BY MICHAEL GOLDFARB
Whenever you go on assignment you know you are going to make a packing mistake. Usually, you’re in a hurry and forget to put something important in your bag. Often the mistake doesn’t become apparent until you’re well into your trip … that extra pair of underwear would come in handy because you’re wearing the same briefs for the third day in a row and you are no where near a place to rinse them out and have them dry before hitting the road again.
Undoubtedly this availability of consumer goods contributed to my positive first impression of the country five years after the war ended. The ordinary sight of children playing happily was more important to that impression as was the considerable amount of reconstruction. But the relaxed look in most faces contributed to it as well – and I wonder if some of that relaxed look comes from having the basics available in the shops. Of course, you have to have money to buy the basics – but that’s another story.
I stayed at the Hotel Hondo on top of Bjelave, one of Sarajevo’s many hills. When I say Sarajevo is hilly I mean San Francisco hilly. This city hosted the Winter Olympics and sits in the midst of some serious mountains. The room I was given would have been perfect for a couple or small family in town on a pre-war ski holiday. It had a little terrace facing west over the city. The weather was fine my first evening there so I got a beer and sat outside and watched the sunset while listening to the Muezzin from the Mosque around the corner call people to evening prayer. Again, during the war to sit in this position would have been foolish, some of the hills I looked at were Serb territory and who knew what kind of gun might be trained on you. I looked around the hills and was awed by the silence.
While I was in town, a colleague who has been based in Sarajevo for a little over a year decided to do a bit of rock climbing. It’s her hobby and she had already found a climbing partner, a Slovenian working for the International Community. Her partner said he knew a trail in the mountains between Sarajevo and Mostar that had a great rock face at the end of it. So off they went. Somehow they missed the trailhead and found themselves walking through a meadow towards the rock face they wanted to climb. Halfway through the field they came across the police tape used to mark a minefield. It was torn so they had no idea where the mined area began or ended. All they could be certain of was they were standing in the middle of it. My friend had her cell phone with her and knew the number of a mine clearance worker. She was advised to stay put and a helicopter would be sent to get her out. Unfortunately, the first serious rainstorm of the autumn was brewing complete with thunder and lightning. It was several hours before the electricity storm abated and the chopper was able to get my drenched friend and her climbing partner out of the minefield.
If I could go back to Bosnia tomorrow, I would. Well, maybe not tomorrow, it’s the grotty end of autumn now and it rains or is foggy every day. But I would go back for sure in September, the best month of the year anywhere in the Eastern Mediterranean. Sarajevans are quite wonderful people: cultured, great conversationalists blessed with the wit and tolerance that comes from centuries of loving in a close, society of mixed ethnic groups. They are like a collection of Upper West Siders from Manhattan – except instead of being mostly Jewish, they are mostly Muslim. Someday I will simply go to Bosnia for pleasure. But I will not go hiking without a Landmine Group map.