The first time I was in Sarajevo was back in the cold winter of 1994. We flew on a military plane from London to the town of Split in Croatia. Our journey began that same night in the back of a lorry crossing the frontline through the mountains of Bosnia. We arrived at a checkpoint on Mount Igman just a few miles away from the city to meet up with the UN forces. We loaded our musical instruments onto a few Armored Vehicles and entered the city of Sarajevo.

I was 20 years old at the time and the drummer in Bruce Dickinson’s band. We played a rock show for the people of this besieged town. A moment of normalcy during a cruel reality a few can imagine. A memorable experience that forever changed who I am as a human being.

The war in Bosnia has quickly become a forgotten theater. Not many know the facts leading up to the conflict, and most people never really cared. It became a tedious story, relegated to mid ranks of newspapers and an occasional mention on news channels. Once the ‘shock and awe’ visuals of Yugoslavia’s horror was over, the region was, again, relegated to a passing moment in history that the world and many politicians would rather forget. The odd war crimes arrest or trial barely made the news, and was quickly swept “under the rug”.

In December of 2014, twenty years later, I finally returned to Sarajevo for the filming of a documentary about that crazy adventure I was a part of. As my flight was about to land I started getting a little nervous because I had no idea what to expect…

It was a cold foggy morning just like that winter of 1994. I was welcomed at the airport by a few friends and off we went. That bombed out, destroyed place I remembered from those 1,348 days of siege had been rebuilt. Sarajevo now looked like a normal city. You could still see the occasional scars of war on some of the buildings, but for the most part life seemed to be back to normal.

The streets were busy and filled with people going about their day; kids coming out of school; women carrying groceries to make lunch; an old man smoking a cigarette waiting for the bus; stray dogs roaming the street, teenagers playing with their iPhones….

Sarajevo, where East meets West, the “Jerusalem of Europe”, a vibrant city founded by the Ottoman Empire in the 1450s upon its conquest of the region. It is the only major European city where you can find a Mosque, Catholic church, Orthodox church and Synagogue in the same neighborhood.

I fell in love with this place and its people. Bascarsija, the old part of town, takes you back in time. Tiny streets full of coffee shops, restaurants and small local boutiques. The pavement is dressed in cobblestone and late at night you can hear your footsteps echoing though the streets. The smell of spices and coffee fills the air…The call for prayer in the morning sounds like a sweet lullaby from the distance.

When you go to Sarajevo what you experience is life at its fullest. If you get bored in Sarajevo you must be mad.

Everyone in Sarajevo is a professional coffee drinker and world champion cigarette smoker. I spent 3 weeks roaming the streets with my camera, bonding with the locals, and listening to their crazy stories. I too “smoked like a Turk”.

The food is truly delicious…. Burek, Cevapi, and Musaka, just to mention a few will keep you full and happy…..

I made more real friends in Sarajevo in such a short time than I have made living in Los Angeles for the past 10 years!  Its people make this place truly special. They have jokes for days, will drink you under the table, and are incredibly kind. Many nights I found myself at some bar drinking way too much Sarajevsko Pivo,engaged in some real deep conversations (in between jokes) till the sun comes up. I also came across some real talented artists.

I find that the best art always tends to blossom out of conflict. War can make you wiser and if you use that wisdom in a creative way something magical always happens. It’s “wisdom beyond wisdom”. At least that’s the way I see it. There is a real sense of community among the people of this city. They tried to divide them in the 90s and didn’t succeed.

Walking around Sarajevo with a camera in hand is a real treasure. Each face tells a story, each building tells a story, the mountains surrounding the city tell a story. Standing on the corner that was once the site of the assassination of the Archduke of Austria (that sparked “World War I”), transports you back to a different time.

I wanted to document and experience “the recovery” by talking to as many people as possible. I also wanted to heal some of my own personal scars from 20 years ago.

Laughter is the best possible cure. These Bosnians really know how to have a good time. One day I went from teaching a music class at a primary school, to taking photos for an artist that makes clothes out of newspapers (Waste is Taste), to a New Orleans style brass band performing at this real funky , smoky bar called AG, to a crazy jam session with a legendary band from Sarajevo called Sikter. Every day in Sarajevo was a new adventure for me. My time there was a constant reminder that life must be lived at the fullest because things can change dramatically at the blink of an eye….. Enjoy the ride and make the best out of it. Go see this city.

If you take a look at Sarajevo at any time of day, from any surrounding hill, you will always inadvertently come to the same conclusion. It is a city that is wearing out and dying, while at the same time being reborn and transformed. Today it is the city of our most beautiful longings and endeavors and bravest desires and hopes.

Ivo Andric, writer and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature
New Travelist - Alex Elena

Alex Elena