Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Bittersweet Independence Day

Looking down from my window today, I saw people gathering in Veliki Park  at the monument dedicated to the children who had died during the Siege of Sarajevo.  When I think of Independence Day, being American, I think of America’s 4th of July when we declared ourselves a new nation, independent of The British Empire.  I conjure up images of spectacular fireworks, people waving the flag of their country, parades and jubilant celebrations. Alas, this is not the scene in Sarajevo.


Even though today is Bosnia’s Independence day, it is a bittersweet one.   The celebration of Independence Day for Bosnia and Herzegovina celebrates the days between February 29 and March 1, 1992  when a special referendum was held to vote on the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The referendum question was:

 “Are you in favor of a sovereign and independent Bosnia-Herzegovina, a state of equal citizens and nations of Muslims, Serbs, Croats and others who live in it?”

Bosniak and Bosnian Croat voters supported the referendum, while Serbs largely boycotted it.  Some sources cite that Serbs in some cases boycotted the vote or were prevented from voting by Bosnian Serb authorities.  In the end, an absolute majority of the voting-age population of Yugoslav Bosnian Socialist Republic voted for the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  The total turnout of voters was 63.6% of which 99.7% voted for the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina.(wikipedia)  Despite the fact that the European community supported and recognised this decision, the political representatives of  Bosnian Serbians rejected it, thus leading to the initiation of the Bosnian War.   It was not until March 1, 1995, three years later, (and still in the midst of conflict) Independence Day was celebrated for the first time.  The Bosnian War would not end until 8 months later, when the Dayton Accord was signed on November 21, 1995. It should be noted that the Serbians of Bosnia and Herzegovina or the Republika Srpska (Serb Republic) boycott this holiday and celebrates its own Independence Day on the 9th of January.

So many lives were lost, especially in the city of Sarajevo.  It is no surprise that the day intended to celebrate the independence of their country also commemorates the many lives lost who fought for that independence, including the 521 innocent children of Sarajevo who would never live to see this day.

Flowers for Independence Day.

The Mystique of Sarajevo

Destination: Sarajevo.  We left our small town in Wisconsin for our next adventure on January 5th and again, like most of our experiences, it was 24 hours of travel from door to door.

IMG_0038This was by far the most surreal way to arrive in a city.  Do you know how it feels when you’ve been awake for about 20 hours and you’re almost at your destination, but you’re not quite there yet?  Must. Stay. Awake. I was tired and groggy, a bit foggy to say the least. I was fighting to stay awake, to get a peek at the city from above.  I’m always excited to get an aerial view of our new host city.  But alas, when I looked out my tiny airplane window I saw only  mountains rising out of the mist, Sarajevo shrouded and hidden, mysterious, waiting to reveal herself to our family.

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Under the dense fog we discovered a city  covered with fresh snow.  According to my taxi driver, the city had been under this dense fog for 28 days in a row.  The snow was beautiful, and the fog definitely added to the city’s enigmatic and eerie feeling.  Driving away from the airport, I caught my first glimpse of the bullet ridden buildings staring at me, the scars left behind from a war fought only 20 years ago. I couldn’t help but comment to my driver about the bullet holes.  These scars are everywhere and it was shocking to me.  He told me I would see this all over the city.  He told me he was eight years old during the Siege of Sarajevo.  He lived 500 meters from the Town Hall at the end of Old Town.  When the Town Hall was blasted and set on fire, he remembers “papers flying and floating through the air everywhere.  The papers were this high all through the streets around there,” motioning to his waist.  “They destroyed our library, all our important documents were erased.”  This was a prelude to many stories we would eventually hear.

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I always remember the arrival to our new home in each country we visit.  Whether we are arriving on a rainy day, in a cloudy mist on a mountainside, or blinking back the bright sun and heat. On this particular day, we arrived in heavy, wet snow on a crowded city street.  The taxi drivers could not get us close to our door, so both drivers helped us pull all our luggage down one block, across the busy city street and up to our ninth floor apartment.

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Our apartment is one of the highlights of living in Sarajevo.  We are close to the center of the city and only blocks away from Sarajevo’s charming Old Town.  Our grocery store is right across the street as well as one of the best Pie Shops around.  Cafés are everywhere and we can walk out the door and hail a cab within seconds. Convenience and charm are beneficial, however, the close proximity of the hills facing the front and back sides of our building is actually quite startling.  I wake up every day and look at those hills and I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like to live in a city that was under direct fire from snipers hiding in those houses on a daily basis, a siege that lasted three years.   Sarajevo, what lessons will you teach us about war, about how this city was rebuilt and how a country’s citizens and government mend relationships?

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