Can Mount Trebević, a favourite picnic area of many citizens of Sarajevo and host of the 1984 Winter Olympic Games, overcome its dark past of being one of the key positions which held Sarajevo in an almost 4-year long siege (the longest blockade of a capital in modern history)?
Mount Trebević, always known for its view of Sarajevo and one of my personal favourite places, is situated at 1629m above sea level. It is the closest of the Olympic Mountains surrounding Sarajevo – about 12 km from the city centre by road, one hour and thirty minutes on foot or 7 minutes via the cable car from the Bistrik neighbourhood.[i]
Its favourable geographical position, climate and natural beauty have captured the hearts of nature lovers since the 19th century. During the Austro-Hungarian era,[ii] guided tours were established to introduce the mountain as an excursion site for hiking. The route was 12.5 km long, and it took about four hours to reach the endpoint on foot. In the early days, hiking was a privilege for only a small number of people, but its popularity grew very quickly which initiated the construction of additional hiking and tourist facilities, like the ‘House of Tourists’ (1893) at 1600 m. The first mountain lodges along with an additional hiking trail were built in 1896 and 1907.[iii]
The trend of Trebević’s development continued until the Second World War (when it stopped abruptly because fights in the mountains) and continued after 1945, especially after the construction of Trebević’s first Cable Car. Although Trebević had been a famous picnic area for Sarajevo citizens before the cable car, its arrival on the 3rd of May 1959 significantly improved connectivity to the city centre. Going up the mountain became a daily activity for many citizens, who would use one of the 50 cable car gondolas holding four passengers for the 12-minute journey.[iv]
Different parts of Mount Trebević were used diversely. An example is the Čolina Kapa site, which offers a fascinating view of nearly all Sarajevo and because of this became a key point in military observations during the Austro-Hungarian period. The military fortress was then abandoned until 1967, at which point the government placed the site at the disposal of the University Astronomical Society. One of the remaining historical towers (Bistrik tower) housed the observatory as well as the largest telescope in former Yugoslavia,[v] which was built in 1969. The observatory, which gradually became one of the symbols of both Trebević and Sarajevo, had everything astronomers might need when staying for several days, including a library and a photo lab. The Observatory was completely destroyed in the summer of 1992.[vi]
For citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and safe to say the citizens of Yugoslavia at that moment, one of the most important events was the 14th Winter Olympic Games in 1984 during which Mount Trebević played an important role. In 1982, near the cable car, the most modern bobsleigh track in the world at the time was built. The total track length was 1250m, providing an ideal configuration of the terrain and an exceptional view of the city. During the Olympic competitions it was shown to have exceptional performance in terms of safety and track speed.
Unfortunately, everything started to change from March 1992 for both Trebević and Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole. Although the Bosnia-Herzegovinian Declaration of Independence was supposed to be one of the most glorious moments in the history of the country, declaring it again a free, sovereign state, it became one of the darkest. More than 99 percent of the voters cast ballots for independence, with 64 percent of the electoral population attending the ballot box. But only two of the three main ethnic groups – Croats and Bosnian Muslims – voted. The third major group, the Serbs, staged a boycott.[vii] After the voting, barricades were set up and Sarajevo was cut off from the rest of the country. On March 3, 1992, the guard working on the old Trebević cable car, Ramo Biber, became one of the first victims of the Bosnian war (1992-95).[viii] The Serb-dominated Yugoslav Army (JNA) started their campaign to mobilize in the hills surrounding Sarajevo in April 1992 and used Mount Trebević as one of their key points to establish a total blockade of the city. They blocked major access roads, cutting supplies of food and medicine and also cutting off the city’s basic utilities (water, electricity and heating). The position of Sarajevo (lying in a valley surrounded by hills) enabled the JNA to constantly bombard the city from at least 200 reinforced positions and bunkers in the surrounding hills, killing many citizens of Sarajevo, destroying the city and keeping it under siege for 1425 days. On 6 April, the day Sarajevo had been liberated during the Second World War, the city came under siege, exactly 47 years later.[ix] During that period, Mount Trebević suffered enormous destruction, with most of its facilities destroyed – the track was used as an artillery position by the JNA and the entire surrounding terrain was heavily mined.
When in August 1995 dozens of civilians were killed, NATO[x] finally intervened and began the strategic bombing of the artillery encampments on Trebević.[xi] The Bosnian Serbs were forced into retreat, and the Dayton Peace Agreement[xii] was soon signed, splitting the nation into two largely autonomous entities – the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska – along ethnic lines. Sarajevo was once a model of inter-ethnic relations, where Muslims, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Catholics and others lived together, yet the siege brought many population shifts. Thousands of refugees left the city before the siege, like my family, and spent years as refugees, returning only after the Peace Agreement was signed. Many never returned, however: an estimated 2,000,000 Bosnians are living outside Bosnia and Herzegovina.[xiii] Many citizens of Sarajevo were internally displaced during the war and moved to ethnically homogeneous cities. All of these shifts divided the country even more, and Mount Trebević stayed divided between the Federation and Republika Srpska, essentially becoming ‘no-man’s land.’
The remains of destroyed restaurants, hotels, sports facilities, cable car, bob-sleigh track and mountain huts were left to rot. People avoided visiting Mount Trebević as they feared for their safety, not only because of the thousands of still active mines but also because of the stories of people being attacked in their cars while crossing into the other entity. All citizens of Sarajevo seem to have forgotten the many beautiful days they spent on Mount Trebević, and it took me years to visit it for the first time. When I was almost 8 years old, my family returned from Germany, where we had spent 4 years as refugees, to Sarajevo. One of the first memories I have while driving back from the airport was seeing Mount Trebević. That was the first time I had seen a mountain, as in Germany we had lived in a very flat area. Maybe this is why Mount Trebević has a special place in my heart, it is the one place I can always turn to; when I want to rest, have long walks, take lots of pictures or just sit and enjoy the sun.
Luckily for everyone, although very slowly, the mountain has started to return to something like its former self. Hotels, restaurants, and cafes have been rebuilt, most of the mines have been removed, and hikers from all over have started to visit Mount Trebević. But one thing was still missing: the cable car. Rebuilding such a huge infrastructure project anytime soon was not in the immediate plan of the Sarajevo Government.
In 2008, Mr Edmond Offerman, an American doctor married to Bosnian scientist Maja Serdarevic Offermann, decided to do something for Sarajevo’s recovery from the war – he began looking into how he could support the restoration of the cable car. In 2012, with funding from the Swiss Embassy in Bosnia, he organized the transport of a dismantled cable car from Switzerland to Sarajevo and offered a donation of $4 million to reassemble and launch the project. But the city authorities expressed little interest at the time, and the project stalled.[xiv] His persistence and threats of taking away the funding (sometimes the only thing Bosnian politicians understand) initiated the start of the cable car’s renovation under Mayor Abdulah Skaka in 2018.
The new Cable Car opened on the 6th of April 2018, on the ‘day of the city’, the liberation day after World War II and the start of the siege in 1992. It takes the same route as the old one, to the upper station now named after Ramo Biber, the guard of the former cable car who became an early victim of the war. Although 25 years has passed since the war, the process of reconciliation is still not complete in Bosnian society. There are different understandings of the events that happened during the Bosnian war, making it difficult to build community relationships and post-conflict rehabilitation. Naming the upper station after Ramo Biber can be seen as a positive step towards a shared narrative of the past which is required for meaningful peace.
Back to the Cable Car, today there are 33 cars (compared to 50 before), all of which are black, except for five that are the colours of the Olympic rings (blue, red, yellow, green and black) and one in the colours of the BiH flag. Every car can hold ten passengers (compared to only four before) and the ride to Mount Trebević now takes about eight minutes (12 before). A total of 1,200 passengers can therefore be transported within an hour.[xv]
Although there are still things which need to be done, Mount Trebević is recovering from its past destruction and is slowly rising to its enormous potential. Today, Mount Trebević is again a very popular site for family picnics, hiking, climbing, mountain biking, and it has a downhill track for local and international competitions. The bob-sleigh is still not renovated, but it is now decorated with graffiti, becoming a popular picture spot and reminding people of the days when Sarajevo was the centre of the world’s attention (or at least this is how people who lived through it felt at the time.) Today, many hikers and visitors enjoy walking the different sections of the trail. Renovation of some of the other facilities has not yet started (such as the Observatory), but soon Mount Trebević will see the reconstruction of the once-popular restaurant, Vidikovac (Viewpoint). Also, as of November 2020, Mount Trebević is finally cleared of all land mines, a project conducted by the “Mine-Free Sarajevo” organisation.[xvi] All visitors and hikers can now safely access all of the walking spots and enjoy the two-hour hike to the top of Mount Trebević.
I am personally sure that Mount Trebević has the potential to once again become a meeting place for all citizens, a symbol of unity and a means to foster reconciliation in the still ethnically divided society of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although Sarajevo is surrounded by 7 mountains, there is only one which wholly embraces the city and provides the most beautiful view of Sarajevo, and that is for sure Mount Trebević.
[ii] Bosnia and Herzegovina fell under Austro-Hungarian rule in 1878, when the Congress of Berlin approved the occupation of the Bosnia Vilayet, which officially remained part of the Ottoman Empire. At the end of the I World War, Bosnian politicians from each of the three main communities followed the political leaders of Croatia and Slovenia in throwing off Habsburg rule and joining in the creation of a new South Slav state, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.
[iii] Information Point on Mount Trebević: Trebevic Timeline
[iv] Sarajevska žičara: Cable Car [website], <https://www.zicara.ba/bs/article/27/prva-izgradnja-zicare>, accessed 24.10.2020
[v] Yugoslavia is the territory that was up to 25 June 1991 known as The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). Specifically, the six republics that made up the federation – Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia (including the regions of Kosovo) and Slovenia. More information available: <https://www.icty.org/sid/321>.
[vi] Information Table on Mount Trebević next to the Obervatory
[viii] BBC, ‘Bosnia: Cable car in Sarajevo reopens after 26 years’ [website], <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-43677286?intlink_from_url=&>, accessed 24.10.2020
[ix] Visit Sarajevo: Sarajevo Under Siege, [website], <http://visitsarajevo.ba/sarajevo-under-siege/?lang=en>, accessed 24.10.2020
[x] NATO – The North Atlantic Threaty Organisation, Bosnia and Herzegovina, by 2020 has not became part of NATO.
[xi] M. Busby ‘It belongs to all of Sarajevo’: reopened cable car lifts city out of the past’, The Guardian, [website], <https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/apr/06/sarajevo-reopened-cable-car-lifts-city-out-of-the-past-bosnia-herzegovina-serb-siege-yugoslavia>, accessed 24.10.2020
[xii] Dayton Peace Agreement – The General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, is the peace agreement reached at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, United States, in November 1995, and formally signed in Paris on 14 December 1995. These accords put an end to the 3 1⁄2-year-long Bosnian War, one of the armed conflicts in the former Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia.
[xiii] R. Toè, ‘Bosnian Diaspora Potential Not Fully Realized’, [website], <https://balkaninsight.com/2016/04/19/bosnian-diaspora-potential-not-exploited-04-18-2016/>, accessed 15.11.2020
[xiv] D. Sito-Sucic, ‘A dream comes true-Sarajevo cable car runs again after 26 years’, Reuters, [website], <https://br.reuters.com/article/us-bosnia-cablecar-idUSKCN1HD1JX>, accessed 15.11.2020
[xv] A. Smith, ‘Sarajevo reopens its famous cable car in Mount Trebević after 26 years’, Lonely Planet, [website] <https://www.lonelyplanet.com/articles/cable-car-in-mount-trebevic-reopens>, accessed 19.10.2020
[xvi] FENA, ‘Istocni Stari Grad and Trebevic mountain finally clear of land mines’, N1, [website] <http://ba.n1info.com/English/NEWS/a490146/Istocni-Stari-Grad-and-Trebevic-mountain-finally-clear-of-land-mines.html>, accessed 19.10.2020.