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Besieged Bosnia: Back in Business

Bosnia, embattled in 1914 and again 80 years later, still bears the scars of its brutal conflicts but, as Clive Nicholls discovers, the tragedy is tempered by its compelling beauty

IN 1914 a small bridge in Sarajevo was the scene of an event that would change the course of history. The Latin Bridge, older than most, and certainly on the pretty side of plain, was in other ways an unremarkable bridge – that was until June 28 in this fateful year.

It was at this spot that a young Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip, shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, triggering a chain of events that would lead to the outbreak of the First
World War and ultimately the deaths of more than 17 million. A team of assassins targeted Ferdinand and, indeed, he had survived an attempt earlier that day when a grenade was lobbed into his car.

Later, a change of route confused his driver and, as fate would have it, he stopped by the bridge to reverse up right in front of Princip who seized his moment. Shooting dead the Archduke, he also killed Sophie in the melee that followed.

Within a month the Austro-Hungarians invaded Serbia. Germany and Russia, with
their own agendas, took the opportunity to join in, and soon most of Europe had taken sides and individual actions had spiralled into the First World War.

Sarajevo hit the headlines again in the 20th century, being the city that endured the longest wartime siege in modern history, from 1992-96. More of that later, but for me, on a more positive note, Valentine’s Day 1984 in Sarajevo was simply brilliant. Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean stunned the world with their emotional performance of Ravel’s Bolero. For sure, they were expected to win gold at Sarajevo’s Winter Olympics. Back home every television in the UK must have been tuned in. We expected so much but somehow they delivered even more – ice dancing would never be the same again. The sixes rolled up on the scoreboard and the crowd in the Zetra Stadium rose to their feet as they realised they had just witnessed something so special – the finest ice skating performance ever.

Sarajevo is my first stop on my Insight Vacations tour of Bosnia and Croatia – what a fascinating place it is.

It’sjust 20 yearssince itwas undersiege for the best part of four years in the Bosnian war. This wasn’t a war that was played by the rules – civilians, women and children were seen as legitimate targets and Sarajevo still bears the scars of its struggle for survival, 20 years on. Hardly a building remained untouched and even today many buildings look battle-weary with damage from machinegun fire and artillery shells, showing what they endured during this vicious conflict. The human toll was devastating: in Sarajevo alone 11,500 died, including 1600 children, and more than 56,000 were seriously wounded – what kind of world do we live in where children are seen as legitimate targets for snipers?

I had the privilege of dining with a local family in their eighth-floor flat in a tower block still pockmarked by gunfire. Sanela and husband Kemo, children Nani and Sara and Kemo’s mother, Semka, were perfect hosts. Semka was cook, Sanela the interpreter and the children, well, they were just delightful. Their mother, Sanela, was 14 when the war ended; she had spent days, nights and weeks in the tower block basement during the shelling. Her school was destroyed but with other children, she was taught at home until her teacher was killed by a sniper.

Nowhere was safe and the basement, usually without power, became home. On a quiet day, when there hadn’t been any shelling or sniper fire, she begged her mother to let her and her sister play outside with their best friend. Within five minutes they were targeted by a mortar – her best friend died – she was just 11 years old. Sanela tells how there wasn’t a mark on her body; it was just the effect of the blast that killed her. So terribly sad.

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Have you ever visited Bosnia What did you enjoy the most ab0out your trip? 

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