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. (Read all posts in this series.)
The Dayton Accord brought relief to a battered nation. But the effect was also to physically sort out what remained of the population. Bosnia’s Muslims and Croats streamed into their new sub-state, the Federation, while the Serb population settled in its own, the Republika Srpska. While most of Sarajevo is in Bosnia’s Muslim and Croat territory, a suburb known as East Sarajevo falls just across the boundary in the Serb region.
The groups thrive in their own strongholds, but returning to a mixed coexistence has proved more challenging.
Before Friday prayer at the landmark Gazi Husrev-Bev mosque in Sarajevo’s old town, the interior fills to capacity and officials begin to hurl prayer mats across the courtyard, in a mad dash to accommodate the crowds before the clock strikes one. Dzemal Hrga, 65, a retired painter, watched from the corner on a stoop shaded by an ancient tree. With a crinkled expression and a few missing teeth, he told me that his family has been in Sarajevo for 700 years, and they have been coming to the mosque since it opened in 1531 during the Ottoman Era.
“The painter that did this mosque also has work in Milan,” he proudly proclaimed. A cluster of men in their 30s with sharp suits strolled past us; another bearing a Yankee cap, probably no older than 18, struggled to untie his shoes. “My sons come here too, and so will their sons,” Mr. Hrga told me.
Other groups may feel less of a loyalty to the city. At the Jesus Sacred Heart Cathedral, Daria Topić, 20, a Catholic dentistry student, said she hopes move to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, because in Sarajevo “people don’t take religion seriously.” The exodus is even more pronounced at the New Serbian Orthodox Church, where Vidosava, the elderly Serb woman from a previous post who feels unwelcome in Sarajevo, has watched the crowd dwindle since the war. “Now it is all just us retirees,” she explained with dismay. She has considered moving to the Republika Sprska, but said she is constrained by her familial ties to the old city.
Serb culture is vibrant over the border in East Sarajevo, where street signs are in Cyrillic, in a departure from the Latin alphabet used in the rest of town. Danijela Mrda, 38, the principal at St. Sava primary school, described the area as a “city in progress,” built up by Serbs who left Sarajevo proper during or after the siege. Her school’s curriculum is set by the Republika Srpska Ministry of Education, and its language, history, and religion courses differ from those taught in the Federation.
The municipality has its own institute of higher education, the University of East Sarajevo. Renata Obrenović, 26, a music theory student at the school, said that she has developed a comfortable social life in East Sarajevo and travels to Sarajevo only infrequently.
But that journey is not particularly easy in either direction these days, as the Federation and the Republika Srspka have different programs of urban planning. Public transit ends in Sarajevo’s Dobrinja neighborhood, just before reaching East Sarajevo. The buses on the other side of the border are run by a separate company.
Nasiha Pozder, an urban planner at the University of Sarajevo who lives in Dobrinja, said, “We live in the same city but we make our plans as if we live in separate countries.” We meandered along the main street near her house, cluttered with busy storefronts and cafes. Yet as we strolled further, activity diminished, the pavement eventually vanishing into a sea of grass. The sidewalk resumes a few meters further, across an invisible but almost palpable boundary line that still fragments the country.