I didn’t immediately realise how significant trams were to the city of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia & Herzegovina. While I was drawn to their eroded look, their tall windows and clearly visible commuters, I wasn’t aware of its history.
It was a local I had met at a cafe that told me that most of the trams were restored following the end of the Siege of Sarajevo in 1995.
The network itself was built in 1885 and was originally pulled by horses. Since then, it has become a pivotal aspect of the city: providing transport to the people of Sarajevo before most other European cities implemented the system. Sarajevo, despite being a testing ground for the Austro-Hungarian Empire that controlled Bosnia at the time, was one of the first cities in the world to possess this industrial innovation.
The trams that drive the six currently operating routes, serving the east-west link from Baščaršija (the city centre district) to the suburb of Ilidža, are a fleet from the Czech Republic, transported in the 70s and 80s, and another set of trams that were donated by the city of Amsterdam in 2008.
After learning of this history, I began to enjoy seeing the eclectic array of yellow, green and red trams as they passed by. But there was something else that drew my attention to them, the significance of which took me a month to truly grasp. It wasn’t the age-old system, or its vintage looking carriages, but the gazes of commuters staring out the windows.
At first, I thought these expressions were coincidental, that I’d only noticed a handful of people who commuted in the same fashion. But as I began to carry my camera with me, taking photos at every opportunity, I noticed a pattern; most people, if not all, carried an expression of sorrow. Like an item of clothing, it was part of their outward appearance.
In the essay ‘Far Away From Here’, Teju Cole wrote that:
A photo essay on London must have the Houses of Parliament or, at least, a red phone box, and one on Paris must include the Eiffel Tower. Rio de Janeiro is the statue of Christo Redentor. Entire countries are reduced to their metonyms. Kenya is a safari, Norway is fjords. And Switzerland is mountains.
I was sure that Sarajevo’s metonym was the famous Latin Bridge, where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. But as I began to think more about the city and its trademarks, it became apparent that every association, be it historic or present, was derived from war: The Sarajevo Tunnel. The Sarajevo Roses. The Sarajevo War Theatre. Even the famous Sarajevo Film Festival was initially created during the Bosnian War.
Time may have given these historic emblems a sort of romanticism but they were still derived from dreadful associations. It didn’t seem fair for such a beautiful place.
Founded originally by the Ottoman Empire in the 1450s, Sarajevo lies in a scenic valley in the middle of the Dinaric Alps. In Exodus of a City, the writer Dževad Karahasan describes it as ‘a city built in the Miljacka River valley, surrounded by mountains, enclosed and isolated from the world – cut off from everything external and turned wholly toward itself.’
While philosophical, this description is nevertheless a true portrait of Sarajevo. It’s beautiful because it’s entirely bounded by nature – living with it, not against it. On the hillsides that encompass the valley are the residential quarters called mahalas, where the locals live. In the centre, at the bottom of the valley beside the Miljacka River is the city centre, the Čaršija (more commonly known as Baščaršija) – full of cafes, restaurants, clubs and hotels.
More often than I cared to admit, this scenic beauty combined with its rich cultural and religious history was punctured by the burnt-out buildings, closed museums and barren railway stations. These scars were further emphasised by the clearly visible bullet holes on every street. They are everywhere, a constant reminder to residents and tourists alike of the siege that befell the city in the early 90s.
Thus, it became difficult not to feel some of these commuters’ sadness. I could understand why the people of Sarajevo carried this sorrow on their faces: the city’s past was difficult to avoid, let alone forget.
A year prior, when my wife and I first arrived in Europe, we visited Sarajevo for a week with my family. The short stay revolved around rushing through the highlights of the city; Baščaršija, Avaz Twist Tower, Park Princeva and Vrelo Bosne. After our brief stay, we were left with a viscid curiosity that we couldn’t be rid of – not in other cities, memories or conversations.
It became the place we yearned to understand more than any other. So in May 2013, we returned – this time not to be mere observers, but to become denizens of the city.
For me, the return was part of my pilgrimage back to Bosnia & Herzegovina. It had been 21 years since the war had exiled my family out of our homeland – I hoped returning to the ‘heart-shaped land’ and its capital would represent a cultural reconnection. A journey every Bosnian from the Diaspora eventually makes because the motherland lures you like a Siren. For my wife Carli, who grew up in Byron Bay, it was a chance to fully grasp the complexities of my family’s Bosnian culture, as well as live in a city that was nothing like where she’d grown up.
But as soon as we arrived, Sarajevo superseded our original intentions. Our prolonged stay, which at the end lasted four months, wasn’t about reconnection or experiences any longer, but a zealous desire to be part of the life of the city.
I began to take photographs, not for the first time, but for the first time in an attentive way. I had multiple cameras with me and would get lost for hours through the mahalas and streets. I became curious to the point of obsession – as not only was I looking to discover the metonym of this city, but also the metonym of my own heritage.
Over the next two months while my wife and I settled in our apartment in Bistrik, one of the oldest mahalas of Sarajevo, I’d spend a day each week photographing the tram commuters. I would walk about leisurely on the opposite side of the river to discreetly catch these candid glances; other times I stood at tram stops and waited. The thing that fascinated me was that people didn’t seem to mind. It’s almost as if they knew what I was after. I would get up close, wave at them, try and catch a smile – some did, but most of the time, they just stared blankly at some far-off point: a distant house, a pedestrian, a minaret, a crowd.
These faces, this sorrow, became the metonym my wife and I attributed to Sarajevo. The scarred physicality of city, the weighted expressions of its people were pronounced with sorrow; but the inner life of this city wasn’t. Once we understood its history and its place in the larger political context of Bosnia & Herzegovina, the sympathy we initially felt, dissipated. It became an object of admiration in our eyes. A true picture of resilience.
And it came at us like a verse. It’s not that the city is arranged in metrical rhyme, but once we found the slow and serene beat of the city, once we met locals, made friends, visited galleries, started to drink coffee the traditional way; for hours, we realised that the city stirred up something deeply emotional and lyrical in people. Poetry, said Robert Frost, is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found its word.
This is what Sarajevo felt like. An epic with wisdom at the end of every line.
Images by Ennis Cehic.
You can read other photo essays in this series, on Barcelona, Venice and Suhaca, at New Travelist.