Return to Sarajevo

After a twelve-year absence, John recently embarked on a soul-searching journey when he revisited Sarajevo.

The opportunity to return to Sarajevo presented itself when a friend of mine, a serving Police Officer, mentioned to me that she had recently visited Officers from the European Police Mission in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and asked if I would like to revisit the once war-torn city. I briefly thought about when I was last in the city, having always promised myself that one day I would return. With little hesitation, I said yes!

On the evening of Thursday 20th September 2007, looking through the aircraft portholes, I landed at Sarajevo Airport. Taxiing to the new terminal building, I expected to see sandbagged emplacements, barbed wire, military vehicles and aircraft: there was none. It was pleasantly surprising how normal Sarajevo Airport now appeared – just like any other International Airport.

After some minutes Sgt Ray Summers, a British Police Officer now currently employed on the EU Mission in Sarajevo, who had kindly offered to accommodate me whilst on my five-day visit, met me just outside the airport terminal. Smoke from nearby wood-burning stoves filled the now cooling air: I closed my eyes… ‘This is the Bosnia I remember’, I thought to myself.

I loaded my luggage into Ray’s car and left the safety of the airport complex. Strangely, I began to feel somewhat nervous at the prospect of driving through the streets of Sarajevo in an un-armoured vehicle. During the war, when staffed by both British and United Nations French Foreign Legion Troops it was strictly forbidden to enter the airport complex without an armoured vehicle let alone drive on the city’s streets. Out of respect for my concern, Ray kindly drove the ‘back streets’ to his surprisingly well-appointed apartment: a TV, hot and cold running water and central heating was not something I expected – even after twelve years of peace.

The following day, after a fitful sleep, I decided to retrace the route I used to walk to work from the heavily shelled Holiday Inn (where I lived during the war), to my former office. Although supplied with an armoured Landrover during the war and strictly against rules, I regularly walked. The forty-minute walk took me through side streets parallel to the infamous ‘Sniper Alley’. En route, I noted how much life appeared to have changed since the end of the war and how relaxed people were, simply going about their daily business without fear of being shot or shelled.

The same afternoon, I visited the Muslim sector of the city, which, during the conflict, had sustained serious damage. Once again, it proudly boasted many small market traders selling hand made silver, brass, and bric-a-brac, just as it has done in centuries gone by. The old part of the city, unspoilt by more modern concrete buildings is well worth a visit to anyone considering visiting Sarajevo. A walk down these cobbled streets is a journey into an almost forgotten past.

After completing this section of my planned walk, I decided to walk back to Ray’s apartment along the main street running through the centre of Sarajevo that was once Sniper Alley. This, at first, proved a little unnerving despite the abundance of people enjoying the last of the summer sun without any apparent concerns. In spite of my feelings, I knew it was entirely safe from snipers but did in fact need a few minutes quietly watching people go by – just to make sure.

I found it a most liberating experience walking freely amongst the people of Sarajevo without fear of shelling or sniping, through streets that were once sealed off with barricades and destroyed tanks and vehicles and into once forbidden areas. Throughout my walk I was pleased to see just how well provisioned the shops in Sarajevo now were.

On another occasion, I sat outside a high street café drinking coffee, casually watching teenagers laughing and joking whilst walking by. I gained a sense of satisfaction from the thought that the organisations I once worked for helped keep them alive with food and other provisions throughout the war. I wondered if any of the children at a local orphanage where I had previously worked, and in particular one young child I have written about in my book had unwittingly just passed by. That in itself was quite a rewarding feeling.

A lot of the damage caused by the war has now been repaired. There was many new building too. It was evident that the combination of EU and US money combined with the determination of the city’s inhabitants had been spent in helping transform this badly scarred city into what it is today. Unlike in many European capitals, I felt entirely safe at night walking the streets of Sarajevo.

During my five-day trip and thanks to the EU Police Team, I had the opportunity to lay to rest of number of ghosts that had evidently been hiding over the last twelve years. At the end of my stay, Ray asked me how my trip had been. I replied ‘I feel that a weight has been lifted from my shoulders that I didn’t know was there’…