thomas does: The Balkan Diaries I Sarajevo’s Stories

Here is the fifth episode of Thomas Bönig’s “thomas does” the Balkans. Click here to read the entire series.

Everybody’s broke.
Everybody parties.

Benjamin is attending art school. He loves electronic music and dreams of being an actor someday. He accuses the people of Sarajevo of living past reality, “They want jobs, but they don’t want to work. They are looking at Europe and imagine how easy it must be to be successful there. But how can I be successful abroad if I don’t have the will to make it in my own country?”

The capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina doesn’t seem like a city, at least not to us. Unemployment is one of the most prominent inhabitants. But how does that work, nobody has money yet everybody is spending it? “That’s a mystery,” says Benjamin as he shrugs his boney shoulders. “Nobody knows that.”

So what would Benjamin like to change? “I want to wake up the people. They finally have to understand what they are capable of when they believe in themselves. I am a part of the generation that has to make a difference in this country and change it. The next generation will hopefully be the one to finish what we’ve begun.”

Socialist buildings.
Next generation playgrounds.

An urban settlement from socialist times, clinging to the hill like a beehive. Four elevators offer an alternative to those who, understandably, don’t feel like climbing dozens of ramps and staircases to reach their apartments. A little group of kids and young adults have made those staircases and ramps a part of their lives. They gather here every week for training — to practice the youngest form of urban sports: Le Parkour.

Beginners try scale the handrails, to get from one level to the other without touching the floor. The older ones are practicing back flips and rotations, their bodies pirouetting through the air, which smells like sweat, exhaust emissions and ambition. The surrounding walls aren’t cracked by numerous bullet and mortar holes, but painted with graffiti. Right here you can tell that the next generation does not let itself down, but rather meets the memories of the past with creativity and ambition.

Tolerance within.
Problems from the outside.

Edin Numankadic is director of the Olympic Museum in Sarajevo. He oversaw the cultural matters of the National Olympic Committee, lived through the horrors of war and siege and became an internationally renowned artist, displaying his work at the Venice Biennale twice.

His vivid eyes are sparkling with life, even though they saw what most of us cannot even imagine. “It’s hard, talking about these experiences, and harder even making all the details understandable,” says Numankadic. “Just imagine waking up every morning, for three years, without knowing whether you’ll survive the day. That is horrible pressure.”

What is this man hopping for in the future? “I believe that Europe will come to help one day and support us in developing into a solid, normal country. Here you find holy grounds for Orthodox, Catholics, Jews and Muslims, all within a few square meters. This land stands for the peaceful coexistence of multiple ethnicities and religions, for a special way of tolerance. Honestly — all the trouble always came from the outside.”

The Olympic Games and war.
A forced marriage in Sarajevo.

On Trebevic Mountain, towering over Sarajevo, competitions in sports like luge and bobsled took place during the Olympic Games of 1984. Nowadays, the facilities are relics from earlier times. The old bobsled track runs through a forest, someone spray painted “Rambo!” into the steep turn. Further down, graffiti makes a statement that is so simple, yet so often forgotten, “Make love not war.” The graffiti makes the cracks and holes from multiple shellings almost invisible.

You can hear birds and the mountains seem peaceful, but only until we imagine the noisiness of war, which was led in such a relentless way. Up here, on these exact summits, sat the besiegers who fired approximately two billion shells on the city of Sarajevo and her people. Two billion shells in three years. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (a German newspaper) once stated: “The Olympic Games and war, the most different of all couples, was forced to marry in Sarajevo.”

In Malo Polje, 15 miles from Sarajevo, the ski jumping athletes were competing for medals. Once more a slight rain is mixing in the delicate sunshine. To us it seems as if the weather is an allegory for this country not knowing where exactly it is heading. Stability yet to be found — weather and state-wise.

On the way back to Sarajevo we pass a burned down hotel — uncountable bullet and mortar holes. A few slopes down the hill, yellow tape and red headed sticks run along the road and into the forest. This is a warning; do not go into these woods. “Pazi! Mine.” Two more slopes and we encounter the convoy of the land mine clearance unit. The traces of the past remain on this mountain –- the good, as well as the bad.

- Axel Rabenstein, text
- Thomas Bönig, images

Learn more about Thomas’ project on his website, YouTube and Facebook page.