Mostar has been awesome, but it’s time to set off for Sarajevo.
The train is the cheapest option for me and my daughter, a total price of 16.40 Bosnia marks (8 euros) at the ticket office, which opens 30 minutes before it arrives. The train leaves twice daily; at 7am and 7pm. We opt for the 7pm train and get to the station by 6:30pm. A few people are waiting with their luggage at that time, but the platform quickly fills up five minutes before the train’s arrival.
I’m poised to take a snapshot of the arriving train, but I’m rudely interrupted by a tottering moustached man. He spews a slew of Bosnian words, all the while laughing and lightly pinching my daughter’s cheeks, then mine. He smells intoxicated and I wonder how to get away. I pull away just as he has grabbed my right hand and planted a soggy kiss on the backside. The train meanwhile is rapidly filling up, so we quickly get on board. While I am wondering where to stand as all the seats are taken, a spunky young lad pops his head from the crowd and beckons us to follow him. I’m not sure, but having nothing to lose, I motion for my daughter to walk ahead as I squeeze past the passengers and follow. He turns back frequently while urging us to continue following him. We slug along with our luggage, and he finally stops at a closed compartment and slides it open.
I look inside the compartment. There’s a couple with a chortling baby, and they make space for my daughter to sit. A little girl on the opposite side is lying down on the train seat, and she gets up and moves to make space for me. I assume she’s the boy’s little sister. I sit next to his mother who is drawing deeply on a cigarette and exhaling a stream of smoke into the air. While her son doesn’t speak English and constantly fumbles with words to communicate, she strikes a conversation with me in flawless english. The cabin seems stuffy, and I notice the ‘smoking allowed’ emblem next to the dusty window that is slightly ajar.
The boy offers us some edible stick snacks, his little sister pulls out lipgloss from a little bag, and smears it on her puckered up lips. My daughter notices she has a rubber arm-band and announces that she has been looping the arm-bands. It appears the fad is popular with kids here as well. The mother and her two children get off mid-route to Sarajevo. A handsome dark-haired man who has been standing in the corridor takes the seat, together with his mum and teenage sister. He says they live in Sarajevo but had gone to Mostar to attend a relative’s wedding. He effortlessly lifts my heavy luggage which is on the arm rest and places it in the overhead rack to make room. The atmosphere within the compartment becomes livelier as he engages us in conversation, often turning to his mother to translate for her.
“Your english is pretty good,” I say to him.
“I learnt it through watching alot of cartoons,” he laughs.
“People here smoke quite abit,” I say, just as his mother is pulling out another stick to light. She laughs when she hears the translation, her face warming up, the smile reaching her eyes.
“Too much stress, we do it to relieve our stress,” the young man says nonchalantly.
His mother sits down and carries my child on her laps. I continue talking to the young man who shares that he will be joining University the following semester. He may have been quite young during the war when Sarajevo was under seige, but he bristles with confidence, intelligently giving explanations for every question I may have. I sense in my observation of people on the train, the relaxed communal aspect to their lives, vastly different from the stiff individualism pervasive in Western Europe. People seem approachable, welcoming to strangers, and they possess a certain warmth as they do so.
“I find Bosnians friendly,” I say, relating the story of the little boy beckoning us to follow and offering us seats, “I doubt that this would happen in many European towns, I must confess I was actually terrified of racist encounters here in Bosnia.”
“Bosnians laugh and joke alot,” he concurs, “We have been through much, we try to be happy. We don’t have problems with racism, I actually find black women attractive.”
The conversation switches to the government.
We have three presidents,” the big lady laments, as her quiet husband cooes the baby. “That’s crazy!”
“They are eating our money,” the pre-University student nods in agreement, “In this country, if you are the minister, or the family of someone in a high position, you benefit. There is alot of unemployment, many people especially the youth have no jobs, they are educated but have no jobs. Our government is corrupt.”
“Is Sarajevo safe to walk around?” I enquire.
“During the day it is safe, but in the evening, not so safe, you have to avoid the alleys and dark places, there are people who commit crime out there, rob people and so on,” he responds.
“Would you like for Bosnia-Herzegovina to be admitted into the European Union?”
“We don’t need or want that, we are proud, we can stand on our own, we have our own currency.”
“How did the war end?” I ask the pre-University student, “Did the United Nations help end the war?”
“They never ended it,” he scoffs, “They abandoned us, we ended it ourselves…we fought back, with the help of muslim countries, they assisted us.” Of the ethnic divisions, he argues that in any part of the world as in Bosnia, there are good and bad people, there are humane Serbs and Croats despite what happened to the Muslims in Bosnia.
While there seems to be a great dissatisfaction with the leadership of Bosnia-Herzegovina, I am awed the first day I get to walk around the streets of Sarajevo. I don’t see as many pockmarked bullet-ridden buildings as I did in Mostar; just skyscrapers, huge malls and blocks of buildings dotting the skies. The city is quite modern and hip, it is difficult to believe that Sarajevo was on the edge of annihilation in the 1990s, ethnic divisions and a horrendous war threatening to snuff it into oblivion. The vibrance and the East-meets-West ambiance is enough to keep drawing people to the capital. It appears that Sarajevo, scarred innumerable times in history, has risen past the ashes and made itself anew.
Have you ever visited Sarajevo? What surprised you most about the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina?
Categories: Bosnia and Herzegovina
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