Bosnian roses: A conversation with a concentration camp survivor
Updated: Feb 22, 2021
I was on a long weekend trip. Bratislava(Home) - Bosnia(Mostar) - Croatia (Game of Thrones!) - Montenegro beaches- Bosnia (Sarajevo), all by cheap buses and hostels. Looked quite good on itinerary and in my head, though realistically the overnight bus rides and 3-4 hr long border crossings had gotten me super exhausted by the time I had reached the last stop on my trip, Sarajevo, the most unique capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Late night when I reached here, I totally fell in love with this little-big city. Small cobwebbed streets, outdoor cafes, old buildings with Muslim architecture, and beautiful mosques and churches; surrounded by hills around them like city walls. Also, super cheap pizzas at 11.30 pm! I had a good night sleep, with only waking up once when the guy on the upper bunk bed couldn't control his snoring. But with fresh head and empty stomach, I went out to explore the city.
After skimming quickly through the touristic parts, I went in a random direction where I came to a park where people were playing chess on very big boards on ground. Big as in, you need both hands to lift each piece! The group was of 50-70 year olds, cheering and whispering quietly about the next prospective moves, or why the queen is still alive.. I met him there.
He was a thin and tall man, in his late fifties, with a happy, but tired, smile etched across his face. Clothes, like daily wear, like maybe he just came outside of his house for a minute and had decided to go for a walk. He looked at me, and I passed on a smile. He approached me and asked me where I am from, and what am I doing here. I did turn a lot of eyes in South part of Europe (brown guy wandering around in unknown parts of town) so this was not new for me. He was very interested in my work and my travels, as he used to travel a lot too when he was young, and we became acquainted very fast! He used to be a travel guide before, so he offered me to show around his city. I won't deny, I did think this was all an elaborate ruse to get a potential client (me), that's why he is getting friendly? I said, I am a poor student and can't afford a personal guide, so he said no tips are required, we can just hangout and I will show you around, and if I feel like it, I can pay him something by the end.
If you have attended any 'Free tours' in any European city, basically this was that, where at the end you give some tip of your choice to the guide, and you get nice information and 2-3 hr long tour of the city. This was just exclusive to me. I was like, ok I will see, and if there is some kidnapping attempt, I will just try to run, I guess. So, I said ok, but first I want to eat something.
He took me to a small street-side restaurant run by a friendly middle-aged woman. They knew each other, so he asked her what vegetarian stuff they have for me (ya, I do face that issue sometimes lol). I was adamant on trying something local, so she gave me a pumpkin pancake, which was super tasty! Also, she kept giving me until I was full!
Then our tour started. We walked around and he told me about the city and its history. I will try to summarize it here in simple words:
Once upon a time, there was a country called Yugoslavia, which comprised of 6 major nations: Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. In 1991, due to political and ethnic tensions, Croatia and Slovenia declared independence, which was quite smooth as they were mostly religiously homogeneous. But in Bosnia, there existed Catholic Croats, Orthodox Christian Serbs, and Bosnian Muslims. So when Bosnia declared independence in 1992, the local Serbs didn't like it, and with the help of neighbor Serbian armies, they laid seize on Bosnia. For almost 4 years, this war went on, where around 12,000 people died, including around 1600 children, just in Sarajevo city.
"No one was allowed to go out for more than 1400 days," he told me. "They had stationed all these crazy snipers in these buildings, and you would get shot if you step outside."
"What about you? Did you go out anytime then?" I asked.
"Yes, I used to kind of a rebel as a youngster. I had been shot 3 times." he said. "I was very lucky that I didn't die, my family was not so much. All my uncles, brothers, and children in family died during that war."
I was so shocked to hear this. We had never read about this war in school, and even if there was some mention of it, this was the reality of it, that you cannot learn from a school book or a Wikipedia page.
"You see those hills over there? There were shooters and artillery stationed all over there. Every hour you would hear bombs and mortar shells. Going out in fear of being shot had become a norm. The buildings are still riddled with bullet holes, as you can see."
All the buildings in that area were full of bullet holes and scars, which looked like they can fall any second now. An average of 329 mortar shells rained daily on the city of Sarajevo during that seize. There were holes on the grounds where mortar shells and grenades had exploded, giving the spot a 'flower-like' resemblance. After the war ended, these holes were filled with red resin.
"We call them Sarajevo roses."
He took me around, showing the shops, old schools, university, places he spent his childhood and young age in. "Life was still going on. There were schools and classes running in the basement. I even attended an underground rock concert one time! There were actors who founded Sarajevo War Theatre, and it is said that they performed more than 2000 underground plays during the war We were not going to give in so easy to this torture. We had to be strong."
He showed me some unique art installations, and a bridge where the archduke of Austria, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated, initiating World War I. "We have a relationship with wars," he said coolly.
"It was a bad time. We can try to look at it positively now, but there were very few reasons to smile back then. We were trying to survive, and that's when they opened concentration camps."
"Concentration camps? Here?" I interjected, shockingly!
"Yes, people think that they were just during the Nazi regime in Poland and Germany, but they were a dirty secret of wars all over Europe. Some you know, most you don't. I was taken to a camp when I went out to get some food for my mother."
"No way, that's so wrong, why did you go out at all if this was happening?" I asked.
"Why shouldn't I? It is my country, my city. Who are they to stop me from walking in my own home? I wouldn't take all this nonsense. You better shoot me in the head than trying to hold me inside.."
He got quiet for a minute.
"That's when they took me to the camp and threw me in with other hundreds of people in a small room."
My heart was full. "Can you tell me something about it?" I asked hesitantly.
He got very quiet. His eyes filled with tears and horror, and he was trying to control not to break down in front of me. "It was very bad. We had to sleep in each other's shit and pee. People died of hunger and rapes. Daily someone was dying around me, sometimes they won't take the body away too." He choked. "I can't say more, sorry. All I can tell is, when I went in I was 92 kgs, and when I came out, I was only 23 kgs," he added with a heavy voice.
We walked in silence for some time. My head flashing with all the images from movies and internet about the Holocaust and extermination camps, and here I was walking with a real person who spent his time in such inhumane conditions. Someone who saw all this in real time and survived it. It was really heart wrenching. It is really easy to fight each other and go to wars, much easier is to hide behind computer screens and yell obscenities on social media platforms, but in reality we should understand that we are very privileged to not have seen such horrors in our lives. We have a roof on our head, food, water, and good education, but there are people in this world who can only dream about such exclusive things. Thus, we should appreciate them and each other.
An interesting thing happened then. While walking, we bumped into an old lady, who was from his neighborhood. Very friendly face with lines telling the stories of her life, she gave me a smile, and tried talking to me, but couldn't since she didn't know English, neither I knew her language. She chatted with my friend for some time, and later gave 2 coins to me (2 KM or Marks. 1 KM = 0.5 Euros). I refused, but my friend nodded from behind her, so I took them and thanked her (we hugged..). When she left, he told me that she thought I was a refugee here, and she wants me to have nice coffee. It was so beautiful and kind, I kept them in my wallet, and I still have them for luck. Whenever I see those coins, it reminds me of the good in the world.
We sat down by the Miljacka river and chatted for few times, and shared some laughs. Before saying bye, he told me, "My whole life is gone now, most of it just trying to rebuild it. But I am not mad at what happened to me. The people were helpless and the soldiers were following orders, I don't blame anyone. The time was bad, that is it. I wish my oppressors well too, and I hope they just let me be in my own world as well. As they say, Live and Let Live."
As I turned back towards my hostel, there was only 1 picture in my mind. The picture of the Sarajevo roses. Do the roses depict the pain and torture of the war, and all the suffering that was caused? For me, the real Bosnian roses are survivors like these, the one who went to concentration camp and still smiles, a restaurant owner who made sure that I didn't leave hungry, or a random old lady who gave me 2 Marks for a coffee. They didn't lose faith and gave up on life even after experiencing such horrors. These roses depict hope for me.
Check out more pics from my Bosnia and Herzegovina trip here.