For decades in the former Yugoslavia, school textbooks had a question to which everyone knew the answer: what is the geographical centre of our homeland? That was simple – Sarajevo.
And then came the brutal wars that broke the country apart along ethnic and religious lines. Yet, almost two decades later, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina has once again become a buzzing hub. Sarajevo had already attracted foreign “war” tourists but has this summer become a place of rediscovery for many former Yugoslavs eager to find out what their former homeland looked like.
Coaches with Slovenian, Macedonian or Croatian plates are now clogging the narrow streets surrounding Bascarsija, the heart of the old town. Tourists roam the 400-year-old market district, where streets are named after coppersmiths, fez makers and other traditional crafts. “I thought my sons should know what our former homeland was about,” said Miran Zbajc, 54, from Slovenia, whose teenage children ventured through a carpet shop in the Morica Han bazaar. “For them, it’s a discovery; for me and my wife, it is a rediscovery of former Yugoslavia.” He added: “And it was high time, after all.”
During the bloodiest of the Balkan wars in Bosnia, Sarajevo endured three-and-a-half years of shelling by Bosnian Serbs from nearby hills, which left 10,000 people dead, more than under the German occupation during the Second World War. “People here don’t talk about the war so much,” Zijad Jusufovic, 45, a tour guide who specialises in notorious wartime sites in Sarajevo, said. “They are anxious about their jobs, the economic stagnation.”
But while many in Sarajevo have tried to move on from the devastation of the wartime years, the painful past is hard to avoid.
Thousands of people lined the city’s main street yesterday as trucks bearing 772 coffins passed through on the way to Srebrenica – some 100 miles to the south-east in eastern Bosnia – the UN-protected enclave that was the scene of Europe’s worst crime since the Nazi era when nearly 8,000 men and boys were killed in July 1995. Weeping members of the crowd tucked white and red roses into the canvas for four trucks that drove slowly down a street sprinkled with rose water.
Thousands of families will gather again tomorrow at the Memorial Centre of Potocari, close to Srebrenica, for a mass burial at 1 pm. The victims were all killed by Bosnian Serb forces under the command of the fugitive army chief Ratko Mladic, and have been found in mass graves and identified in the past year.
So far, the remains of 3,749 men and boys killed in Srebrenica have been buried at the site, dug up from more than 100 mass graves surrounding the remote town.
It is only on 11 July each year that the area sees large numbers of Bosnian Muslims return to the area. More than 250,000 Muslims were driven from the area and only a few have returned permanently. But the region is changing, even though Mladic remains at large. The Serb President, Boris Tadic, will be among foreign dignitaries in Srebrenica tomorrow to pay their respects. Earlier this year, the Serb parliament voted to apologise to the victims of the massacre and for not doing enough to stop it.
In Sarajevo, Mr Jusovic, the tour guide, says Serbs have even started to join his groups. “They seem a bit confused to hear this side of the story; but we have to know what we did to each other in order to go on; after all, we are neighbours,” Mr Jusufovic said.
Mirsad Tokaca, 55, head of the Sarajevo-based Research and Documentation Centre, says it will take decades to heal the wounds from the war.
His Bosnian “Book of the Dead” has named 97,207 people of all ethnicities who were killed or went missing in the war. This mild, yet determined, man says he wants to “bust the myths” surrounding the Bosnian war as the numbers of victims were subject to manipulation from all sides.
“Only when the past is put behind with the truth, we can look into the future,” he said. “Due to the nature and character of the war, its deep wounds and traumatic effects we need the long-term approach, the process of reconciliation will be trans-generational.
“After all, there are no distinctions between people who live here – we look the same, dress the same, speak one language and share the same heritage and customs.”