I love those mornings when I wake up in a strange city with absolutely no plans. It’s a yummy feeling, one without pressure, without expectations, and full of potential.
That was how I felt on my first morning in Sarajevo, a city I had only seen in the dark of the previous evening.
I had but one idea, and that was to see the Latin Bridge, where Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife had been assassinated, which led to the start of World War One. The friendly lady at the hotel’s reception desk gave us a map and circled our destination.
We set out walking and were there in about seven minutes.
Sarajevo is a very small city.
The bridge is rather nondescript, but the setting is beautiful, as the old buildings line the shallow river, and the mountains flank the city on all sides. It was as charming and as picturesque as an incredibly important historical site can be.
As we stood on the bridge, investigating the map for clues as to what to do next, there was the inevitable advertisement for a tour company. This tour company just happened to be across the street from the bridge, so we went to investigate. We found a tour to be starting in a little less than an hour, and we signed up.
It was called Sarajevo: Times of Misfortune.
I have to admit, this is one of the reasons I wanted to come to this city. I know next to nothing about the war that wasn’t a war that ravaged this beautiful country and held this pretty little city in siege for almost four years, the longest siege of any city in modern times.
We met our guide, a former volunteer member of the Sarajevo police force who fought to protect his family and his neighbors during the siege. He was a slight man, yet tall and a little stooped, with nothing to indicate his Islamic faith, save for the fact that he told us.
He took us to the Sarajevo Fort, which provides a panoramic view of the city, and despite coming under heavy fire during the war, is relatively intact. He took us to one of many cemeteries, in fact it seems like the whole city is a cemetery, where all I could see were the death dates, etched crisply on the white monuments- 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995. We drove to the Olympic Stadium, which overlooks another cemetery. We then drove through the city’s business district, as our guide pointed out the mortar scars that still marred building after building. We ended the tour at the Sarajevo Tunnels, a life saving link between the city of Sarajevo and the UN controlled area just past the airport.
Then it was over, and we were back in the Old Town area, near our hotel, reeling from the information. How do you process something like that? How can I listen to this man who fought like few in this world ever have to fight, just to keep his family alive? The man who now joked about McDonald’s opening in Sarajevo in 2010, and the Happy Meals that his sons love? How do I keep from falling at his feet and begging for mercy, because the rest of the world allowed this to happen?
How do I look at the face of a modern day genocide survivor and not feel shame, and awe, and respect, and, dare I say, love?
Yes, for a brief moment in our brief shared history on that Saturday in Sarajevo, I loved this man.
It was impossible not to. I know only a few people in my world who are this brave, battlefield brave, fearless in a way that I can’t fathom, steely and driven by love, and the overwhelming need to protect themselves and the ones that they hold dear.
As I shook his hand and thanked him for his time, my words felt hollow. I tipped him, but it could never be enough money. I was awkward, and sad as I walked away.
I hear a lot in my world about the fact that we should “support our troops” because they’re “fighting for our freedoms”.
I met a man who embodied the term freedom fighter, a man who fought to maintain the freedom to simply breathe, and love, and see his family grow. I met a man who didn’t sign up for this, a man who simply did what he had to do to survive.
As we drove out of town the next morning, the iPod blaring on shuffle through the speakers of our tiny rental car, we passed the Latin Bridge as Take Me Out by Franz Ferdinand began to play.
Coincidence? Maybe. Completely appropriate?
I had very much intended to tell the story of the rest of our night, where we found ourselves in a very local, very dive-y bar drinking grappa with old Bosnian men. This post ran away with me a bit, but I wouldn’t change a thing. Stay tuned and I’ll tell THAT crazy tale in its entirety.