Sarajevo memoirs

Now that the airport is open, and the skies are clear of trails left by NATO jets, and there are no more gut-wrenching sonic booms, there are no excuses - come and tramp the surrounding hills of the city often called "Planet Sarajevo". The town lies some two thousand feet up, cramped between the mountains. Bitumen roads wind their way up either side of town and eventually turn to gravel or goat tracks, and small communities appear - ideologically removed from the metropolis below. Three or four times a week I run through these hilly back streets. My usual circuit keeps my hamstrings taut and is great hill training, and the incredibly diverse scenery never ceases to provide a stimulating and astounding experience as well. If you want some running with a difference, then this is it.

I set off from my apartment block. About half a kilometre up the road is Kosevo hospital. In silhouette against the sky stands a giant construction crane which, as far as I can tell, hasn't been in operation for some years. Lying abandoned beneath is a half-completed wing of the hospital - evidence perhaps of the reduction in the population (many fled during and after the war - referred to here as the "diaspora"). Right opposite, a new service station is nearing completion. Like most constructions of this type, it's held together with bright stainless steel, glass, and fresh concrete - and with its cheery blue and purple colour scheme, is totally incongruous with the dull concrete shell across the road. A little further on I scoot past apartment blocks all dressed gaily with the day's laundry. One evening here I came across a wrecked car on the road - with mangled fenders, crushed roof, and no wheels, it looked like it had been dropped from a helicopter. More unusual, it was gone the next morning.

Another kilometre on I pass by The Harp, a local drinking haunt. This is the Irish bar here and is patronised mostly by the international community. There are some 5000 internationals here working for one mission or another - like the U.N, O.S.C.E, O.H.R, U.N.H.C.R, E.C, E.U, or the oddly non-acronymic, Red Cross (I suspect many of The Harp regulars have their own personal missions too supporting the A.G.F, the Arthur Guinness Foundation). Soon I pass the row of kiosks that offers Bosnian snacks like cevapi and burek. Delicious odours fill the air which often distracts me from my rhythm.

I'm warmed up now, and as I cross the river I notice the imposition of the Italian S-For barracks on the left that occupies what was once part of the front line. Barbed wire and sandbags still surround the area, and cheerless guards consider my flight as my vista changes dramatically. One hundred metres on the right a row of shelled out, bullet-ridden buildings, now only vaguely resemble people's homes. Here, alone with the devastation, I often feel a little uncomfortable and a chill ripples up my sweating back, which is at odds with the heat of my step. On the left side of the road grassy fields meander downhill until they meet the road that goes west to Tuzla. A large cemetery bears witness on the opposite hill.

A sharp right-hander and I'm at the foot of a winding 2-kilometre hill. Halfway up, the scent of apple blossoms fills the air and the freshness urges me to pick up my pace, but the steep climb has me going no faster than a quick walk. My calves are burning. Occasionally a herd of bemused looking goats wanders across my path. More apple blossoms. I am bewildered by the construction of a tiny hut that stands isolated and totally inconsistent with its surroundings (I am told later this is the beginnings of a golf driving range. The nearest course is two countries away, in Slovenia!).

I continue up and am now running along a winding lane with lush, verdant countryside. Heady scented pine groves and birds-a-chirping complete the picture. Apart from the occasional burnt-out car (more often than not a tiny Zastava - the Balkan Fiat 500), I could be in any country lane in Europe. At the top of the hill I fleet-foot right, and begin my return home. A quaint provincial village is crested at the apex of my run. As I startle chickens, scare cats, and rouse dogs, small children stand cheek-soiled and agog at my passing. Their mothers pay little interest as they hang washing or busy themselves in small vegetable patches. Old men wearing berets sharpen tools in their sheds or saw wood on the roadside. Anyone who catches my eye I acknowledge with a wheezy "dobar dan". The children smile and shout "ciao" and the animals go about their business. The odd basketball ring does little to contemporise this setting and a spectacular view of the Sarajevo valley and the mountains beyond greets me as I descend back down.

Soon I pass again the shelled and bullet-shattered remains of the houses that once served as cover for front-line Serbs in the years of the siege. At times I see a lone worker carrying timber or mixing concrete; a tiresome and unenviable undertaking to restore his former life.

Scattered, and almost covered over by the narrow thicket on the left side of the road, stand old and oblique headstones that bear reverential, but indecipherable epigraphs. The high side of a park slopes away on the other side. As I pass again the S-For barracks, I dart left through the park gates, its serpentine path leading to a forlorn zoo. Its unlucky inhabitants consist of a few rabbits, an odd assortment of wild and domestic fowl, and a large, sad looking bird that resembles a vulture. A pond in the centre of the park is home to a medley of ducks.

The park also serves as a children's playground, boasting a small-scale train that runs on what looks like a giant slot-car track - the whole thing about fifty metres in length. Situated between an uninspiring mini-golf circuit (soon to be renovated) and the pond, and looking like an ominous sandbagged cubby house, lies a bomb shelter. Its somber and muted colourings are in conflict with the cartoon themes that surround it. As I exit the park I scoot past a row of tulips almost too vivid so as to appear artificial. I spy a lone sentry in his Perspex and barbed wire attic in the barracks over the road. Large yellow signs warn "No photographs".

Back past The Harp and a few people are starting their liver assaults in the beer garden. Joyful school children giggle at my bare legs, which are an obvious sign of my foreignness. Past them, a hundred metres away in the valley, lies Zetra, the newly resurrected copper-roofed sports stadium. During the 1984 Winter Olympics this stadium enthralled Sarajevans and skating judges alike with the perfect symmetry of Torvil and Dean.

Towards home I sweat my way past the rising minaret of one of the many mosques being built with funds from a benevolent, and different Islamic world. And I pass the church of a different persuasion - the nearly completed House of Oil (signs on street-lamps around town normally heralding new exhibitions or upcoming music festivals advertise the new peacock-coloured edifice as if it's another cultural event). Several of Sarajevo's 1367 taxis (90% of them are Volkswagen Golfs) are parked at the rank across the road - their owners stand around in fervent conversations.

In my final uphill kilometre I pass by Breka - a huge arrangement of apartment blocks that looks like a sort of cream-coloured Battlestar Galactica. Finally, breathless but revitalized, I stretch and warm-down outside my apartment block while amused children look on. And once again I contemplate the incongruity and harmony that so much enlivens "Planet Sarajevo".

Next time you're in the tranquil Balkans and you want some serious hill training, or you just need a little change from your humdrum running routine, then pack your running shoes and come on up.

Credits - would like to thank the Toucan Track Club ( for the authorization to reprint the article "Sarajevo Memoirs" by David Jones.

Since September 7, 2007 - © Aerostato, Seattle - All Rights Reserved.

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