I run my hands along the thousands of locks attached to the diamond mesh fence on the bridge crossing the river Miljacka, where East meets West. If only they had voices to tell me. I stood, camera in hand, capturing the moment, asking myself – “who had locked the first one there, and why?” So many questions running through my mind about this small capital city we’d flown into, to unwrap the questions in our heads all these years.
Bosnia and Herzegovina have a long history of wars and troubles rumbling in the belly of the nation, across countries bordering them too. Some countries, or cities are forever haunted by misfortune it seems. Ahead of me awaited ghosts at memorials and jaw-dropping scars etched into buildings everywhere, each home and shop has a story of it’s own. I was too naive to put the pieces together myself in 1992– it was bound to erupt – religion against religion, money and greed coursing aggressively through the veins of powers and principalities. Sarajevo has been home to Jews, Catholic Croats, Muslim Bosniaks and Orthodox Serbs for centuries – each making a life within their own communities, a mutual tolerance lived through centuries of wars and troubles, until the dawn of April 5, 1992. When we visited in 2017, we were told that 3 Presidents rule at one time – basically serving on a rotational basis. Well, go figure – how do they get around this situation? It is all too complicated and multi-dimensional to explain it, to be honest!

River flowing between East and West
Jerusalem of the Balkans – Sarajevo

As way back as junior school, I recall learning about the Assassination (a trepidatious word for a small girl) of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which pushed Europe into WW1. Possibly the only event I could store in my brain about WW1 in those days. Being a visual person, who absorbs lilts and background sounds well, the news on tv about the siege of Sarajevo burrowed into my being and began to process questions – which is why Sarajevo was a bucket list desire. Many questions needed answering. In 2006, travelling around Europe, we made our way from Italy, across Slovenia (where we were bullied by border guards) and into Croatia. It was a war ravaged hell hole of depression back then, poverty and utter despair where inhabitants wandered around the battered streets aimlessly looking angry, destitute and empty, we turned back the following day – the pain was too tangible to absorb.

A decade later, everywhere in Eastern Europe buzzed with tourists and thriving businesses, in Old Town Sarajevo quaint Turkish-influenced shops traded, shelves were full, senior citizens sat at their entrances smoking, playing cards and chatting (mostly men). Cosy coffee cafe’s nestled on street corners and Hookahs’ pipe aromas filled the air where youngsters gathered in noisy groups. Strangely, my emotions swung like a pendulum from joy experiencing the progress of a nation. to tears moments later when wandering down an alley of broken shot up buildings. Memorials, eternal flames and small graveyards mingled amongst new glass and chrome buildings, threaded through old town, near train stations and stared out from way up in the forested hills. Tragically, not only buildings bore the scars of war – very elderly peasant women begged pitifully in doorways and at road crossings. Where are their children and husbands I wondered, what happened to their lives – all wiped out probably? Time had not been on their side, they never had that to recover and begin again I suppose?

Remnants of war
War wounds in Sarajevo
Remnants of the past
The sad story of the past

One morning we stumble upon a huge street chess board with child size pieces and nearby a military parade, band playing and a lot of pomp and ceremony. Overhead jets buzz and the pedestrian pavements fill up with smartly dressed citizens. It is April 2016 – what a fluke. We often have these lucky things happen to us – kiss the Blarney Stone good fortune. On the 20th Anniversary, April 2012, Sarajevo lined over 11 541 red chairs on their main street, Titova Street, representing men, women and children killed in the siege, accompanied by a choir and orchestra playing wartime songs – today was a much smaller version og that day.

In the musical moment – I look up and spin in a circle, we are surrounded by hills where, night and day, snipers attacked from. Transcending into a portal of time, I am trapped on this spot for 4 years, with other frightened families, starving, sleep deprived, witnessing death, shivering cold through icy winters without heating, struggling with minimal water rations and helpless. This is how it must have felt for journalists who actually didn’t belong here, who braved these long days to capture history for us to watch in disbelief. Oh please God, I whisper under my breath, may it never happen to me, us, our generation.

Historical buildings at night
Beautiful historical buildings at night

Wandering the golden lit ancient winding streets that evening is surreal, the sky a canopy of deep indigo and air warm, comforting our suntanned shoulders. We eat early, thankfully finding a meatless option, in an empty restaurant, served by an young waiter who keeps remarking how like his mother I am (nice one, no tip coming your way my boy!!!, I’m not feeling that old?!). Interrupting our meal, he bubbles over with enthusiasm “here, please looks at my photograph, my mudder”. OMW – I have a foreign sister! Different cultures, from different continents – yet just the same. Writing this now, I wonder – had there been something more spiritual about my intrigue and journey?

Being from Africa, we don’t have a fun night life out of our homes – it is not really safe, so when overseas the nights are glorious. Walking streets, window shopping, tossing coins in fountains – dreaming dreams and sitting with a glass of vino observing tourists at night is always a highlight on any trip. Not tonight!!! We cross the nearly still river reflecting a thousand stars, to return to our boudoir and poof, no lights. This area feels dodge, cold and sinister. Holding hands we stumble up broken stairways, hang on to rusty broken railings for stability. Every bush resembles a criminal and our hair stands up on end. Our abode is now locked behind a huge locked gate and a double locked door. How did we not notice this during the day??? Really dumb tourists!

Restaurant all to ourselves
Restaurant all to ourselves

Obviously we survive the night, in all-purple comfort, and ready for another adventure. Exploring the Tunnel of Hope is today’s adventure, built under Sarajevo city to the airport, dug from both ends to miraculously meet up within inches – quite an architectural feat without professionals using huge machinery, scopes, floodlights etc. The secret passage enabled escape, supplies and help from NATO finally. Walls of photos capturing the years are fascinating too. Resilience of mankind leaves me speechless. 1425 days passed from beginning to end of the siege – imagine!!!! (we are under 700 days from first Coronavirus Lockdown – and are bleating even though we have internet, food accessible, gas to keep us warm and healthcare available at our finger tips).
At the conclusion of 1995, The Dayton Accord, peace agreement was signed and war ended 29th February 1996. A leap year, and everyone leapt for joy – 4 years after the first mortar was fired.

The streets and balconies are draped with contented cats basking in the sunshine en route to the bus station. Begs the question, where did they hide during those bleak years, how did they eat? After a privileged few days touristing through ultra modern shopping centres and over centuries old cobbled streets, finally satisfying a historical curiosity and filling the spaces in my own history book only one question remains unanswered – who placed love locks on the bridge joining east to west? A bridge over troubled waters, keeping secrets and entrancing travellers.
If you’ve never watched a movie The Cellist of Sarajevo, based on Steven Galloway book of true events – and you’ve appreciated my story, I highly recommend you read the book or find the film.

Rooftop iew of the cemetery in the hills
View from rooftops over memorial hill – Sarajevo