Punch Drunk: Flowers in Concrete 

Jack goes to Croatia.


They're called Sarajevo roses. Scars in the sidewalks from shells that, instead of being repaired, have been filled in with red resin. The shells left fanned-out blast patterns, which, now red, give the impression of a roses.

New construction has erased many of these marks, leaving only a few of these roses in Sarajevo. These aren't just mortars that missed, either. Each rose you find marks the place where one or more Sarajevans died. They are beautifully tragic reminders of the carnage that took place in this idyllic city from 1992 to 1995.

My girlfriend and I just got back from a trip to the Balkan nations of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia — all countries that were affected by war in the early 1990s. No city or territory was as severely damaged, physically or mentally, as Sarajevo.

The four-year siege of Sarajevo was one of the longest sieges of a major city in modern warfare, and it wasn't only an ordeal of privation. It was bloody. Cemeteries with all-white headstones pockmark Sarajevo's landscape, grim reminders of the almost 14,000 people killed during that time.

The war itself was a complex tangle of ethnic tensions, territory annexation and religious hatred. It pitted the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina against the self-proclaimed Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat entities within Bosnia and Herzegovina, Republika Srpska and Herzeg-Bosnia. There's not enough space here to explain it properly. The Dayton Peace Accords ended it all in 1996, but to this day, posturing continues from the nations' respective leaderships.

Our driver from Mostar to Dubrovnik was Sonia, a member of the Muslim Bosnian ethnic group that was singled out for brutal persecution during the war. "It's the politicians who start these fights," she told us. "The people who live and work with each other get along fine."

"I'm Muslim and my neighbor is not, but we're friends," she said. "We have no reason to fight."

Bosnia and Herzegovina — and Sarajevo in particular —face an unemployment rate that hovers around 40 percent, with a youth unemployment rate that's even higher.

"I have an advanced degree in economics, but there is no work in that field," Sonia told us. "This is why I'm a tour guide."

Sarajevo has seen some recent interest in war tourism, something to which my girlfriend and I contributed. We toured sites such as the Tunnel of Hope, which was the only way to get out of Sarajevo during the siege. We also visited the Markale market, where two attacks killed more than 100 innocent people. The market, only a few blocks from our Airbnb, has preserved a large, slashing mortar scar and erected a monument to those killed.

Tourism in general, outside of the bustling historic district of Bascarsija, seemed relatively limited. There were very few American or British visitors in Sarajevo — we only met one other couple. Nevertheless, we found the town very friendly to outsiders. At one outdoor cafe, we ended up meeting a local celebrity of some renown, a professor and political commentator named Besim Spahic. Think the University of Virginia's Larry Sabato, but in Sarajevo. Spahic and his family immediately bought us rounds of rakija — a homemade, very strong brandy sipped by everyone.

Sarajevo is beautiful. There's no other word for it. Situated in a valley with thousands of red-roofed Monopoly houses dotting the hills, hundreds of minarets and some modern skyscrapers, too, the city is stunning. It retains a gritty street feel, an energy that can't be explained. The streets seem to buzz, although that could be the cars flying past your ear on the hilly thoroughfares. Being a pedestrian in Sarajevo is not for the faint of heart.

Walking up the streets into neighborhoods left us breathless. Our house was about a half-mile into the hills, which, drunk at midnight, felt like 8 miles.

I love Sarajevo.

There's a fountain in the old part of the city called Sebilj, and legend says that anyone who drinks from the fountain is destined to return to Sarajevo. We walked past it right when we got there, but I didn't feel like waiting in a queue of hundreds to take a sip of water.

In the days that followed we walked past it a few more times, but I still didn't take a sip. I knew I didn't need to. I'll definitely be going back.

Jack Lauterback also is co-host of "Mornings with Melissa and Jack" on 103.7 Play weekdays from 6-9. Connect with him at letters@styleweekly.com, or on Twitter at @jackgoesforth.




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