Prague or Sarajevo? That was the question my wife and I had in Budapest. Bosnia made me nervous because to me it represented war and atrocities. But over a decade had passed since the war, so with hesitation, we left for the Balkans.
The journey was 10 hours by overnight train and it was an uncomfortable, sleepless experience. We shared our compartment with three large English girls who put their dirty bare feet up on their bags as they slept. Their big toes were the size of plums.
During the latest hours of night, when one is naturally uneasy, grumpy Croatian and Bosnian border guards brashly slid open our door and demanded our passports. I looked out at the dark countryside of northern Bosnia and felt butterflies in my belly. Srebrenica was close, and demonic things -- the murder of thousands of men, women, and children -- had happened there not long ago. Even places without evil in their past can appear eerie and unwelcoming in the wee hours of night, and I yearned for sunrise.
During those anxious hours I could not have imagined an innocent little child named Azamina existing somewhere out my window.
We arrived in Sarajevo before dawn to an empty platform. A few people got off, and the train soon vanished into darkness, its wheels screeching like a million frightened piglets. It would enter Serbia, and eventually Greece, a place I knew, a safe place where cruise ships disgorged hordes of fat Americans and their nagging wives. The people who got off with us disappeared and we were left in silence in an unknown country where, in my mind, the perpetrators of genocide would soon be waking.
In the lobby, our footsteps and the buzzing of the lighting were the only sounds. We paused, disoriented, not knowing our plan. A woman sat reading a newspaper, and a man standing behind the counter of a coffee kiosk called to us in slow, effortful English. Can I help you?
We told him our guesthouse's address. As we did, the woman appeared. She spoke to the man, then she turned to us and said, thank you for coming to Sarajevo, before kissing us both on our cheeks. Come, I will help you.
The man gave us free cookies and thanked us, and we followed the woman outside. She said she would call a taxi, and almost instantly one arrived. She then said she would call our guesthouse. She kissed both of us again, and within 10 minutes, at no charge, we were greeted warmly by an elderly woman at the door of our hillside guesthouse. The sun was rising.
I felt ashamed for debating if we should have come to Bosnia - for thinking it a monstrous place. I realized that people who have suffered the deepest are also the most generous and humane. The countries that I have cherished the most, that I have been the most welcomed, are always those that I was discouraged from visiting.
There are few cities in the world that are more beautifully located than Sarajevo. Mountains draped in dark green pine forests frame a valley that contrasts its surroundings with the bright orange shingles of its inhabitants' homes. Many cities overwhelm nature with their human growth, but Sarajevo seems to belong in its mountain valley no less than the trees.
The old Turkish Quarter is the historical center of the city, where cobblestone streets and alleys lead to cafes that serve yogurt drinks and thimbles of strong coffee. It was not uncommon to be embraced by merchants. Bascarija is packed with artisans working with copper and bronze; some have turned old tank shells and bullet cartridges into items like lamps and chairs. Nearby is the obscure Latin Bridge where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, triggering WWI, without which WWII could never have occurred.
There's also the New Town, where chic shops sell Parisian style, and the youth of Sarajevo wear expensive jewelry and drink three-euro lattes. Here you can see the mixture of the old and the new, the religious and the secular. Teenagers kiss vigorously on benches while old men nearby play chess. Christian churches, Jewish temples, and Muslim mosques are neighbors.
But the war is still evident. Some people hobbled about on one leg. Most buildings were covered in bullet scars; some remained piles of rubble from Serbian artillery. Sarajevo Roses, the so-called scars left behind by mortar impacts that resemble roses, are common on the roads and sidewalks. Some are colored pink and are preserved as memorials to those killed by them. Many have plaques nearby listing the names of the lost - shocking that a scar two feet across could claim more than twenty human beings, people who were out at the wrong time, getting groceries, crossing the street, taking their children to school.
A guide who led us through the countryside explained that a quarter million had been killed during the four-year Serbian siege, yet in the end, it took NATO mere days to end it. Shame is with those who have the power to act, but do not.
While showing us the shattered and scarred gravestones in a cemetery, another tourist was aghast that such disrespect could be shown to the dead, and our guide said, Respect for the dead? How can you respect the dead when you have no respect for the living? Snipers killed people attending funerals here, mothers holding babies in their arms.
Perhaps not wanting to end our tour on a morbid note, he told us that during a siege, it is very important to have plenty of books:
You know War and Peace, by Tolstoy? Very good book for the Winter, burns for hours.
And finally there was Azamina, the name that represents Bosnia to me. Too often we think of places as geographic locations, separate from those that live there. But a place is its people, a collection of human beings no different from the one you see in the mirror each morning. Azamina was but one.
Azamina was a pretty little girl, one of many children we saw on their own in Sarajevo. She approached us asking for money, which we gave.
While in Sarajevo, we met her on the street near the fountain in the Turkish Quarter each day. She came to lunch with us, giggled over ice cream, and my wife took her shopping for clothes. Azamina didn't speak English well, but we learned that she was an orphan and lived in a community home. The siege of Sarajevo would have been nearing its end when she was an infant, and I imagined that perhaps her mother had been killed, or she had been abandoned during the chaos -a common story in Bosnia.
When we left the city we embraced Azamina, said goodbye, and boarded a bus. With Sarajevo behind us, we remained silent, not sure how to feel.
Bosnia is a beautiful country, full of kind people - a place I highly recommend. But villains do lurk. Many young girls who have no protection and no parents are taken by the soulless, promised riches and security in faraway lands, and are then sold as slaves to brothels in Turkey, Russia, Asia, and beyond, where they remain trapped and forgotten, suffering in silence.
I often think of Azamina and I hope that she has grown into a happy young woman. I hope the villains of mankind did not find her. I hope she still lives in her beautiful Sarajevo, is safe with her people, and has not been forgotten. And I often think of Bosnia, a bruised land that showed me more hospitality than I deserved.
John Salemme is a middle school science teacher in Billerica, Mass., where he lives with his wife Cindy and cat Bella. He has enjoyed both domestic and international travel to many U.S. states and over 50 countries. Contact John at email@example.com or visit his Web site at www.passportpossibilities.com.