Stories from Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina
Stories of War:
Images of mortar fire, machine guns, burning buildings, and civilians running through the streets flashed across the video screen as the Chamber Choir and their traveling companions sat huddled in a basement refuge at the Tunnel of Hope Museum during our tour of Sarajevo. After a few days in the city, many of the locations in the film were familiar-- the mountains surrounding the city where heavy artillery rained fire on the people below; the battered facade of the distinctive, yellow Holiday Inn where we are staying, which was built for the winter Olympics in 1984 and was the only hotel in Sarajevo to remain open throughout the siege from 1992-1995. As the footage came to an end, our guide Ilda turned to us and said, "Perhaps now you have had a sense for a few minutes of the what life was like for us living here for three years during the war."
How vividly first hand accounts can bring history to life. Though many of us had read about the history of this region in preparation for this trip, the stories we have heard, the places we have stayed, and the people we have met are what make it real. Our guide in Osijek described how she was one of only two students left in her school once other families had sent their children away to neighboring countries for safety during the Serbian occupation. In Sarajevo, our guide Ilda was seven when the war began and spent much of her childhood living in a basement with 18 other people, knowing that any trip outside exposed them to the possibility of sniper fire. At the small Tunnel of Hope Museum, we had the privilege of meeting the man who, at great risk, donated his house and his land during the war to serve as the exit for an 800-meter long tunnel that allowed people to move secretly from the city of Sarajevo to get food, medical supplies and light weapons from the adjacent free Bosnian territory—a humble hero’s story that moved many of us to tears. Later that evening, after the Proctor Chamber Choir sang a concert with the student choir from the Sarajevo Music School, their professor reminded Kris that most of those students were born during the conflict. Each of these first hand accounts adds dimension to our understanding of the character, complexity, devastation, and human resilience of these people during a time period that is within our own lifetimes.
The last few days have been filled with experiences that help us develop deeper understanding for this region of the world and the conflict that Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina experienced as they struggled for independence in the early 1990's. Once we left Zagreb, we traveled east to the Croatian region of Slovonia, the fertile farmland of the Pannonian Plain. During our visits to the border cities of Osijek, the fourth largest in Croatia, and Vukovar, a hero city of the "Homeland War," we began seeing signs of both devastation and recovery. Shells of brick houses in ruins next to recently rebuilt homes with fields freshly tilled and laundry drying in the sunshine. After a moving visit to the site of a mass grave at Ovcara, where over 200 civilian men, women and teenagers were executed, the Chamber Choir transitioned within minutes to performance mode, singing in a Church which had been leveled during the war and was just restored last year. The emotion was still fresh in their voices as they filled the space with music as part of the Church's preparation for Lent. The next day, after a smooth border crossing from Croatia to Bosnia & Herzegovina, we entered the snow-covered mountains and drove into the city of Sarajevo down wide boulevards lined with graffiti-covered buildings in ruins next to restored, glass-windowed business towers. The scenery, architecture, sense of welcome, and integration of religions (Muslim, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish) that made this city a perfect site for the 1984 Winter Olympics are still evident everywhere. In the oldest district of Sarajevo, Bascarsija, you can stand at a crossroads between east and west. Looking to the east, the curving, cobbled street, built during the Ottoman Empire, is lined with mosques and Turkish-style buildings accented with intricately carved wooden forms. To the west, the Austro-Hungarians expanded the city by building taller, grander buildings in the baroque style. Though the city of Sarajevo was 80% restored within two years of the signing of the Dayton Agreement in 1995, evidence of war and devastation is still evident throughout the city in memorials, street roses (mortar holes filled in with pink tinted cement), and crumbling buildings. The government has decided to leave some buildings in ruins as a memorial and reminder so that the people of Sarajevo and the world will never forget what happened here.
As we each ceremonially sipped the spring water flowing from the kiosk in the central square, we understood its magic—anyone who drinks from this spring will soon fall in love with Sarajevo.
Transcending language barriers, Grace and Hannah laugh with their new friends at the Roma youth center.
Western commercialism shrouds the central fountain in the baroque square of Vukovar.
Olivia takes a moment at the Ovcara memorial, the site of the mass grave of over 200 people executed in the Homeland War.
Singing in the recently reconstructed Crkva Gospe Fatimske in Vukovar, Croatia.
Gathering for a delicious lunch at Strossmayer Restaurant in Osijek, Croatia.
The group gathers in the lobby of our hotel, the Sarajevo Holiday Inn, where international journalists stayed during the war.
Amanda walks through a section of the tunnel that served as Sarajevo's lifeline during the war.
Kris and the Chamber Choir team up with local students for a Master Class with a professor at the music school in Sarajevo. A hole through the wall serves as a reminder of the destruction of war.
Ruined homes and businesses show the scars of war in Vukovar.
The view across the Miljacka river shows the beauty of Sarajevo's Turkish architecture and mountainous landscape.