New shopping mall, Mostar

Ruins of a hotel, Mostar

Inside of the ruined hotel, Mostar

Bullet riddled building near the front line, Mostar

Main plaza, Mostar

New school building, Mostar

Streets of the old city, Mostar

The river running through Mostar

Old bridge, Mostar

More ruins in Mostar

Orthodox cathedral, Sarajevo

Mosque, Sarajevo

Old town Sarajevo

Old town Sarajevo

Pedestrian street, Sarajevo

Map showing Sarajevo during the siege

Tunnel museum, Sarajevo

Sarajevo from up high

Ruins of the Olympic bobsled track, Sarajevo

Graves in the Jewish cemetery, Sarajevo

2nd largest Jewish cemetery in Europe, Sarajevo

Eternal flame and WW II memorial, Sarajevo

Pedestrian street, Sarajevo

Sidewalk cafe and houses on the hillside in the background, Sarajevo

New shopping center, Sarajevo

New bridge and reflections in the water, Sarajevo

Train station, Sarajevo

Welcome to Sarajevo, sign from the Olympics in 1984 with bullet holes

Modern new tower, Sarajevo

Welcome to Sarajevo, during the siege. Photo from history museum.

Sarajevo and Mostar, Bosnia-Herzogovina

Blood and Honey

July 20, 2012

I have a sense that we will be alright

I wish for peace with electric silence

To keep our hearts beating on our minds

And we will see that we're all connected

When we awake to the tunnel's light

- Angels and Airwaves

Just past the entrance to the cavernous train station a rusted sign pockmarked with bullet holes proclaims “Welcome to Sarajevo.” The memories of the city’s glory as host of the 1984 Winter Olympics have since been overshadowed by the regrettable events of recent history. In the same way that the sign has never been removed or even refurbished, the darkness of Sarajevo’s past lingers on, unshakeable despite its strides toward the future.

From 1992-1995 the city of Sarajevo and the outlying countryside and cities were war zones. At times Sarajevo was completely surrounded by Serbian forces holding strategic positions in the mountains around the city. Day after day snipers shot at civilians on the streets, forcing people to sprint across exposed intersections and take cover behind cars, steel plate barriers, and anything else they could find. Beginning at 5am mortar fire pounded the city daily, driving people into underground basements and away from windows. The toll this took on the city’s infrastructure was staggering. Today, almost 20 years after the conflict, shattered skeletons of buildings, riddled with hundreds of bullet holes, still stand precariously with trees taking root and growing through the windows that people once gazed out of.

A resilient population was somehow able to withstand the siege and figure out creative ways to accomplish the tasks that daily life requires. In order for supplies to reach the surrounded city an 800 meter long tunnel was dug completely by hand in just over four months. After communication lines were cut, new lines were routed secretly into the city, restoring contact. United Nations aid was helpful but was unable to provide any military assistance for a homegrown army that lacked proper weapons and was facing vastly superior firepower.

Many of the physical scars from the conflict are slowly disappearing. One by one old buildings are being renovated or demolished with new developments, shopping malls, apartment buildings, and youth centers taking shape. The pedestrian streets of Old Sarajevo are packed with sidewalk cafes and tourists from all over Bosnia and the rest of Europe. The emotional scars are still very visible though. Looking at the hillsides all around the city the white gravestones of cemeteries dot the landscape everywhere. There are Muslim cemeteries, Christian cemeteries, the second oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe, and mixed cemeteries. Between them they share the burial sites for some of the 11,000 plus people that died during the conflict. Their graves occupy places that would normally be occupied by trees or flowers in places lacking such a dark chapter of history.

Mostar, located south of Sarajevo is similar to Sarajevo in that it displays signs of the both the past horrors of the war and the new developments in the present. Intense fighting here resulted in the destruction of the old bridge, which had previously stood for more than four hundred years. The bridge spans the Neretva River in the old town and was a picturesque example of Islamic architecture. The reconstruction of the bridge was completed in 2004 and today serves as a platform for local divers who plunge from the bridge into the depths of the turquoise waters below. A new shopping mall is also a sign of economic recovery but the hulking shells of abandoned concrete buildings with arrays of bullet holes and graffiti persist, offering reminders of the troubled past.

In Croatia I saw a photography exhibit with images from the conflict in the ex-Yugoslavian region. The haunting and vivid images showed cities, towns, and people destroyed by the war. The exhibit pointed out that the word Balkan is derived from the Turkish language and literally means: Blood and Honey. It’s a fitting title for a place as beautiful as it has been deadly. For centuries it was a land torn between different empires, the Ottoman, Austria-Hungarian, and Yugoslavian as well as between the component ethnicities and religions. As is true of many places with such a tumultuous history what was once a battleground is always a battleground. And while the combat has ceased, political fighting still continues and the bitter conflicts of the past live on in disagreements that impede the development of a region that has already suffered far too much.