From morning to midnight, in sun or snow, pensioners play chess with passion, swinging life-sized pieces across a board painted onto the pavement in the center of Sarajevo.
I struck up a conversation with a crowd of bystanders, and learned that was not always so. Twenty years ago, this square was deserted, a victim of Bosnian-Serb mortars. Now, the chess players razz each other against a backdrop of multinational chains. But the past is never absent in Bosnia, and the storefronts face the once-majestic Austro-Hungarian officer club, still riddled with bullet holes two decades after the country’s ethnic war.
Supported by a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant, I’ve been exploring Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital that was besieged during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. It took nearly four years to end the violence, a feat that was achieved through a power sharing agreement between Bosnia’s ethnic groups called the Dayton Peace Accord. As we approach the 20th anniversary of Dayton, I’m learning how ethnic divides have affected the reconstruction of the city, as residents try to shape a new multicultural Bosnia.
Sarajevo was once a beacon of multiculturalism, where different ethnicities got along. But the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s gave way to nationalist fervor and on April 5, 1992, the Bosnian Serb Army surrounded the city, launching the longest siege in modern history. By the war’s end 1,400 days later, 11,000 people, mainly Muslims, were killed.
More than two million others across Bosnia were uprooted and many eventually settled in more homogenous communities. Before the war, Sarajevo was 50 percent Bosnian Muslim, 30 percent Serbian Orthodox, and 7 percent Croatian Catholic—with the rest identifying as Yugoslav or “other,” including Jews and Roma. Though no official census has been released since the siege, Sarajevo today is composed mainly of Bosnian Muslims, known as Bosniaks.
Memories of diverse Sarajevo were erased as the city’s historic buildings were fired upon. While the men fought, a team of “monument women” from the Institute for the Protection of Cultural, Historical and Natural Heritage risked their lives running across the city to document the destruction of cultural property. “We tried to mark certain buildings as protected,” Jasmina Eminagić, who still works at the agency, told me. “But those buildings just became targets.”
In Sarajevo today, new glass skyscrapers are adjacent to structures still scarred by war. Even as the city has regained some cosmopolitan panache, in weeks of conversations I learned that an unease and resentment lingers in the minds of some.
One of the best chess players in the square, Meho Zekić, 70, wears a crisp white button-down, a degree of formality that distinguishes him from the other retirees. He served as an emergency room doctor through the siege. “The Serbs destroyed all of our mosques, but we kept their church,” he told me, pointing to the Orthodox cathedral on the square’s edge. “Let the world know.”
Inside that church, Vidosava, 72, a Serb and a “very devout” Orthodox Christian who would not give her last name, offered a different perspective. “Before the war, everything was normal, no one cared what religion you were,” she stated. Now, she does not feel accepted in the predominantly Muslim city: “There is nothing left for me here. I want to leave.”
The Dayton Accord, an American-brokered peace agreement signed in 1995, offered the hope that through a delicate system of power-sharing Bosnia could maintain stability and, eventually, achieve some form of ethnic integration. But it also codified cleavages, creating a tripartite presidency with one president per ethnic constituency. It froze the front lines of the conflict, establishing two distinct entities joined into one state: the Federation, dominated by Bosniaks and Croats, and the Republika Srpska, by Serbs. To this day, a boundary line cuts across the nation and even through a corner of Sarajevo.
But for all that, many citizens remain devoted to a unified country. Mustafa Bučan, 64, a retired driver who was kibitzing at the chess game, commented that “the amazing thing about Sarajevo” is the continuing close proximity of different religious institutions. Though an Orthodox church borders that square, within a moment’s walk I also found a mosque, a Catholic church and a synagogue.
In upcoming posts, I’ll bring you the triumphs and tensions of a city struggling to overcome past animosities, while striving towards a multicultural Bosnia.