“Though we’re unarmed,
You found me through the trenches…”
– Alien, Cary Brothers
Sarajevo… when I was growing up I’d been fascinated by the name of this city, and by the heavy tragedy it carries with it. Tragedy that I, of course, knew virtually nothing about as I was only four or five when Bosnian war broke out.
Our brief visit to Sarajevo last December was sobering, to say the least. Through family friend connections, we were able to hitch a ride from Zagreb to Sarajevo — an interesting seven-hour road trip which would have been infinitely more interesting had our driver, a local staff member at the Malaysian Embassy in Zagreb, been in a slightly more conversational mood. But he clearly wasn’t, as each and every one of his responses to my questions were short, curt, to the point, and almost militaristic in a way; they were almost principled on utilitarianism, for he used as little words as he possibly could and in a dispassionate tone too, as if afraid to color them with a little emotion.
There were so many things I found interesting about him and that I was simply dying to dig out of him — like the fact that he had lost some family members in the Bosnian war too, and that one of his cousins had been detained in a concentration camp which was set up in the local primary school, and that he’d spent years in Malaysia as a student and wrote his Master’s thesis on modern-day piracy in the Straits of Malacca, something that struck me close to heart considering the fact that my ancestors from my paternal grandmother were bugis — pirates from South Sulawesi who also infested the very same area he was writing about. But as my questions were almost never reciprocated, it didn’t feel like a conversation at all, but more like an interview. I wondered if he is like this with every stranger he meets. Strangely enough, as we approached the outskirts of Sarajevo he started getting more and more talkative — and worse, always at the exact moment when I was seconds away from falling asleep — and telling me little random facts about the city. You could tell that despite being born in Croatia, he still could not get rid of that Bosnian blood running through his veins.
As we reached Sarajevo, we were introduced the friends of our family friend — an extremely generous family who accommodated us, fed us, guided us, entertained us. In short this is exactly what ‘MH’ is all about: Malaysian Hospitality.
It is with this family friend that we received our first tour of the city, which really is extremely tiny; one main boulevard cutting right across the heart of the city, and then there were mountains. Sarajevo is, simply put, a city within a valley — although I understand that I am grossly oversimplifying the layout of the city with this statement. Though picturesque as this may sound, its location actually made it easy for the city to be surrounded by the Serbian army during the war, leaving its residents trapped (but not completely helpless, as history has shown us). I believe this dark page in the city’s history is called ‘The Siege of Sarajevo’.
It is to the topic of this Siege that I now turn: what happened? As I mentioned, the city was completely surrounded by the opposing forces, eager to reduce the city into fire and dust, I believe (though this may well be just my wild imagination talking). But the source of this information is a reliable one, I assure you; this map below I took from the Tunnel of Hope in Sarajevo explains how hopeless the situation seemed during the Siege:
The Bosnians were only able to survive thanks to the Tunnel of Hope — a tunnel only 340 meters in length built directly under the airport runway, connecting it to an unsuspecting house which became a center for resource distribution. The tunnel was reported to be absolutely crucial in securing the supply for weaponry, which at times like this must be as crucial as food. Another important purpose it served was getting people in and out the country, including civilians and UN troops.
Something I found extremely disturbing is the fact that the Bosnian genocide is something that is rarely highlighted in History textbooks. Pourquoi? What is even more disturbing is that now, almost twenty years down the line, Bosnia is still struggling to build itself up. In my The Times’ Atlas of the World which I carried with me throughout our travels, it is stated in Bosnia’s country profile that the country “relies heavily on overseas aid”.
One thing I learned about the Bosnian war when I was there though is that our Prime Minister back then, Mahathir Mohamad, definitely did not leave the Bosnians to the dogs, but in fact sent Malaysian troops (through the UN peacekeeping forces of course) to Sarajevo who helped build the very tunnel that helped Bosnians survive the war. Malaysia opened its borders to Bosnians seeking refuge and provided scholarships for Bosnian students to study at our local universities (among whom were our driver above and his cousin). This culminated in the construction of this bridge that was quite a literal representation of the strong friendship between two nations united by the same religion.
I thought our brief trip to Sarajevo was most educational, and it was such a shame that we were there for only a short stint. But as I always tell myself, it’s better to have been there for a short while than to have never stepped foot in this intriguing city at all. This city is far from abandoned — I think Bosnia is trying hard to build a new future on the remains of its tragic past. It’s taking a while, but one can never know what the future holds…