SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina – When customers say they're wearing shoes his dad used to shine, Ramiz Hasani polishes them with special care, and slowly, because for a moment it feels like his old man has been brought back to life.
Husein Hasani — better known as "Uncle Misho" — died one year ago Tuesday at age 83, bequeathing his shoe-shining box to his son. The death of the "city symbol" who charmed generations of Sarajevans over six decades left the city "emptier," the mayor said back then.
For days, Sarajevans prayed, laid flowers and lit candles around an old pair of shoes and Uncle Misho's shining box, placed in front of his empty wooden chair.
Uncle Misho offered his services with songs and merry chatter even as sniper fire raged in Sarajevo during Bosnia's 1992-95 war that killed over 100,000 people.
"To see him sitting and waiting for customers while everything around him was falling apart was a surreal scene," said Hamid Kajmakovic, 78, a retired economist. "But it gave people strength to endure the horror of the war."
Always nicely dressed, with hair oiled and combed back under his hat, Uncle Misho came across as a real gentleman, Kajmakovic said.
"People say that on their way to work on any depressing Monday morning, dad would put a smile on their faces and brighten their day with some remark or joke," Hasani said.
For putting Sarajevans into a good mood, city authorities honored the elderly Roma by giving him a small apartment and a retirement pension. But hanging up his brushes just wasn't for him. He kept on sitting at the same step outside McDonald's on Sarajevo's main street, shining shoes and greeting passers-by.
"It shows how much this city loved my father," his son said. "Apartment and retirement. What more do you want? What gypsy ever got that from a city?"
Hasani is so proud to be the son of Sarajevo's legendary shoe shine that he takes pains to look exactly like his dad: same mustache, same hat, same gestures and of course same spot.
"Some of dad's customers are old themselves and I have to help them lift their foot on the box," said Hasani. "But I like them the most. When they call me 'Misho II,' something trembles in my chest."
Coping with his loss is easier for him when he sits here shining shoes next to a plaque laid in the step where his father sat shining shoes. The plaque from McDonald's employees pays tribute to "Sarajevo's last shoe shiner."
"Thank God, that's wrong," the 64-year-old Hasani said with a laugh.