Bartering Basics and Words of Wisdom from Morgan Freeman

Today, we actually got to experience some cultural aspects of Sarajevo. In case you’re not my facebook friend, my Sarajevo pictures can be found here —

Our day began with a typical European breakfast of pita with meat and cheese in the restaurant next to the place where we had cevapi last night. After that, we drove around doing a bus tour, but we later got out and actually walked. More on that later.


On the bus, we passed this Holiday Inn. To you or to me, this has no special meaning. But for the people of Sarajevo, this building represents the past, the future, and the reminder of what was taken so aggressively from them — peace, the right to life. The right to anything, really. When Sarajevo hosted the Olympics, athletes and other important people stayed in this Holiday Inn. However, when the siege of Sarajevo began, this building was severely shelled and nearly reduced to rubble. It reminds them of the prosperity they had before it was taken away.

So what actually happened in the siege of Sarajevo? Check out this link for information: Basically, Yugoslavia was struggling to remain one single country as its people were trying to break into independent states. But Sarajevo got caught up in the issues surrounding the Bosnians, Croats, and Serbs, and was surrounded. At first, the enemy tried to take the city, but the Sarajevans put up an unexpected fight, and the army had to withdraw. Instead, they camped outside the city and laid siege to the city for four years — the longest siege in the history of modern warfare, from 1992-1995. The former Olympic city was crushed, but the people of Sarajevo continued to fight back (and never stopped). Water, electricity, and food supplies were cut off from the city. The UN forces were sent to aid, but their presence soon became a joke to the Sarajevans trapped in the city. With no means of escape, snipers picked off civilians each and every day. In commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the siege, 11,541 red chairs were set up in the city to symbolize every person that would have attended the ceremony had the siege never happened. In commemoration of the bullets raining on the city, some holes created by artillery fire have been semi-“repaired” with smooth red stone to permanently symbolize the blood that once stained those spots.


Today we passed through “sniper alley,” the street most notorious for always being under sniper fire. Unfortunately, it was also the only way to the brewery, which contained a natural water spring which was the only source of drinkable water in Sarajevo. People often had to walk more than five miles each way in order to fill jugs for drinking water. Carrying these jugs, they also had to dodge sniper fire. So how did the snipers manage to be so drastically effective? Like this —


The name “Sarajevo” descends from a Turkish word roughly meaning that it is a “palace in the valley.” The snipers stationed themselves on the hills around the city and were free to pick off anyone as they pleased. In fact, snipers soon began playing “games” with the civilians. First, a sniper would shoot someone in the legs as a lure. When people ran out to help the person, the sniper would begin aiming for the heads, and would see how many people came out to help before they got too scared to continue.

I also passed the Oslobodenje, the building that housed the Sarajevo newspaper heralded as “the best newspaper in the world” because it continued to struggle to stay in print during the siege; it was able to print a few hundred copies per day. The newspaper writer and editor wrote journals of his experience staying in Sarajevo during the siege, and his journal entries have been compiled into a book entitled “Sarajevo: A War Journal.” I highly recommend it, as well as “The Cellist of Sarajevo.”


Speaking of the “Cellist of Sarajevo” — it’s based on a true story. There really was a cellist, Vedran Smailović, former cellist in Sarajevo String Quartet, who sat in the streets, at risk of death from sniper fire or shelling, and played Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor on his cello for twenty-two days — one day for each person killed near his home in a shelling while they waited in a queue for bread. [Picture courtesy of Mikhail Evstafiev]


After much, much research, I believe that I was standing at the location where the shell killed those 22 people. An interesting thing to ponder, it’s not more than a stone’s throw from where I sleep every night.


Anyway, first on our agenda today was to visit the Tunnel of Life, a small underground passageway dug by Sarajevans in order to receive needed supplies from outside the city during the siege. Using only shovels and moving the dirt by hand, the tunnel (which is more than half a mile long) was dug in only four months and four days. It burrows under the airport, where UN troops and snipers prevented anyone from fleeing (or entering) Sarajevo.


It was a very cold day, but it was nice to learn a lot about the history of Sarajevo. Not being much of a history person, I definitely believe that if I’m going to learn history, this is how I need to do it. Our tour guide, Muhamed (who was fantastic, by the way), showed us a compilation of videos taken during the siege. People ducking and dodging at the first sounds of gunfire, being shot at randomly, entire sides of buildings suddenly vanishing in blasts of smoke and debris, and shells streaking across the sky to leave glowing white or red trails…it’s no wonder that people quickly learned to “predict the path of the shell based on its sound” and remain casually where they were if it would be more than a block away. After four years, you get so used to the sound that your predictions probably become pretty accurate, and with no food and little water, you’re too tired to duck, dodge, and zig-zag every time you hear every little thing. Because in Sarajevo, shells and bullets were little things.


The tunnel itself was dark and small, but not too small for me since I’m short. I was able to stand up normally. Unfortunately, only a small portion of the tunnel is open.


What went through the tunnel? Everything. People, if they could, although that was so rare that the people of Sarajevo knew they wouldn’t be getting out — only those with money or influence got out. Only occasionally did the wounded even make it out.


Aside from that, everything from food to lanterns to buckets came in. The place was ready to explode at any moment — shipments of high voltage wire, gasoline, live ammunition all gathered in one tiny tunnel together? Thankfully, nothing like that ever happened. Mostly what made it through the tunnels were small but necessary, like MREs.But with fifty percent of the supplies going to where they shouldn’t (the Serbs) and the other fifty percent going to the black market to be sold in the city for prices people couldn’t pay (when the humanitarian aid should have been free), getting even the MREs was doubtful.


That’s Meals Ready to Eat, for those of you who don’t know.

Our tour guide Muhamed, who lived through the siege, shared his experience of being frustrated that, at ten years old, his grandmother wouldn’t let him play outside. His mother worked at the hospital, and she brought home sleeping pills for the neighbors. Can you see where this is going?

He put the pills in his grandmother’s drink, and she was asleep in less than half an hour. He was free to do whatever he wanted, so he headed outside to play. Ironically, almost immediately, a shell exploded in his front yard. As he told us the story, he rolled up the hem of his pants to show three gaping scars from the shrapnel. Because his grandmother was asleep, she could not hear him screaming. A neighbor finally found him and rushed him to the hospital. You guessed it. His mother was there attending to other patients. Upon seeing her bloody son, she promptly fainted.

Muhamed said that, after a few weeks and two dozen stitches, his frustrated mother “smacked the sh**” out of him. Guess he never wanted to play outside again — for more reasons than one.

INTERMISSION: Just because I’m remembering right now — Sarajevo is a hugely Muslim city. There is a mosque tower right next to where I am staying, and I get to hear the priest sing his call to worship five times every day, exactly on time. He goes up into the tower and sings — it’s not a recording, it’s actually him. Every day. I just ran and flung open the window in a hectic mess trying to get it on video, but I was too late. It just happened, which reminded me to write it down. We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog.


So after the tunnel, we headed back into the city and saw all kinds of cool things — mostly, why Sarajevo is often called the “Jerusalem of Eastern Europe.” Many religions coexist peacefully here. Catholic,




and Jewish, all together peacefully.


The other really notable thing that I saw was a simple stone plaque, very basic in design, that held some very powerful words.


And so began World War I. From this spot. Where I was standing.

Originally, Ferdinand was heading down the street in a procession when a grenade was thrown at him, but that assassination attempt failed. However, on the way back from a political meeting (on the same road as before), he was supposed to turn left onto this bridge to have lunch:


Instead, he accidentally turned right. And was shot almost immediately by the sniper standing where that placard was. Ferdinand was about here when he died:


It’s sort of nebulous, standing a few feet from where someone important died. No, regardless of whether he was important — how many places did I pass today that were the final things dying people ever saw? It’s a little bit indescribable. Muhamed, who had the pleasure of also being the Sarajevan tour guide of Morgan Freeman, recounted Freeman’s words that “history is his-story” because everyone has a different one. Bosnians, Serbs, Croats, and others all have a different view of the siege, of the assassination, and of their own histories — how might I feel differently if my “story” were a little different?


After finishing our tour of the city, we were free to wander around and do whatever we wanted. I can honestly say that I’ve never been in a city anywhere in the world where I’ve seen so many stray animals. Dogs and cats everywhere, on the steps of churches, even at our feet!


It’s a startling journey, walking through a city and seeing a beautifully built, bustling, lively market immediately next to a building that looks like this:


I guess you can’t erase the past, even after 20 years. Or shouldn’t. Or don’t want to. Maybe it’s a bit of each.

The same thing happens everywhere throughout the city — shelled and gutted buildings juxtaposed with beautiful, refined architecture. What gets fixed? The Holiday Inn, but not the severely shelled old folks’ home?


Hundreds of people live in apartment complexes with explosion holes still speckling the walls,


but some grandiose buildings down the street rival the world’s best architecture in style, scope, and quality?


Look not only at the building, but at the modern-style bridge! Don’t mistake this for a criticism — I’m just genuinely interested in how these decisions are made. While I don’t put it past Sarajevo to build wonderful buildings considering its innovative history (the first city in the world to have trams, after all), I wonder what limiting factors come into play in repairing the city.

Anyway, as I wandered around, it was not difficult to notice the shocking contrasts in architecture. At one point, the Turkish architecture ended immediately and changed to more modern buildings. As in a straight line, north to south, building to building, exactly the same, change. But after a while, I found myself “getting used to it,” and I greatly dislike that complacency in myself. Muhamed admitted that, after eleven years being a tour guide, he found the number who died (11,541) to be just a statistic, and he was only “reawakened” after seeing the red seats at the anniversary, which I mentioned before. It’s a lot of chairs. I would like to see them too.


We stopped and had lunch quickly, then we were off on our own to do whatever. Kelly and I went souvenir shopping, relishing in the countless shops that sold the beautiful metal artwork that is characteristic of Sarajevo. I found a tooled copper plate layered with other metals, which I rather took a liking to. I loved every part of it. Except for the price.

“Too expensive,” I said. The lady in the shop, where all of the metal items were handcrafted with great care, approached me.

“25 marks,” she said in an accent, referring to the listed price. “But for you, 20 marks.”

I told Kelly in passing that I wanted two, but it was still too much. I pointed to the plate and said, “I want to buy two. I can still get them for less?”

“Yes, yes.”

“Two for twenty marks,” I said.

“No no, five from each,” she replied.

“Oh, these two are twenty marks,” I said again.

“No no, thirty for both.” (Notice that she dropped the price again without directly saying so.)

“Eh….” *And cue dramatic pause in which I appear still to be unconvinced and ready to leave the shop.*

“I engrave them for free.”

I smiled. “Oh, you do it for free?”

“Normally costs,” she said, “but for you, free.”

“That’s fantastic!” I said. “Is there a limit to how much I can write?”

“Eh, not so much, ten, fifteen words.”

“So there is no limit?”

“No limit.”

Bartering basics, people. Bartering basics.

Don’t worry, I didn’t get greedy and selfish. I only gave her a few words to engrave, not a novel or something. 🙂

She was very kind — I’m discovering quickly that Sarajevan people are extremely friendly and kind. After I had bought those plates, I kept wandering around on the same street (called Coppersmith Street for a reason, though obviously the street name is in a foreign language). Another smith invited Kelly, Julia and me into his shop, which had beautiful metal tooling. It was the best on the street, by far. He was obviously lonely — no one had visited him all day. He was so excited, pulling out metalworking books for us, showing us postcards from his family and friends, and explaining how to grind Bosnian coffee beans. Everything you could imagine. One piece of work was in progress, sitting by itself in a wooden vice waiting to be tooled further:


The final product, a goblet, will look like this:


The smiths were great to hang around with and very friendly. Laughter could be heard from almost anywhere. But if you ask me, the real secret to the skill and success of the metalworkers on the street is all due to one thing.

Totally. It’s the hats.


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