It’s 20 years ago this week that the conflict in Bosnia & Herzegovina started, which is estimated to have cost the lives of nearly 12,000 residents of its capital Sarajevo.
I went there in August 2008 to attend the annual film festival: W (Will) Hide had been confused with the Times’ film critic W (Wendy) Ide. Oops.
Sarajevo is a fascinating (and totally safe) place to visit for a long weekend break. There are no longer direct flights from London but you can go via Vienna for around £200, it’s easy to book a hotel on the internet and if you want to explore the countryside I’d recommend the excellent Green Visions.
Here is my report from the Times that appeared in May 2009. It was an interesting place to visit, with heaps of history and really great food. The saddest thing though was the locals’ pessimism that attitudes hadn’t really changed and that even a small nationalist spark on any side could fan the flames of hatred again at any moment. Even today, three years after the article appeared, no one side seems to have moved on.
THE call to prayer from the muezzin in the mosque next door woke me at 8pm, just as the setting sun lit up the slate roofs of Sarajevo’s old town, spread out beyond my bedroom window.
I left the courtyard of my guesthouse, walked down the hill, past the supermarket and the little kiosks selling packets of cigarettes at 40p a go.
In front I crossed the small, hump-backed pedestrian bridge over the River Miljacka, directly across from the street corner where, on June 28, 1914, the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his pregnant wife by Gavrilo Princip precipitated the First World War.
On Zelenih Beretki, west of the old cobbled Ottoman district of Bascarsija, crowds were carrying out a local version of a passeggiata — meandering with no particular purpose — in front of the buildings with their Austro-Hungarian façades.
Lovers walked arm in arm, grannies strolled with grandchildren, and teenage girls — some in miniskirts, others in hijab — flirted outside the lively City Pub. A more subdued hubbub came from the terrace of the Cafe Central, which linked the Catholic Cathedral at one end of the street with the Orthodox one on the other.
I was late and couldn’t stop to enjoy the scene as I would have liked, so I carried on for a few hundred metres, handed over my ticket, ducked into what looked like a car park, and plonked myself down in front of a cinema screen with about a thousand others as an advertisement for NATO blared out and bats flew in front of the projector. It was another balmy night at the Sarajevo Film Festival.
The festival began in 1995 when the city was still besieged. The actions of the “aggressor forces” (as one of my tour guides called the Serbian troops), after Bosnia and Herzegovina broke away from Yugoslavia in 1991, caused 11,000 civilian deaths in the city. At least 5,000 artillery shells landed on Sarajevo each day.
The Zetra stadium, where Torvill and Dean skated a perfect ten to Ravel’s Bolero in the 1984 Winter Olympics, was smashed. Victims of the shelling buried after dark in case mourners were targeted by snipers.
The scars are still there if you look — from the burnt-out interior of the magnificent National Library (gutted by Serbian shelling at the end of the conflict) to bullet holes in buildings. However, there is a welcoming air about the place.
Sarajevo is an attractive place for a long weekend, there is no better time to visit than August when the entire town is in party mood for the film festival. The pavement cafes, bars and restaurants are at their liveliest, and in the Ottoman quarter the smell of fresh food fills the air.
The peoples of former Yugoslavia may agree on very little these days, but even the most begrudging would accept that Sarajevo does the best cevapi, small sausages served inside pitta-like bread with chopped onions and sometimes cream cheese on the side, washed down with Sarajevsko Pivo beer, and all for the equivalent of about £4.
The restaurant Kod Bibana, a ten-minute drive into the hills, offers views over the city and a plate of fresh ustipci — deep-fried savoury doughnuts served with cream cheese. In the evening, sit by the river opposite the National Library at Inat Kuca restaurant with a glass of wine and some local soup or stew and watch the sun set.
One of the Sarajevo Film Festival’s biggest attractions is the easy access it offers to star producers, directors and actors. Unlike Cannes or Venice, here you’re likely to bump into Kevin Spacey chilling in a caf? off the main pedestrian area or get close to Mike Leigh to ask him about his latest production.
Each evening there are at least two outdoor screenings, which I found as enjoyable for the people-watching as for the movies. The Sarajevans I met were a revelation. I’m not sure what, or who, I was expecting, but it wasn’t this polite, good-looking crowd.
During the day I would hop on one of the trams to visit the large fruit and veg market. I toured the national museum, which showed photos of the siege and contained a mock-up of a typical home 15 years ago, complete with plastic windows, a small gas burner for cooking and UN humanitarian rations.
I also went to the tunnel museum near the airport. During the siege the 800m passage under the runway was the only link to the outside world. Everything from soldiers to goats, cigarettes and food, passed through the tunnel and emerged in a suburban garage out of sight of the Serbian snipers.
“The last thing people here want is your guilt,” I was told by one resident. Still it’s hard not to feel uneasy when so many horrible things happened only a little over a decade ago. However, the film festival is one way that Sarajevo shows the world that it can look to the future without forgetting the past. END