War is hell, and so was my tour of Sarajevo

I was expecting a basic political and geographic overview...

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The Independent Online

I’m in Sarajevo for a couple of days and rather nervous that my visit will get me my passport confiscated by David Cameron when I get home. I am not here for any nefarious purposes save for a spot of Dark Tourism. Ever since, as a schoolboy, I read about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, I’ve longed to visit the Bosniac capital. Admittedly, it took me a long time to get here, but this wonderfully evocative city does not disappoint in the slightest.

Sarajevo is Dark Tourism Central as it not only has the assassination narrative but is also tragically defined by the three and half years of being besieged by the Bosnian Serbs in the early 1990s. If I were ever to besiege a city then Sarajevo would be high on my list of choices. A long, thin city, it sits in the valley of the river Miljacka and is surrounded by high mountains. It was from these that the Serbs shelled and sniped the city mercilessly.

To get a better idea of what went on I chose one of the many tours on offer. They all have names like, “The Unfortunate Times Tour” or “The Siege Saga”. I chose one at random. This was a big mistake. I was expecting a basic political and geographic overview of the situation along with some personal anecdotes of what life was like in a city under siege. What I got was a man in a van. Fouad, our guide, seemed cheerful enough as he drove us up a hill for a “top good view of city”.

Once there, we disembarked and he started to talk, and talk … and talk. It was never-ending, mostly unintelligible and gloriously uninformative. After a while my ear tuned into more of what he was actually saying. “So this there … is house … with roof … over there is other house … also with roof ….” I waited patiently for the siege significance of this explanation, but none came. “If you can see on hill over there? Is many houses with many roofs ….”

I looked around for hidden cameras. Was someone getting their own back on me for my studiously repetitive Bruges guide character, the one who went on endlessly about all the “windowsh?” I couldn’t see any cameras so I turned my attention back to Fouad who was now weeping for no discernible reason. “So many houses …,” he wailed, “so many roofs ….”

I tried to ask about where the Serb guns had been but he waved me away. He was in mid-flow and did not like to be interrupted. “So many houses … and roofs and … buses ….” I got the giggles but, as I was surrounded by heavily bearded tourists whose passports David Cameron would definitely have confiscated, I kept a poker face.

Our guide finally ushered us back into the minibus and we drove to another hill where, once more, we all stood and stared down at the city.

“Can you see the houses … and the red roofs … so many red roofs?” He looked around at us in a concerned manner and we quickly nodded our assent. I think the actual siege might just have been easier to bear than this tour. It was certainly shorter.