The ride by public bus from Belgrade, Serbia to Sarajevo, Bosnia took us through scenic countryside and mountains and took the better part of a day. Although the country seemed beautiful and fertile, we noticed that many of the houses appeared empty. I’m not sure, but this may be a lingering after-effect of the Balkan conflict of the 1990s, or it may have more to do with recent economic troubles.
At last we arrived at Sarajevo, spectacularly filling a large, curving valley and climbing the steep, lower slopes of high mountains. We were eager to be done with this long ride! So we watched with dismay as our bus continued past the city, up a long hill, to the outskirts. We then had to pile into taxicabs to ride back into town. Our driver, a Bosnian Serb, explained that buses originating from Serbia were not allowed to use the (Bosnian) bus station in the city, but were required to use a Serbian terminal on the outskirts. Interesting. Later, we got some clarification; this is the policy of the Serbian bus operator, not something imposed by the Bosnians. Ah. Interesting.
Sarajevo has had some experience with tourists, what with being on the trading route from Persia and Turkey for a few millennia, and hosting the winter Olympics and all. It shows. We spent most of our time in the old quarter which, in spite of being “touristy,” felt quite authentic, with coppersmiths, leather workers, and cloth makers still working their crafts in the shops. The upper floor of the ancient caravanserai, where traders on the silk road could stay three nights for free while they rested their animals and negotiated deals, had been converted to offices and galleries, and there were no camels or horses tethered in the courtyard, but the main level was still home to shops selling Persian rugs and glass and restaurants serving Turkish coffee and traditional Bosnian fare.
For the first time on this trip, I felt as though I was truly on the frontier between the Orient and the Occident. At the time of the Olympics, in 1984, the city had a population over half a million and was 50% Muslim/Bosniak, 30% Orthodox Christian/Serbian, and 7% Roman Catholic/Croat. Things have changed dramatically since the war and the break-up of Yugoslavia. There was no official census since 1991, before the war, until late in 2013. As you might imagine, counting who’s left after ethnic cleansing might be fraught with emotions, politics, and dangerous implications. The results of this latest census haven’t been fully analyzed and released, but the estimated population of Sarajevo is now only about 311,000, and the population of Bosnia has also declined and shifted ethnically.
According to Wikipedia, the current demographics of Serbia break down this way:
The biggest ethnic group in Sarajevo are the Bosniaks, who with more than 230,000 people make up 77.4% of the city. They are followed by the [Bosnian] Serbs, of which there are some 35,000 (12% of the city), and Croats with a population of 22,380 (7.5% of the total population). 9,283 people (3.1% of overall population) are classified as others. They most likely consist of Sephardi Jews, and Romani, along with a small number of foreign workers and also Bosnians who come from mixed marriages and do not take either side as their own, other than simply ‘others’ or Bosnians.
The rest of the country is less dominated by Bosniaks, who probably comprise about 49% of the population.
On our second day, we went on a walking tour with a local guide. Our guide was a woman in her twenties—young, hip, and Muslim. She had lived through the war as a young child. She was five during the siege; she lost her father in that conflict. She insisted that her city was open-minded and open-hearted, multi-ethnic, -cultural, and –religious, and happy to be that way. The surrounding countryside, however, is another story. There are ethnic groups—the Bosnian Serbs, for example—who were left without a country to call their own, surrounded by people who were enemies during the war. But if they moved to Serbia, they would be at the bottom of the social order there. Our guide was hopeful, though, that the current peace will last long enough that time and intermarriage will erase the nationalistic feelings.