The Sarajevo Siege

We were picked up from our hostel by the shuttle service 1 hr late. There is no public Transport between Serbia and Bosnia (they still don’t like each other, shocking!!) so travelers usually have to find a private transport or rent a car to cross the border into Bosnia.

The drive was absolutely stunning and the driver was explaining the basic problem in the area because we are still very new to it and never really learned about it in school or anywhere else. To make it short, there is basically Serbians, Muslims and Croats living in the same place (Bosnia and Herzegovina) but everybody wants to join their respective bigger brother. Bosnian-Serbians want to join Serbia, the Croats want to go to Croatia…. you get the point. If you are still confused, remember that being Serbian, or Croat is an ethnicity, not a nationality (now it is, but it wasn’t during Yugoslavia times)

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Here is a more detailed explanation of what happened here:

The Bosnian War was an international armed conflict that took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995. The war was part of the breakup of Yugoslavia. Following the Slovenian and Croatian secessions from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991, the multi-ethnic Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was inhabited by mainly Muslim Bosniaks (44 percent), as well as Orthodox Serbs(32.5 percent) and Catholic Croats (17 percent), passed a referendum for independence on 29 February 1992.

This was rejected by the political representatives of the Bosnian Serbs, who had boycotted the referendum and established their own republic. Following Bosnia and Herzegovina’s declaration of independence (which gained international recognition), the Bosnian Serbs, led by Radovan Karadžićand supported by the Serbian government of Slobodan Milošević and the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), mobilised their forces inside the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina in order to secure Serb territory, then war soon spread across the country, accompanied by the ethnic cleansing of the Bosniak and Croat population, especially in eastern Bosnia and throughout the Republika Srpska.


We arrived at our hotel located right across the Miljacka river from Old Town. We couldn’t resist just dropping the bags and start walking around the part of town called Bascarsija. This is Sarajevo’s old bazaar and the historical and cultural center of the city. By Balkan standards, Sarajevo is a relatively new city, founded after the Ottoman conquest.

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The history of Baščaršija begins in 1462, when Isa-beg Ishaković, Ottoman governor of Bosnia, built a caravanserai, a kind of oriental roadside service station where travelers could find lodging, fodder for horses, exchange money, and repair their carts.

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At one time, each street was dedicated to a different kind of craft—metalwork, jewelry, pottery, and so on. Nowadays, many of the old artisan shops have been converted to souvenir shops and cafes.

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Like many oriental cities, Sarajevo was divided into a residential area or “mahala” and a commercial zone or “çarşı”

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We then tried local Bosnian food which was a disaster. It tasted like bad Yidish food, very bland and no flavor. Eitan tried the Bosian Pot which is some kind of Veal stew and Sarah got the lentil soup and Serbian salad which is the exact copy of a greek salad without the olives and feta. I think these guys also need to re-evaluate their culinary choices.

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The beer Sarajevsko was actually really good.

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After the disappointing meal, we sat down at a very trendy hookah lounge which seems to be the norm here for younger people at night. The place was absolutely packed with locals enjoying some teas and hookahs. Sarajevo has a large Muslim population and it is very noticeable here.

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We walked around the main area which feels quite upscale and was a very pleasant walk.  For dinner, we decided to play it safe and eat some street cheap donner kebab before going to sleep.

The next morning we had one of those days that Eitan absolutely loves. A day full of war history! The Bosnian War is really complicated to explain but will do my best with some photos!

We had booked this tour that will take us around Sarajevo explaining the Bosnian War in detail. Our guide was an incredibly interesting war veteran that fought with the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia against Croatia as a Mig 21 fighter pilot, and later deserted to Bosnia after realizing what the Serbs really wanted (ethnic cleansing). In Bosnia he joined the  Bosnian government defense forces (ARBiH) to fight against the occupational forces of the Army of Republika Srpska (The Serbs). You can imagine how interesting this guy’s life has been and he did the best to explain with real war stories, good and bad ones, the history of this complicated conflict.

We drove through the sniper ally, Meša Selimović Boulevard, the main boulevard in Sarajevo which during the Bosnian War was lined with snipers’ posts, and became infamous as a dangerous place for civilians to traverse. You can see the bullet holes in most buildings here. We also drove by all the famous landmarks of the war like the hotel Holiday Inn which was the press headquarters during the conflict. Marshal Tito Military Barracks and the Markale Market massacre sites. It’s impossible to explain everything in one post, but there are great youtube documentaries about this conflict if you are interested.

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It was principally a territorial conflict. The Bosnian War was characterized by bitter fighting, indiscriminate shelling of cities and towns, ethnic cleansing and systematic mass rape, mainly perpetrated by Serb, and to a lesser extent, Croat and Bosniak forces. Events such as the Siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre later became iconic of the conflict.

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Our first stop was the famous Tunnel of Hope. This was an underground tunnel constructed between March and June of 1993 during the Siege of Sarajevo in the midst of the Bosnian War. It was built by the Bosnian Army in order to link the city of Sarajevo, which was entirely cut-off by Serbian forces, with Bosnian-held territory on the other side of the Sarajevo Airport, an area controlled by the United Nations. The tunnel linked the Sarajevo neighborhoods of Dobrinja and Butmir, allowing food, war supplies, and humanitarian aid to come into the city, and allowing people to get out. The tunnel became a major way of bypassing the international arms embargo and providing the city defenders with weaponry.

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The construction was assigned to the First Corps Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina under the supervision of deputy commander General Rašid Zorlak. Beginning the project was difficult as there was a lack of skilled manpower, tools, and materials to complete the task. Consequently, the tunnel was dug by hand, with shovels and picks, and wheelbarrows were used to carry 1,200 cubic metres of detritus away. The tunnel was dug 24-hours a day, with workers working in 8-hour shifts digging from opposite ends. Its construction was financed by the State, the Army, and the City of Sarajevo. The workers were paid with one packet of cigarettes per day, an item that was in high demand and a prized bartering possession.

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The tunnel was also used as a way for Bosnians and UN forces to get out of Sarajevo. Transit each way, both into the city and out of the city, was constant. Every day, between 3000 and 4,000 Bosnian and UN soldiers (as well as civilians) and 30 tons of various goods passed through the tunnel. Groups traveling through the tunnel ranged in size from 20 to 1,000 people. On average, it took 2 hours for these groups to travel through the tunnel.  Throughout the war, between two million and three million Bosnians and UN soldiers passed through the tunnel, and approximately 400,000 Bosnians used the tunnel to flee Sarajevo

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We were able to walk only 25 meters of this tunnel as the rest has been closed off to not affect the airport runway. The place is definitely claustrophobic and can’t imagine trying to walk the 800 meters of this tunnel. According to our guide, there were several spots where people needed to hold their breath as the was an oxygen vacuum that could make you pass out.

Some people were crossing the airport runway instead, risking their lives. The U.N had movement detectors and when they catch a Bosnian they actually gave him a ride to the other side. Our guides joked saying that is how they got free taxis when they didn’t want to walk.

The workers here were really ingenious, they built this chair-train to take the Bosnian president (he was too old to walk the tunnel) to the other side to keep him safe from the artillery shelling.

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The guide explains that cigarettes packing changed during the war, first it was normal cartons, then wrapped in newspaper until they finnally kept them together with a simple rubber band.

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There is an example of the Sarajevo Roses, a concrete scar caused by a mortar shell’s explosion that was later filled with red resin. Mortar rounds landing on concrete create a unique fragmentation pattern that looks almost floral in the arrangement. Because Sarajevo was a site of intense urban warfare and suffered thousands of shell explosions during the Siege of Sarajevo, the marked concrete patterns are a unique feature of the city.

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After the tunnel, we headed  toward the mountain Trebević, which was at first line of defense during the Siege and place of many battles on many battlefields. At the site, we had the opportunity to see where the real destruction appeared such as the Winter Olympus Bobsleigh track which now is completely abandoned after being perforated by thousands of bullets and bombs.

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We saw the remains of bunkers, minefields, tranches, bullet and grenade shrapnel and many many other interesting sites of destruction, which today, at the present time, haven’t yet being repaired or somehow restored. They just stand there like the 15 years after the war haven’t even passed already. We visited one of the stations of the Cable Car which was destroyed during the war. Switzerland recently donated some gondolas to help reconstruct it, but for political conflict between the Serbs and Bosnians, they still cannot agree on where the cable car should be located and who will manage it. Slow clap for these two as the views are stunning from here.

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We visited East Sarajevo, which is part of Sarajevo but a Republic of Srpska (Serbia) entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Complicated? Indeed. Basically, it is one of the municipalities created during the war for Serbians exclusively. The funny thing is that the territory is not even in the East of Sarajevo (it’s on the west part) but they didn’t want to name it West Sarajevo because you know, it sounds too capitalist (I’m not joking, this is the actual reasoning)

We visited a Serbian sniper and artillery bunker on top of the mountain. From here, they had an unobstructed view of most of the city. One sad scary thing is that while we were visiting around this part of town, a group of Serbs started yelling at us “Fuck Bosnia!!!”. Remember we are in Bosnia at the moment, but these fucksticks believe their actual motherland is Serbia, thus still creating conflict around here.

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By these times, the U.N. was still being useless and was just observing how thousands of civilians were killed indiscriminately. Until in 1995, they Serbians really messed up when they shelled a crowded market and also killed 8000 Muslim civilians in a separate event. These were called the Srebrenica and Markale massacres. So NATO finally intervened with Operation Deliberate Force targeting the positions of the Army of the Republika Srpska, which proved key in ending the war. Nobody understands why they didn’t interfere before. Actually, Bosnians are pretty disappointed at the slow actions of the U.N.

Our guide was explaining that while they were at the trenches and NATO was bombing Serbian artillery positions, they were gambling between each other which position was going to get destroyed next. It was a matter of time and the war was brought to an end after the signing of the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina in Paris on 14 December. Easy right? 😉

Our next stop was the OId Jewish Cemetery; it  lies on the slopes of Trebević mountain, in the south-western part of Sarajevo. It is the second largest Jewish cemetery in Europe after Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery. It was in use from the beginning of the 16th or 17th century until 1966.

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Established by Sephardic Jews during the Ottoman period, it also became the burial ground for Ashkenazi Jews after they arrived in Sarajevo with the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late 19th century. It contains more than 3850 tombstones and covers an area of 31160 square meters. It has four monuments dedicated to the victims of fascism: a Sephardi one designed by Jahiel Finci and erected in 1952, two Ashkenazi ones, and one dedicated to the victims of Ustasha militants.

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The Jewish Cemetery was on the front line during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and was used as an artillery position by Bosnian Serbs. It was thus severely damaged by bullets and fire caused by explosions. It was also heavily mined but was completely cleared in 1996.

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The tour ended and we stil had a couple of hours for walking around the city. We headed to the modern part of Sarajevo.

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We found the Eternal Flame monument. The memorial was dedicated on 6 April 1946, the first anniversary of the liberation of Sarajevo from the four-year-long occupation by Nazi Germany and the fascist Independent State of Croatia.

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We headed back for dinner at one of the restaurants in the old town. Tomorrow we will visit the city sights. What a day!

Bonus Pic Of The Day: The currency of Bosnia is called the convertible Mark.  It replaced the Bosnia and Herzegovina dinar, Croatian kuna and Republika Srpska dinar as the single currency of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1998. Mark refers to the German mark, the currency to which it was pegged at par.

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