HQ Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Over half a kilometre above sea level, the windy Muslim-majority city of Sarajevo blows cold, in spite of early summer sun, when darkness falls. Our HQ here is in a tower block in Kovačići, beyond the minarets and reconstructed glass skyscrapers that identify the city centre. Sarajevo sits in a raised outer frame of the lush clinging green rising up to the Dinaric Alps. Prayer calls from the mosques blow across this block concrete balcony from which I write, that hovers over an abandoned car park level wriggling with weeds.
Packs of wild dogs with tapping claws prowl the city pavements, and I just hear how one such mongrel hungrily bit one of our new friends. “Protect your bag in the street and on trams,” another local warned, “there are many young people here without jobs and they have to do what they can. They will rip your earrings out; I take mine off before getting on the bus.” There are screwdriver gouge marks on the outside of most of our windows, yet Sarajevo feels very safe. The 40% unemployment rate may ring alarm bells; however, the people here like to say “sabur,” or “polako,” meaning “take it slow” – an infectious attitude that renders any such statistic non-threatening. There is a slow-walking, laid back ease drifting constantly through this acutely complex multicultural capital. Citizens, since the war in 1992-1995, readily invest their time and energy in building friendships, most usually over Bosnian coffee served ornately with an addictive lump of rahat lokum (Turkish Delight). Ottoman bazars with shisha and ćevapčići smoke filtering along the alleys blend with Austro-Hungarian buildings, many mosques, and more Western-influenced retail outlets peppered with drinks terraces. There appears to be a tolerant peace at work in the streets of heavy graffiti and trails of 20-year-old bullet holes that pierce metal fences and the concrete of apartment balconies in between the pot plants.
A spirit of learning hangs in the air. Historically the people here hold a great love and respect for books. I root out an English translation of Miljenko Jergović's fantastic novel: Sarajevo Marlboro. The friendly bookshop – Buybook on Radićeva – opens until ten in the evening, and Aqua's 'Barbie Girl' pumps out from the speakers as I hand over my Bosnian Marks at the till. At the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina I read down the glass-covered small print of the A-Z guide to survival in war-torn Sarajevo. Under T, the single entry of 'Tomato' communicated so much about what happened here, how people survived Planet Sarajevo:
[…] Small tomatoes were treated like babies. The proud fathers-gardeners were measuring them in their hands whispering to them. Tomato was treated as a common good. One was enough to feed the family, to cheer the neighbour's baby or to turn an old man to life.
Outside tonight the central pedestrian streets fill with people wearing veils, headscarves, and tracksuit trousers. The sun has already set. Eating and drinking is good value. Everyone strolls slowly and in company. The abandoned buildings don't make a sound above the loud voices. Walking back up the hill to tower block HQ the speeding cars nearly clip my elbow every time, but there's not a dog to be seen.
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