Bosnia, Explorers Journal, National Geographic, Politics, Publications

Cara Eckholm’s Series on Postwar Bosnia for National Geographic Voices with My Photos

Last October, I traveled to Bosnia with fellow National Geographic Young Explorer Cara Eckholm to report and photograph stories from postwar Bosnia. She now works for the consulting firm, ReD Associates, out of Copenhagen. Below are excerpts and photographs from the series we worked on and completed together.

Exploring Sarajevo, 20 Years After Dayton Peace Accord
May 29, 2015

From morning to midnight, in sun or snow, pensioners play chess with passion, swinging life-sized pieces across a board painted onto the pavement in the center of Sarajevo.

I struck up a conversation with a crowd of bystanders, and learned that was not always so. Twenty years ago, this square was deserted, a victim of Bosnian-Serb mortars. Now, the chess players razz each other against a backdrop of multinational chains. But the past is never absent in Bosnia, and the storefronts face the once-majestic Austro-Hungarian officer club, still riddled with bullet holes two decades after the country’s ethnic war.

Chess has become a spectator sport at Trg Oslobođenja, where crowds often accumulate to watch pensioners compete. The board, which was painted onto the pavement after the war, has become a local hangout for elderly residents of Sarajevo. (Photo by Amanda Rivkin)

Chess has become a spectator sport at Trg Oslobođenja, where crowds often accumulate to watch pensioners compete. The board, which was painted onto the pavement after the war, has become a local hangout for elderly residents of Sarajevo. (Photo by Amanda Rivkin)

Supported by a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant, I’ve been exploring Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital that was besieged during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. It took nearly four years to end the violence, a feat that was achieved through a power sharing agreement between Bosnia’s ethnic groups called the Dayton Peace Accord. As we approach the 20th anniversary of Dayton, I’m learning how ethnic divides have affected the reconstruction of the city, as residents try to shape a new multicultural Bosnia.

Sarajevo was once a beacon of multiculturalism, where different ethnicities got along. But the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s gave way to nationalist fervor and on April 5, 1992, the Bosnian Serb Army surrounded the city, launching the longest siege in modern history. By the war’s end 1,400 days later, 11,000 people, mainly Muslims, were killed.

A rich mix of Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Yugoslav heritage defines Sarajevo, which is located in a valley. During the siege, Bosnian Serb forces positioned themselves in the hills encircling the city, sealing off all exits. (Photo by Amanda Rivkin)

A rich mix of Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Yugoslav heritage defines Sarajevo, which is located in a valley. During the siege, Bosnian Serb forces positioned themselves in the hills encircling the city, sealing off all exits. (Photo by Amanda Rivkin)

More than two million others across Bosnia were uprooted and many eventually settled in more homogenous communities. Before the war, Sarajevo was 50 percent Bosnian Muslim, 30 percent Serbian Orthodox, and 7 percent Croatian Catholic—with the rest identifying as Yugoslav or “other,” including Jews and Roma. Though no official census has been released since the siege, Sarajevo today is composed mainly of Bosnian Muslims, known as Bosniaks.

Memories of diverse Sarajevo were erased as the city’s historic buildings were fired upon. While the men fought, a team of “monument women” from the Institute for the Protection of Cultural, Historical and Natural Heritage risked their lives running across the city to document the destruction of cultural property. “We tried to mark certain buildings as protected,” Jasmina Eminagić, who still works at the agency, told me. “But those buildings just became targets.”

In Sarajevo today, new glass skyscrapers are adjacent to structures still scarred by war. Even as the city has regained some cosmopolitan panache, in weeks of conversations I learned that an unease and resentment lingers in the minds of some.

One of the best chess players in the square, Meho Zekić, 70, wears a crisp white button-down, a degree of formality that distinguishes him from the other retirees. He served as an emergency room doctor through the siege. “The Serbs destroyed all of our mosques, but we kept their church,” he told me, pointing to the Orthodox cathedral on the square’s edge. “Let the world know.”

Inside that church, Vidosava, 72, a Serb and a “very devout” Orthodox Christian who would not give her last name, offered a different perspective. “Before the war, everything was normal, no one cared what religion you were,” she stated. Now, she does not feel accepted in the predominantly Muslim city: “There is nothing left for me here. I want to leave.”

Serbian Orthodox parishioners attend Sunday mass at The Cathedral Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos. Otherwise known as the New Serbian Orthodox Church, it is the largest Orthodox church in Sarajevo. (Photo by Amanda Rivkin)

Serbian Orthodox parishioners attend Sunday mass at The Cathedral Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos. Otherwise known as the New Serbian Orthodox Church, it is the largest Orthodox church in Sarajevo. (Photo by Amanda Rivkin)

The Dayton Accord, an American-brokered peace agreement signed in 1995, offered the hope that through a delicate system of power-sharing Bosnia could maintain stability and, eventually, achieve some form of ethnic integration. But it also codified cleavages, creating a tripartite presidency with one president per ethnic constituency. It froze the front lines of the conflict, establishing two distinct entities joined into one state: the Federation, dominated by Bosniaks and Croats, and the Republika Srpska, by Serbs. To this day, a boundary line cuts across the nation and even through a corner of Sarajevo.

But for all that, many citizens remain devoted to a unified country. Mustafa Bučan, 64, a retired driver who was kibitzing at the chess game, commented that “the amazing thing about Sarajevo” is the continuing close proximity of different religious institutions. Though an Orthodox church borders that square, within a moment’s walk I also found a mosque, a Catholic church and a synagogue.

In upcoming posts, I’ll bring you the triumphs and tensions of a city struggling to overcome past animosities, while striving towards a multicultural Bosnia.

Voices From Across Bosnia’s Boundary Line
June 25, 2015

During the Yugoslav era, train conductors Sakib Buzo and Izet Golubić drove all the way from Sarajevo to Belgrade. Now, Buzo and Golubić end their route at Doboj, a city that lies on the border between the Federation and the Republika Srpska. (Photo by Amanda Rivkin)

During the Yugoslav era, train conductors Sakib Buzo and Izet Golubić drove all the way from Sarajevo to Belgrade. Now, Buzo and Golubić end their route at Doboj, a city that lies on the border between the Federation and the Republika Srpska. (Photo by Amanda Rivkin)

Supported by a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant, I’ve been exploring Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital that was besieged during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. It took nearly four years to end the violence, a feat that was achieved through a power sharing agreement between Bosnia’s ethnic groups called the Dayton Peace Accord. As we approach the 20th anniversary of Dayton, I’m learning how ethnic divides have affected the reconstruction of the city, as residents try to shape a new multicultural Bosnia.

The Dayton Accord brought relief to a battered nation. But the effect was also to physically sort out what remained of the population. Bosnia’s Muslims and Croats streamed into their new sub-state, the Federation, while the Serb population settled in its own, the Republika Srpska. While most of Sarajevo is in Bosnia’s Muslim and Croat territory, a suburb known as East Sarajevo falls just across the boundary in the Serb region.

The groups thrive in their own strongholds, but returning to a mixed coexistence has proved more challenging.

Before Friday prayer at the landmark Gazi Husrev-Bev mosque in Sarajevo’s old town, the interior fills to capacity and officials begin to hurl prayer mats across the courtyard, in a mad dash to accommodate the crowds before the clock strikes one. Dzemal Hrga, 65, a retired painter, watched from the corner on a stoop shaded by an ancient tree. With a crinkled expression and a few missing teeth, he told me that his family has been in Sarajevo for 700 years, and they have been coming to the mosque since it opened in 1531 during the Ottoman Era.

“The painter that did this mosque also has work in Milan,” he proudly proclaimed. A cluster of men in their 30s with sharp suits strolled past us; another bearing a Yankee cap, probably no older than 18, struggled to untie his shoes. “My sons come here too, and so will their sons,” Mr. Hrga told me.

Other groups may feel less of a loyalty to the city. At the Jesus Sacred Heart Cathedral, Daria Topić, 20, a Catholic dentistry student, said she hopes move to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, because in Sarajevo “people don’t take religion seriously.” The exodus is even more pronounced at the New Serbian Orthodox Church, where Vidosava, the elderly Serb woman from a previous post who feels unwelcome in Sarajevo, has watched the crowd dwindle since the war. “Now it is all just us retirees,” she explained with dismay. She has considered moving to the Republika Sprska, but said she is constrained by her familial ties to the old city.

Serb culture is vibrant over the border in East Sarajevo, where street signs are in Cyrillic, in a departure from the Latin alphabet used in the rest of town. Danijela Mrda, 38, the principal at St. Sava primary school, described the area as a “city in progress,” built up by Serbs who left Sarajevo proper during or after the siege. Her school’s curriculum is set by the Republika Srpska Ministry of Education, and its language, history, and religion courses differ from those taught in the Federation.

The municipality has its own institute of higher education, the University of East Sarajevo. Renata Obrenović, 26, a music theory student at the school, said that she has developed a comfortable social life in East Sarajevo and travels to Sarajevo only infrequently.

But that journey is not particularly easy in either direction these days, as the Federation and the Republika Srspka have different programs of urban planning. Public transit ends in Sarajevo’s Dobrinja neighborhood, just before reaching East Sarajevo. The buses on the other side of the border are run by a separate company.

Nasiha Pozder, an urban planner at the University of Sarajevo who lives in Dobrinja, said, “We live in the same city but we make our plans as if we live in separate countries.” We meandered along the main street near her house, cluttered with busy storefronts and cafes. Yet as we strolled further, activity diminished, the pavement eventually vanishing into a sea of grass. The sidewalk resumes a few meters further, across an invisible but almost palpable boundary line that still fragments the country.

A Padlock on Culture: The Closed Bosnian National Museum
July 13, 2015

Supported by a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant, I’ve been exploring Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital that was besieged during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. It took nearly four years to end the violence, a feat that was achieved through a power sharing agreement between Bosnia’s ethnic groups. As we approach the 20th anniversary of the resulting Dayton Peace Accord, I’m learning how ethnic divides have affected the reconstruction of the city, as residents try to shape a new multicultural Bosnia.

Display cases sit empty at The National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo. The museum closed its doors on October 4, 2012, due to political gridlock that led to a shortage of funding. The employees had worked one year (and many continue to work) without salary. (Photo by Amanda Rivkin)

Display cases sit empty at The National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo. The museum closed its doors on October 4, 2012, due to political gridlock that led to a shortage of funding. The employees had worked one year (and many continue to work) without salary. (Photo by Amanda Rivkin)

Sarajevo’s cultural institutions were once the glue that bound the citizens of this historic metropolis. But in the past few years, some have shuttered as politicians bicker over their funding.

During the Bosnian War, “culture was a form of resistance,” Asja Mandić, a curator and art history professor at the University of Sarajevo told me. “Women were wearing high heels and running from snipers to get to openings.”

But in the power-sharing agreement that ended the conflict, Bosnia was left without a national culture ministry. Bosnia’s new sub-states, the Federation (dominated by Muslims and Croats), and the Republika Srpska (dominated by Serbs), were to each support their own, separate cultural agencies. There was no body responsible for the upkeep of a multicultural legacy. Over a dozen national institutions ranging from the National Art Gallery to the Library for the Blind and Visually Impaired Persons were left in a legal limbo.

The institutes scraped by for years on grants from private donors, international organizations and local authorities, but in 2011, after political gridlock had delayed formation of a government for more than a year, public funds dried up. Now, the Republika Srpska has come out against “national institutions,” preferring their own Bosnian Serb versions. Not wanting to give into that policy, the Federation has offered nominal sums to the museums, but will not provide enough for full operation, forcing some to shut down.

At the National Museum in Sarajevo, a makeshift wooden barrier reading “closed,” printed in bright red, warns away potential visitors. I stood awkwardly at the arched entrance, waiting for signs of life behind the austere neo-classical façade, and hoping to somehow gain admittance. The paint was peeling, a light bulb was missing. A banner for an old exhibit was nearly faded.

A window next to the entrance began to inch open: a frail woman in wire-rimmed glasses was struggling to hoist herself through the portal. “Come around back” she told me, after surmounting the ledge. “I’m not supposed to let people in this way.”

Andrea Dautović has worked at the National Museum for the past 34 years, overseeing the 300,000 books in the museum’s collection. Founded in 1888 by the Austro-Hungarians, the museum was intended as a center for research and cultural life, reflecting the unique diversity of Bosnia. Its most prized possession, a Jewish manuscript from the 13th century, known as the Sarajevo Haggadah, survived the Nazi occupation. During the Bosnian War, the complex endured despite being hit by 400 big-caliber projectiles, Ms. Dautović said. The former museum director was killed on the job. Despite all that, she proclaimed, “We even put on two exhibits during the siege.”

But by October 2012, the museum’s 60 employees had not been paid for a year. Adnan Busuladžić, the museum director, fought a desperate campaign to procure more money but “the government did not respond,” he told me. He was left with little choice but to close the museum to the public. Two years later, many employees are still working without pay to maintain the collection.

“I came through snipers to save everything, so of course I continue to work,” Ms. Dautović explained. She took me to the precious Haggadah, which the slim resources that exist go into protecting. With its swirling text and colorful illustrations, it is a treasure held hostage by politics that only a few have the chance to appreciate.

The near-collapse of the National Museum is an embarrassment for the authorities in the Federation, who “have put pressure on us to open our doors” Mr. Busuladžić stated. The museum survived both World Wars and the siege, but today, he said, “it is a big question whether we will survive this peace.”

Landmarks Crumbling, Skyscrapers Climbing in Sarajevo
July 21, 2015

Supported by a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant, I’ve been exploring Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital that was besieged during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. It took nearly four years to end the violence, a feat that was achieved through a power sharing agreement between Bosnia’s ethnic groups know as the Dayton Peace Accord. As we approach the 20th anniversary of Dayton, I’m learning how ethnic divides have affected the reconstruction of the city, as residents try to shape a new multicultural Bosnia.

The Avaz Twist Tower, owned by business tycoon and politician Fahrudin Radoncic, is the tallest building in Sarajevo. It stands in stark contrast to the adjacent Central Railway Station (left), which was built during the Socialist era. (Photo by Amanda Rivkin)

The Avaz Twist Tower, owned by business tycoon and politician Fahrudin Radoncic, is the tallest building in Sarajevo. It stands in stark contrast to the adjacent Central Railway Station (left), which was built during the Socialist era. (Photo by Amanda Rivkin)

In Sarajevo, there was a concentrated push to repair important landmarks in the aftermath of the Bosnian War, spearheaded by the international community. Indeed, much has been restored, including the iconic National Library, whose E.U.-backed restoration produced a dazzling new building that opened in the summer of 2014.

Still, other properties are caught up in Bosnia’s ethnic politicking, with a mess of competing land claims preventing rebuilding. One camp argues that the state and defense property formerly owned by the Yugoslav government should be passed on to the Bosnian national government. Yet politicians within both the Federation and the Republika Srpska, Bosnia’s two sub-national entities, have claimed properties within their borders as their own. While they argue, historical landmarks are literally crumbling.

I took a drive up to see the Jajce Barracks, an Austro-Hungarian military camp overlooking Sarajevo, which now resembles a cataclysmic disaster out of a Hollywood movie. The building was abandoned after the war, and the roof in a number of rooms has now caved in, creating unintentional skylights. The floor is still littered with broken glass from shot-out windowpanes. The only signs of life are the feral dogs barking viciously in the courtyard, and a lone soldier, eager to chat out of boredom as he stands watch over the decay.

All over Sarajevo, evidence of the siege is still visible. In areas formerly along the front line like Grbavica, pockmarked buildings have become a fact of life for inhabitants. It is the ubiquity of tombstones that is perhaps the harshest reminder of the conflict. “When you see sports facilities full of graves, that’s when you understand what happened here,” said Adnan Pasić, an architect and professor at the University of Sarajevo. His office sits next to one such former football field.

But gradually, those emblems of Sarajevo’s tragic history are becoming mixed with signs of globalization, in the form of gleaming new construction. With chains like McDonalds and Zara, some areas of Sarajevo are moving towards the commercial veneer typical of any emerging city.

Most visible of the new developments is the Avaz Twist Tower, the tallest building in the Balkans when it opened in 2008. Its crown carries the bright red logo of Avaz Media Group, owned by Fahrudin Radončić, a tycoon and Bosniak-nationalist politician who is often compared to Italy’s Berlusconi.

Its spiral form looms over Sarajevo, and while many see the tower as a symbol of progress, others, nostalgic for an earlier era, are less than pleased. At 86, Ivan Štraus sports long hair, a plaid shirt, and hipster glasses perhaps better fit for Brooklyn then the Balkans.

“The urban planners are all members of nationalist parties,” said Mr. Štraus, who was the favored architect of Yugoslav times. “Every party has their own vision of the city, and every time someone new comes they build … I am desperate about what is happening to Sarajevo.” He has lived in the same apartment since Socialist rule, its furnishings relics from the 1970s.

The city around him has not stayed so constant.

Saudi Investors and ‘Sex and the City’ Combine in Sarajevo
August 10, 2015

Supported by a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant, I’ve been exploring Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital that was besieged during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. It took nearly four years to end the violence, a feat that was achieved through a power sharing agreement between Bosnia’s ethnic groups know as the Dayton Peace Accord. As we approach the 20th anniversary of Dayton, I’m learning how ethnic divides have affected the reconstruction of the city, as residents try to shape a new multicultural Bosnia.

The Sarajevo City Center is on a plot of land that was once reserved for a monument to Tito. The mall now features brands like Nike, Levi, and U.S. Polo. (Photo by Amanda Rivkin)

The Sarajevo City Center is on a plot of land that was once reserved for a monument to Tito. The mall now features brands like Nike, Levi, and U.S. Polo. (Photo by Amanda Rivkin)

“The best things in life are free. The second best are very expensive,” instructs Coco Chanel.

“Shopping is my CARDIO!” exclaims Carrie Bradshaw from “Sex in the City.”

The walls at the Sarajevo City Center, a 70,000-square-meter mall that opened in 2014, are bedecked with maxims in Bosnian and English from the West’s great pop-culture icons. One might expect to see the mall’s flashing billboards in Times Square, not downtown Sarajevo.

The stores are in search of an audience, with prices too high for most local consumers. But Sarajevo City Center seems to clash with reality in more than one way. The mall is funded by the Saudi-based Al-Shiddi group, and is part of a slew of new Gulf-funded projects whose policies reflect a conservative religious norm not previously known in Sarajevo. Women can expose their hair, but try to order a beer, and you will only be offered a non-alcoholic option. That sets the City Center’s eateries in stark contrast with most other downtown venues, where Sarajevans gather to imbibe on Rakija, a fruit brandy considered a regional specialty.

Bosniak Muslims traditionally follow the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, which is known for its tolerant social dictums. But at the beginning of the war, Bosnia’s biggest supporters were conservative Islamic countries. Islamist fighters arrived by the hundreds, bringing with them Salafism, or what some would describe as Wahhabism, one of Islam’s most strict strains. Though the fighters are long departed, wealthy Arab governments continued to spend millions on Bosnia’s post war recovery. At least 150 mosques were restored or constructed across the country, in an architectural style that was not always in line with Bosnian custom.

In 2000, the Saudi Royal family donated the $28 million King Fahd Mosque and Cultural Center, seated next to a socialist housing block on the edge of Sarajevo. At 8,800 sq ft. and with a white marble exterior, it dwarfs and outshines any mosque from the Ottoman era. A double minaret distances it from the vernacular Bosnian style. “It was normal to only have one minaret before the war,” said Faruk Kapidžić, the architect, on our visit to the mosque. But the new clients always ask for more, he noted—“I make one minaret, they ask for four.” The males worshiping at King Fahd wear long beards, the women, full-body coverage.

Still, the conservative Islamist movement remains fringe. Many Bosniaks say they are wary of the foreign influence, and few Sarajevans I spoke to had made the trip to King Fahd. And now, the Gulf-funded malls are a welcome addition, as they help to dent the 44 percent unemployment rate that has recently plagued the country.

The Bosniaks I encountered were far more concerned about the long-term impact of funds flowing from another foreign investor: Russia.

Though initially cooperative with the West’s halfhearted efforts to negotiate peace in Bosnia in the early 1990s, Russia was by the end of the conflict one of the few defenders of Serbian interests. The special relationship continues as Russia invests in the Bosnian-Serb part of the country, the Republika Srpska. That is in keeping with its efforts to foster ties with Slavic groups across Eastern Europe, and especially those in separatist areas.

“Russia is interested in strategic initiatives, not ethno-religious ones. They have the nationalism without having to promote it,” said Jasmin Mujanović, a Bosnia specialist and PhD candidate at York University in Toronto. Over the past decade, Russia has begun to back infrastructure projects in the Republika Srpska, targeting the energy sector in particular. In 2014, Gazprom announced a deal to supply the Republika Srpska with direct gas imports, bypassing involvement from Sarajevo.

Some worry the Russian backing will embolden the Republika Srpska political leadership, who have repeatedly threatened to secede from Bosnia and break the tenuous unity that has existed since the war.

Bosnia: A Nation United in Disaster, Strained in Peace

Supported by a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant, I’ve been exploring Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital that was besieged during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. It took nearly four years to end the violence, a feat that was achieved through a power sharing agreement between Bosnia’s ethnic groups know as the Dayton Peace Accord. As we approach the 20th anniversary of Dayton, I’m learning how ethnic divides have affected the reconstruction of the city, as residents try to shape a new multicultural Bosnia.

In the lead up to Bosnia’s national election, a makeshift cross was erected under the cover of night in the Republika Srpska, on a hill overlooking Sarajevo. Others removed it in December. (Photo by Amanda Rivkin)

In the lead up to Bosnia’s national election, a makeshift cross was erected under the cover of night in the Republika Srpska, on a hill overlooking Sarajevo. Others removed it in December. (Photo by Amanda Rivkin)

“Look at the rainfall. That hit both entities,” Nasiha Pozder, an urban planner at the University of Sarajevo, said to me. In May of 2014, Bosnia was hit by devastating floods, affecting citizens in both the Federation and the Republika Srpska, who might not otherwise have reason to commiserate collectively. Numerous accounts emerged of average Bosnians overcoming their differences, helping those in need regardless of ethnicity. But politicians were criticized for their uncoordinated response, using the disaster to point fingers and only offering help to their own ethnic communities. In Sarajevo, “It was my students who ultimately provided the relief,” Mr. Pozder explained. “They asked to cancel finals to go out and help people. Of course the University said yes.”

But the floods could not fully wash away old divisions, and those who hoped for change were then dismayed when all three ethnic groups elected nationalist politicians in the countrywide elections the following October. Milorad Dodik, who has served as the president of the Republika Srpska since 2010, was re-elected, and is seen as a particular threat to Bosnian unity. Once considered the moderate alternative to Bosnia’s wartime Serbian leaders, Dodik has now emerged as the most vocal Bosnian Serb nationalist politician. More and more, independence for the Republika Srpska is an open objective.

The Bosnian Serbs were widely blamed for the worst atrocities of the war, and some of them feel unfairly portrayed and aggrieved today, especially in Sarajevo.

That resentment took an unusual form in the weeks leading up to the October election. On a Sunday morning in September, Sarajevo residents noticed a white piece of piping jutting out from Trebević mountain, just over the border in the Republika Srpska. Occupying a former Serb sniper position, the piping was in fact a crudely assembled 32-foot (9.75-meter) cross, reportedly erected overnight by Bosnian Serbs who had been held prisoner in Bosniak detention camps during the war. Though no one immediately claimed responsibility, the group had been agitating for the cross to honor the more than 6,600 Serbs who they say died in and around Sarajevo during the conflict.

Shortly after the cross was erected, vandals attempted unsuccessfully to chop it down, leaving it crooked. In response, Milorad Dodik assigned an ostensibly 24-hour watch by Republika Srpska police, despite the fact that the cross was erected illegally. But it did not work—someone issued a final blow in December, having grown fed up with the cross looming over the city.

That sentiment was shared by many Sarajevans, who viewed the cross as a provocation rather than a symbol of mourning. “They put it on a mountain, to make the population fearful on the other side! It’s like the dogs that piss their own territory,” a Bosnian artist known only by his first name, Shoba, told me.

He is the sculptor of his own monument in Sarajevo, titled “Monument to the International Community from the Grateful Citizens of Sarajevo,” which was selected through pubic voting. It is a statue of the canned beef that U.N. aid agencies provided to citizens during the war, said to be too disgusting for even cats and dogs.

With its message that speaks to all who endured the conflict, Sarajevans appreciate this monument’s irony regardless of their ethnicity.

Twenty Years After the Shooting Stopped, Sarajevo Searches for Its Future
September 21, 2015

Supported by a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant, I’ve been exploring Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital that was besieged during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. It took nearly four years to end the violence, a feat that was achieved through a power sharing agreement between Bosnia’s ethnic groups know as the Dayton Peace Accord. As we approach the 20th anniversary of Dayton, I’m learning how ethnic divides have affected the reconstruction of the city, as residents try to shape a new multicultural Bosnia.

Friends share a moment looking at cellphone pictures in front of a dessert shop in the old city of Sarajevo. (Photo by Amanda Rivkin)

Friends share a moment looking at cellphone pictures in front of a dessert shop in the old city of Sarajevo. (Photo by Amanda Rivkin)

“The Olympics were a fairytale of the collective, of human relationships,” said Enver Hadžiomerspahić, who directed the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 Winter Olympics held in Sarajevo. He tells me about how people from different ethnic backgrounds worked in unison, to showcase the achievements of Yugoslavia in a fantastic display. He later watched “in agony” when the Museum of the XIV Winter Olympic Games went up in flames during the siege.

But as the fire burned Mr. Hadžiomerspahić had a vision—one that he has pursued relentlessly. He would build a modern art museum in Sarajevo, and solicit donations from artists and museum directors across the world, in honor of the besieged city. At the time, “the idea seemed like an optimistic utopia. No one knew if they would be alive. It was unbelievable that the dream came true,” he stated.

Today, the Ars Aevi collection is worth around $25 million, with pieces from the likes of Marina Abramovic, Michelangelo Pistoletto and Anish Kapoor, all assembled through donations. Still, like Bosnia’s other museums, it has struggled. Ars Aevi is open to the public, but it is housed in a temporary depot, awaiting funds for construction of its permanent facility, which was designed by Renzo Piano for free. Mr. Hadžiomerspahić has repeatedly resorted to public protest over delays, at one point sweeping the bridge that leads to the museum’s slated plot.

Having grown fed up with Bosnia’s polarized politics, many Sarajevans are in fact taking to the streets.

In 2013, from February until June, thousands of babies were born without access to birth certificates because lawmakers in the Serb-led Republika Sprska wanted to give out their own certificates within their territory, while politicians in the Bosniak-Croat led Federation wanted the certificates conferred by the national state. When three-month-old Berina Hamidović died because she could not travel abroad for needed treatment without identification, demonstrations erupted.

Then, in 2014, protests over corruption in Bosnia’s privatization process spread across the country and turned violent, resulting in the burning of government facilities, including the Bosnian presidency building.

In a rare show of solidarity, 88 percent of Bosnians across the nation said they supported the protesters. And residents are doing what they can to push and pull the country forward, wistful for the Sarajevo they remember. Even Mr. Hadžiomerspahić remains optimistic. “The project was born during the time of the siege, and it maintains a strong energy,” he stated. “Ars Aevi will return a feeling of pride to Bosnia.”

The good news is that recent events provide fresh fuel for that dream. Bosnia’s national museum, which I wrote about in a previous post, had been shut for three years but it just reopened last week. And Sarajevans are also enjoying the new National Library, which finally reopened in the summer of 2014. That was just in time to welcome the foreign dignitaries who descended on the city for the centenary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was infamously shot as he left the venue in 1914.

Some historians say that the 20th century started and ended in Sarajevo, beginning with the assassination, and closing with the siege. For a place marked by these traumas, Sarajevo maintains an alluring buzz and it’s hard not to be pulled in by its residents’ embrace. Looking back over my time here, I wonder in how many places would I be invited on the spot to a weekend-long wedding, or to sit in the driver’s cabin of a moving train? I have only had the chance to share a portion of my adventures, but was struck across the board by the open arms Sarajevans extended to me.

The mother of bride Arnela Koluh, 23, places a red scarf over her head as part of a traditional Bosniak wedding ceremony at the Pomerac Mosque in Ulcinj, Montenegro. (Photo Amanda Rivkin)

The mother of bride Arnela Koluh, 23, places a red scarf over her head as part of a traditional Bosniak wedding ceremony at the Pomerac Mosque in Ulcinj, Montenegro. (Photo Amanda Rivkin)

The city must be lauded for its continued vitality and progress since the siege. But as we approach the 20th anniversary of the Dayton Peace Accord, I hope these posts have also shown the change that is still needed—so that 21st-century Sarajevo is remembered for better reasons.