I moved out of Belgrade this week.
I'm not quite sure what to make of that.
The past six months of my life have been among the best- a fact that should largely be credited to Belgrade, which took me in as one of its own.
Six months ago I had an almost negligible sense of direction, but over the course of my time in Serbia I was able to cultivate a set of (honestly, quite vague) goals that drove me to make decisions that have solidified the future of my 2017 in the best way possible: for the first time in years, I have a concrete answer to the "what's next" and "where will you be" questions that every college student is constantly bombarded with.
At the moment, the answers are "travel" and "around" respectively, as I type this from a hotel bar in Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina- I couldn't leave the Balkans without coming back one last time.
I was tempted to keep this gem of a city to myself, though, when my mother and I began planning our trip she insisted that I show her the city I rave about almost weekly: While I truly believe it is Europe's worst kept secret, a city heavily reliant on tourism but often overlooked by westerners, I wasn't exactly keen to share.
As I've stated, Sarajevo holds a special place in my heart. While the primary drive for this connection is the city's rich, tragic, awe-inspiring history, something I do my best to share with anyone who will listen, it is also one of a handful of places that is purely mine.
What I mean in saying this is that it is a place that only I, out of my close friends and family, have visited: Above I called it Europe's worst kept secret, but for about a year, it was one of my best. My experiences in Sarajevo and memories in the region were purely mine, not tainted by anything from outside of those specific moments. All the people I've been in the Balkans with have been people I met here, American or otherwise.
Still, I am absolutely enthralled with this place and my heart has been warm this week as I watched my mother begin to truly understand why. Sarajevo's history and penchant for quiet extravagance place it among the most unique places I've ever been which is perhaps why I always struggle to explain my love for this city to people who've never been.
Sarajevo is an infinitely inspiring city.
Each visit takes my breath away and, despite studying there and visiting several times afterward, it still finds new things to teach me each time.
A Brief History of Sarajevo
The city was under siege for four years during the Bosnian war. Surrounded by mountains on all sides, Sarajevans were trapped in the valley by Serb militant forces and unable to cross the runway of the Sarajevo International Airport which had been deemed a UN neutral zone, separating besieged Sarajevo from free Bosnian territory. Since the city was surrounded and suffered extreme bouts of violence each day citizens often ran out of food, medicine, and other necessities. To remedy this, the Bosnian government began Operation D-B. Now known as the Tunnel of Hope, Operation D-B was the construction of a tunnel, roughly 80 kilometers long and about the right size for a young teenager to walk through, that led from within Sarajevo, underneath the airport runway, and into the basement of a house inside free Bosnian territory. The tunnel was the primary way that residents of Sarajevo received the necessary goods to survive and also served as a significant source of logistic support for the Bosnian military. You can read more about it here.
What You Learn in Bosnia & Herzegovina
When you visit a place with such fresh scars, you can't ignore them. And nor should you. Despite how ominous it can sometimes feel, these hurts are an integral part of a city's character. In the case of Sarajevo, the siege is a monumental tragedy, and evidence of the violence can be seen around almost every corner. Many other areas of Bosnia & Herzegovina, Mostar and Potocari among them, are similarly marred by their past. Yet Bosnians still manage to exude that particular brand of friendliness that abounds in the Balkans. In Bosnia, this kindness is marked by a warmth absent in many other Balkan states: foreigners are welcomed as friends, and stories, both heart-warming and heart-wrenching, are shared without hesitation. Each time I've visited I have been astounded by the earnestness and hospitality of locals I've been lucky enough to talk to: Bosnians are a welcome reminder that compassion is alive and well.
A Selection of Photos
Below are some of my favorite photos from my most recent visit to Sarajevo, chosen because they each provide a specific insight into Bosnian society from an outsider's point of view.