Call it a morbid fascination if you will, but the things that have always moved me most in my travels, have inadvertently been centred around crimes against humanity.
Perhaps because I come from a generation, far separated from any war, in a country counted among the safest in the world, there is a feeling of being alive when confronted with the stories of those who did not come from similarly privileged circumstances.
Recently, I travelled to Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina. From a tourist’s perspective, standing in the old town, I was impressed by the clean streets, bustling commerce and interesting architecture, not unlike any other old town in Western Europe. It took some time and a bit of luck and perseverance to get a deeper view of the city.
The rose-tinted recount of Sarajevo, would be a model city of tolerance and multi-culturalism. After all, this was one of the first few cities in the world you could find Orthodox churches, synagogues, Catholic churches and mosques all within the same neighbourhood. The numerous and random grave sites surrounding the city, the bullet holes and shrapnel damage on buildings, and the odd ruin, hinted at a different reality.
With only three short days to tour the city, I got some advice from Senad at the hotel concierge on the must-see sights of the city. He took out a tourist map and pointed out the classic tourist attractions within the old city. He also emphasised that if there was only one thing I saw on my trip, it was to be the Srebrenica Gallery – a collection of media surrounding one of the worst genocides in recent history.
To be honest, I did not know much about the Srebrenica massacre (Srebrenica is a small mountain town in the east of Bosnia and Herzegovina, around two hours from Sarajevo). Sure, I had read, from a ‘distance’ about the Bosnian War of Independence in the early nineties, but what I was to discover at the gallery, was to be a sobering reminder of the illogical hate this world was capable of.
To get a sense of scale, Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General in 2005, described the mass murder as the worst crime on European soil since World War II. More than 8,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslims) men and boys were systematically executed in and around the town of Srebrenica from 11th July 1995 to 13th July 1995. Not discounting the events starting from 1992, during which 296 Bosniak villages were destroyed, forcing approximately 70,000 Bosniaks to be uprooted and subsequently live in impoverished conditions for years.
Many also lost their lives during the Siege of Sarajevo, when Serb forces in their quest to create a new state for Bosnian Serbs — Republika Srpska — bombarded those within the city. This three-year affair is known as the longest siege of a capital in modern history.
While I did not get to visit the town of Srebrenica, the touching images (see picture gallery), detailed video interviews and documentary film at the gallery reminded me and all who visited that peace is something we should never take for granted.
The other thing that really stood out for me during my short stay was a war tour that Senad recommended. As I later found out, Senad and my guide Arian were friends, and in somewhat twisted serendipity, I had gained access to a personal tour that showed me a rawer but truer side of Sarajevo. The tour was run out of Arian’s own car and certainly wasn’t the kind of template tour which you could find multiple tour operators conducting. It was a personal story from the eyes of a young man who had spent part of his childhood running away from the war; from a family who had to leave their home for fear of religious persecution. After spending the war years in Montenegro, my guide returned to Sarajevo to study medicine. And, the very fact that a medical school graduate cannot find a job as a doctor tells a story of a country where the young feel a sense of insurmountable hopelessness.
Arian showed me around his city, but not in the same rosy way that many tours are usually run. It was an honest account of how a potentially great city had been denied progress due to a long history of fighting. It was also a story of human strength and perseverance in the most trying of circumstances. The most important thing for me, however, was to be reminded that travel is more than just a break from work. It is an opportunity to learn more about the world and human behaviour, and to reset our perspectives on life, which is more than just about our personal problems.
In the end, it was a bittersweet trip for me. I can’t say that Sarajevo won me over because it was a picturesque city, because the reality was it captured my heart through its stories of life, both good and bad. And for that I long to return.