Landmarks Crumbling, Skyscrapers Climbing in Sarajevo

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. (Read all posts in this series.)

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.

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Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Cara Eckholm is a National Geographic Young Explorer with a speciality in urban geography. She spent Fall 2014 conducting research on the post-war reconstruction of Sarajevo. She now works for the consulting firm, ReD Associates, out of Copenhagen. Follow her @CaraEckholm