The choice to visit Bosnia and Hercegovina (BiH) was more then the usual half thought out quick stop over between Croatia and Turkey. In actuality I’ve wanted to visit BiH for some years specifically after reading a really fascinating article on the destruction of Afghanistan’s 1500 year old Bamiyan Buddhists statues, by the Taliban. It got me interested in other sights of irreplaceable cultural significance, which have been intentionally destroyed due to warfare and/or religious zealotism. What does this have to do with BiH? Well it eventually lead me to read about the 16th Century built Stari Most (Old Bridge) in Mostar, which was deliberately destroyed during the Balkans conflict in 1993. And thus my love affair/obsession with visiting Bosnia one day began.
Sam and I caught a short two hour bus from Dubrovnik to Mostar. For much of our travels so far the transition from country to country in today’s almost "borderless" Europe was rarely marked with any significant changes. Although the further east we travelled this was becoming less of a reality. It is baffling how an invisible line in the sand can afford you such a different experience. Within 10 mins of crossing over into BiH there was a remarkable difference in the landscape. As you wind through the beautiful mountainous Neretva Basin you can't help be struck by the amount of rubbish clinging to the edges of the stunningly magnificent Neretva river. Or the endless abandon farms and scarred stone ruins which pepper the landscape. Despite this nothing can really prepare you for the moment we actually reached Mostar, and particularly the outskirts of the still, 15 years after war, devastated city.
Due to its ethnic diversity Mostar was hotly contested. For over 18 months, a campaign of mass execution and ethnic cleansing terrorised its residents, with the historic old town reduced to rubble. 15 years later Sam and I were shocked how virtually every second building was still in ruins. As we disembarked from the bus in Mostar we came across a new form of Gypsy. The child Gypsy! Now if you asked me what my biggest fear is anyone who knows me will say "Birds". If you ask the same question to Sam he'll say "Small Children" and since travelling Europe "Gypsy Beggars". So if I’d known I would of had my camera out ready to captures Sam's face the minute two small Gypsy children (probably no older then 5 or 6) latched on to his pockets. It was hilarious to see Sam's face and heartbreaking to see these poor kids.
We took a taxi to our accommodation in which we were lucky enough to have views out towards the Stari Most Bridge. We spent the afternoon strolling in and around the Stari Most and the old town. The Ottoman built foot bridge, an enduring symbol of the regions multiculturalism, which stood untouched for over 400 was “allegedly” strategically destroyed by the Croatian Defence Council in 1993. The bridge has since been rebuilt by the World Bank, World Monument Fund, UNESCO and various other governments and opened in 2004. A perfect replica, rebuilt primarily using original recovered stones, the single humped back arch preciously frames the deeply cut, lucid jade river below. The old town immediately surrounding the “new” old bridge has also been restored, but a few steps beyond this close vicinity reveals still the terrible toll of war, a devastated economy and a community still well and truly in recovery mode.
We concluded our one day in Mostar with one of the best meals we’d had so far. And our first introduction on the awesomeness of Bosnian Grill & Bosnian Coffee! YESSIR!
Sarajevo was once described as the gateway between West and East. The city once famously, made up of three ethnic groups, was one of the only cities in the world where you can find a Mosque, a Church, and a Synagogue a stones throw from each other. Unfortunately such diverse unity doesn’t bode well during rising nationalistic sentiment and massive political power vacuums left behind by the collapse of Yugoslavia. When Bosnia declared its independence in 1992, the Serbian leadership in Belgrade feared that without Bosnia there would be no chance of a “united”, and Serb-dominated, Yugoslavia. As legislation for Bosnia’s independence began later that year, Slobodan Milosevic began moving troops and artillery to the hills surrounding the city and as residents marched peacefully through the streets on the day of independence, shots fired into the crowds killed two Sarajevo citizens, officially starting the longest siege of any capital city in modern warfare.
We arrived in Sarajevo by bus, and were kindly picked up by our accommodation hostess, Jasmina. Jasmina managed a tiny 2 bedroom apartment on the outskirts of the CBD, a stones throw from the iconic brightly coloured Holiday Inn, most famous for housing all the worlds press during the 4 year long Siege. Jasmina sat us down and made us coffee, and promptly booked us in for a breakfast on her and a trip to the Sarajevo Tunnel (more on that later). We spent the rest of the day exploring down town Sarajevo. It had turned grey and drizzly so we spent most of our time enjoying the ancient Ottoman market area, Bascarsija. We were promptly ushered into a tiny eatery where no one spoke English. What we ended up with was warm, slightly charred pitas stuffed with small grilled sausages, lathered in sour cream and filled with raw onion which curled your nose hairs. Ćevapi, evidently is the city's favourite fast food, washed down with a glass of cool yogurt. Delish!
The next morning Jasmina took us down the road and brought us breakfast and coffee. Apart from being the city’s favourite fast food, Cevapi is also a traditional meal for breakfast! Next on the agenda was a trip out to the Sarajevo Tunnel with Jasmina and her driver. As we drove out towards the tunnel Jasmina captivated us with personal stories about her time spent as a girl just beginning her adult life, during the siege. At one stage she pointed out a pock scarred apartment block, where she lived during this time. And how she and others would walk for hours down ‘Sniper Alley’ to retrieve UN water and food rations from the airport/so called “safe exclusion” zone. At least 5-7 people were killed daily in the water and food lines. Picked off randomly by Serbian snipers, sitting in the hills surrounding Sarajevo, with no other purpose then to keep citizens in a constant strangle hold of fear and despair. Followed by a long silence Jasmina stated “One day you woke up, perhaps the next day you didn’t”.
The Sarajevo tunnel was purpose dug to provide the besieged residences of Sarajevo with a lifeline. Built in a residential neighbourhood, under an unassuming house, with the advantage of being beyond Serbian lines and close to the Sarajevo airport, the tunnel allowed tons of aid to come into Sarajevo. Today the house serves as a museum with 20m of the original tunnel preserved. We arrive with Jasmina at the tunnel and began our tour with a 30 min documentary on the siege and digging of the tunnel. Jasmina then took us through the tiny house, explaining the objects, items and photographs, as no one else who hadn’t lived and experienced the horrors of the siege could. I found it quite emotional to hear stories of how both her parents were killed and the appalling living conditions of the time. To think she has come out of the other side of this war, such a generous and positive spirit is an amazing feat.
We ended our tour with a quick walk through the remaining part of the tunnel, and a funny encounter with a retired Bosnian army general, Jasmina called “The General … a great man for Sarajevo”. When told we were Australian, he began trying to explain things to us in French, then German … Then Jasmina and the general laughed. We get the drift; Aussies never speak any other languages unlike most Europeans. We left the tunnel thankful for the experience, but very heavy of heart. Jamina’s driver pointed out a road and said some words in Bosnian. Jasmina translated for us, letting us know the street we just passed was named after his father another “great man”, also a tragic casualty of the war.
We spent the rest of the day visiting the main sights of Sarajevo. The sun was out and the sky was blue, and our moods lifted. There is no denying the city itself is covered with scars and ruins. A Sarajevo rose is the name given to the multitude of circular indentations on the footpaths, which are left behind mortar marks filled within red paint as a lasting memorial to the people it killed.
Despite all this, Sarajevo is an unbelievably beautiful city. Walk a block and you’re surprised with a towering stony blue Islamic Minaret. Look across the road and you have a majestic Austro Hungarian stately building. Walk a block down to the river and you are presented with a 14th century stone bridge. Famously known as the site of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914, which inevitably was the spark which lit the match that was WWI. Follow the tink tink sound of the tin maker’s hammers in the Bascarsija quarter, and you’ll find yourself strolling into a bazaar of medieval stone alleys, lined with wooden shops brimming with hand crafted Bosnian coffee sets and tall water jugs. Sarajevo is so much more then I expected.
For our final day in Sarajevo, Jasmina took us out for coffee before we check out with her friend who lived in the same building as the hostel. The lady was originally from Slovenia. She discussed with us how before the collapse of Yugoslavia, despite some repression, everyone had jobs and more importantly everyone was on the same page. She talked about how she is worried for the future. Her father constantly asks her who she is. “I ask myself, who am I? I was born in Slovenia, I live in Bosnia, my mother is Croatian and my father Albanian. Before the war this was never a problem. I worry that this is a problem now.” After breakfast Jasmina and her driver drove us the airport. Both getting out to help us with our bags and wave us goodbye. We left their company not quite believing their incredible generosity and wondering whether they’ll ever truly understand the impact they had on our time in Bosnia.
During War & Present Day - Parliament Building
Sarajevo is no longer a place of terror, vengeance and bloodshed. It is an amazing place, full of amazing people. Safe, beautiful, exotic and fascinating. There is no denying war still shades almost everything, but Sarajevo, along with the whole of BiH, is definitely emerging from the shadows.