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The Miljacka river, crossing the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, runs independently of what it witnesses. The low, blurred water, where hundreds of crows bathe, has seen the history of humanity take many turns on its shores.
We woke up in Sarajevo. The basement turned improvised accommodation is located in the old part of town. We woke up with the Muslim calling for the morning prayer. There are mosques all over the city – more than one hundred, we would come to know.
We woke up in Sarajevo and the biggest question on my mind was how to start writing about this place.
How can I translate to words everything that the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina makes us feel as soon as we step on these pavements? It will be the capital that impacts us the most on this trip, where the mourning contrasts with the life of the ottoman neighborhood, the stones on the endless cemeteries reflect the sun illuminating the entire city, where the statue of John Paul II in front of the cathedral encounters the Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide Museum, where the children’s laughter shakes the memories of the city that suffered inside the longest war siege since the Modern Age.
During the most recent war, at the beginning of the 90s, Sarajevo was under siege for four years and the people, the monuments, and the museums will remind us of that constantly, although it is a wound in which no one likes to touch.
Today the city is peaceful, in spite of the “endlessly unstable” politics, as explained by a merchant from the ottoman neighborhood.
Sarajevo is a salad of cultures, ethnicities, and religions. There are 3 main religions, 3 different languages with the same etymological basis, and two alphabets. The ethnicities are divided between the Orthodox Serbians, associated with the traditional Russian Church who, during the Cold War, was tendentially demonized by the USA; the Bosniaks, guided by Islam and its laws, attracting Muslims from all over the world to the inside of the Bosnian borders; and, lastly, the Catholic Croatians, who played a strong role in the country’s war.
“Here, there is no good or bad side, we were all puppets of international powers and we know it. I didn’t defend any nation, I defended my family.”,
tells us another merchant, who doesn’t want to be named because “all the walls have ears”, but who looks an awful lot like American actor Bill Murray. “I never wanted to know if my wife was Muslim or Croatian, we were all one. Sarajevo has never differentiated the ethnicity or religion of anyone, also because no one here is religious”, he tells us assertively.
Later, many locals would support this thesis. “We are Catholic, Muslim or Orthodox, but only in paper. People don’t go to mosques or churches. It’s all a matter of power: they say there are three ethnicities and three religions, and so we have three Presidents that can’t get along.” he explains. In Bosnia, politics is a complex game – there are three different leaders that take over presidency every eight months in a rotational system.
For centuries, Sarajevo was the frontier between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire.
The influence of both is felt on the streets of the capital, and the churches and mosques are only some of the remainings of both worlds. We glance at the square that unfolds in front of the door of the Emperor’s Mosque. Tourists are not allowed inside the mosque during prayer, but luck made us friends with Selim Hafiz, 55 years-old, responsible for the mosque. Selim invites us inside at 15:54h time of the first-afternoon prayer, which we attended.
Selim Hafiz is the muezzin of the oldest mosque in Sarajevo. His role is to announce to the whole city, without a mic, from the top of the mosque’s tower, that it is time to pray. During the war, he climbed the more than 90 steps to call the believers to pray every day.
“Bombs were falling, shots were being fired, but God never wanted me to be hit.”, says Selim.
“War teaches us a lot. My parents were Muslim by inheritance, but they never raised me to be religious. But then came the war. And the war changes everything”, told me a Muslim who only became one after being on the front line of war.
“I wish I could express with the right words what I feel inside to you. My heart is so happy to have you here!”,says Selim as he gifts us a masbaha, similar to a Catholic rosary with wooden little balls. I ask him about the entry of Al-Qaeda through Bosnia, about the Muslim extremism and how they see Islamophobia, a result of the propagation of terror by groups such as ISIS.
“Those people don’t represent us.”
“They give a title to their ideas and call it faith. Read the Coran and tell me where does it say that we are allowed to kill. We are not, no human being has that right. And if God is all-mighty, why would he sacrifice lives? They want to spread fear, and you know why? Because if you’re afraid, it is much easier to turn you against me. Without fear, there is no power.”.
The conversation goes on for hours until Selim, the son of the most famous muezzin in the whole Europe, who died at 84, says goodbye, his hands holding ours. “I will always have you in my prayers. Our jobs are similar – we spread the word for peace and love across the world.”
Photo Credit to Diana Tinoco