are pleasant ones: the excitement of first crushes, love for learning and daytrips to Vrelo Bosne Park, a green oasis at the outskirts of the city. Its main path, Velika Aleja, is lined with gigantic plane trees. Springs and waterfalls feeding the nearby River Bosna are everywhere. As a child, I loved to watch the swans that swam in it.

But post-war Sarajevo was also wounded. Its ground and buildings were cratered by shellfire. Despite everyone’s best efforts to carry on, daily life was fraught with economic troubles. Just like a person, the city had scars that needed to heal.

The city had scars that needed to heal. My parents decided they couldn’t wait for that to happen.

My parents decided they couldn’t wait for that to happen. In 2002, they emigrated to Canada with their two young children — my sister, Ridvana, and me. Change is hard and messy but also an opportunity to experience something new. My first memories of Toronto, our new home, are spending weekends in Edward Gardens, exploring the array of plant life and feeding chipmunks. To this day, my family looks back on those early days with fondness, remembering how comfortable we felt in Toronto’s trails and ravines. 

A bullet-damaged wall in Sarajevo, 1998. Chris Leslie/A Balkan Journey

At first, it all seemed an exciting adventure. But soon my new life was characterized by a sense of displacement and yearning for the familiarity of my hometown. I eventually learned to embrace my new Canadian identity, but a longing for Sarajevo followed me everywhere. I missed the city’s charming streets and its energy. I missed the warmth of my grandmother’s hug. This sense of loss was a close companion at every life milestone I celebrated in Toronto.

After ten years in Canada, I returned to Sarajevo for the first time. I was sixteen years old and travelled alone, desperate to retrieve everything and everyone I had been forced to abandon. I spent the summer reconnecting with childhood friends and lingering over conversations and strong Bosnian coffee. I shared in both happy moments and daily struggles with my family. I slowly absorbed their sociable and laid-back attitude. No matter their responsibilities, it was uncommon to plan too far ahead. I had grown used to a Canadian culture of prudence and busyness. Now I was learning from Sarajevans how to slow down and embrace living in the moment.

The Sarajevo that I came to love that summer has many overlapping layers. The cobblestones of the old Ottoman bazaar merge with stately Secessionist architecture of the Austro-Hungarian era. The more I learned about Sarajevo’s tumultuous past, the more I came to understand the complexities of my own multiple ways of belonging. I am a Sarajevan at heart, even when far from it. I am also a Torontonian and a Canadian — a citizen of a country where I encountered profound empathy and an energetic willingness to understand the suffering of people whose names other Canadians could not pronounce in a place they had never been.

A Sarajevo embrace, 2015. Chris Leslie/A Balkan Journey

Sarajevo still calls out to me, reminding me that I can love both my homeland and my home. More than two decades since the war’s end, Bosnia also shows us precisely the dangers of denying multiple ways of belonging. During subsequent trips back to Bosnia, conversations with young Sarejevans left me worried about the persistent appeal of ethnic nationalism in the country. Fears that there could be another war weigh on the next generation.

I know I’m lucky to be writing this as a Canadian, but that privilege is also why I think I have a responsibility to ask tough questions of my fellow Bosnians. Why must we so often link our identity to victimhood? Why can’t we teach our children to think of themselves and their neighbours in broader and more fluid terms, instead of forcing everyone into rigid categories that take precedence over everything that makes individuals who they are — Bosniak, Serb, Croat?

I take pride and draw courage from my country’s past, but the time has come to shift the conversations from exclusive ethnic interests towards our mutual responsibility as Bosnians and Herzegovinians to guide the country on a path where young people do not have to uproot their whole life in search of work. The exodus of highly educated and motivated citizens hurts Bosnia and Herzegovina, but it also denies those who leave an opportunity to contribute meaningfully to their own country. I don’t want others to experience the longing somewhere else that I do. I want the next generation of Bosnians to believe they have a future that doesn’t require them to leave.

Photographs are from A Balkan Journey, a limited-edition book of photos and essays by Chris Leslie, an award-winning photographer and filmmaker. Drawing on a previously unseen archive from his 25 years of work in the region, Leslie takes readers on a journey through the towns and cities of post-conflict former Yugoslavia. Available only at: www.balkanjourney.com/the-book (use code 5off for discount).

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