From 1992 until 1996 Sarajevo was under siege. For 1425 days Sarajevans lived their lives while the army of Republika Srpska aimed and fired at the city on a daily basis. On an average day more than 300 mortar shells hit the city. But people could not hide in their homes for all that time, and even there you were not always safe. Life must go on, families needed water and food to survive. This war-food tour not only tells you everything you need to know about the siege but also about how people managed to get water and food and how they cooked their meals using whatever ingredients they could get. To top it off: a tasting of food made using authentic war-time recipes.
It is a cold November afternoon as I meet up with Balkantina’s guide Aldin, and a couple of other guests in front of the cathedral. At noon exactly we start with our tour and Aldin explains to us what happened in Yugoslavia during the nineties, how Bosnia was born and how Sarajevo was besieged. When Yugoslavia started having more and more problems, Slovenia was the first to declare independence in 1991. As a small homogenous country, they left fairly smoothly, while Croatia who left next in 1991 was attacked by the Yugoslav army, which at this point actually may be considered to be the Serbian army. In 1993 Bosnia was third to declare independence but other than the other former-Yugoslav countries Bosnia is a very mixed country. So in Bosnia, a part of the Serb population became part of the army of Republika Srpska, the army of Bosnian Serbs. They besieged the city with the help of Serbia after Bosnia declared independence. It is an extremely complicated story, well explained by our guide. He tells us about the politics, the daily lives and also the military strategies. For example, why was Sarajevo besieged and not just taken?
Aldin is looking at the open air market where only 23 years ago a shelling caused a massacre: 68 people would never come home after trying to get food and supplies for their families.
From this introduction, we move on to check a couple of sights where some significant events took place during the siege. We visit the closed and the open-air market place. Both of these places suffered shellings during the busiest time of day, which caused two massacres that would eventually contribute to the NATO forces bombing Serbian forces and ending the war. Aldin believes it is no coincidence that these places suffered attacks exactly at that time of day. There were people living in the city advising the military forces in the mountains surrounding Sarajevo when and where to shell. From the market place, we walk towards other sites of suffering, we visit the children memorial statue and a bridge where an important military action took place. In between, we take a break at Café Vučko, one of the few places that were open during the entire war. The name of the restaurant comes from another important event from 20th century Sarajevo: the Winter Olympic Games of ‘84. Vučko was the mascot during the Games, and images of him can be found throughout Sarajevo. It is a cosy place where we warm up with coffees and hot chocolates. From there we go to the Historical Museum where we visit the exhibition on daily life in Sarajevo during the siege. Here they have some authentic items on display like the devices people built for cooking, and what they used to carry water from for example the brewery to their homes. The last bit of the tour consists of a tasting. To start with we get a cup of coffee, then there are two snacks that could serve as a main course and even desert!
The coffee is made using chicory roots, as coffee was quickly no longer available during the war. Chicory roots were very expensive as well, but if Bosnia then is anything like Bosnia now, coffee is an absolute must. The coffee tasted good and was creamy and sweet. This was quite surprising to us as we joked that it could be sold for a lot of money as some healthy organic beverage in a hipster café in Australia. And sure enough, what happens when you google chicory roots? Immediately some blogs pop-up explaining the health benefits of chicory roots over coffee. The first main dish is hamburger patties made out of black beans and onions, as the meat was of course almost not available during the siege. The patties are very tasty and as a vegetarian, I have tasted much worse fake-meat. The second dish is the traditional pite or pie, but then made out of nettles instead of spinach. Nettles grow all over Bosnia and are thus a free alternative to other pie stuffings. It is not as tasty as the spinach stuffing but the fact that during this siege the mothers in Sarajevo were still producing pies is quite remarkable. Aldin tells us his mother would make pies stuffed with onions during the war, as they had a little garden they could use to grow some vegetables. Now the desert really topped our meal and tour. These cute little brown balls are made of oil, water, cacao and some sugar. If they were lucky they would have some condensed milk to put it. Though the recipe is simple, it works. We all have a couple of them, and we actually manage to finish all the food except for the Pite.
We had a great tour and a great afternoon learning all about the siege and the amazing survival skills of Sarajevans. Not only did we hear the stories, but we could also see authentic items in the history museum and taste authentic war-food made by Balkantina. But by having a break in café Vučko, a place which is significant to the siege, but also a symbol of a happier period in Sarajevo history: the Winter Olympic Games, we saw another side to Sarajevo history as well. Of course, the three wars of the 20th century were of great significance to the city and its inhabitants, but so were the happier times. Just as people now work towards a better future while not forgetting the past, both good and bad times. Having had the honour to meet Aldin and many other locals with a great love for Sarajevo, I have faith in their ability to take Sarajevo into a brighter future.