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Twenty-two Years Removed: Remnants of War in Sarajevo

After landing in Butmir Airport, we were greeted by an old man, our AirBnb host’s father. He spoke in good-natured clips of English, German, and Bosnian. He escorted us to his VW Golf, and we began driving into the city.

The airport lies in the western outskirts of Sarajevo, and our new apartment was located in the eastern section of the city, slightly above the old town of Bascarsija. This meant we were allowed quite an extended first impression of our surroundings. We passed old Balkan homes with Spanish tile roofs. We passed towering Communist housing, in drab, acidic colors. We passed walls crenellated by bullets. And then, it came up on our left.

It was an awesome, gruesome wound. A towering structure, reduced to a blackened frame of architectural armature: rusty iron protruding from the mostly annihilated brick and concrete coating. What remained was resurfaced by 22 years of graffiti. Bits of an initial pastel paint job peeped through the decades of abuse. I was shocked at how scorched, how evil this patch of earth seemed in the midst of an already grim environment. I naively thought I had already witnessed symptoms of war in earlier segments of the car ride; my mental log of scattered pockmarks in walls and windows. How wrong I felt, now gazing upon this monstrosity. This was the witness of war, the ultimate testament to all that occurred. This was physical, three-dimensional truth that overwhelmed beyond the capacity of my imagination.

And before I knew it, this haunted house was reduced to horizon, trailing behind the 50mph progress of our car.

Some days passed, but the building never exited my (or my companion’s) mind. We had to see it up close, to decipher its past function, to glean any answers that may be etched upon the remains. Luckily, the drive into the city exactly followed the Sarajevo tram tracks on Sniper Alley. My friend and I made a plan to ride the tram towards the western limits of the city until we saw this building, then exit at the nearest stop to investigate.

We made the trip on a Wednesday. We bought tram tickets from the nearest minimart, and we hopped aboard the westbound #3.

After about 30 minutes our destination materialized, this time creeping along the right side of my periphery. We exited at the stop called “Avaz,” crossed the street, and approached.

It had more depth than I initially thought, stretching far back into an overgrown grassy lot. Much was concealed behind the street-facing wall. There was an entire complex of deteriorating buildings. The newly-realized ones were damaged in a different way; less blackened, but more crumbled. They were faced in a rainbow array of pale colors, but grime and neglect coated this pre-war cheer, resulting in a sickly absurdity. Think Disneyworld post-mortar strike.

We made our way around the entirety of the plot. Everything was neglected, decaying. Trash littered the surrounding vegetation. Signs of squatters were evident in the dark interiors of certain structures.

At some point, we realized we had read about this assembly of ruins. This was the Rainbow Hotel, an old pensioners home. Later research confirmed this memory, and my friend discovered that this site was bombed before any senior citizens ever moved into the completed facility. In fact, the Rainbow Hotel provided housing for the UN troops early in the war, around 1992. You can watch a video of the UN being bombed at the Rainbow Hotel here.

As we made a full revolution around the plot, various pedestriations walked in and out of surrounding housing, hotels, and supermarkets. I cannot imagine living in a place where I would be confronted by this imposing remnant of war every day. It is obnoxious and painfully graphic, with its horrid contrast of playful colors and symptoms of shelling. Although, I suppose at some point it just becomes a part of the environment, as any sight, no matter how initially shocking, eventually fades into background.

After about twenty minutes, we made our way back to the train station. Finally, the mystery of the initial drive was solved. The most clamorous relic of war, the monstrosity on the southern side of Zmaja od Bosne was the ill-fated Rainbow Hotel. The pensioners home that never saw pensioners. The site of the UN’s dramatically disappointing lipservice to peace. The bright, hopeful colors cruelly coated in blasts and bullets. Out of all of the buildings that were destroyed in the siege, out of all of the destruction that has since been patched and restored, I really cannot think of a more appropriate remaining witness to the 90s, a more illustrative assembly to depict the timeline of the war.