Bosnia & Herzegovina

Meeting a Bosnian War Hero

As we drove through the streets of Sarajevo, taking in the crumbling buildings and apartment blocks riddled with bullet holes, Al began to open up about why he’d decided to become a soldier during the Bosnian war.

“I was walking down the street one day and this old man who was just in front of me – he just went down. Bullet straight through the head. And I remember thinking that could have been me. I signed up the next day.”

Al was just one of the 70,000 Bosnian soldiers that fought for his country during the Siege of Sarajevo, a battle that lasted for almost 4 years and claimed nearly 14,000 lives.

Pulling over to the side of the road, he gestured at a block of dilapidated apartments.

“I lived there for a while with some of the other soldiers. Look, see how many bullet holes there are. It’s no wonder I have PTSD,” he snickered, a dark joke that did little to mask the ugly truth behind it.

* * *

We’d started our morning fresh faced and ready for the day ahead. After having a wonderful night’s sleep at our hostel, Balkan Han (comfiest beds ever and free Crocs for all!), I headed out for some brunch with Jesse, Jimmy, Felix and Roma, who I’d met in Mostar (which you can read all about here). After just a few minutes of walking, we found a cute hole in the wall cafe and ordered some food, and of course, coffee.

Our waiter explained to us that in Bosnia, coffee is an accompaniment to every situation imaginable. You’re having a business meeting? Coffee. First date? Coffee. Break up? Coffee.

You get the gist.

He told us that we absolutely must try traditional Bosnian coffee, and that was how I found myself sipping very rich black coffee from a tiny cup, with some Turkish delight on the side to counteract the bitterness. It was absolutely divine.

bosnian coffee, sarajevo

After we were satisfied, we decided to have a stroll through the old town of Sarajevo. Sarajevo is not as pretty as Mostar (which is truly a fairytale rown), but it is definitely still charming, and we walked for a while along the narrow streets leading to the main square, before heading back to our hostel to meet Al.

Al is a war veteran who, after putting his life on the line for his country less than 30 years ago, makes his living by taking small tour groups on 6 hour trips around Sarajevo to educate visitors to his country about the atrocities that occurred there not that long ago.

(Note: This is just one of the reasons I truly recommend staying at the Balkan Han Hostel if you find yourself in Sarajevo {which you can book here}. Al is friends with the owners of Balkan Han, and as far as I am aware, runs his tours exclusively through them. Of course, other tour companies could take you to see the mains sights of Sarajevo, but not only is Al’s tour super interesting as he actually helped his city through the Siege of Sarajevo, but it also feels good to put money into the pockets of a genuine war veteran as oppose to those of a larger tour company.)

white fortress sarajevo

Al picked us up at 2pm from Balkan Han, and we all piled into his minivan to begin the journey to our first stop, the Tunnel of Hope. During the drive, Al told us about his personal experiences as a soldier during the Siege of Sarajevo, showing us a photograph album full of horrifying images, from dead bodies littering the streets of Sarajevo, to burning buildings, and even the child victims of Serbian snipers, blood seeping out from their lifeless corpses. As we slowly turned the pages, Roma and I looked at each other in dismay as the images got progressively worse.

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Al, however, remained upbeat as he told us tales about what it was like to live in Sarajevo during the siege. When we arrived at the Tunnel of Hope, or the “Tunnel of Shame,” as he called it, he told us about how he would trek through the narrow 1KM passage daily, sometimes being stuck there for up to 6 hours because there were snipers waiting to shoot at each end. He told us of how his father left the city one day to buy food for the family and was shot and killed, meaning that Al had to carry his lifeless corpse back through the tunnel, and how the little old lady that lived in the house next to the tunnel’s opening would sit there for hours, handing out cups of water to exhausted troops as they returned to Sarajevo.

siege of sarajevo

We were then able to actually go underground and walk through the 100m of tunnel that has been preserved for tourists. One can only imagine how it must feel for Al to lead groups of young backpackers through the same tunnel that he experienced such horrors in, but if he was struggling, his face didn’t betray him.

After the Tunnel of Hope, it was time for some food, and so Al took us to a no-frills local diner, where we all tucked into greasy böreks stuffed with feta cheese, onions and potato. Only when we were full did he lead us back to the minivan for our next stop: the Sarajevo Olympic Bobsleigh Track.

Built for the 1984 Winter Olympics, the Sarajevo Olympic Bobsleigh track is now a popular tourist destination and favourite spot for skateboarders. It only takes 5 minutes to walk from the top to the bottom but it is a pretty cool experience (and there are plenty of good photo opportunities!). I was especially amused by the ‘Fuck Trump’ graffiti there – turns out that you can’t even escape The Don at an abandoned bobsleigh track!

sarajevo olympic bobsleigh track

Truck Fump

sarajevo olympic bobsleigh track

Never thought I’d be posing on an Olympic Bobsleigh Track

Al then drove us way up into the mountains and into the Republika Srpska. For the historically ignorant (like me!), the Republic of Srpska is – to put it bluntly – where shit went down in the early 1990’s. Al visibly became very tense as we drove along the winding roads up Mount Trebević, the first symptoms of distress that he’d shown all day. He told us all to make sure that we had our seat belts fastened, not to ensure our safety, but because the police in the Republika Srpska see him as a war criminal and will find any excuse to pull him over. He told us of how his brother-in-law, a Serb, receives special treatment from the police in the Republika Srpska, but Al, like many other Bosnians, must exercise caution when in the area.

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“It’s funny, whenever you ask anyone here what they were doing in 1993 or 1994, they were never here. They were all travelling through Australia, or the USA, or Canada,” he laughed dryly.

Lighting up a cigarette, he continued.

“Yeah, nobody that lives here now was around during the siege. It’s funny that, considering nobody was living here, there were a hell of a lot of bullets being fired from these hills.”

We’d stopped at the side of the road at an incredible viewpoint overlooking the entire city of Sarajevo. My blood ran cold as I realised that it was precisely what made this spot a good viewpoint that made it so deadly.

republic of srpska sarajevo

Sniper’s point in the Republic of Srpska

“They weren’t all professional soldiers, of course. Most were just ordinary guys, people with jobs and families who would drive to this spot on a Saturday afternoon, fire some shots into the city, kill a few children and then go back to their families in time for dinner.”

Shrugging, he took some homemade rakija from the car and poured us all shots into tiny plastic cups.

“You can’t be bitter though. I’m not. Now let’s drink.”

We grimaced as we swallowed the rakija, gladly accepting the cans of lager that Al handed to us. “Just enjoy your drinks, take some pictures, enjoy the view and then we’ll head back down.”

mount trebevic, republic of srpska

mount trebevic republic of srpska

republic of srpska sarajevo

As we sipped our cold beers overlooking the city of Sarajevo, I realised just how much I’d fallen in love with this country. Never had a place touched me as much as Bosnia and Herzegovina had, not only for its beauty, but also its utter strength and resilience. It would be easy for people like Al to be bitter and twisted, but he genuinely seemed to have forgiven the Serbs for the atrocities they inflicted upon his people, and it was remarkable to see.

After we’d finished our beers, we made a quick stop at the Old Jewish Cemetery, which is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe, before going on to the White Fortress, or Bijela Tabija, to watch the sun set and enjoy the magnificent views of Sarajevo. Bijela Tabija is a popular spot for locals to hang out and drink, and as we stood on the edge of the fortress, watching the sun set on the horizon, I couldn’t help but think that it was the perfect end to a perfect day.

white fortress sarajevo

View from the White Fortress

white fortress, sarajevo

white fortress sarajevo

Want to know more about my time in Bosnia and Herzegovina? Read about my first impressions of the country here

Accommodation: The hostel that I stayed in (and booked my tour with Al from) was called the Balkan Han Hostel. Beds are £9-10 and that includes a free shot of rakija on arrival, free tea and coffee, and free Wi-Fi. You can book your spot by clicking this link.

white fortress sarajevo

The crew. Al is in the back, with the dark hair.

Disclaimer: this page contains affiliate links. This means that if you make a purchase on one of the sites I recommend, I may make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

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    Lynne Nieman
    September 16, 2017 at 12:59 pm

    Wonderful post! I think it’s important to learn about the bad as well as the good. Great share.

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    September 16, 2017 at 7:57 pm

    Really interesting post. It’s pretty cool to have a tour with someone with that experience. Great pictures too!

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    Tayo Jaiyesimi
    September 18, 2017 at 8:44 pm

    I like how you share the details of Al’s story, it brings your exploration of this place alive. A huge part of travelling is really and truly to take in the country’s history!

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      Travelling Jezebel
      September 19, 2017 at 4:00 pm

      Yeah, I felt as though we all gained so much more from visiting Sarajevo by meeting Al than we would have done otherwise! Thank you!!

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    September 20, 2017 at 9:02 pm

    What an amazing post! Al sounds like a really remarkable man. Your pictures are beautiful and it looks like you had an incredible time! Thankyou for sharing.

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