Interview with Amir Telibecirovic

Amir Telibecirovic owns the longest, most difficult-to-pronounce last name among all our Rick Steves guides. His life experience has also been far from the kind of reality that most Americans are used to. Born and raised in Sarajevo, Amir experienced modern warfare in a brutal, 3½-year siege against his home town and the splitting apart of his country, Yugoslavia. As a result of what he's been through, Amir is a most intriguing person to get to know — and he has a sharp sense of humor. When he's not working as a journalist or guiding locally in Sarajevo, Amir leads Rick Steves' Best of the Adriatic tours.

How did you get into guiding, Amir?

I fell into guiding around 13 years ago. It was related to my temporary work with the international OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) office based in Sarajevo. I worked as a translator for the international election supervisors. Some of them wanted to see the city, and to learn more about it. So one day I took them on a walk across the old town. I introduced them to the city and included some ancient and recent history and my personal experiences. I had already learned a lot about history and events from my own interest and from my work as a journalist. The OSCE people appreciated these tours I would do, so when they went back home, they recommended me as a guide to other people who would visit Sarajevo. Ever since then, I've been guiding people not just across the city, but through the surrounding mountains, too. These are not just your average tourists, but also journalists, students, explorers, historians — anyone who would be interested, regardless of their background.

And you're working as a journalist, too?

I started as a radio reporter at a local radio station, but eventually I found myself getting more into print media and writing. There is a nice synergy with my being a guide and a journalist. Through my city tours I meet interesting people from other parts of the world, whom I interview for the papers. Coming from the other direction, sometimes through press conferences I'll meet various people who become interested in my tours. Both activities are related to data and information, which sometimes makes me feel like a computer. But, luckily, not very often!

During the 3½-year siege of Sarajevo, more than 10,000 of your neighbors were killed by shelling and sniper fire coming from the surrounding hills. You lived through every day of that. How does one describe this kind of experience?

The siege of Sarajevo started on my 19th birthday, April 6, 1992. I guess it was some sort of "destiny" for me to survive that war, so I could tell visitors who would come after why it happened and what it was like to live through. (And of course, I celebrate my birthday very carefully since then!) When it was over, I realized that life needs to continue. Despite personal losses in my family during that period, I found a way to preserve the positive things in my memory, in spite of the tragedies, killings, shelling, hunger, etc. The siege brought people in Sarajevo closer together. They helped one another, shared their last pieces of food, water or firewood, risk their lives in order to help their neighbors. You can almost sum up the experience of living through this in a series of quotes. During the first year (1992), the most common expression in Sarajevo was, "Oh, are we ever going to get drunk when all this ends!" Then, second year (1993) you would hear, "Oh, we are going to eat so much once this tragedy is behind us!" In the following year (1994), you would hear, "Oh, we will catch up on so much sleep after this war is over!" And in the final year (1995), you would hear this mix of toughness and resignation, something like, "If the siege goes on for a few more years, fine. I really don't care anymore." By the end of the same year, the war really did come to an end with a peace accord signed at a military base in Dayton, Ohio. Its official name was the Dayton Peace Agreement, but locals around Sarajevo have always called it the Dayton Disagreement, due to its political complexity.

You visited the United States for the first time when you attended our recent guide summit and tour reunion. What was that like?

I really enjoyed my very first visit to the U.S. and the Rick Steves' office. I met many nice people, but also learned many things from Rick's staff and all the other guides. Everyone was friendly to me, without exception. And of course, I enjoyed the good food — especially the tacos and the lovely cakes. I get hungry just remembering that. I was already familiar with Seattle through the music scene, which has been one of my journalist topics in the past. Also, I've had an aunt living in Seattle since 1995. She arrived there when she was pregnant as a refugee from war. The baby was born on U.S. soil, so now I have an American cousin. Anyway, I hadn't seen my aunt, her husband and their two other kids since they'd left Bosnia, so it was good to see them during my visit. That's an interesting coincidence — my very first visit to the States happened to be Seattle, where my close relatives have lived for all these years, and we had a chance to meet for first time since the war in the 90s. 

Is there a place you look forward to taking tour members on the Adriatic tour?

I am looking forward to seeing many places on this tour and sharing a few stories. A few of the towns I haven't visited since I was in elementary school back in the 80s, during the Yugoslav times. It will be interesting to visit them again more than two decades later, given all that's happened in between. The memories of my school days will travel with me on this tour.