It is over a decade since I was last in Sarajevo. When I look back on it now, that journey in the early winter of 2001 was something I had been building up to ever since I had watched the scenes from the city and elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia unfolding on our teatime television screens during my teenage years. It was to become a major part of my studies, both during by BA and MA at the University of Leeds, and during my university years I made my first trips to some of the countries that were once part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and which culminated in a bus ride from Zagreb to Sarajevo which will live long on my memory. Here is something from my notebook, written in Berlin after the trip was over:
The two men stand across from each other, separated by the sixty-four squares of their battlefield, their knee-high soldiers awaiting instructions. The game has been progressing for some twenty minutes, and even to untrained eyes it is the older of the two who has the upper hand. He is relaxed, continually joking with the band of spectators gathered around the outdoor chessboard, rejecting advice with a wave of the hand, barely contemplating the situation before making a move. His opponent, younger and dressed in a suit, is quieter, his energies focussed on the game. But it is all to no avail, as age and experience finally triumphs. Checkmate achieved the victor takes the congratulations of the onlookers as he re-sets the pieces, ready for the next opponent.
Alen, the young manager of our guesthouse and guide around the city streets of Sarajevo smiles at Kevin.
“Are you still sure you want to play?”
“Yep. But not today. I need more time.”
“We’ll come back tomorrow,”
Alen says this with a smile, but Kevin looks serious. He is already playing one of many games in his head, warming up for the challenge of the old chessmen of Liberation Square.
We leave the square to continue our tour, Alen pointing out the spot by the river where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was felled to launch a world war, and the reminders of a more recent conflict that engulfed the city and the region. As we walk I ask Alen about the siege of 1992-95 that made this city one of the deadliest places on the planet.
“I wasn’t here,” he says with a shrug. “I was studying in Germany when the war broke out, so I stayed and waited for news from my family. I hoped for the best Now in his mid thirties Alen returned to his hometown in 2001 to help his aging father run the small guesthouse in the Turkish Quarter of the city, a handful of rooms and a courtyard which echoes with the call to prayer when it sounds from the mosque across the street.
Much of the destruction that was visited on the city during the siege by Serb forces during the Bosnian War has been cleared away, but even if the city has moved forward there are still traces. Occasionally you come across the odd pockmarked façade where snipers thankfully missed their target, and the shell craters filled with red concrete – known as Sarajevo roses – which you find throughout the city centre, a memorial to those killed, and a particularly poignant reminder of how deadly life became during those dark years.
Liberation Square stands at the heart of Sarajevo, in the shadow of the Orthodox Cathedral, close to its Catholic counterpart, and not far from the Jewish Synagogue and the Muslim Mosques. This city has always been a meeting point of peoples, a cosmopolitan city that stands on a European fault line that has left it at the heart of most of the conflicts fought on the continent. Sarajevo was both an example of the “Brotherhood and Unity” of Tito’s Yugoslavia, and one of the victims of the bloody collapse of Tito’s vision.
“It was not our war,” Alen says simply the next morning as we stand in the square and wait for Kevin’s turn to play, “The war came from outside. It is the Bosnian curse to be caught in the middle. If only they would have left us alone.” Opinions of the causes of the war, of who were the criminals and who were the victims, are varied in this part of the world, but Alen’s version of events seemed to be popular amongst many people we met during our time in the city.
Finally Kevin gets his chance, pushed forward by Alen to grins and light-hearted mocking by the old men gathered around the board. His opponent, a small man with a flat cap gives a small wave and indicates Kevin should take the first move. He strides forward with confidence and lifts a pawn by the top, swinging it two squares forward.
It is all over quick, and checkmate comes with a minimum of fuss. Kevin’s plans, however well formed, were not enough. His opponent steps forward and thanks Kevin with a shy smile and a shake of the hand, before he turns to face the next opponent. Kevin steps back from the board to a sympathetic pat on the back from Alen.
“Don’t feel to bad,” he says as we watch the next game begin. “They’ve been playing all their lives. They would have played out here during the siege if they could. It’s no disgrace to lose to them. Come back in a few years and have another go. They’ll still be here.”