The walk to the Asim Ferhatovic stadium is one that truly gives the casual visitor a chance to understand the magnitude of the Yugoslav wars of the early 1990s. Although I was a young child at that point, I can still remember summer nights in Turkey listening to my father explaining to me the details of the war, taken from the black and white pages of the International Herald Tribune. On the way to the stadium you are surrounded by the alabaster white graves of thousands who lost their lives in a civil conflict so gruesome that Europe is still unable to come to terms with it.
The open areas leading to the stadium made me wary of unexploded land mines, even though I knew that this stadium has seen many visitors before me. It was the paranoia of a young college student, exacerbated by the pages of his Lonely Planet. At the time I visited I had already acquired my FK Sarajevo shirt from the Nike shop in town, but I’m still glad I visited. The graffiti on the walls of the stadium serves as this blog’s header, as well as the background on my computer.
The stadium, named after Bosnian footballer Asim Ferhatovic Hase, has a fairly large capacity of 37,500. It was built in 1947 but renovated in 1984 for the Winter Olympics, a time that Sarajevo was the centerpiece of a cosmopolitan Yugoslavia. For a more detailed account of my visit please see this travel writing piece, an excerpt of which is below:
Killing Fields and Playing Fields
In the morning Sarajevo looks different, less intimidating and more of the intimate provincial city that it is. Surrounded by hills from which Serbian artillery rained terror during the 1992-1993 siege, the city is a cozy enclave of Ottoman culture in the middle of the Balkans. At night it had felt different, more menacing and impersonal. On arrival, across from the bus station, I had been met with a bombed out building, its stones crumbling. It evoked the warning from my guide book-“Stay away from war-damaged buildings!”
I set out early, before the repressive mid-summer heat descended over the city, walking down the central boulevard Marshal Tito, named after the man who had held a fragile country together by a combination of romanticism and brute force—more of the latter than the former. The apartment blocks lining the street were scarred by bullet holes, a reminder of the hell that was the city in the early 1990s. On the ground were infamous “Sarajevo Roses”, scars left in the concrete from Serbian shells that are now filled with red paint as monuments to the civilians who fell, unwilling, into a conflict they had no control over. They were only pawns of greater powers, as those before them had been. Bosnia was involved in great power tug-of-wars since its early history; first it was a tug of war between the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires, later it was the Russian and Austrian empires, and most recently it was the destructive nationalisms of Croatia and Serbia.
I turned off the main street at the Gazi Husrevbey Mosque towards the outskirts of the city looking for the Asim Ferhatovic Olympic stadium, part of the Olympic complex built for the 1984 Winter Games. That was a time when Sarajevo was the multi-cultural centerpiece of Yugoslavia, a time when Yugoslavia received a much needed economic boost from hosting a global sporting event. The small football pitches around the main stadium were now mass graves, a silent yet startling reminder of the brutality of human beings. For as far as the eye could see alabaster white graves stood shining in the summer sun, each telling a separate story. Shaking off the morbid feelings, I hesitantly walked across an abandoned lot towards the stadium gates (again, heeding the mine warnings of my guide book). No one was present around the stadium, but I took pictures of the graffiti on the stadium walls—here I saw “Never forget-Srebrenica”, a reference to the mining town in Eastern Bosnia once known for its salt mines, and now synonymous with the massacre of thousands of Bosnian muslims masterminded by Radovan Karadzic and his cohorts. It was a telling reminder of the scars that still lay below the surface of modern Bosnia’s calm culture, a history with which the country is still struggling to reconcile itself.
After a few minutes of photography I headed back towards the city center to rest at the Sarajevo brewery, whose underground lake had provided water to the city during the siege by Serbian forces.
The next day I went to the Sarajevo Football Club’s offices and was directed by a friendly lady to a Nike shop in order to find my coveted soccer jersey. Everyone was friendly in Sarajevo, exceptionally so—I guess living through a civil war teaches you, in a strange way, to be a more civil person. The Nike shop itself was a testament to how far the city—and country—had come; Sarajevo was once a symbol of the extremes of human brutality, now it had successfully joined the world economy and—it seemed—could finally start to heal the wounds of the past.
Sitting at the Sarajevo train station that night, with jersey acquired, I waited for the nine o’clock train to Banja Luka, capital of the Republika Srpska. Apparently, I would have to get off at a town named Doboj and transfer. At least I understood as such—the ticket office knew no English, just German (a relic from the days of the Eastern Bloc). Sitting on a bench in the station I drank some beers, purchased with the last of my Bosnian Convertible Marks. All around the cavernous station backpackers lay on the cold floor of the station, some young couples, others groups. Everyone seemed tired, and eager to get on with their journeys. As I sat, a homeless man sat down at the bench next to me. His clothes were worn and dirty, and he was wearing a winter coat not fit for the summer. I assumed it was all he owned.
“Know Tito?” he asked.
“Of course, Marshal Tito,” I responded. How could I not know the man who kept this fragile place together?
“Tito,” he said, and continued speaking in Serbo-Croat, gesticulation at times explaining the glories of Tito. He knew no more English, just enough to explain the history of his hero. I wondered how many others would agree with his views. He pointed, as if to ask where I had come from.
“America good,” he responded.
“Bosnia is also good,” I told him. He didn’t seem to agree, but was happy I liked his country. I pointed at him.
“Sarajevo,” he said, indicating where he was from. When I left for the train he sat and waved, resigned to sitting on that cold hard bench in his city. For him the border was demarcated at the train station—it was as far as he could go, yet I knew he had miles to go before he’d sleep.
The bullet marks on surrounding apartment blocks remind the visitor of a recent past not easily forgotten:
The downtown building home to the offices of FK Sarajevo:
Sports play a secondary role to the monuments of those who lost their lives too early:
The small football pitches around the main stadium were now mass graves, a silent yet startling reminder of the brutality of human beings. For as far as the eye could see alabaster white graves stood shining in the summer sun, each telling a separate story:
My paranoia of unexploded land mines:
One of the best pieces of stadium graffiti I’ve ever seen:
The beauty of Sarajevo in the backdrop:
The stands as green as the hills surrounding the city:
Turkish football makes its mark at the restaurants in the city center. After all, the first match at the Asim Ferhatovic took place in 1954 between Yugoslavia and Turkey: