People often ask me “what kind of job do you have that lets you travel so much?" And I often begrudgingly have to tell them that I am an employee of the United States federal government. Why begrudgingly? Well, you see .... Americans of just about all political persuasions tend to have a very poor view of federal employees. It almost seems like a tried and true national past time to skewer civil servants, Democrats and Republicans alike. We're perceiving as lazy, mindless, useless, tax-soaking SOBs. Whether that's true or not is something you'll have to decide for yourself because this blog isn't for my political opinions nor is it a space where I defend or indict my fellow Feds.
But I will say this - while not perfect, I actually do like parts of my job. The pay is relatively low for what I could get for my skill set in the private sector but it comes regularly and consistently. The paid vacation time is generous enough that I can travel enough every year to sate my wanderlust. And as corny as it sounds, my career goal has always been to help people and at the end of the day I close my laptop with a sense that I'm doing good. These are things I find valuable in a career.
Another less obvious but equally valuable thing I like about my job are all of the interesting people I work alongside. With so many people previously serving in the military, the Peace Corp, or various other unique jobs, the Federal service is a crossroad of fascinating individuals and my office is no exception to that rule.
Take Tom instance. When I was first hired into the civil service, he was one of the more experienced individuals in my unit who helped train me and showed me the ropes. Fast forward ten years and he's now one of the senior managers in our office. Prior to his time in our dark and dank little office space, Tom served as an foreign aid worker in Sarajevo during and after the Bosnian War. It was a time in his life that left a huge impact on his life, and he often shared stories of his time in the city during lunch breaks or business trips. Of course when he heard I would be making my way through the Balkans a few months ago he made sure to stop by and give me some tips on things to eat and potential places to visit during my few days in Sarajevo. When I returned we shared some conversation about my impressions of the city and my inability to find most of the places he recommended due to the rapid changes the city had gone through in just two decades.
I thought that was the end of our Sarajevo connection until two weeks ago when I came into the office and found five old postcards sitting on top of my keyboard. I slowly flicked through them and realized each one featured a photo from Sarajevo during or immediately following the war. Knowing Tom had to be the source, I swung by his office to ask him why he'd left them with me. With gusto and a smile (and if you know Tom, that's him at all times) he replied that he had been cleaning his office, ran across the postcards, and instead of throwing them out he figured I would enjoy them. I considered this for a moment and thanked him for his thoughtful gift.
I went home that night and pulled the postcards out of my backpack, slowly sifting through each one again. I recognized each of the scenes pictured on the front of the faded, glossy cardstock from my adventure just a few months back. As I stared down at each one I marveled at how much Sarajevo looked exactly the same and yet how much it had changed. It dawned on me that Tom (and others) may find it interesting to see a side by side comparison of his postcards with photos I had taken while exploring the city. Not thinking much about it, I quickly put together a sloppy Facebook post with some rather poorly constructed side by side comparisons. it generated a lot of likes and comments but I still wanted to do something a bit more indepth and detailed, which brings me to the purpose of this post.
What follows are each of the postcards that were left on my desk and a few photos from my trip to Sarajevo in July of this year that shows the exact same locations or scenes.
Vijećnica (City Hall)
Originally completed in 1894, the Vijećnica served as a government building until 1949 when it was given to the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Designed to mimic the Islamic art and architecture styles of Spain and North Africa, the building stands out in Sarajevo's old town core due to its size and scale.
While serving as a library it became the target of Serbian forces during the Siege of Sarajevo. The shelling was heavy and destructive, causing the loss of the collection and severe damage to the interior of the building. In the postcard above, you can see the missing glass and battered condition of the building as a mother walks with her child on the far side of the river promenade.
What does the outside of Vijecnica look like today?
Fresh paint, new glass, and home again to Sarajevo's City Hall government offices. The building still has all the Islamic charm of the past but appears vibrant and regal due to extensive renovations funded by the governments of Austria, the city of Barcelona, and the EU. In my opinion it's the most impressive building along the riverside as you stroll through the city's old town.
Considering all the city has gone through, the Bosnian flag hanging over the building's entrance is likely a bittersweet symbol.
Vijećnica Interior (City Hall)
The same building as before, but this time the postcard features the destroyed interior of the current City Hall and former library of Sarajevo. As you can see, while the exterior of the building was a bit beat up and tarnished the interior fared far worse. Reports from the Siege of Sarajevo note that several library staffers attempted to save as much as the collection as possible from the heavy shelling with one individual even losing their life. The postcard really showcases the extensive damage done inside the building.
So what does the inside of Vejećnica look like now?
Quite the transformation, right?
The crumbling bricks have been repaired and plastered over, paint now gives a glow of soft pastels and intricate detail work catches the eye from every nook and cranny. Where empty holes once stood, high arched frames now encircle the central atrium. A beautiful stained glass spans across the ceiling, shooting colored beams of light into the space below.
In addition to serving as a government building, Vijećnica now hosts rotating art exhibits and also has a medium-sized ballroom on the second floor.
Holiday Inn Hotel
The Holiday Inn in Sarajevo became a bit of an infamous landmark during the war as it was the housing location of and the hub of work activities for foreign journalists that were covering the war. Despite being filled with non-combatants, the hotel was a target for various reasons and the postcard above shows the bullet-riddled and crumbling face of the hotel as seen through a hole blown through the wall of a nearby building.
So does the Holiday Inn still stand in Sarajevo today?
Yes, but it's no longer a Holiday Inn. It's been repaired and rebranded as the Hotel Holiday. There's even an attached conference center to host events and festive cafe seating around the base of the hotel for leisurely coffee sipping or light snacking. Quite a change of pace from the besieged building in the postcard, though online reviews of the new hotel aren't exactly positive.
Don't be fooled by the fresh paint and new stone work though as the renovations weren't as extensive as you'd expect. If you look carefully at the exterior of the building, you can still see the pockmarks of various bullets all over the concrete core of the building.
Unlike some of the other landmarks in the postcard set, the Latin Bridge's claim to fame starts a bit further back in history to the start of another war. World War I to be exact.
On June 28 of 1914 ,Gavrilo Princip went to Sarajevo's Latin Bridge and assassinated Archduke Ferdinand, heir apparent of the Austro-Hungarian empire. This event was the major catalyst that resulted in the explosion of the first World War. In the postcard the bridge is shown with civilians and military personnel traipsing across its snow covered walkways with a few buildings in rough shape behind it.
What does the Latin Bridge look like now?
The bridge looks largely the same but the buildings across from it have changed a bit. The facelift includes a bright new paint job for the building on the corner which is now a museum detailingthe Austro-Hungarian rule over Bosnia.
Other than the occasional tour group wandering by to snap a few photos before moving on with their tour of the old city, the bridge is actually a very peaceful place to spend a bit of time gazing at the river. Considering the bridge's prominent role in so many wars throughout Sarajevo's history, that's a bit disquieting.
Unlike the other four postcards, the last one didn't picture a landmark of the city. At least not in the traditional sense. Sarajevo's trams were installed during the Austro-Hungarian era as a pilot program for the lines that would later be laid in Vienna. When first installed the trams were pulled by horses, though over time they were updated to run on the electric cables which now crisscross the city.
So, what do the trams of Sarajevo look like now?
Quite modern and updated for the most part! Sarajevo now has six functional tram lines that spiderweb across the city. Most trams only consist of two cars - well, at least all the ones that I seemed to encounter while exploring the city.
While the trams have largely been updated with newer carriages you can actually still find a handful of the older cars from the pre-war era roaming the rails across the city. I always loved when one of the old cars would rumble past me as I was out wandered. They really add an element of history and nostalgia to the city.
Sarajevo was genuinely one of the most interesting cities I've visited over the past few years. I arrived at the airport with little idea of what to expect from a city whose name I had only heard mentioned in conjunction with war. What I found was a city that's clearly still coping with the enormous loss and rift that occurred two decades ago, and yet is also allowing itself to grow and blossom as a vibrant city during its recovery. I'll be (hopefully) writing a few more posts over the next few months about my experiences in Bosnia because this post really just lightly skimmed the surface of what I saw while visiting this often overlooked corner of Europe.
Till then ... happy travels!