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Sarajevo – the Jerusalem of Europe

Sarajevo – the Jerusalem of Europe – churches and synagogues all squeezed into the tiny center of Sarajevo are witnesses to the turbulent history of what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina. Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain had their synagogues built and so had their Ashkenazi brothers. Ottoman rule lasted till the beginning of the 20th century and then the very catholic Habsburg annexed the area. Religious and secular architecture alike reveal  the varies rulership that  Sarajevo suffered from and strived.

Churches with Muslim cemetery in the background

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Sarajevo’s Past-War Tourism

Given the century-lasting multiculturalism that defined Sarajevo it is hard to imagine how Bosnia was drawn into the atrocious war (1992-95) that meant the final disintegration of what once was Yugoslavia. A war where once friendly neighbors turned against each other and that resulted in the genocide in Srebrenica and the siege of Sarajevo. The Tunnel of Hope,  Sniper Alley or the grave of Sarajevo’s Romeo and Juliet are now part of tourists’ itineraries. Being a history buff I was particularly eager to see them all.

 

Map of Sarajevo that shows how the city was trapped during the siege. The small passage is the area where the Tunnel of Hope served as a life-line

 

The Siege of Sarajevo – Tunnel of Hope

The siege lasted 44 months (1,425 days) which makes it the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare, a year longer than the siege of Leningrad. A tunnel dug from underneath the airport  was the sole life-line for the 200.000 people who stayed. It starts in a private house outside of Sarajevo, its owners still live there and have turned it in a small museum. About 10,000 civilians were killed in Sarajevo during the siege, mostly by snipers and mortars fired from mountains surrounding the city.

In the garden of this building were the Tunnel of Hope surfaced 

 

 

Owners of the house that served as an entrance to the Tunnel of Hope, Sarajevo’s life-line

 

We could only crawl through a tiny bit of the tunnel near the house but I had a chance talk to some members of the family, who offered their home to establish this life-line. The guide told us during a siege a liter of gasoline could run up to $100 and when somebody managed to get a cow through the tunnel that meant a fortune to be made.

Tunnel of Hope, life-line to the besieged city

 

Mount Trebević – Olympic glory turned into deathtrap

View from Mount Trebević of Sarajevo below. During the siege 1992-1995 the Serbian artillery was shelling the town from the surrounding mountains. 10 years earlier it was the site of sportive glories, the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics.

During the Winter Olympic Games in 1984 this is where it all happened, the ski races, the bob sleighing and other competitions. The most impressive reminder left is the concrete track where bobsleighs raced towards the valley. Ten years later the Serbian artillery shelled the city under siege from exactly those hills. The view  from Mount Trebević is breathtaking, but show that the people in Sarajevo were trapped like in a bowl. The fun part was walking  down the concrete bobsleigh track, with its many curves, now adorned with graffiti that hide the decay, only hinting at former sporting glories.

Track for the bob sleighing competition in the Winter Olympics 1984, now decaying away

 

Roses of Sarajevo

Even without such a tour, the traces of the war are still omnipresent in Sarajevo. Lot of buildings were scarred by shrapnel, but an even grimmer reminder are Sarajevo’s roses. Those splashes of red paint on sidewalks, squares and roads mark places where people were killed by snipers or artillery shells fired from the mountains surrounding the city. The attacks of Markale market were  particular tragic ncidents, within a year twice shells hit the market killing a total of over 100 people and wounding hundreds. The monstrosity of these attacks eventually led to the NATO airstrikes, the Dayton Peace Accords and the end of the war.

Roses of Sarajevo- splashes of red paint mark places where civilians got killed by motors shells or snipers

 

Buildings still showing the signs of war

 

Buildings still showing the signs of war

 

Memorial for children killed during the Siege

A local told me that as a child he was not allowed to wear a red pullover because this could make him an easy target. A story I will never not forget, because this anecdote  made it so clear that children were not random victims of this war but they were picked to be killed. Most of the 1601 children died due to the artillery attacks but over 50 were selected by snipers. Of all war crimes to me this is the most hideous, not only targeting civilians but small children. In a documentary that I later read a soldier boosted “Why bother waste two bullets? If I shoot the child, I kill the mother too.” For each child killed the people of Sarajevo planted a rosebush, 1,601 of them.

Children Memorial in Sarajevo , 1601 of them died during the siege

To the left of the green cone-shaped memorial are  seven drums that can be turned. Engraved in them are the names of all 1601 children. One of so many places in Bosnia where you simply stand still and fight that chocking in your throat.

Children Memorial – 1601 names, who were killed during the 44 month siege of Sarajevo

 

Sniper Alley

During the siege the broad boulevard running east-west through  Sarajevo was named Sniper Alley. Most snipers set on the roof top of high-rises in the district of Grbavica, a part of the city that was controlled by the Serbs. Citizens on their way to work or to get food risked their lives when passing. The famous Holiday Inn was basically on the frontline. Built for the Olympics in 1984, during the war the international press put up camp there politicians negotiated deals. The video shows the boulevard, the bright yellow building is former Hotel Holiday Inn and at the end the high-rises in the Serbian controlled part of Sarajevo, Grbavica, where snipers on the roof selected their victims.

 

Sarajevo’s Romeo and Juliette

Admira Ismic and Bosko Brkic were slain by a sniper on 19th May 1993 when they were trying to cross Vrbanja bridge into Grbavica, the district of Sarajevo occupied by  Serbs. Admira, a Muslim girl, and Bosko, a Serbian boy, had been sweethearts for eight year when they were killed aged 25. In pre-war Sarajevo mixed-couples were nothing unusual and their family for this reason reject the term Romeo and Juliet, because  the two families never hated each other and are still befriended.

Vrbanja bridge where the couple Admira Ismic and Bosko Birkic were shot by a sniper. For  days neither side  dared to removed the bodies. The building in the background was severely scarred by shrapel

The plan to leave the besieged city had been arranged beforehand, neither side would shoot when they were to cross the bridge.  Immediately when they entered the bridge they were gunned down and died in an embrace. For days the couple lay on the bridge, neither side dared to remove them, fearing to be shot as well. To this day nobody knows who fired the fatal shots. Eventually prisoners of war had to remove the bodies.

The slain bodies of Bosko Brkic ad Admira Ismic on the bridge that connected the Serbian controlled part of Sarajevo with the besieged city

After the war Admira and Bosko were united in a grave on Sarajevo’s Lion Cemetery. I was so devoted to  visit their grave that I walked forever to find it. Although it is a huge cemetery I found the grave and was surprised to be the only person interested in it. But I must admit I am obsessed with cemeteries,  convinced  to learn a lot about a country’s history by exploring places where people are to put to their final rest.

Admira Ismic and Bosko Brkic were slain by a sniper on 19th May 1993 when they were trying to cross Vrbanja bridge into the Serbian controlled section of Sarajevo.

 

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Idlidza- Vrelo Bosne

The receptionist of my hotel asked whether I had heard of Idlidza, it was where locals would go on a sunny weekend like this. No, I had not. I looked it up: a spa town outside of Sarajevo and the place where the Bosna River merges from a rock, simply take tram Nr 3.  Seemed easy enough.

 

 

 

From the tram people walked off in all directions and I was unsure of where to go. Of course went the wrong way. After lots of pointing at my guide books and gesturing locals showed me the right way.  Horse carriages waiting at the beginning of a long, long alley, they were kind of pricey and I contemplated walking.

Idlidza – long alley running into the park to the spring of the River Bosna

The alley was completely straight and I could not see the end of it, so I shared a carriage with a family. Upon arrival I  dove into in a beautiful park that seemed to breathe water. Water is everywhere and can be heard everywhere.

Idlidza – horse-drawn carriages safe a lot of walking to the center of the park

The cafés were packed with young people enjoying the first rays of spring sun. The one I picked for coffee and cake seemed a time-travel back to the days of the Austrian monarchy. The final act:  tram Nr 3 brought me safely back home. Days later I heard ugly from locals that areas of the park, especially the spring of the Bosna had been sold to Arabic investors. Those are inviting heavily in Bosnia which is still trying to get back to its feet. It brings jobs but also an influence that most Bosnians do seem to want.

 

Cafe in Idlidza

 

 

Insider the park Villa Austria reminds of the former Habsburg presence

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Srebrenica – tears and smiles

My visit of  Srebrenica in March 2017 was an emotional rollercoaster ride. Nothing prepares you for facing over 8000 tombstones, one for each Muslim boy and man killed during  a few days in July 2015.  Srebrenica, this small Bosnian town, has since then become a synonym for genocide, for  the single largest massacre to take place on the European continent since World War II. The same day brought incredible kindness from locals and a humorous run-in with an Austrian countryman.

Srebrenica – cemetery in Potocari for the victims of the genocide in 1995

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Sarajevo’s many cemeteries

. Since I have been obsessed with cemeteries since I can remember I visited many in Sarajevo. The tranquility is one reason that I find them attractive, another one is reading the names and ages of the people buried. In Argentina I once found the overgrown grave of an Austrian in the ruins of a deserted Jesuit mission.

Patches  of white on green slopes are a common sight in Sarajevo – tombstone closely huddled together in Muslim cemeteries

Jewish Cemetery

You need to know where to look for it, but the search was well worth it. From a certain perspective the small tombstones resemble a patch of lions looking over the city, 4000 of them. After Prague, it is the second largest Jewish cemetery. Many Sephardic Jews sought refuge here after they were expelled from Spain during and after the Inquisition. Some tombstones are scarred by shrapnel, since the cemetery was at a strategic position during the war.

Jewish Cemetery in Sarajevo, the second largest in Europe after Prague

 

Uniquely shaped tombstone at the Jewish Cemetery in Sarajevo, the second largest in Europe after Prague

 

Jewish Cemetery in Sarajevo, the second largest in Europe after Prague

 

Jewish Cemetery in Sarajevo, the second largest in Europe after Prague

 

 

Die schlafenden Löwen von Sarajevo

Bare Cemetery

Bare Cemetery is one of the biggest in Bosnia and and in Europe. It is huge! I spent hours walking between the rows of graves and did not manage to see all of it. What makes it so extraordinary is that Serbian Orthodox, Jews, Catholics and Muslims are all buried here with the tombstone in Hebrew, Cyrillic and the Latin alphabet being silent witnesses. The setting is stunning, from the top I could almost see the entire cemetery with its slopes gently dropping, fading into flat terrain.

Bare Cemetery – one of the biggest and most beautiful cemeteries in Europe

 

Bare Cemetery – one of the biggest and most beautiful cemeteries in Europe

Bare Cemetery – one of the biggest cemeteries in Europe, a place where at least the dead are not separated by religion.

 

Bare Cemetery – one of the biggest cemeteries in Europe, a place where at least the dead are not separated by religion.

 

Bare Cemetery – one of the biggest cemeteries in Europe, a place where at least the dead are not separated by religion.

 

Bare Cemetery – one of the biggest cemeteries in Europe

 

Lion Cemetery

One of the most tragic stories of the Bosnian war came to end here. Admira Ismic and Bosko Brkic, the couple whose young  life was ended by snipers, was buried here in the same grave after the war. Forever united like they died, embraced on Vl Bridge, Many other victims of the war are buried here and so is Kurt Schork, the American war correspondent who told their story to the world. He happened to be near the bridge where Admira and Bosko were shot. A few years later he was killed while on assignment in Sierra. Half of his ashes were buried next to the grave of Bosko and Admira.

Admira Ismic and Bosko Brkic, the couple whose young life was ended by snipers, not united at Lion Cemetery

https://www.rferl.org/a/bosnia-love-story-sarajevowar/24990732.html

 

St. Mark’s Cemetery – Gavrilo Princip last stop

At St. Marks Cemetery  a mausoleum reminds of the man who shot the heir to the Habsburg throne on 28th July 1914. First he was buried in secret in an unmarked grave following his death from tuberculosis in April 1918. The reason why he survived those four years?  He was too young to  receive the death penalty and be executed. The Habsburg stuck to their laws even when it concerned the murder of the future emperor. In 1920 Gavrilo Princip was exhumed and buried with other conspirators.

St. Mark Cemetery, tomb of Gavrila Princip, who shot Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg throne and his wife Sophie on 28th June 1914 in Sarajevo

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Ejminatsin – The Armenian Vatican

Armenians are deeply religious, churches are packed with people of all ages during mass. Around Easter is an excellent time to visit Armenia, lots of fascinating ceremonies like the candle-lightening ceremony or the blessing of small wreaths offer great photo ops. Both of these ceremonies I did not know about, but literally ran into them. Like when I passed street vendors selling little green wreaths on a street corner near my hotel, I simply followed the buyers and ended up at a small church dating back to 1694. A week later I noticed  people in the street carrying small, lit candles.  I quickly walked back to this church and again I stumbled into the most moving ceremony, the lightening of candles.

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Candle Lightning Ceremony

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Windswept Lake Sevan

Being the biggest lake in the Caucasus region makes it a very popular summer destination for Armenians. End of March was certainly not the best time to visit this lake high up at almost 2000m. Windswept, bare and snow-covered mountains in the distance did not allow any summerly feelings. Nevertheless the place was packed, mainly with Iranian tourists who literally let their hair down during those trips.

Lake Sevan - bare and windswept

Lake Sevan – bare and windswept

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A Day of monastery hopping: Noravank – Garni – Geghard Monastery

Armenia prides itself to be the first country that made Christianity its state religion. Consequently, the country is plastered with monasteries that have one thing in common: a setting with a breathtaking view. The inside of these mostly small stone buildings is usually simple: an altar without much décor, no seats, very few paintings, the omnipresent candle tray, that’s it. Those monasteries are Armenia’s main touristic attractions, although I wanted to avoid this touristic itinerary, I ended up doing exactly that, for one long day.

Typical interior of Armenian churches

Typical interior of Armenian churches

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Armenian Genocide of 2015

In 2015 Armenia commemorated the 100th anniversary of the genocide of 1915. The number of victims is incomprehensible –  1,5 million Armenians lost their lives. They were executed or marched across the Syrian desert. Many died along the way  of exhaustion, exposure and starvation. In Yerevan the Genocide Museum is a stark reminder of this very dark part of Armenian history.

Genocide Memorial

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Senja – a photo selection

February 2016 I finally did it. Seeing and photographing the northern lights has been on my mind for a long time. For this photography workshop I chose http://arr.at because of the location, Senja in northern Norway. A great choice. Picturesque fjords, scenic fishing villages and majestic mountains provide great photo-ops during the day, in the evenings we chased the northern lights. Being right on the ocean had various advantages: temperatures were surprisingly mild (given that we were 400km north of the polar circle)  and the weather changes rapidly, bright sunshine and heavy snowfall within an hour. Of course the northern lights are as spectacular in the interior of Lapland, but there you can easily be stuck in a storm for a week at minus 35 degree Celsius. Only the Sami people enjoy this battery-eating temperatures.

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