Communism, Crucifixes, and Qur'ans: Sarajevo Remains as Complex as Ever

Flying in over Bosnia and Herzegovenia’s autumn-hued hills and red-roofed houses, I see them: straight rows of white points blanketing one hillside. It takes me a minute before I realize what it is – a graveyard.

Say Bosnia, and those in our generation immediately think of war. A conflict that seared screens all over the Western hemisphere with images of ethnic cleansing, genocide, mass rape.

Say Sarajevo, and we think of a three-year-long siege that physically and psychologically severed its inhabitants from the outside world.

And there is no denying the impact of a 20-year-old conflict that tore apart a country and lives on in the subconscious of a people who feel the need to remember and yet also desperately want to forget.

The communist-bloc buildings crowding the city center still bear bullet holes in their gray facades like pockmarks from a childhood disease. When they do finally get around to repainting the buildings, my cousin, who has lived in Sarajevo for a year, said they paint the marks red to not forget why they’re there.

But even then and especially now, Bosnia and its capital are more than the conflict that made it infamous. Since its inception, Sarajevo has been a surprising conglomeration of cultures, complexities, and contradictions - a paradoxical mixture between old and new, East and West, religious and secular.

Now, to walk through its streets is like taking a stroll through centuries of conquests. Mosque minarets dot the skyline of a city still tied to its Ottoman founders where, in its cobblestoned nucleus, locals sit sipping Turkish coffee poured from copper cezve.

The rounded stone of Eastern alleyways opens to Western avenues, making way for the pale, corniced churches of the Austro-Hungarian imperial era that line the river. They halt at an unassuming wooden bridge – scene of the "shot that was heard round the world", that ended the empire and began the First World War with a bang.

Past the residue of two world wars, Soviet communism takes over Sarajevo. Monolithic structures, inseparable only by their differing battle scars, stand at attention on the main road.

And beyond the bullets holes and blackened windows, post-war capitalism, funded by Bosnia's wealthy neighbors to the West, materializes in shimmering malls still under construction.

These glamorous structures are facades for a country still piecing itself together though. The most impressive building, a peaked glass tower, was built from drug money and now stands mostly empty. Shops selling Christian Dior perfume are fronts for money laundering scams in a country where the unemployment rate is almost 50 percent.

In spite of its relative peace, Bosnia is still a schizophrenic country within a country, divided and turned on itself. Within the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Republic of Srpska, an independent political entity with its own government, police, and capital, coils like a snake around Sarajevo.

The situation is not much better within Bosnia itself. The city of Mostar, the fifth largest in the country, is strictly divided between its Serbian Orthodox and Bosniak Muslim populations. On the road severing its two halves, there is a school with three floors: one for Serbians, one for Bosniaks, and one for “others”.

In such a bipolar country, those who do not belong to either extreme find themselves marginalized. In a government where seats are reserved for the two main ethnicities, minorities like Jews and Roma are voiceless.

This alienation is exacerbated by a current census, the first of its kind since the 1992-1995 war, that is resurrecting buried ethnic tensions. The census demands each individual, including babies, identify with one of three ethnicities – Bosniak, Croat, and Serb – and one of three religions – Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox. It does not make allowances for those of other people groups or faiths, and does not allow anyone to simply be “Bosnian” – a citizen of their country.

While trying to move beyond segregation, such a census reveals that, in Bosnia, race and religion still define who you are, to whom and where you belong, and who is the “other”.

This country and its capital, caught between cavernous mountains, are also stuck between a rock and hard place: seeking to forget their differences while remembering that which made the ruins they are trying to rebuild.

And that is not an easy task.

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