Benjamin Goffrier

Nearly 20 years after war, the cityscape of Sarajevo is still riddled with bullet holes and shelling craters in facades and pavement. These remains are the scars of Sarajevo.

If Sarajevo were a person, what would he look like? I imagine a man with slightly tousled black hair. The rough facial features would be accentuated by deep brown eyes that reflect a complex and spirited soul characterized by antagonisms with an ulterior melancholy. His charisma would attract many people with charming and warm base notes and bold top notes that make it easy for him to connect to others. His multi-layered and interesting impression would be amplified by tattoos and scars that mark all parts of his body. 

What stories would a man called Sarajevo tell you? He could speak about crazy parties, delicious food and interesting encounters. He could also tell you about his deep spirituality and how to combine modernity with a sense for tradition and coexistence. Or maybe he remembers hard times full of suffering caused by war; or talks about his despair, because he far too often feels stuck in his life and has a deep inner conflict that sometimes erupts in aggressiveness.

While a person is able to express one´s past experiences by telling stories, a city cannot. Usually, people are the ones telling the stories about a place. They do so by creating museums and monuments, they create narratives about the past and put it all in a certain frame until everything makes sense from their current point of view. There is another, more direct way of approaching the past, and one does not need museums or monuments to experience it. Just like a person, a city has its own body that has grown and changed over time. Just as grey hair or wrinkles can tell you something about a person, buildings and squares can provide information about a city’s history.

Nearly 20 years after war, the cityscape of Sarajevo is still marked by bullet holes and shelling craters: the scars of Sarajevo. Just as the scars on a human body tell us something about a person’s past, Sarajevo’s scars can reveal information about the city’s past. However, in order to understand the nonverbal language in which scars such as these speak, you have to change your mode of perception to notice all that remains around you. Otherwise, the scars will remain silent.



Façade on Maršala Tita

Many bullet holes and shelling craters are still visible. Outside of the city center, many facades have not yet been restored. These scars are the most visible remains of the Siege of Sarajevo that took place during the Bosnian War. Lasting 1425 days, from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996, it was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare.


Adjacent to the Catholic Church of St. Joseph, Maršala Tita

The scars vary in size and pattern. Sometimes, buildings are only punctured by only a few bullet holes. Other facades are heavily scarred by countless bullet holes and shelling craters. A variety of weapons were used during the siege, including mortars, tanks, anti-aircraft guns, heavy machine-guns, multiple rocket launchers, rocket-launched aircraft bombs and sniper rifles.


Hrason neighbourhood

The bullet holes and shelling craters that remain untouched provide insight into the destructive power that arms and weapons hold. Their pronounced appearance confronts the observer directly with the brutality of war.


Zmaja od Bosne, Čengić Vila


Zmaja od Bosne, Grbavica

Concealed Scars

Many facades were partially restored. Craters and bullet holes were filled by stones or mortar to protect buildings from further erosion. Even though these scars of the Siege have been covered, their origin is still apparent. In this way, the memory of the war is preserved while basic standards of restoration prevent the buildings from further damage.


Zmaja od Bosne, Grbavica

The sporadic coverage of holes and craters with mortar creates interesting, and sometimes bizarre, patterns. Some look like pieces of modern art while others could be associated with acne scars. The coverage could diminish the power these craters have to confront their spectator, and, as a result, the spectator must use more of their imagination to visualize the brutal origin of those scars.


Apartments in the city center


Čengić Vila II


Adjacent to the Catholic Church of St. Joseph, Maršala Tita

Scars Transformed

Some rare examples depict how bullet holes and craters were transformed for the purpose of delivering a specific message. In this way, citizens take ownership of their past by memorializing what remains of the Siege and by transforming it into something meaningful for the people of the present. Public space in this sense not only reveals something about the past of a city, but also provides modern impressions and interpretations of the city’s inhabitants.


Façade of the Bosnian Health Care Fond City Office, Zmaja od Bosne, Čengić Vila I

Sometimes, the scars are transformed in a way that amplifies the audience’s confrontation with the shelling craters. The above image shows a shelling crater filled with mortar and painted red to resemble the blood spatter that resulted from a deadly rocket shell. It is placed just to the right of the entrance of the Bosnian Health Care Fond city office.

The image can be associated to the “Sarajevo Roses”. The Sarajevo Roses are shelling craters in the pavement that have been filled with red resin [photographed below]. Each rose marks a place where at least three people have died. In a country in which the sites of atrocities often lack any kind of formal memorial to commemorate them, these transformed scars can serve as memorials for the victims of the Siege. However, due to construction work, more and more roses are disappearing. Some activists and organizations have tried to stop this from happening and, in 2012, the Sarajevo Canton signed a contract with a Bosnian company to reconstruct the “Sarajevo Roses”.


A "Sarajevo Rose"

Graffiti is yet another way people have transformed bullet holes. In some cases, graffiti is used to convert the negative impression left behind by the bullet holes into something positive, like for example when bullet holes turn into the smiling face of a sun [photographed below]. In other cases, bullet holes are ignored when producing a piece of graffiti, but the scars remain visible even though the power of their expression may be diminished. In this sense, the scars merely serve as a background on a canvas waiting for the creations of its future artists, while alluding to times past.


Façade in Hrasno neighbourhood


Façade on Maršala Tita

As a part of the art project “Star City”, the artist Edin “Edo” Vejselovic has transformed bullet holes into stars so as to create something beautiful out of scars associated with destruction and death. It is an example how we can preserve the remains of war while turning them into something positive. His works can be seen on the wall above Galerija 10m2 and on the wall along the garden of the National History Museum. His photography has been displayed as a part of several art exhibitions.


“Star City” by Edin “Edo” Vejselovic


Façade at the rear of the Historical Museum of BiH, Zmaja od Bosne, featuring “Star City” by Edin “Edo” Vejselovic

Healed Scars?

After the war, nearly the whole city was destroyed. Due to engagement by domestic and foreign investors, Sarajevo has run through a process of heavy reconstruction. Damaged buildings were rebuilt and nowadays, more and more modern buildings join the cityscape. Sarajevo has become one of the fastest developing cities in the region. Many of the scars have disappeared, leaving only a few behind. While the city center is almost completely reconstructed, residential areas of Sarajevo are still in need of rebuilding efforts. It is in these areas where one can find most of the scars that were once common throughout the city.


Zmaja od Bosne, Grbavica

Nearly all of the photos in this essay were taken along what was formerly known as “Sniper Alley”. During the siege, this name was given to the main boulevard in Sarajevo that connects the city center to the airport and industrial areas. Due to the tall buildings and surrounding mountains, this “Alley” provided snipers with their best targeting opportunities. While the upper part of the boulevard is lined with modern malls and banks, the lower part is less developed leaving the bordering residential areas still marked by the heavy scarring of bullet holes and shelling craters.


Looking along Zmaja od Bosne, close to the city center

It is unlikely that the disappearance of the scars of Sarajevo in public space is an expression of healing. Sarajevo remains a politically divided city and tensions among people remain unresolved in the face of the country’s political and economic stagnation. The fancy illuminated advertisements of the modern shopping malls located throughout the Sarajevo City Center belie the ongoing struggles facing the city and its population. The glittering facade of modernity and consumerism shines, while inner conflicts and problems remain unaddressed.

As individuals, the modern buildings that are supposed to represent wealth and progress can easily blind us. It is even easier to unwittingly adhere to common narratives of wartime that continue to contribute to an atmosphere of mistrust or hate. Examining the remains of war left behind in public spaces, such a Sarajevo’s scarred topography, gives the viewer a unique opportunity to connect to Sarajevo’s history in an unconventional way. For some, it may be easier to adopt pre-existing social or institutionally established narratives. It takes bravery to critically examine the after effects of war, but no matter which method you choses it is crucial to develop your own understanding of what occurred in the past. Choosing to examine the effects of war in this way was challenging, but it is worth the effort.

Close-up of the shopping mall “Sarajevo City Center”, Vrbanja 1

This article was originally published on Balkan Diskurs. A non-profit,  multimedia platform dedicated to to challenging stereotypes and providing viewpoints on society, culture, and politics in the Western Balkans. 

Benjamin Goffrier is a former intern of the Post-conflict Research Center. He holds a BA in Sociology and History and a LLM in Law and Politics of International Security. He is currently completing his MA in Sociology at the University of Potsdam.