My Walk with Amir

posted in: Balkans 2014 | 2

I’m going to try something different today. I’m not going to talk about what I saw. And I’m not going to include any of the photos I took. (For one thing, it was raining all day and many of my photos are blurred by raindrops on the lens. Also, my camera got so wet it stopped working for a while, though it seems all better now. I’ll try to take better pictures tomorrow, though it’s still supposed to rain all day, and be very cold tomorrow, with high temps in the single digits Celsius, and I’ll get back to sharing what I’ve seen in Sarajevo in tomorrow’s post.)

Instead I’m going to write about what I learned from my walk today with Amir. For the outrageously low price of 50 KM (the equivalent of $35 US), Amir walked with me from 11:00 until 17:00, showing me interesting sights, but mainly talking to me about this city and the entire region of the former Yugoslavia. We stopped twice for coffee, but otherwise spent the entire day in the rain just wandering. (Well I am sure Amir had a planned route, but for me it was not about where we went so much as the context in which he placed it all.)

I only wish I could play it back and include quotes and details. I am sure I will not begin to capture much more than the general essence of Amir’s story.

It all started…

…with the Bogomils, as Amir told me (and as Rick Steves writes in his book). They had their own religious practices related to Christianity but opposed by the Roman church, so when the Ottomans came to the Balkans, the Bogomils decided to align with them for both economic and political reasons, and they converted to Islam. That is why Bosnian Muslims are ethnically Slavs and thus Caucasian. It’s one of those facts we Americans seem to be ignorant of: not all Muslims are Middle Eastern.

Sarajevo was an attractive location for Muslims because it is fed by mountain streams and so it has very clean water, which is a primary requirement of Islam: the prophet Muhammed said, “Cleanliness is half of faith.” Every mosque has a fountain just outside where worshippers can wash before entering to pray. (Amir told me that Sarajevo has won recognition for having the best water supply in Europe, and I can attest to the fact that the tap water is very fresh tasting.)

War came knocking

The Bosnian Muslims are referred to as Bosniaks. They represent just under half the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Amir Telebecirovic, whose family are Bosniaks, turned 19 on the day the siege of Sarajevo began, April 6, 1992. People often ask him, “When did you go to war?” and he answers that he didn’t go to war; the war literally came knocking on his front door.

In the preceding months, rumors and reports suggested that the Yugoslavian People’s Army was mobilizing in the hills around Sarajevo. (The city is in a very narrow valley. Hills and mountains surround it on all sides.) The official explanation was that they were there to protect against potential violence in the wake of the independence referendum that was scheduled for February 29 and March 1, but after that vote (which was mostly boycotted by Bosnian Serbs, but that had a 63% turnout of which 99.7% voted in favor of independence), the Bosnian parliament declared independence on March 3, and the Bosnian president demanded that Slobodon Milošević, the president of Serbia, remove the troops. 

Milošević agreed only to remove those who were not natives of Bosnia, but did so only in part; the rest were transferred to the Bosnian Serb Army (which had severed its allegiance to the new Bosnian nation) under Ratko Mladić, and the Serbian government continued to provide troops, paramilitary units, ammunition, supplies, and a flow of money from Belgrade to support the war.

Peace demonstration

On April 6 Amir attended a peace demonstration with his father and thousands of other Sarajevans in front of the parliament building, and just after catching the last streetcar to get them home, snipers in the Holiday Inn (the hotel built for the 1984 Winter Olympics and which would come to be famous as the international press headquarters during the war) fired on the crowd.  They heard the shots but couldn’t tell where they were coming from until Amir saw the gunmen in the windows of the Holiday Inn. His mother was at home watching the news on television, not knowing whether Amir and his father were safe until they finally arrived home. Two young women were killed that day, and they are considered to be the first casualties of the siege. A nearby bridge was renamed in their honor.

On that same day, the European community recognized Bosnian sovereignty, and war broke out across the country. (The USA recognized Bosnia the next day, April 7.) Bosnia was no match for the combined forces of the Yugoslav People’s Army and the Bosnian Serb Army. Here’s how Wikipedia describes what happened:

Serb military, police and paramilitary forces attacked towns and villages and then, sometimes assisted by local Serb residents, applied what soon became their standard operating procedure: Bosniak houses and apartments were systematically ransacked or burned; civilians were rounded up, some beaten or killed; and men were separated from the women. Many of the men were forcibly removed to prison camps. The women were incarcerated in detention centres in extremely unhygienic conditions and suffered numerous atrocious abuses. Many were repeatedly raped. Survivors testified that Serb soldiers and police would visit the detention centres, select one or more women, take them out and rape them.

Glad to be alive

It soon became necessary for Amir and his family to leave their home, which was in an area outside the city that was controlled by the Serbian army. They had a neighbor who was a Serb army commander and gave them a window of opportunity to pass through the checkpoints and get into the city. They lost everything, but they were just glad to be alive.

During the first winter of 1992–93, Amir’s father went out to get firewood and was caught in crossfire, shot, and wounded. Neighbors were able to get him into a car and take him to the hospital, but because of barricades and the danger of using certain streets (throughout our walk Amir showed me places where people had to run across the street because the army up in the hills would have a clear shot), and because the hospital was without power and overcrowded, Amir’s father bled to death before a doctor could see him.

Throughout the siege, Sarajevans tried to make the best of things. Amir showed me the post office where one graffiti artist spray painted, “This is Serbia.” Underneath, a second message reads, “This is the post office, you idiot.” (For more humor from the siege, see this article Amir sent to The Stranger.)

In the army

During the war Amir served in the army, though he had no training. The Bosnian army was ill-equipped to fight the Chetniks. (Amir used the word “Chetniks” to refer to the Serb army. It is important to remember that not all Serbs were the enemy, just as not all Germans were Nazis and not all Muslims are terrorists.) He showed me a tank next to the World War II History Museum that did battle in both WWII and again in the Bosnian War. Sarajevo, being a winter sports center, had some biathletes whose shooting skills were helpful. Each Sarajevan was asked to do what he or she could do best to support the war effort.

I asked Amir why the Chetniks didn’t just invade Sarajevo, as they did elsewhere in the country. He said they wondered the same thing at the time, but they believe it’s because there was foreign press in Sarajevo, and they wanted to distract the press from the atrocities that were going on elsewhere. So they maintained this ongoing assault for 3 1/2 years.

Dayton Accord

The war ended with the signing of the Dayton Accord in December 1995. Some 10,000 Sarajevans died, included Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks, and they are buried, together, in cemeteries around the city, within neighborhoods.

Virtually all the tombstones, which the people added later, date from 1992–1995.

The Dayton Accord meant to promote peace, but according to Amir, it created a political mess, creating the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina within the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Corruption has led to dismal economic conditions, with 40% unemployment. Amir himself is unemployed. He lost his job as a journalist several years ago, and now works doing freelance journalism and as a tour guide. Next week he is going to Ljubljana to meet his third Rick Steves tour group.

Amir becomes a tour guide

Until its second edition, Rick Steves’ Croatia and Slovenia guidebook included Mostar but not Sarajevo. With the third edition, they decided to include Sarajevo. Rick’s coauthor, Cameron Hewitt, knew a local guide in Mostar who knew Amir, and they made the connection. A few years ago Amir made his first trip to the USA to attend a tour guide summit in Edmonds. (This was before Rick officially hired him to do tours here, but they covered his expenses anyway.) 

Amir described the visa application process as very complex. He didn’t get his visa approval until a few days before the trip. He flew Sarajevo to Vienna, Vienna to Washington, DC, and DC to Seattle. His aunt lives in Kent, WA, and he was able to visit her and his cousins. She was pregnant during the siege. Because conditions were so poor in Sarajevo hospitals, she was able to escape through the tunnel (which I’ll be visiting later) along with her two young children (her husband came later). Her baby was born in the US. He has been back to Seattle one more time for another tour guide summit.

Once, when Amir was in Amsterdam, a friend warned him not to go to a certain neighborhood after dark. His friend said skinheads tended to commit racially-motivated attacks against Muslims in that neighborhood. Amir asked him, if you didn’t know my name, would you know I was a Muslim? And his friend admitted that, in fact, Amir could have passed for Aryan. Serb, Croat, Bosniak, these are not different ethnicities. These are all Slavic people, just practicing different religions.

The future

Amir worries about the future of Europe. Right-wing politicians are winning elections, and in Hungary, for example, they are already passing some restrictive laws. Although this is hard for me to accept, he says he thinks things are much better in the USA. In Europe, nationalism is about blood and land. In the US, it’s more about citizenry. Yes, he acknowledges, racism is everywhere, but he thinks there is a more dangerous trend toward xenophobia in Europe. And Bosnia, where religious groups were all one race, Slavs, is dealing with that. This is partly because of the disunity created by Richard Holbrooke, whom Amir seems to have particular disdain for.

There are so many other stories, I cannot recall them all. He talked about the Sarajevo Haggadah, which may be the last surviving Haggadah from the middle ages. It came to Sarajevo with the Separdic Jews who escaped the Spanish Inquisition at the end of the 15th century. Muslims repeatedly saved it: first from the Habsburgs, who wanted to bring it to Vienna; then during WWII from the Nazis, who occupied the city; and later from the Chetniks. It is currently in the National Museum, which is closed due to budget cuts.

He talked about how Jews, Catholics, Muslims, and Orthodox Christians always lived together in Sarajevo. There were never any ghettos here. This was always a city of neighbors who cared for each other. And yet, ironically, it has so often been at the crossroads of history, and not in a good way.

It’s Thursday morning now, and I’m getting ready to head out to explore on my own in the rain. I’ll try to take some decent pictures without ruining my camera again.

Thank you, Amir. I may not remember all the specifics of the stories you shared with me today, but I’ll never forget the story of Sarajevo that you brought to life.

2 Responses

  1. Margot

    Fascinating and tragic story, Lane. What an amazing gift to have been able to talk to this man and hear his story. I remember the era, but I never did understand what was going on. I still don’t understand but your inspired writing has helped make it real for me. Thank you!!!

  2. Lane

    For those who would like to contact Amir, the most recent email address I have for him is I do not know if he is still available to provide private walking tours of Sarajevo.

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