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Feature 06 Nov 17

Bosnian Capital’s Spirits Soar as Cable Car Returns

Wartime hatred destroyed the city’s much-loved cable car – but one man’s love for Sarajevo has helped restore this iconic feature.

Igor Spaic
Opening of the Sarajevo cable car in 1959. Photo: Sarajevo Historical Archives

Once Sarajevo’s cable car is up and running again next year, those who remember it from before will feel as if the city’s can continue where it once stopped.

Youngsters who do not remember the rides from the centre of Sarajevo up Trebevic mountain will see it as a sign of the city’s progress. And those who know how the reconstruction came about will treat it as Sarajevo’s own little Taj Mahal.

According to Sarajevo mayor Abdulah Skaka, the cable car will reopen on the Day of Sarajevo, April 6, 2018.

The two kilometer long cable car was originally launched on May 3, 1959, connecting the city’s Old Town with its lungs on Mt Trebevic.

Thousands applauded when, shortly after noon, the first carriage took off up the hill, carrying the city’s then communist leaders. On the following few days, it was packed. Not only people from Sarajevo but many others from Bosnia’s smaller towns came to try it out as well.

Halida Hasic, now in her eighties, was a law student at the time. Like many other students, she could barely afford the ticket.

In the beginning, she sat with her friends underneath it and just watched the cabins pass by above. But then her boyfriend invited her for a ride, she remembered, as she told BIRN about the first days after the opening.

“I was so afraid. The cabin was swaying, but I entered it with my boyfriend who later became my husband,” she recalled.

The two later got married and spent 48 years together until his death parted them a few years ago.

But that first step into the cabin remains engraved on Hasic’s memory. “I was excited because of that cable car and because a boy was holding my hand in a public place,” she giggled.

“That was a big deal back then, but his hand gave me confidence and courage.”

Apart from her private memories, she remembers the launch of the cable car as something that gave the city a feeling that “Sarajevo is becoming a city like those in Europe and that we are slowly but surely walking toward Europe”.

Her entire generation remembers the long lines in front of the gate of the lower station. At weekends, people would come hours before the cable car even opened, patiently waiting for the 12-minute ride before spending the rest of the day picnicking or hiking in the forest.

Some could afford lunch at the restaurant at the top, which had a stunning view of Sarajevo. Others brought backpacks filled with food while the youngsters carried bottles of beer or wine and the obligatory guitar.

Every Monday morning, rosy cheeks clearly distinguished those who had spent the weekend on the mountain from those who had stayed in the city.

“The cable car was a cult,” said Dunja Kulenovic, 56. “Every city has something that marks its inhabitants’ childhoods, and mine are of the cable car and the Pioneer Park,” she said.

Later, in high school, Trebevic was the place to go if you skipped class. The fun of hanging out with other deserters from Latin or math made the subsequent punishment in school or at home more bearable.

Kulenovic’s heart warms when she thinks of the weekend trips she made with her grandfather. Riding in the “50 eggs,” which is how Sarajevans nicknamed the round carriages, was part of family tradition, she said.

“I don’t want to lament over who ripped-off part of my life and over all that history, destroyed by the war,” she said. “But when a city loses a cable car, and then gets it back, then it can hope it is actually climbing somewhere,” she added.

The young in Sarajevo do not have these memories, of course. They only know the stories of their elders.

But they are glad as well, knowing they will now get to experience for themselves what their parents told them about many times.

“I don’t remember the cable car, I was just a kid. But I am happy it will open up again and I think it will bring a lot of tourists here,” professional boxer Benjamin Skender, 33, told BIRN.

Bosnia is now divided into two de facto mini-states, Republika Srpska, which is run by the Serbs, and the Federation, which is shared between Bosniaks and Croats.

The separation line between the “entities” runs somewhere below the cable car’s path. Once the cable car starts running again, people will start their rides in Sarajevo in the Federation and get out on Mt Trebevic in Republika Srpska.

“It will unite us. It will be a place where the youth will come together again,” Hasic said.

The background story of the new cable car warms the hearts of many Sarajevans even more.

Sarajevan nuclear physicist Maja Serdarevic managed only one ride with her husband, Edmond Offerman, a Dutch-born nuclear physicist, before the 1992-95 war destroyed the cable car.

As he fell in love with Maja, he fell in love with Sarajevo. “Through the many visits, I learned to appreciate more and more the uniqueness and the diversity of this city,” Offerman said in April when he was made an honorary citizen.

During that one ride in 1990, Offerman said he realized it was the first time he had ever seen a cable car in a capital city. “The war changed the direction of this city but also the direction of my life,” he said.

He began to work on his wife’s dream to revive the cable car in 1998. So far, he has donated nearly 4 million US dollars towards its reconstruction.

That’s how much the girl and her city meant to him. “I am 57 and made the best decision of my life 30 years ago when I married a nuclear physicist from Sarajevo,” Offerman said.

His heartfelt gesture and his motivation have amazed many. “After that, I told myself: Sarajevo has a future,” Hasic said.

“That’s what is making me happy. I believe this will be the beginning of a new Sarajevo, particularly for the young,” the 82 year-old said, “So they stop thinking about leaving, but rather want to stay here, because they see some progress.”

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