A wise friend and colleague once told me in my training that one should never return home to the parish church after a holiday and tell the folks how great it was to get away. That has always been in my mind, and I use it as a preface to my observations from a short holiday following Easter Day.
Having friends situated round the world in different careers and in different locations makes for relatively inexpensive vacations. After all the joyous Easter celebrations concluded the family and I set out to Sarajevo where we would stay with some old friends. It was one thing to meet our friends and see their expanding family; it was another to be in a truly foreign city. Sarajevo is a city that holds personal interest for me as I can remember tuning in, almost obsessively, to the CBC radio (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) broadcasts of the civil war and the UN peace keeping mission. It was at a time in my life when I felt truly between things having graduated from high school, yet still discerning a job, or further education. A friend who had chosen a career in the Canadian military was posted to Sarajevo as his first mission trip with the Canadian Armed Forces…he still does not talk about what he witnessed in Sarajevo. It is with this history and background that we touched down in Sarajevo.
One of the first things that hit me once we landed was the smell. Dragging a small carry-on bag through the parking lot to find the car of our friends was an assault to the lungs of an asthmatic. You could feel the dust and diesel pollution on your cheeks as you walked. Needless to say, not all is dust and grime…but there is a fair amount of corruption. Police were stopping vehicles with foreign license plates as we exited the airport parking lot. We were told by our friend that it was the end of the month and the police were looking to make their payments (aka bribes for mundane offences). I was glad we traveled in a car with diplomatic license plates.
As we drove down the chaotic street still referred to as ‘snipper alley’ there were old buildings full of gaping war scars beside gleaming towers of glass modernity. The stark differences in the scenery did not stop there.
For some, Sarajevo is referred to as the Jerusalem of Eastern Europe as you can find a mosque, a church and a synagog in close proximity. It was the first time I had travelled to a predominately muslim country, and the calls to prayer from the minarets had a peaceful quality to them as one could see a man standing on each pinnacle of the individual mosques. Despite this stated willingness to have different faiths living in one city, it was evident as to who were the minorities, as many veiled tourists roamed the streets, and as there are direct flights to and from gulf nation states. One synagog is now a museum, and the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches show the scars of war on the outsides of their buildings. The Roman Catholic cathedral has a ‘Sarajevo Rose’ on its front steps – an explosion site of a rocket propelled grenade that the city paints red as I reminder of the trauma and destruction of war.
A hilly city, our view point from the home of friends rested above the city centre, where honking, smog, and the howls of thousands of feral dogs rose up through the night; and peasants and beggars rang the doorbell in the morning. With a significant number of people unemployed there is another sharp division in the city of those who have, and those who have not. At one point in time as we explored the old shopping area of the city, a shinny black Mercedes G Wagon with tinted windows picked up some dignitary and sped off through the crowded streets like an abduction had just taken place. In a country with three presidents who govern for eight month periods, the stark differences, and I would say injustices, are brought to the forefront simply by looking at the vehicles, and armoury that is used compared to that of the everyday citizen’s experience of having trouble paying their electrical bills.
The trauma of war is still very present in the city where people stick to the sidewalks and children learn to identify what a landmine looks like in grade school. Yet, in the city where the street car was first run there is hope. The multitudes of people ride on street cars that were given by other European cities as part of the rebuilding. It will surely take more than a streetcar, or two, to bring prosperity and ongoing peace to this city, country and region.
With a short trip away it is with new eyes that I enter into my continued work and ministry in Freiburg. This morning the church leaders in the intercity met to continue our plans for Pentecost worship together. The backgrounds, languages and imaginations came together to plan how we might, as Christians, unite in worship on a day that celebrates unity in diversity.