Emina was five years old when she was shot in the back by a sniper while making her way around her neighborhood. Doctors operated on her, but the bullet was lodged so close to her heart that it was far riskier to try to remove it than leave it.
So she carries the bullet like most of the memories Sarajevo residents retain of the war that ended nearly 20 years ago; close to her heart as a constant reminder. And with a grim sense of humor.
“We have a black sense of humor about everything,” she told me as I sipped coffee in the basement breakfast room of the Halvat Hotel in Sarajevo’s Old Town, where she has worked for the past four years. “The worse the situation, the harder the humor…it’s how we cope.”
Walking the streets of today’s Sarajevo, it’s easy to see evidence of the ravages the city sustained in the longest urban siege in contemporary history – nearly four years – from 1992 to 1996. Many buildings are still pockmarked by bullet holes; others reveal structural damage that is slowly being repaired. The city has left some structures ravaged by the war as standing reminders of a period residents would just as soon forget, Emina said.
“Bosnia’s history is mostly about war,” she added.
Not far from the Halvat Hotel is a cornerstone near the Latin Bridge that marks the 1914 assassination spot of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary. Gavrilo Six assassins killed Ferdinand and his wife, Sofia, sparking a reaction from Austria-Hungary that started World War I.
Occupations, partitions, ethnic conflicts and internal and external armed conflicts are the norm in this geographically stunning country with its friendly, affable people. Like other people we encountered throughout Bosnia Herzegovina, Emina spoke flawless English and demonstrated a centered, focused kindness that sharply contrasted with her personal history. Somehow, human beings survive trauma and continue.
“Here, we live to survive, not to live,” she said, explaining that with her monthly salary of 300 Euros (roughly $330) she cannot afford to live in her own apartment. “I love living with my family,” she said, adding that her father waits at the front gate each night when she returns home from work around 11. “He is the perfect dad. He wants to be sure I am safe,” she explained.
From what? I ask.
“From the dogs,” she said. Roving packs of feral dogs – some of them rabid, like the one I saw mingling with tourists near the city center yesterday, frothing at the mouth and periodically convulsing as it walked the street – terrorize hillside neighborhoods like the one where Emina lives.
But don’t let the tragic history and feral dogs puts you off about visiting Sarajevo or Bosnia Herzegovina, as you would miss out one of the more genuine, touching places we have seen in our travels. The struggles of Bosnian life are transparent and obvious, yet more than overshadowed by the kindness, generosity and openness to people of other cultures that we encountered wherever we went.
Sarajevo and Mostar – two places you won’t want to miss – boast charming ethnic restaurants serving delicious, inexpensive food. Streets in the old towns buzz with the excitement of Turkish bazaars. Hotel owners turn themselves inside out to make you feel welcome, and the coffee culture of Bosnia Herzegovina is among the most inviting and relaxed we have seen.
And the country is beautiful. Craggy mountain ranges plummet into deep ravines with emerald green rivers. Roads cling to the mountainsides, passing through dozens of tunnels, their dim, rough-hewn interiors a challenge to navigate but a marvel in sheer engineering and construction will.
It’s Friday night in Sarajevo, and the Europe Hotel is turned out in splendor to greet waves of graduating high school students in tuxedoes and gowns. It’s a celebration of transition one would witness in any western culture, with parents standing by with flowers in hand, furiously clicking away with cameras to record the event.
It is hard to imagine that this heterogeneous society was recently the scene of violent ethnic cleansing. Muslims stroll next to Catholics, alongside Croats and Serbs, just as they existed peacefully for many years in Sarajevo before politics entered the equation and war began.
Emina felt the sting of ethnic conflict in a deeply personal way.
“Our neighbors were Serbs…best friends…we would go to their house, and them to ours..we had open doors to each other before war began,” she said. “In the war? My father begged them for food, help, asked them to take care of his wife and children and never mind about him, but they ignored him.”
Friendships were the least of her family’s concerns in a city under constant assault by shelling, mortar attack and small arms fire, often at the hands of skilled snipers who would shoot at anything that moved.
Even a five-year-old child.
Today, that child still faces an uncertain future.
“I have no hope for my future or for my country,” she said. “It’s bad for me, but I feel worse for young people.”
It’s a reminder of her country’s tragic history, as if carrying a bullet inside her chest isn’t reminder enough of a time not that long ago when bombs and bullets rained down on Sarajevo in relentless violence and death.