A handful of my family and friends expressed concern over my decision to spend a year teaching English composition and American culture at the University of Sarajevo. Three years of images broadcast from a city under siege have burned Bosnia’s capital into our minds as a place of blood and violence. This is hardly surprising because the former Yugoslavia has remained largely out of the media spotlight since the mid-’90s. Sporadic reports from the Balkans—an at-large war criminal captured here, a bombed-out historic bridge rebuilt there—show signs of slow, cautious recovery but give little sense of what the war-torn country looks like after 14 years of healing.
Day to day, my impressions are still biased by my status as a foreigner. A stroll along the dirty Miljacka River through the long Sarajevo Valley feels to me like a stroll through Bosnian history. The eastern-most neighborhood evokes a Turkish bazaar from the Ottoman period—cobblestone streets, ancient stone mosques, brightly painted fountains, and merchants in red-roofed stalls selling traditional food and elaborate metalwork. Farther along, taller buildings line the river and main street. The elaborate Austro-Hungarian architecture of their facades conceals modern businesses: an Apple store, a Benetton. An unassuming plaque marks the site of Archduke Francis Ferdinand’s 1914 assassination, which precipitated WWI.
Elaborate wrought-iron balconies and pastel paint eventually fade to monotonous gray blocks. The main street changes names to honor the beloved communist dictator Tito. An enormous stadium, built for the 1984 Olympics, sits across from a steep hillside crowded with apartment buildings and rusty funicular lifts. Merchants hawk fruit, vegetables, clothing, pots and pans in an enormous outdoor market.
Beyond this point, more shiny new skyscrapers appear. Twin glass towers, 21 stories, overshadow the famous bright yellow Holiday Inn that housed reporters during the siege. Streetcars spark along the main road, delivering passengers to former warehouse buildings turned superstores and car dealerships. Western influence has arrived here; occasionally, when I am feeling homesick, a visit to the well-stocked aisles of the familiar Target-like chain Merkator perks me up.
The war, too, is present on this geographic timeline, having left its mark on each neighborhood. Collapsed or gutted buildings stand on busy streets. Facades of most buildings remain pocked with bullet holes. Exploded shells have made flower-shaped impressions on sidewalks, some filled in with red resin to commemorate a victim, a Sarajevo rose. Dense makeshift cemeteries crowd the corners of parks, yards, even the grass around the Olympic stadium.
The war is also quietly present in my conversations with students and friends. Their stories follow a distinct timeline: before, during or after the war. My class discussions about American race relations prompt emotional comparisons with Bosnia. During the recent gas crisis, the country was without heat for two weeks, and several of my colleagues expressed feelings of post-traumatic stress, recalling the lack of heat, electricity and water that they endured during the siege.
The ethnic divisions of which my students speak are the most visible scar. Outright violence is rare, but postwar Sarajevo is much less diverse as many Croats have left and Bosnian Serbs tend to congregate in the suburb of East Sarajevo. Schools in central Bosnia are splitting along ethnic lines, in some cases separating students for ethno-specific lessons in history, geography and language. The newspapers report daily squabbles between the nation’s three presidents, as the Republika Srpska threatens to secede. There is peace, but not harmony.
My students frequently express either frustration or apathy, and some firmly believe in the eventuality of another violent conflict. It cuts me to hear this, but my daily dealings with the complex bureaucracy of the university have given me a taste of how difficult it is to accomplish change in the current system: an administration mired in paperwork and grappling with mandates for reform. While the European Union has a tight grip on the entire region and is keeping peace, progress is complicated and slow, and navigating problems requires boundless energy and dedication.
I complain about problems at school over coffee with my friend Larisa. She pours into my tiny cup from her steaming bronze pot, gently insisting that I’ve put in useless effort. “You must not—what is the expression—throw pearls in front of pigs?”
“Cast pearls before swine?”
“Yes, that’s it.” She spoons thick froth and sets down a bowl of sugar cubes, arguing that I should reserve my time and attention for the most deserving projects. “Some things don’t change, so you have to go around, over, under, like an ant.” We laugh as she traces a path around the pot with her wiggling finger. “And imagine other ways,” she says.
I sip my coffee down to the sludge at the bottom and trudge home through the wet streets, past the buildings of various eras. Sooty snow rings the sidewalks, but pure white blankets the roofs and treetops high on the surrounding mountains. This view never fails to remind me that I’m in a foreign place. And yet, I feel strangely blessed to be in the middle of it, experiencing the rich but wounded culture tucked into this Balkan valley, struggling on, away from the eyes of the world for now.