I’ve decided that my time in Sarajevo deserves at least a couple of blog posts, so here’s the first installment. I am going to focus on the tougher and more challenging things that I’ve seen here.
I came to Sarajevo to learn from and present at the International Conference on Foreign Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics. Since the conference was scheduled towards the end of my time as a Fulbrighter in the Netherlands, it seemed like it might be a good opportunity to share what I’ve learned. Also, I was really looking forward to visiting a new city and region; I’ve never been to Sarajevo before, in fact, I’ve never been to Eastern Europe at all.
The conference was great. I enjoyed learning from keynote speeches given by accomplished researchers and passionate scholars. My presentation went smoothly, was well-received, and I feel like I have accomplished something and also made an academic contribution.
Sarajevo, I am confident, will leave its mark on me. It’s has been a trip filled with competing emotions. At the moment that I’m writing this, it’s 10pm, the bells of Katedrala Srca Isusova (Sacred Heart of Jesus) are ringing as the Muezzins from the surrounding mosques are calling people to prayer. I have never been anywhere like this before.
I was in high school during the siege of Sarajevo. I remember seeing news footage of United Nations troops on the ground in “sniper alley.” But, I had only the most basic understanding of what was happening. While I was enjoying my summer vacation before starting university at UCLA, the Srebrenica genocide happened here. In the years since, as the trials of various individuals came into the news, I learned more. Yet, when I arrived here, I still couldn’t call myself educated on the events.
It’s been twenty years since the siege ended and I’ve been struck by the sheer quantity of visual reminders of the war that I see today. The airport is located at the western edge of the city while my hotel is in the historical center in the east. So, on the ride from the airport to the hotel, I saw a good stretch of the city. The main artery of the city, as it turns out, is the infamous “sniper alley.” Many buildings along this road and throughout the city show various degrees of damage. On numerous occasions over the last few days, I’ve wondered what it’s like to be faced daily with very real reminders of unimaginably difficult times. I will admit that I was expecting the city to be further along in its rebuilding than it is.
I wanted to understand more. So, I decided to take a walking tour with a local guide, Erwin. It was a great experience and I learned lots that helped me understand today’s Sarajevo. Here’s what I understand now…
- In the years since the end of the war, money ear-marked for the reconstruction of Bosnia and Herzegovina has not actually been used for that purpose due to severe political corruption.
- Bosnia and Herzegovina ranks as the 5th poorest country in Europe with an average per capita annual income of less than $5000.
- The official unemployment rate here is around 45%.
- 20% of the GDP annually is made up of money that Bosnians who live abroad send back to their families still living in Bosnia.
My conversations with people who live here flesh out the economic facts with personal stories of the difficulties that they continue to face. The economic situation certainly does not favor reconstruction but there is a desire, also, not to completely erase the traces of the painful recent past.
If you find yourself in Sarajevo and want a really informative tour, I recommend Toorico Tours.