Bosnia-Hercegovina : September 2010

Sarajevo, wounded but full of hope and kindness

Ruth, from Germany, took part in the meeting in Sarajevo. Here is her account.

Sarajevo – a city books and films present as torn by ethnic difficulties, bombed out, traumatized, besieged.
However the city proves that it is very different from these images; I feel this already as my plane is finally approaching it: The soft green hills surround a place that seems to be filled with light on this sunny day, where people go out to sit in one of the numerous cafés and where the slender towers of the mosques bring to the atmosphere something of the orient to the eyes of the Western European visitor.

Nevertheless it is a city that has a history that changes the beautiful green hills into a very different scene, when you open your eyes to see the numerous memorials on the street corners and buildings, the broken houses, and when you listen carefully to what your hosts can tell you. It is a city where, in spite of everything, young people have been preparing for months to welcome several hundred young people for a weekend of prayer and sharing, for a new step of the Pilgrimage of Trust on Earth.

I arrived a few days in advance to help to welcome the first 120 volunteers who have come one day ahead to help with the final preparations. There is an almost festive atmosphere to the simple midday meal we share, with bread, fruit, vegetables and a bit of cheese. In the afternoon a small group starts to rehearse the songs for the prayers. Some have a sharing about a Bible text, others are to paint signs, and still others welcome the new arrivals. At midday and in the evening we leave the work for a moment to go to the neighbouring church to pray. With the new arrivals the singing grows stronger; and my looking forward to the coming days grows stronger too.

The following morning, while the parishes are welcoming more than 600 participants, we are at work in the olympic hall, Skenderija, attempting to transform a sports hall into a place of prayer. I am fascinated to see the change in this gymnasium; how some orange draperies, icons and candles can make such a difference. Perhaps this is what I can learn in this city: in fact we already have everything we need to prepare something for others, and to be together. The two square meters on the floor as space for a guest to sleep, and the plastic boxes from the nearby cafe that, covered with cloth, have become lamp stands!

After the first time of prayer together, some spend the afternoon in intense discussions in the small sharing groups. Sooner or later, many also go in to the city, for a walk in the old town, Baščaršija, or for a coffee and a talk. The beautiful weather is also a gift; so the meal distribution could be set up outside, in front of Skenderija, where we enjoy a traditional “grah” in the evening sun before gathering again in the prayer hall.

After a morning programme in the host parishes and midday meal and prayer in Skenderija, on Saturday afternoon we split up into groups to take part in one of the nine workshops. Their diversity is a vivid image of the city itself: Discovering the Jewish, Muslim or Orthodox life of Sarajevo, a meeting with members of the inter religious council or a talk with the well known Bosnian film director Jasmila Zbanic. I choose the visit to the Islamic faculty, in order to learn more about the religion of this major part of the population – who are at present following the holy month of Ramadan.

Although the faculty is normally closed at this time of the year, we are warmly welcomed by a staff member, who gives a short introduction on Islam. He assures us that there will be no issues which are taboo, and opens the forum for questions. The group of young and older people find it hard to interrupt the flow of questions: some of them practical, about Ramadan and Bajram, for example; others political, such as the role of the religions in conflicts; and not forgetting spiritual questions as well.

The desire to learn more about Islam seems to be very real, and at the end we have to hurry in order not to miss the next part of our program, the vespers in the old Orthodox Church.
The church is small and is soon quite crowded. What a joy to see so many of us, young people from the different Christian traditions, gathered here. Soon, the beautiful orthodox chants, sung by a group of young men, fill the church and the air is heavy with the smell of incense. Since we already know the “Bogoroditse Dievo”, the sung “Hail Mary”, from the prayers, everyone can join in. At the end of the prayer, after some hesitation, more and more young people respond to the invitation to come to the centre of the church to receive a piece of blessed bread. This is a gesture that takes on even more significance in a city where religious differences have been the source of so much sorrow. How beautiful as well that, after this experience of community, we can welcome our hosts, Cardinal Vinko Puljic and Metropolit Nikolaj, for the evening prayer in Skenderia.

On Sunday, after the morning liturgy in the parishes and lunch with the host families, we come together for a last prayer the Church of Sv. Josip in Marijindvor. Many of the young pilgrims carry big bags with packed lunches from their host families for their journey back home. Everyone has been welcomed in a family in these days, and some say that it was not easy to say goodbye.

Once more, during the prayer, the Bible readings and the beauty of the songs bring the sheer joy of being together. And I can’t help feeling a certain sadness that it is already time for everyone to go back home. At the same time, how much hope can be gained from this experience of community that we had over the last days!

“Sarajevo – a city wounded and torn apart”, Cardinal Puljic and Metropolitan Nikolaj wrote in their joint invitation letter for this meeting, and they continued, “but also full of hope and kindness”. It is this exactly what we experienced during these days of the meeting, and this is now the challenge that we are taking home to our daily life in our countries and cities.

Last updated: 19 September 2010
Other first hand accounts and photos of the meeting in Sarajevo