famous in sarajevo
With snow on the ground, I missed it the first time I walked across it. The snow melted - and there it was: a line in the tiles and in the history of Sarajevo, capital city of Bosnia-Herzegovina (B-H) in the Balkans.
Sarajevo Meeting of Cultures
Draw nearer and further diversity becomes apparent. Among the people there is this mix of majority Bosniaks (Muslims with an Ottoman heritage; note that 'Bosnian' refers to citizenship, while 'Bosniak' refers to a people); Croats (Catholic with a Roman/Latin heritage); Serbs (Eastern Orthodox with a Byzantine ancestry) and others. They have all been living together in this space for a very long time. Until these recent decades, you could add Jews as well. They fled from the Catholics of the Spanish Inquisition, finding greater safety, rather ironically, among Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Sarajevo is the only city in Europe where you can locate a mosque, a synagogue, an Orthodox church, and a Catholic in the same neighbourhood.
This is a key part of my deepening understanding of the region. While culture may be held in common and language is increasingly divided, nationality and religion are very separate and tied together. Change your religion, you change your nationality. Herein lies the cause of so much complexity and pain in this region...
Sarajevo is famous for three things.
The Assassination (1914)
The Crown Prince of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Franz Ferdinand, visited Sarajevo with his wife, Sofia, in June 1914. An attempt on their lives was made on the way into the city (but the bomb detonated among the cars behind them). After berating the locals on their hospitality, Franz Ferdinand decided to pay a visit to the injured in hospital. They never got there. No one told the driver of the change of plans and so back they went on the original route. In trying to make the change, the cars stalled alongside the Miljacka River at a nondescript intersection, giving the assassin, 19 year old Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, his opportunity. Franz Ferdinand and Sofia were assassinated.
Getting the verbs right is important here. The assassination was not the cause of that dreadful war, but it did trigger it. The Austro-Hungarians invaded Serbia and then one thing led to another, as the dominoes fell...
After World War 1 there was a gradual movement towards uniting the area into a single country, climaxing with Tito's Yugoslavia in the communist era from the 1940s through to the 1980s. But on the way to Tito, between the Wars, the Bosniak Muslims became more marginalised. Their B-H homeland, right in the heart of the region, became the focus of a tug-of-war (literally) between the Serbs and the Croats.
Once Tito died and Yugoslavia began to break up, there was the rise of Serbian nationalism in the region with the likes of Slobodan Milosevic coming to the fore.
Then there was a brighter time for Sarajevo, about the length of a short commercial break in a long documentary. Because the city is also famous for
The Olympics (1984)
The Winter Olympics came to Sarajevo in 1984. The Olympics of Torvill and Dean and that Bolero interpretation, as they danced their way into peoples' hearts. The Olympics of Katarina Witt, that epitome of skating perfection from East Germany. That is about all I remember...!
But the afterglow did not last long.
Twice during my visit I traveled up into Mt Trebevic, once to walk what was once the Olympic bobsled course - and twice to enjoy the stunning vistas of a beautiful city. On both occasions it was also about trying to take in the suffering that was fired from those hills in what became the longest continual siege of a city in the modern history of war (unless a Syrian city has broken the record more recently).
The work of TRIO Sarajevo, a graphic design company (on display in the Srebrenica Museum).
The Siege (1992-1995)
With the break-up of Yugoslavia, the different countries sought their independence. Today there is Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, and, depending with whom you are talking, Kosovo (it is not recognised by Serbia). Bosnia-Herzegovina's independence was recognised by the EU and the USA in 1992 - but not by Serbia. While all the others were wanting to decentralise, Serbia wanted to recentralise, uniting 'all areas where Serbs lived' and B-H was right in the middle geographically - and also home to many Serbs. Within a month the Serbian army occupied two-thirds of Bosnia-Herzegovina. And then the siege of Sarajevo commenced.
I had two immediate impressions of Sarajevo. One was the people. I'd never been in a Muslim-majority country where the people look European. The other was the geography. The city occupies a narrow valley, surrounded by mountains - and so was ripe for a siege. An average of 360 grenades/day rained down on the city over those 44 months.
As it often does, the international community got it wrong, seeing the conflict to be merely a civil war for local people to sort out. In reality, it was far more complex and it needed an earlier intervention.
They do museums well in Sarajevo. I've already posted on the War Childhood museum. Then there is the Srebrenica Museum (in memory of the genocide of Bosniaks in Srebrenica, 130km east of Sarajevo, in July 1995) and the Tunnel of Hope museum, drawing attention to a tunnel under the runway at the airport (at the narrowest point in the map above) through which people and supplies passed.
So, there you have it.
The fame of Sarajevo.
An Assassination. An Olympics. A Siege.
And yet as I flew home to Bangalore, it was another fame that burdened my heart - or rather, the absence of a fame. While the city is soaked in religion, the true and living God is not yet famous in Sarajevo. The numbers are sobering. Among the 15,000 students at the University of Sarajevo, there are maybe 5-6 people who are born-again believers. The daughter of one of the pastors is in the psychology-philsophy department. She is the only believer among 800 students. We were there for the one in the year when the various evangelical communities (churches and organisations), nine in total, come together for a worship service. What a thrill. But if everyone in those communities is present and counted, there would be still be only 2-3 hundred people - in a city of 5-6 hundred thousand people.
History contributes to this reality. As the Reformation moved east and south, it didn't really cross the Sava River, Bosnia's northern boundary. As the Ottoman Empire moved west and north, it didn't find a lasting presence beyond that same river. It has always been tough. One shining light in its history is 'Miss Irby', supported as she was by Florence Nightingale back home and with Priscilla Johnston (a Buxton, of Clapham Sect stock) alongside her in Bosnia. [NB: I read her entire biography on the flight back from Sarajevo to Dubai - Meeting Miss Irby. Couldn't put it down.].
In my work I travel to places and peoples acquainted with grief and burdened by history. I find myself consumed by a desire to understand, to empathise and to act. I don't want to be frozen by the helplessness that so easily reigns. There is so much to learn and to receive from God's people in these places. I want to soak it up. But the biggest casualty in all this can be my own little heart. How do I contain it all in there? It becomes so burdened. I take heart from those years when our children were being born. My heart so flooded with love for #1 that I wasn't sure how there could be any love left for #2, let alone #5. But God made my heart bigger. He just did. I am asking Him to do it again so that I can hold on to the peoples of the world among whom God is not yet famous especially, on this Good Friday, the peoples of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord.
Renew them in our day, in our time make them known. (Hab 3.2)
May His name endure forever, his fame continue as long as the sun.
May people be blessed in Him, may all nations call Him blessed. (Ps 72.17)
Bring it on, Lord. Bring on that day when you are famous in Sarajevo. Enable those who serve you there to remain faithful to you until that day.