Twenty Years After the Shooting Stopped, Sarajevo Searches for Its Future

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.)

Friends share a moment looking at cell phone pictures in front of a dessert shop in the old city of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina on October 11, 2014.
Friends share a moment looking at cellphone pictures in front of a dessert shop in the old city of Sarajevo. (Photo by Amanda Rivkin)

“The Olympics were a fairytale of the collective, of human relationships,” said Enver Hadžiomerspahić, who directed the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 Winter Olympics held in Sarajevo. He tells me about how people from different ethnic backgrounds worked in unison, to showcase the achievements of Yugoslavia in a fantastic display. He later watched “in agony” when the Museum of the XIV Winter Olympic Games went up in flames during the siege.

But as the fire burned Mr. Hadžiomerspahić had a vision—one that he has pursued relentlessly. He would build a modern art museum in Sarajevo, and solicit donations from artists and museum directors across the world, in honor of the besieged city. At the time, “the idea seemed like an optimistic utopia. No one knew if they would be alive. It was unbelievable that the dream came true,” he stated.

Today, the Ars Aevi collection is worth around $25 million, with pieces from the likes of Marina Abramovic, Michelangelo Pistoletto and Anish Kapoor, all assembled through donations. Still, like Bosnia’s other museums, it has struggled. Ars Aevi is open to the public, but it is housed in a temporary depot, awaiting funds for construction of its permanent facility, which was designed by Renzo Piano for free. Mr. Hadžiomerspahić has repeatedly resorted to public protest over delays, at one point sweeping the bridge that leads to the museum’s slated plot.

Having grown fed up with Bosnia’s polarized politics, many Sarajevans are in fact taking to the streets.

In 2013, from February until June, thousands of babies were born without access to birth certificates because lawmakers in the Serb-led Republika Sprska wanted to give out their own certificates within their territory, while politicians in the Bosniak-Croat led Federation wanted the certificates conferred by the national state. When three-month-old Berina Hamidović died because she could not travel abroad for needed treatment without identification, demonstrations erupted.

Then, in 2014, protests over corruption in Bosnia’s privatization process spread across the country and turned violent, resulting in the burning of government facilities, including the Bosnian presidency building.

In a rare show of solidarity, 88 percent of Bosnians across the nation said they supported the protesters. And residents are doing what they can to push and pull the country forward, wistful for the Sarajevo they remember. Even Mr. Hadžiomerspahić remains optimistic. “The project was born during the time of the siege, and it maintains a strong energy,” he stated. “Ars Aevi will return a feeling of pride to Bosnia.”

The good news is that recent events provide fresh fuel for that dream. Bosnia’s national museum, which I wrote about in a previous post, had been shut for three years but it just reopened last week. And Sarajevans are also enjoying the new National Library, which finally reopened in the summer of 2014. That was just in time to welcome the foreign dignitaries who descended on the city for the centenary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was infamously shot as he left the venue in 1914.

Some historians say that the 20th century started and ended in Sarajevo, beginning with the assassination, and closing with the siege. For a place marked by these traumas, Sarajevo maintains an alluring buzz and it’s hard not to be pulled in by its residents’ embrace. Looking back over my time here, I wonder in how many places would I be invited on the spot to a weekend-long wedding, or to sit in the driver’s cabin of a moving train? I have only had the chance to share a portion of my adventures, but was struck across the board by the open arms Sarajevans extended to me.

The mother of bride Arnela Koluh, 23, places a red scarf over her head as part of a wedding ceremony at the Pomerac Mosque in Ulcinj, Montenegro. Arnela, who is Bosnian Muslim, married Almir Cungu, 34, an Albanian Muslim who resides in Ulcinj. (Photo Amanda Rivkin)

The city must be lauded for its continued vitality and progress since the siege. But as we approach the 20th anniversary of the Dayton Peace Accord, I hope these posts have also shown the change that is still needed—so that 21st-century Sarajevo is remembered for better reasons.

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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