The call to prayer sounds more mournful in Sarajevo than in Istanbul or Beirut. Walking through the old city—a disorder of cobbled lanes and bazaars spilling over with hammered copper pots, communist kitsch, and bright wool Bosnian kilims—the call of the muezzin comes softly at first. A single cry drifts in from the distance, then is joined by another, and another, lapping over each other, building to an eerie harmony, a song sung in round.
Minarets scatter the skyline, rising above the tile roofs like ancient gnarled pines in a forest. The mosques in the old city date back three, four, five hundred years. The muezzins’ calls began at the oldest of these, a short walk away, across the turbid shallow waters of the River Miljacka. The Tsar’s Mosque, as it is called, is squat and unremarkable. Built in 1457, the building is as old as the city itself. It is named for Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror: the man who turned Constantinople into Istanbul and brought much of the Balkans into the expansive fold of the Ottoman Empire. Sarajevo was founded at Mehmet’s orders, to serve as the capital of his new province. This mosque was duly erected.
It was a fitting beginning for a city that overbrims with houses of worship. Long before Ellis Island and the multicultural metropolises of the 21st century, Sarajevo was among the most diverse places on the planet. For hundreds of years it was one of the few cities where one could find a Catholic cathedral, a mosque, a synagogue, and an onion-domed Orthodox church together on a single street. Inside the tchotchke stands and hostel rooms you can still find the old tourism posters from the 60s and 70s that proudly proclaim Sarajevo “The Jerusalem of Europe.”
The diversity of this place is, perhaps, the inevitable consequence of its history. The Balkans have always existed on the fringe of empires, as the much-fought-over domain at the center of their territorial ambitions. Through the centuries, Romans, Byzantines, Slavs, Venetians, Turks, and Austro-Hungarians came, saw, conquered, and, in time, retreated back whence they came. Each left echoes of their presence: some words from their language, some converts to their religion, some favorite food or drink or art form. The language—called Bosnian, Serbian, or Croatian, depending on whom you ask—reflects this tradition of borrowing and cultural inconsistency. Tea (caj) comes from Turkish, water (voda) from Slavic, pronouns from Latin. The Balkans are the great palimpsest of history.
It’s hard to believe, after years of war and ethnic strife, that the name Balkan once evoked this kind of diversity. The name—derived from the range of mountains that run up the peninsula’s spine—has taken on an altogether different meaning in the Western lexicon. Balkanization now signifies an injurious breakup of a whole into small, hostile parts. All complex entities, from corporations to African states, now risk the fate of balkanization: out of one, many. A sense of spoiled potential hangs in the air here. The diversity of this place was once its selling point, a source of pride. But it also proved to be its downfall. When else has a city gone so quickly from Olympic host to war-zone? The wooded, rolling hills that cradle the city were transformed from ski runs for the world’s finest athletes into a shooting gallery for heavy artillery and Serbian snipers.
The siege of Sarajevo lasted for nearly four years, longer than any other siege in modern history, three times longer than Stalingrad. When it was all over, ten thousand people were dead and fifty thousand wounded. A third of the population had fled for their lives, and half of Sarajevo’s survivors reported seeing a family member shot. The renowned national library, attacked with incendiary grenades, burned for three days. Five hundred years of Bosnia’s history was reduced to ash on the ground.
There is a famous photograph taken by Annie Leibovitz during the war. It shows a bicycle collapsed on pavement, a crescent of blood smeared against the pale ground like a stroke in Chinese calligraphy. Leibovitz flew into Sarajevo in 1993, a year into the siege. On the drive back from her meeting with the newly crowned Miss Besieged Sarajevo, a mortar crashed to earth ahead of her car. “It hit a teenage boy on a bike,” she wrote, “and ripped a big hole in his back. We put him in the car and rushed him to the hospital, but he died on the way.”
I didn’t see the photo until after my own visit to Sarajevo, but it captured something distinct and plaintive about the place that reflected my own experience. By the time I started poking around the Balkans—fourteen years after the conflict’s end—the stains of war remained everywhere: the spray-painted warnings of mines; the disabled ordnance sold as souvenirs; the colorless blotches left by exploded shells on building fronts, like pox scars on a face.
On our last afternoon in Sarajevo, my friend Chelsea and I wandered away from the center of town. We posed for pictures on the Latin Bridge, the spot where Franz Ferdinand met his fateful end in 1914. We clambered around the old Olympic stadium, and rested with a couple of cans of beer in a strikingly green park. We later discovered that the park was a memorial and graveyard to some of the fifteen hundred children who died in the siege. Here again was this incongruity, this friction between the visible exterior and an unnerving evil that seemed to always lurk beneath. The hills surrounding Sarajevo shelter the city in a cozy embrace, but during the war they made escape impossible, as their vantage enabled Serbian militia to rain death down on the city. The diversity of the Balkans is both its distinction and the root of the war that ripped Yugoslavia apart. This is what I think so many outsiders have found troubling and beguiling, fascinating and repelling about this place. This was the carrion-smell that attracted the vultures of death here in the 90s, and this is what drew me first to the Balkans.
I spent six weeks in the Balkans. I went to class, traveled on the weekends, became a connoisseur of Croatian brandies, and tried to fathom the place. The Balkans are the Gordian knot of geopolitics, full of divisions so subtle as to seem wholly imperceptible to the outsider. It was not until around week four that I began to get a handle on the dividing lines between Croats and Slovenes, Macedonians and Kosovars, Stokavian and Čakavian dialects, and so on. But just at the point when I hoped coherence would set in, I only grew more confused.
As our lectures recounted the breakup of Yugoslavia and the wars that followed—the ethnic cleansing, the churches filled with people and set burning—it gradually felt less foreign and perverted. Had I assimilated the Balkan mentality? Was this normal, inevitable, unavoidable? Was it simply the sanitizing gap between experiencing atrocities and learning about them in a classroom? It wasn’t that the war existed in some distant past; my classmates from Serbia and Croatia had all been touched by it. We talked about a father gone fighting for years, a brother wounded by snipers, and countless sleepless nights spent huddled in bomb shelters. They seemed to accept it all so matter-of-factly. I suppose these things are different when you grow up with them.
One Monday I received a call from Matija, a friend of a friend who had offered to show me around. Matija was a man on a mission. “Plan for Thuseday,” he declared. “Take a train to Sisak. We’ll look around. It was important city. Then will drive to Petrinja. That is a city that was devastated during war. After that I’m going to Zagreb, so you’ll be co-driver. OK?” I must have dithered for a moment too long, because before I could answer he was demanding, “When can you take train?”
“Hold on, was that Tuesday or Thursday?”
“Yes, day after today.” He was getting impatient.
“Oh, yes, of course. I’m free at four.”
“Mm. Arrival should be in one hour. It is small station, however, it is the only station that looks like one. More or less. Until Thuseday,” he said and hung up. Nothing quite like Slavic hospitality.
The day was broiling and the train airless. When I arrived in Sisak, my clothes were soaked and plastered to my body. Matija gave me a quick tight hug and started walking. Sisak is an ugly but tidy industrial city. Smokestacks fill one end of the sky. The streets were empty, and it was silent save for the murmur of cicadas. We walked along the river. A few Roman columns stood uncomfortably between communist-era tenements. We crossed the river and walked up a hill into a neighborhood of small neat suburban houses. He gestured ahead to a house on the right, where his grandparents live. He told me that in 1995, when he was ten, fighting broke out again between Croatia and the breakaway republic of Serbian Krajina, in what is now southeastern Croatia. His mother worried that the Serbs would bomb Zagreb, so she drove them out into the country to stay with her parents until things cooled down. Gesturing to an overgrown vacant lot on the left, Matija said that during that first night back in Sisak a deafening noise woke everyone up. A bomb meant for the nearby power plants had flattened the house across the street.
We went into his grandparents’ house to wait for his friend Helena. His grandmother cooed over me as she force-fed us from a seemingly limitless supply of plum dumplings. Meanwhile, his grandfather held forth, enumerating Croatia’s contributions to the world: the necktie, the fountain pen, the torpedo. The list went on. Helena arrived an hour later. We drove off to her hometown, Petrinja, which had seen some of the heaviest fighting in the ’95 campaign. We got out to walk around in a few places, stopping to look at an old stone fort and a 16th-century battlefield, then drove up out of the city, pulled off onto a gravel road, and stopped. We were surrounded by trees. Below was an idyllic meadow, tall with grass swaying in the breeze. It all looked like something out of a Grimm fairytale. Helena told us, as Matija translated, that Serb paramilitaries marched twenty-two Croats from the town into these woods. They shot them, then buried them in a mass grave near this spot.
We drove on, stopping again by the side of the road as we neared the outskirts of town. Here there was a simple wooden crucifix in the middle of a field. Helena said that this was the site of a church that had been bombed during a service, that this was the exact day it had happened, nineteen years ago. She added, almost as an afterthought, that her parents had been killed inside. It was all so sober and unsentimental. She didn’t even change the tone of her voice or run her hand along the cross.
Matija and I drove back to Zagreb. He asked me to explain something that he’d been wondering about for years. Of course, I said. “I have tried and I don’t know… Baseball,” he blurted out, “how does it work?”
Matija dropped me off at my hostel and said goodbye. I went up to my room, exhausted from the long day, and got ready for bed. For a long time I couldn’t fall asleep, so finally I went out for a walk, bought some ice cream and brought a tall beer back to the room. Suddenly I was overwhelmed. I started to cry. It was over as soon as it started. But in a way I felt relieved. I didn’t know anything about war or hardship or loss or post-traumatic stress, and I still didn’t understand the stoicism of the day, the unfeelingness of the entire place. This was, after all, a people that stereotype faults for volatility. I didn’t know what I had just felt. But in my confusion, tears were confirmation that feeling did still exist. The gesture reassured me, and I was thankful for it.
Every Yugoslav remembers May 4, 1980: the day Tito died. Though twelve years would pass before the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia collapsed under myriad internal pressures, the nation’s decline became inevitable on this day. Yugoslavia was more of an idea than a country anyway. And Tito was the prime salesman of this idea. The force of Tito’s personality literally held the nation together. People recognized that he was a dictator, but he gave them a nation based upon grand ideals, a nation that was a player on the world stage, a nation that they could believe in and be proud of. Who cared if your ruler was an autocrat if you had all that? After Tito, the idea of Yugoslavia slowly lost its cachet. As people stopped believing in the idea of the nation, politicians stopped talking about the good of Yugoslavia, and started addressing their local constituencies, Serbs and Croats and Slovenes.
I saw an old Slovenian propaganda poster once in a Ljubljana museum. It showed the growth of an apple from naked limb to fruit, in five panels. The apple represented Yugoslavia and the panels were each labeled with a decade. The 1940s were a bare branch, then, over the next three panels, the apple developed into a large ripe fruit. In the last panel, the 1980s, only the core was left, dangling. Slovenia—the most developed, the most homogenous, and the most “Western” of the republics—was the first to withdraw from the federation. Slovenians no longer saw any value in propping up Kosovar villagers with the fruits of their industry, so they removed themselves from the social contract that was Yugoslavia. Now, Slovenia is the only ex-Yugoslav state to have been invited into the European Union.
Yugoslavs once took pride in their country’s complexity and untroubled diversity. But since the wars of the 90s, they have lost the self-assurance of a confident nation—of Americans, Germans, and Argentines. Since Yugoslavia splintered into a bloody mess, they have realized the connotation that the word Balkan now holds for Western ears. To some extent, our sense of ourselves is always filtered through the eyes of others. They are scared to death that they too will begin to think about themselves in this way. And so they tend to dismiss the war and disregard its causes. It is not consistent with their self-image, so they go to great lengths to try to disprove the negative stereotypes. They try to harbor no grudges, to remain unsentimental.
Before the breakup of Yugoslavia, before the strident nationalism and petty border wrangling, each republic in the federation could have been personified, with certain character traits. Imagine Yugoslavia as a family in a sitcom, with Tito as the lovable but hard-nosed father. Serbia would have been the stern athletic elder son, tough and devoted. Croatia: the elegant, pretty, popular one. Slovenia was smart, serious, maybe a little socially awkward. And Bosnia was the dysfunctional, jokey class-clown, always making ironic asides, making light of adversity in order to beat it.
The Bosnian comedy group Top Lista Nadrealista—“Surrealists’ Top Chart” in English—began producing a popular radio comedy show during the ’84 Sarajevo Olympics, consciously modeling themselves after Monty Python. As the country unraveled, they moved from radio to television, and their sketches veered from silly fun to political burlesque. They kept on producing darkly absurdist humorous sketches through the long siege of Sarajevo. One skit constructs a farce out of the grim reality of life in a city surrounded by snipers. The actors run a relay race that involves collecting buckets of water from a well while prancing back and forth to avoid the sniper shots that ricochet around them. The lunacy of this setup is only amplified by the fact that there are actual snipers firing on them. The bullets whipping past the players are real. But the misfortunes of the ‘90s eventually dampened this comedic spirit. Two of the original Nadrealistas tried to resurrect the group a few years back, but the new program failed to find an audience. Sarajevo now seems a deeply melancholy place, downcast in spirit and dour in mien. Even the call to prayer sounds more mournful in Sarajevo.
Something of the old spirit still endures, though. If you direct your gaze downward while walking Sarajevo’s streets, you will sooner or later spot a bright red rupture blooming in the pavement. These are gashes caused by exploding shells during the siege. Rather than smooth them out and repair the damage of war, the city filled them with red resin. They are meant to commemorate the dead and transform the scars from the city’s darkest chapter into things of beauty. There are hundreds of these scattered around Sarajevo, and each is unique. Looked at with a sanguine eye, it resembles a flower. And so it is called a Sarajevo Rose.