A City that Doesn’t Forget: Sarajevo Thirty Years after the War

Jul 8, 2022 by Sundus Al-Bayati

Sundus Al-Bayati is the 2019 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.

As I sit in my Sarajevo rental and reflect on how the Bosnian War, thirty years ago, made this place the way it is, the view of the green hills unfolds before me, dotted with colorful gabled houses that ascend the mountain until their red-tiled roofs touch the blue sky. A magpie stands on the utility line that drops down to a neighboring house. Sarajevo is a city shaped by nature. Its growth followed along the Milijacka River in the valley of Bosnia. The urban history of Sarajevo, defined by the Ottomans, the Astro-Hungarians, and socialist Yugoslavia flows along this east-west axis so that the architecture of each period lines up distinguishably next to one another. Looking up, I thought about how these same picturesque mountains that surround Sarajevo and its residents lent a convenient position for shelling and bombing the city for three-and-a-half bloody years during the Siege of Sarajevo in 1992–1995. The war claimed the lives of 11,540 people.

view of city
Figure 1. View of Sarajevo from my window

aerial city view
Figure 2. View of Sarajevo from the Yellow Bastion

cable car
Figure 3. Sarajevo Cable Car has been transporting passengers from the old city to the mountain Trebevic since 1959.

Figure 4. Red line shows the territory controlled by the Bosnian Serbs during the Siege of Sarajevo. Image from the Tunnel Museum.

“It was not a civil war. It was an invasion.” These words by our tour guide stayed with me. He drove me and three other people around Sarajevo recounting the history of the Siege and his own personal experience fighting against the Bosnian Serb forces that surrounded his city. He was sixteen when he joined the Bosnian Army. His older brother was killed fighting the Serbs. When we arrived at the Tunnel Museum, the location of the 800-meter-long tunnel that was dug in 1993 to connect two Bosnian-held territories, encircled by the Serbian forces, our tour guide pointed out his brother’s name on a wall that listed the soldiers who died during the war. Our tour guide was a kind and humorous person, even when he was describing painful memories from his past after losing his brother or the long years he was in the hospital recovering from a war injury. But he still laments how the international community waited so long to intervene in Bosnia. He said the only reason the West didn’t try to stop the bloodshed sooner was because the majority of the people getting murdered were Muslims. The Western world just didn’t care for Muslim lives.

Tunnel Museum

Tunnel Museum

Tunnel Museum

Tunnel Museum
Figure 5–8. Tunnel Museum in Sarajevo. A “Sarajevo Rose” is seen on the ground at the entrance.

Reconstruction as Memorialization

I am thinking of Lebbeus Woods again because his contentious theory of postwar reconstruction, portrayed in his infamous provocative drawings where ruins from the war are preserved and integrated in new construction, as a reminder of the war experience, were specifically proposed for the reconstruction of Sarajevo after the Bosnian War. Woods’ theory was problematic for a lot of academics, architects, and residents of war-torn societies who saw that people might not necessarily want to be reminded of the traumatic experience of war on a daily basis. Maybe Woods’ proposal was impractical in its architectural form and implementation but its theoretical basis, that the experience of war must be marked and remembered, is not so different from how Sarajevo memorializes the war in its urban landscape. It is not possible to walk anywhere in the city without being confronted with the wounds of the siege. It is like the city has become a museum to the atrocities of the Bosnian War expressed in different forms and scales of memorialization.

First, there are the symbolic structures that were built to commemorate the victims of war, which often lists their names and ages, like the Memorial to Children Killed during the Siege of Sarajevo in Veliki Park across from the BBI center. In the same park, there is the sculpture, “Nermine Dodi,” that recalls the Srebrenica genocide through the story of Ramo who was calling for his son, Nermine, to come out of hiding. Both father and son were executed by the Serbs after they were reunited. The walls of Kovaci Sarajevo Memorial are assembled from bricks that carry the names of the soldiers in the Bosnian Army who were killed while fighting the Serbian aggressors. Second, there are the large number of graveyards and cemeteries that stretch all over Sarajevo and recall a time when a lot of urban parks and even playgrounds were turned into burial sites to accommodate the increased number of bodies that fell every day for nearly four years. In the vistas of green covered hills and red roofs of Sarajevo, patches of white tombstones distinctly render the city’s landscapes. Lastly, there are the physical scars from the destruction and violence that constitute so much of the spatial experience of Sarajevo, seen in the bullet holes that decorate many of the city’s buildings or in the pavements, etched by the “Sarajevo Rose,” where explosions from mortar shells were filled with red resin to mark the locations where three or more people died. It’s hard to walk in Sarajevo without remembering the war, because eventually you’ll step on a “red rose” or walk by a bullet-scarred wall.

Figure 9. Lebbeus Woods’ speculative drawings on reconstructing a typical apartment block in Sarajevo. Images from: https://lebbeuswoods.wordpress.com

statue of man
Figure 10. Statue “Nermine Dodi” in Veliki Park, Sarajevo

Figure 11. Names of the children who died during the Siege of Sarajevo in Veliki Park

names on wall

names on wall
Figure 12–13. Walls of the Sarajevo Kovaci Memorial carry the names of the soldiers in the Bosnian Army who were killed during the war


Figure 14–15. The Martyrs’ Memorial Kovaci Cemetery for soldiers in the Bosnian Army who were killed during the war

Image (16)

red splatter on concrete
Figure 16–17. “Sarajevo Roses,” sites where mortars exploded killing three or more people, are painted red and are seen all over the city

concrete building

building facade with storefronts

buildings behind cars in street

house on hill

concrete building with cars parked in front

cars parked in front of building

building facade

canal and high-rise buildings

apartment building

Figure 18–27. Bullet-scarred buildings from the war 30 years ago are a typical sight in Sarajevo.

Rebuilding a Divided City

When the Bosnian War ended in 1995 with the signing of the Dayton Accords, 65% of Sarajevo buildings were damaged and 80% of its utility infrastructure was devastated.1 The most drastic change, however, was the city’s demographics. Under the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the “Jerusalem of Europe,” as Sarajevo was called for its ethnic diversity, consisted of 44% Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), 32% Orthodox Serbs, and 17% Catholic Croats.2 Ethnic tensions and political divisions existed in Yugoslavia but were kept under control by Josip Broz Tito’s government, but following his death in 1980, a period of economic decline resulted in the rise of ethnic strife. In 1991, Slovenia and Croatia were the first two countries of the former Yugoslavia to secede. When the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina passed a referendum for independence, the Bosnian Serbs didn’t vote and boycotted its outcome. After Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence in 1992, Bosnian Serbs, supported by the Yugoslav People’s Army and the Serbian government, encircled Sarajevo and began shelling the city in what became the longest siege in history. The Croats, who first were on the side of Bosniaks, also began fighting against them. After the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement, Bosnia and Herzegovina was divided by the Inter-Entity Boundary Line (IEBL) into two major entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina where Bosniaks are a majority and the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska. The third territory is the small city of Brcko, which falls under both entities but is governed independently. Following the split of BiH, a mass exodus of Bosniaks and Bosnian Serbs took place across the IEBL, which runs through the Dobrinja neighborhood in Sarajevo and essentially creates two cities, Federation Sarajevo and East Sarajevo of Republika Srpska. Hence, Sarajevo emerged from the war divided, no longer the multi-ethnic city it once was and with a Bosniak majority that made up 87% of its population.

After a traumatic period of violence and destruction of the urban environment, the case of Sarajevo proves that post-war reconstruction becomes more than the physical restoration of services and repair of buildings. It is a process of bringing a city back to normalcy, to resurrect its pre-war spirit, which was the result of diverse groups of people living and interacting with the spaces of the city and each other. Sarajevo, however, was a different city after the war. How it was rebuilt and what was rebuilt reflected a new and more ethnically homogenous society, which in turn cemented those divisions in the urban form. In addition to the proliferation of war memorials and graveyards all over Sarajevo, there was a rise in the construction of mosques and churches in both Sarajevo and East Sarajevo, respectively. Esther Charlesworth concludes in her book, Architects Without Frontiers: War, Reconstruction and Design Responsibility, that postwar reconstruction in a divided city has the potential to either resolve conflict or lead to more conflict.3

people walking with shops on either side
Figure 28. Old Town of Sarajevo

white building with green dome
Figure 29. The Academy of Fine Arts is housed in the only evangelist church built during the Astro-Hungarian period. It was destroyed in 1992 and reconstructed after.

building on hill alongside street

building on hill surrounded by white fencing
Figure 30–31. Mevlevijska tekija, built in 1492, was demolished for the second time in 1957. It was rebuilt in 2011 with the financial help of the Turkish municipality of Selçuk and through the Turkish Agency for International Cooperation and Development (TIKA).

people walking around covered fountain

view of dome with painted decoration
Figure 32–33. Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, the oldest mosque of its size from the Ottoman period in BiH

steps leading to building entrance

marble signage
Figure 34–35. Gazi Husrev-beg Library was rebuilt after the war by funds from Qatar

The flow of international capital into Sarajevo to aid in the reconstruction process also followed along political and ethnic lines and shaped Sarajevo according to the interests of these foreign countries. There were a lot of investments from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Malaysia to construct religious structures such as mosques and Islamic education centers.4 I was surprised by how many mosques there are in Sarajevo for such a small city and especially one that was under a communist government for a long time. Walking towards the reconstructed Ottoman mosque, Gazi Husrev-Beg, I passed by the Gazi Husrev-Beg Library. In front of the entrance, a marble plaque reminds the passersby that the library is a gift donated by the state of Qatar. The same international governments also led and funded the construction of office and commercial developments that dominate Sarajevo’s skyline such as the BBI Centar, the SCC, and numerous other shopping malls. These additions to Sarajevo’s cityscape were often built in a generic and globalist style that ignored the architectural context and local character of the city. The flux of foreign funds into Sarajevo, welcomed by corrupt local administrations, dictated how the city developed and they continue to shape Sarajevo’s identity even today.5 I didn’t expect that the moment I’d walk into the Sarajevo Airport, I’d be welcomed by an enormous billboard in Arabic of the Kuwaiti Injazat Real Estate Development Company. I see similar billboards hanging on some of the derelict buildings by the river, anticipating its future as a residential or commercial development, reading in English, coming soon. East Sarajevo was also shaped by investments from the Serbian government to build new churches and residential blocks, which can be seen in the Dobrinja neighborhood across IEBL.

street scene in front of shopping mall
Figure 36. BBI Centar, a shopping mall, part of a privately owned development that was built after the war to replace an iconic state-owned department store Robna kuca Sarajka that stood on the site since 1975

parking lot with modern building in background

modern angular glass skyscraper

street scene with modern glass skyscraper
Figure 37–39. Sarajevo City Center

street scene with church and modern buildings
Figure 40. UNITIC Twin Towers were heavily damaged during the Bosnian War but remained standing.


Urbicide and the Role of Cultural and Public Spaces in Reviving a War-torn City

Sometimes a city is destroyed in the process of warfare, as cities often are the battlefields, and sometimes the purpose of destruction is the city itself for what it embodies of the cultural and social values of a place. The term “urbicide,” violence directed at a city, came into popular usage to describe the destruction of cultural heritage of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War.6 While the Bosnian Serbs who encircled and shelled Sarajevo from the hills increasingly targeted its Ottoman heritage like the destruction of Sarajevo’s biggest mosque, Gazi Husrev-beg, the bullets fell indiscriminately all over the city, with an emphasis on cultural sites.7

One of the most symbolic images from the Bosnian War was the burning of the Sarajevo City Hall, the celebrated neo-Moorish structure built during the Astro-Hungarian period in 1891 to house the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The library held 2 million volumes including rare manuscripts and national archives. Other than a small number of books saved by heroic librarians braving sniper bullets, almost everything was reduced to ashes in the three days the library burned.8 There is an iconic photo of the Bosnian musician Vedran Smailovic playing his cello among the ruins of the city hall that captures the psychological trauma of violence directed at erasing places of shared cultural and national identity. Today, the entrance to the city hall is inscribed with these words: “on this place Serbian criminals in the night of 25-26. August.1992 set on fire National and University’s Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Over 2 million of books, periodicals, and documents vanished in the flame. Do not forget. Remember and warn.”

bridge over canal with pseudo-Moorish building in background

plaque on pillar

building detail
Figure 41–43. Sarajevo City Hall

The Oriental Institute met a similar fate when the Army of Republika Srpska shelled the building, burning one of the richest collections of Islamic and Jewish manuscripts and Ottoman documents in the region.9 The Olympic Museum, which is a symbol of one of Sarajevo’s most celebrated periods, the 1984 Winter Olympic Games, was one of the first to be bombed during the siege after it was hit with projectiles. The museum reopened in 2020, almost three decades after the war. The Bosnian Serb forces were so determined to dismantle Sarajevo’s cultural institutions that, once these buildings started to burn, sniper fire followed to prevent people or fire fighters from possibly saving the structures or their contents.10 It is like the Serbs wanted to cleanse Sarajevo of anything that they perceived to be historical evidence of non-Serbian existence and past.

view of two-story building from parking lot
Figure 44. The Olympic Museum

view of museum from parking lot
Figure 45. National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Foreign financial aid shaped Sarajevo’s postwar urban identity as urban programs and priorities of reconstruction were determined by external actors and organizations. International intervention in the restructuring of Bosnia and Herzegovina began with the Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnian War in 1995 and continued through the appointment of a Higher Representative of BiH that was granted substantial powers to make laws and lead the political and economic transition of the former socialist country into a democratic and free-market state. International aid organizations, notably, the World Bank, European Union and United States Agency for International Development (USAID), to name a few, led the recovery response in Sarajevo during and after the war.11 While the recovery plans were successful in restoring infrastructural functions in a short time, the early stages of reconstruction neglected the value in reviving destroyed cultural heritage and their importance for restoring a sense of normalcy for residents that allows them to reconnect with their city, especially when the cultural symbols of Sarajevo were precisely under fire from the Bosnian Serbs.

view from cemetery overlooking city

deteriorated stone marker

deteriorated headstone
Figure 46–48. The Old Jewish Cemetery is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe and was on the front line during the Bosnian War. It was shelled and heavily mined by Bosnian Serbs.

abandoned building covered in graffiti

abandoned building overlooking city
Figure 49–50. The abandoned restaurant Osmice was a sniper position for Bosnian Serbs overlooking central Sarajevo

The postwar plans also lacked a holistic urban vision or a masterplan for the development of Sarajevo. The flow of foreign aid went to fund local cantons and municipalities but the lack of coordination between donor funds and local programs created redundancy and corruption, which was exploited by political elites to issue illegal construction permits that eventually led to the neglect of cultural institutions and destruction of public space in the city.12 The example of Sarajevo illustrates the significance of the symbolic dimension of postwar reconstruction: the cultural and public spaces of the city where diverse groups of people and ideas co-exist define a city’s identity, and when reconstruction fails to understand the meaning in reviving spaces of cultural memory and co-existence, it risks deepening divisions and delaying the healing process.

abandoned building with sign reading "Coming Soon!"
Figure 51. Dilapidated building in Sarajevo awaiting its new future. SCC peaking in the background

abandoned building with trees growing out of it
Figure 52. Abandoned building overgrown by trees in Sarajevo

My memories in Sarajevo will always be defined by its natural landscape, even though those mountains also carry the scars of war, being the positions from where the city was shelled under the siege, and some still have unexploded landmines. But it is still the thing I found Bosnians to be most proud of. I understand, when your country becomes associated with war, it becomes the only thing people know. When I took a taxi to visit the Skakavac Waterfall, one of the tallest waterfalls in the Balkans, my taxi driver and I chatted about nature and inevitably the war. He told me he was 17 when he fought in the Bosnian army. He was shot by a sniper bullet as he was dragging the dead body of his friend to a safe shelter so he could give him a proper burial. A little later he was proudly showing me photos of his time in the mountains and recommending me places to hike in Bosnia. My tour guide, who lost his brother in the war, told me to “tell people about Bosnia.” So I am telling everyone who reads this to visit this beautiful country.

lush valley

rocky hills

view of hill from dirt path
Figures 53–55. Hiking to Lukomir Village

car alongside country road

country road with hills in distance
Figures 56–57. On route to Skakavac Waterfall



1 Gruia Bădescu, “Dwelling in the Post-War City Urban Reconstruction and Home-Making in Sarajevo,” Revue d’Études Comparatives Est-Ouest N° 46, no. 4 (January 2015): pp. 35-60, https://doi.org/10.3917/receo.464.0035.

2 Kotzen, Bronwyn. “LSE Cities Reconstructing Sarajevo: Negotiating Socio-Political Complexity.” LSE Cities Program, 2014.

3 Esther Ruth Charlesworth, Architects without Frontiers: War, Reconstruction and Design Responsibility (London: Routledge, 2006).

4 Gruia Bădescu, “Dwelling in the Post-War City Urban Reconstruction and Home-Making in Sarajevo,” Revue d’Études Comparatives Est-Ouest N° 46, no. 4 (January 2015): pp. 35-60, https://doi.org/10.3917/receo.464.0035.

5 Hadzimuhamedovic, Amra. “Culture-Based Urban Resilience: Post-War Recovery of Sarajevo.” UNESCO, World Heritage Center Web Page, 2018.

6 Robert Bevan, The Destruction of Memory: Architectural and Cultural Warfare (London: Reaktion Books, 2004).

7 Hadzimuhamedovic, Amra. “Culture-Based Urban Resilience: Post-War Recovery of Sarajevo.” UNESCO, World Heritage Center Web Page, 2018.

8 Riedlmayer, András. “Erasing the Past: The Destruction of Libraries and Archives in Bosnia-Herzegovina.” Middle East Studies Association Bulletin 29, no. 1 (1995): 7–11. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23061201.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Hadzimuhamedovic, Amra. “Culture-Based Urban Resilience: Post-War Recovery of Sarajevo.” UNESCO, World Heritage Center Web Page, 2018.

12 Ibid.

Load more comments
Thank you for the comment! Your comment must be approved first
New code
Comment by from