Exploring a Sarajevo Cemetery
I didn’t sleep well last night. To be honest I was rather sick with some stomach issue. I grabbed a bit of sleep here and there but wound up sitting up in bed in the middle of the night looking at Facebook. I read a ridiculous conversation where a Facebook friend wished everyone a Merry Christmas. Some self-appointed holier than thou thought she would berate him for “oppressing everyone who didn’t believe in Christmas”.
We live in a society where those who have never actually dealt with actual oppression feel the need to be offended and oppressed, even going so far as to manufacture it where it doesn’t exist. They seek to be offended in order to give their life some sort of meaning. The simple act of saying something pleasant to someone can be viewed as “oppressing someone” by those who profess tolerance but do not practice it. The thin skinned in this world are becoming annoying.
I spent Christmas day in a predominately Muslim country. There are U.S. Christmas movies on TV (in English with Bosnian subtitles no less!), several people I’m very sure were Muslim wished me a Merry Christmas, and there are Christmas decorations all over the place. People are pleasant and nice to each other. They are tolerant of those different from themselves. Today, I learned a lot about what real oppression is…..and it’s NOT wishing someone Merry Christmas.
Laurie and I listen to Rick Steves podcasts when we drive long distances. We listened to one about Bosnia where Rick had a lengthy discussion with a guy named Amir, who guided his tours in the Adriatic. He was incredibly knowledgeable and told incredible stories. I told Laurie that I wanted to find him and have him recommend a tour guide. I dug around on the internet a bit and found an email address for him that I hoped was current. It was….and the guide he recommended was himself. Today, we walked Sarajevo with Amir Telibecirobic.
Cemeteries popped up in parks, shielded from sniper fire, the only place they could bury their fallen.
A little background about Amir is necessary. He grew up in Sarajevo and knows the city like the back of his hand. He is an author of a book (which I bought at a book store), a journalist/writer, and as I mentioned guides tours in the Adriatic for Rick Steves. He also fought in the Siege of Sarajevo and lived in the city the entire length of the Siege. He was at the peace protest that spurred the siege with his father and sister when snipers fired into the crowd killing several. His father was killed during the war by a sniper.
He lived nearly four years of his life in a city under siege, under constant sniper and artillery fire, as well as rockets and mortars. At one point I found myself pondering that my tour guide was teaching me which holes in the buildings were caused by bullets, tank cannons, and mortar shells, explaining the intricacies of each.
Amir buried his father in a makeshift cemetery in a city park as it was the only place safe from sniper fire. The regular cemetery was exposed to sniper fire and had to be abandoned as snipers would fire on a grieving family at a funeral if they got the chance. Such cemeteries are all over the city, randomly located behind buildings in parks shielded from snipers. They did what they had to in order to survive. All of these things happened because he was Bosnian Muslim.
Do understand, most Muslims here are secular. Muslim is more of an ethnic group than a religion. They are not middle eastern in origin, but are actually Slavic. Sarajevo has existed for hundreds of years with Muslims, Jews, Orthodox Christians, and Catholics living on the same street, in the same neighborhoods, and in the same apartment buildings. They intermarried, were tolerant of each other, enjoyed each other’s holidays (and of course treats associated with the individual holidays of each religion), and lived together in peace for hundreds of years.
This is how they do obituaries here. They will print up hundreds of death notices and post them around the city .
With ritual bathing a part of both Muslim and Jewish culture, fountains are part of both religious buildings. Amir told us a story about a small Muslim and a small Jewish congregation building a fountain together and sharing it, as neither could afford one on their own. It was a logical and tolerant way to deal with the issue. It was typical of life in Sarajevo and was an example for the world.
The war came in the early ‘90’s. While portrayed as a “civil war” between Christians and Muslims in the United States, nothing could be further from the truth. But TV news likes to spoon feed their audience and a conflict as complex as this isn’t easily explained in a two minute news blurb. I will say that to categorize it as a civil war between Muslims and Christians and simplify it to that extent can only be considered an outright lie.
The war in the Balkans was entirely too complex to explain in my humble blog. But I will say that people of all ethnic groups (Bosnian Serbs, Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox, Jews) defined themselves not by these labels, but as Bosnians, and they all lived together in Sarajevo. And regardless of their religion, where their ancestors came from, what they believed, what their politics were……during the siege, they died together as well.
Amir told us a story about the apartment building superintendent where his family lived. The superintendent was a Bosnian Serb, meaning he was ethnically related to people in Serbia, but was not from there. When the Serbian Army (actually from Serbia) was invading, the building superintendent hid Amir and two other friends in a coal pile in the basement of the apartment building until the soldiers left. This saved his life.
Another public park, turned into a cemetery. There are over 13000 of these graves in Sarajevo, from the years of the siege.
Stories of people of vastly different backgrounds helping each other…saving each other…were common. The story of the Haggadah (a very important Jewish book used at the Passover dinner) is one. The Sarajevo Haggadah was a Haggadah of incredible monetary value and historical significance. Great efforts were made by many people through the years to keep the Haggadah in Sarajevo and out of the hands of those who would exploit or destroy it.
This Jewish treasure was hidden at great risk, first from the Nazis, and in modern times from the Serb Army. If the people hiding it were found out by those wanting to take it, they would be executed. The people who saved this Jewish relic from the Nazis and later from the Serbs, were all Muslim. They viewed the Haggadah not only as a Jewish treasure, but a Sarajevo treasure. Their devotion to each other as people superseded their differences.
The city was bombarded by mortar and artillery fire, killing nearly 14,000 people. The siege lasted 1425 days, longer than any siege in modern warfare. Amir would point out where he would have to run between buildings to avoid being shot by snipers because it was an exposed area. He showed us where he dug defensive trenches by the river and where he stood a post on the front lines, defending his city and people from those that had promised to exterminate everyone that lived there regardless of who they were.
Some people escaped the city and were taken in by other countries as refugees. Some were unable to escape and had to fight. Some were caught and sent to concentration camps where they were tortured and executed. One such camp, Srebrenica, saw the executions of over 8000 people in just a few days.
A great dinner
We finished out our day with Amir at a traditional Bosnian Restaurant for dinner. We discussed things we saw and his experiences further over dinner. He has an amazing grasp of Bosnian history, not to mention U.S., European, and world history as well. We are doubly blessed as he was able to shepherd us around today…..and will be able to do it again tomorrow.
Merry Christmas everyone. Happy Hanukkah. Happy Ramadan. Whatever your holiday is, what you believe, whoever you are, I wish you a happy one. And if wishing you well regardless of what your beliefs are oppresses and offends you…….perhaps you should spend a day walking with Amir.
Sarajevo day two slide show