feature 31 May 17

Wartime Furnaces Remind Bosnians of Struggle for Warmth

A display of improvised furnaces used during the war reminds Sarajevans of their creativity during the siege of the Bosnian capital.

Igor Spaic BIRN Sarajevo
The display consists of furnaces used as ovens and stoves that people have donated to the museum.Photo: BIRN.

“Ognjiste” is a common word for hearth or fireplace in Balkan languages - but the word has a much wider meaning. In the culture of Bosnia and neighbouring countries, the fireplace is the heart of the home, where the family gathers around a warm place for food.

The word is also used for furnaces, which are still essential for heating for many people across the region.

They also saved many citizens of Sarajevo during the long siege of the city from 1992-1995.

To remind people of this, the History Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina has set up a display of wartime ovens in the hall of the Novi Grad municipality building in Sarajevo.

The display, named “Sarajevo war furnaces – stories from a besieged city”, consists of furnaces used as ovens and stoves that people have donated to the museum.

“We want to open the doors of our museum to citizens and encourage them to donate their wartime belongings and stories to the museum,” curator Tijana Krizanovic, told BIRN. The museum also collects documents, photographs and other items people used during the war.

Photo: BIRN.

Improvised constructions, resembling those ones might see in a post-apocalypse-themed movie, sit in a room at the busy institution, with visitors dropping by occasionally while taking care of their documents.

“We displayed this here so people can check it out and remember those times while they are going about their business,” Krizanovic said.

With the electricity supply cut off during the siege, apartments had to rely on fires and on the occasional burst of gas that came through. Simply buying a fire oven was hardly an option.

But Sarajevans found ways.

The ovens displayed at the exhibition come in any imaginable shape and size, and the design often resembles whatever people could take apart and modify into an oven.

Fadila Basic, a 53-year old Sarajevan who together with her husband, Ferid, raised two small daughters through the horrors of war, remembers what an oven meant to her very well. “An oven is life. Without it, there is nothing,“ she told BIRN.

Voila – you had a lamp

Gas was a bittersweet commodity during the war. Now and then, it would reach the city and cause a mix of joy and tragedy. It was stripped of odour, so one could not smell it when it leaked.

Eventually, someone would light up a cigarette and blow up half a building. This is how gas was used as a weapon, many Sarajevans say.

It is quite effective, having in mind that people who had central heating before the war would stretch garden hoses from one apartment building to another that had a gas pipe, and hook them up.

The hose would be split between several buildings, running along roof gutters, which were also used to collect rainwater. The ends mostly finished in an improvised burner, often placed into a giant marmalade can that served as a small stove.

A small quantity of gas could also be directed through the tiny transparent hoses used by hospitals for transfusions. You added a cartridge of a pen at the end and – voila – you had a lamp.

Photo: BIRN.

Soon after the war started, when the electricity was gone, Basic's husband and his brother took a large can and placed a burner underneath it, “so at least we could make coffee”.

But, it was cold, as there was no heating in the apartment without electricity. Basic's husband tried to find a way to turn the gas from his stove into heating for the family, so he surrounded the burner with bricks that heated up the apartment.

But this was also not an option, as there was no way to steer the poisonous fumes out of the room.

“We heard of a man in our neighborhood making furnaces, so I visited him and asked what kind of sheet metal was best. You brought him the material, and he would build it,” she recalled.

The best sheet metal, according to him, was the kind used in thermal stoves.

Basic found some that she had used while there was still some electricity, and took it apart.

In war, trade still went on. It only took on a very different flavour – a besieged city is a lot like a large prison.

“I gave him the material and paid him with seven packets of ‘Drina’ cigarettes,“ Basic said. “This was a neighbourly deal, as he usually took 10 packets,” she added.

Cooking on car tyres

The end product was a grey-brownish square box with small feet and two compartments, which the family used for the next few years, both for cooking and heating.

The oven could not heat the whole apartment, so the family slept and gathered in one room. They also bathed in front of it.

Sarajevans would put a burner into the firewood compartment of these stoves, whenever there was gas, as wood soon became scarce. When they were without gas, other solutions were found.

“For making a pie in that oven, shoes were best. For soup, you could use Branko Copic [a Bosnian writer] or something – you should look for hard-backed books,“ Basic’s husband, Ferid, jumps in.

Since there was nowhere to go, and no fuel, the best use for car tires was to cook on them.

The amount of treads on the tire required to cook a meal would be added to the recipe. Beans took a whole six treads.

But shoes were the preferred choice.

Basic would often go to where the humanitarian aid was being distributed. “If I saw a pair-less shoe, great!” she said.

When those ran out, wooden floors and furniture came next.

“Fires would be made with anything suitable you could get your hands on,” she recalled.

But the problems didn’t end there. New ones arose, requiring more creative thinking – like, how to cook with hardly any food?

Basic recollected a number of things she used to mix up, such as “bread cake,” her wartime delicacy, made of bread, sweet water and the cocoa powder that the family received as humanitarian aid.

“In times of war, improvisation is key,” her husband concluded.

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