Exploring Sarajevo, 20 Years After Dayton Peace Accord

Meho Zekic, 72, and "the butcher" play chess with oversized pieces at a park in central Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina on October 23, 2014. (Photo by Amanda Rivkin)

From morning to midnight, in sun or snow, pensioners play chess with passion, swinging life-sized pieces across a board painted onto the pavement in the center of Sarajevo.

I struck up a conversation with a crowd of bystanders, and learned that was not always so. Twenty years ago, this square was deserted, a victim of Bosnian-Serb mortars. Now, the chess players razz each other against a backdrop of multinational chains. But the past is never absent in Bosnia, and the storefronts face the once-majestic Austro-Hungarian officer club, still riddled with bullet holes two decades after the country’s ethnic war.

Chess has become a spectator sport at Trg Oslobođenja, where crowds often accumulate to watch pensioners compete. The board, which was painted onto the pavement after the war, has become a local hangout for elderly residents of Sarajevo. (Photo by Amanda Rivkin)

Supported by a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant, I’ve been exploring Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital that was besieged during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. It took nearly four years to end the violence, a feat that was achieved through a power sharing agreement between Bosnia’s ethnic groups called the Dayton Peace Accord. As we approach the 20th anniversary of Dayton, I’m learning how ethnic divides have affected the reconstruction of the city, as residents try to shape a new multicultural Bosnia.

Sarajevo was once a beacon of multiculturalism, where different ethnicities got along. But the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s gave way to nationalist fervor and on April 5, 1992, the Bosnian Serb Army surrounded the city, launching the longest siege in modern history. By the war’s end 1,400 days later, 11,000 people, mainly Muslims, were killed.

A rich mix of Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Yugoslav heritage defines Sarajevo, which is located in a valley. During the siege, Bosnian Serb —> Read More