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Smelling the Roses in Sarajevo

A visit to Sarajevo reveals old wounds amid a beautiful, revitalized city.

In Sarajevo, the scenery immediately stuns me. Coming in through the valley, I can see the orange roofs and the herds of sheep beside the tractors, the cows on the road, the lumber yards, and the occasional collapsing barn. I cannot see these things from the city streets, though; only the roads and the houses going up into the foothills, the rounded tops of the Dinaric Alps green and covered with trees, the wilderness up and over beyond that.

It was from these hillsides that Serbian forces from the Republika Srpska, a self-governing region due north of Bosnia, besieged the city from 1992 to 1996, firing from the surrounding hills with artillery, mortars and sniper rifles, and killing over 10,000 people, many of them civilians and children. It was, and still is, the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. Today the city is impressively beautiful — a credit to the NATO-funded rebuild that took place after the war. But the shadow of war still looms here, nearly 20 years after the siege ended.

Later in the day, a middle-aged woman sits down next to me while I chow down during lunch at one of the city’s many cafes. She asks where I’m from. When I ask her about her roots, it takes her a second to compose herself. She tells me she used to live here in Sarajevo, but that she moved to Sweden a while back. As I pry on, tears form in her eyes. She says that she comes back once a year in an attempt to find good again, to erase some of the horrendous memories she has of Sniper Alley and of the day she was smuggled to Sweden as a Bosnian refugee.

The essence of visiting Eastern Europe is approaching the indulgence of the region’s local delights while simultaneously immersing yourself in its disturbing, bloody background.

Carefully, I begin to tell her about my Jekyll-and-Hyde experience the day before in Serbia, where some of the world’s most beautiful women walk Belgrade’s still-shattered streets, the buildings bombed by the US in the late ’90s still on display as a reminder of some sort or another: whether the wreckage is left to prevent future acts of genocide against other Balkan nations or as a hangover of hard feelings against NATO is up for debate. I tell the woman of my time exploring the Belgrade Fortress, where the Austrian Empire started World War I when it retaliated against Serbia for its assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand right here in Sarajevo. The woman nods her head and tells me the assassination happened “right down there”. After lunch, I walk a few blocks to the river and stand in the exact spot from which Ferdinand was shot in his motorcade in 1914, effectively connecting the dots of history in two consecutive days.

The afternoon is typical of the trip thus far, capturing the essence of what it means to visit Eastern Europe: approaching the indulgence of the region’s local delights while simultaneously immersing yourself in its disturbing, bloody background. Indeed, some of the most interesting destinations in the world — Germany, Vietnam, Greece, Johannesburg — owe as much of their appeal to the past as they do to the present. Now that countries like Slovakia and Macedonia have their independence and Croatia and Slovenia are exporting their natural beauty, it is only a matter of time before the once war-ridden countries of Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo begin to share their stories with the world.

The Best Way to Travel Eastern Europe

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Accessibility in Eastern Europe is beginning to improve. Earlier this year, Eurail added four new countries – Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, and Poland – to its pass, opening up the region to travelers and bringing the total number of countries on the pass to 28. While schedules are still thin, we expect to see the service improve with time as the region becomes more popular with travelers. Also new this year from Eurail is its free-roaming SIM card to help passengers stay connected on the train.

Earlier in my trip, in Poland, I was introduced to the surprisingly good beer scene in Warsaw, and then teared up at Auschwitz in Oswiecim. I drank Tokaji at underground pubs in Budapest, but not before learning about the city’s strong anti-Semitism movement that led to its support of the Nazi Regime during World War II. In Belgrade, I marveled at the beautiful women walking beneath shelled buildings.

With lunch and the Ferdinand assassination fully digested, I take a walk down Ulica Zmaja od Bosne, better known during the Serbian siege as Sniper Alley. I imagine a world where the street signs are replaced by banners reading “Pazi — Snajper!” (Watch Out — Sniper!), and picture the woman from lunch ducking through the alleyways.

On one of the side streets, I see on the ground what the locals call a Sarajevo Rose: fragmentation damage caused by mortar shells that has been filled in and painted red to look like a flower. It’s a poetic reminder, one that I’m sure the woman from lunch, or any number of the two million Bosnian diaspora, would do a much better job at explaining. Still, I try. Individually, each rose is a sign of love placed upon a grave. Together, they are a bouquet upon the city. And it’s clear to me in this moment that stopping to smell them is all part of understanding Sarajevo.

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