Week 33: The One Where I Went to Bosnia

After a really successful road trip to Bratislava back in August, Arestia and I decided that we should do more road trips. We recruited our friend Mike Chino into a weekend trip to Bosnia. Now, I knew very little about Bosnia outside of the fact that it’s a predominantly Muslim country and that Angelina Jolie was very involved with post-war recovery there. This weekend trip to the capital, Sarajevo (pronounced Sarayevo), and quaint Mostar, ended up being one of the most memorable and valuable experiences I’ve had on Remote Year….

Back to Split for a Minute

Before we get into the road trip, a couple of interesting Croatian experiences await:

  • Krka Waterfalls: a group of us checked out these stunning waterfalls a couple of hours away from Split. It was a cool but beautiful Croatian day, and a few crazies in the group even went for a dip in the ice-cold mountain water! The fall colors were stunning.
  • Rane: our city managers introduced us to this heartbreaking movie (translated to “Wounds”) about two kids who get themselves into the murky Belgrade underground scene during the ‘90s. Gun violence, drugs and general disillusionment ensue. And the worst part is that it’s not too far off from the Serb reality during the time of the Yugoslav wars. Rampant inflation and an influx of arms meant shootouts on the streets and starving and cold families. It was amazing to see this movie and then walk down the streets looking at late-20-somethings who lived through all this and imagine what kind of emotional baggage they must be carrying. It served as an everyday reminder that Serbia is still very much trying to rebuild and move on.
  • Our Junction this month found me speaking again, telling about the “time I was famous,” back in my dancer days.

Road Tripping through the Balkans

We rented a car and after some mishaps with rain, having to wait for the car longer than expected, and overall inefficiencies that we’ve come to expect from eastern Europe, we were on the road.

The drive through the Balkans was beautiful, even with the one dirt road we went on, not really sure whether we’d survive it or get blown up by ‘90s-era mines. (Kidding, sort of. People did tell us to stay on the roads, but I’m pretty sure we were ok with a major route like Split-Sarajevo.)

We stopped a couple of times to take in the mountain scenery, the changing colors, and the small villages we passed on the way.

We arrived to Sarajevo and checked into our Airbnb, and started wandering around the city. The first thing we noticed were the bullet holes. Many buildings still bear witness to the siege of the ‘90s that we’d learn about the next day.

We wandered around, had delicious lunch at The Four Rooms of Mrs. Safija, and headed to the old part of town. Sarajevo is a really interesting mix of different cultures. It’s historically been a crossroads where Ottoman Muslims and Austro-Hungarian Christians lived peacefully. It’s also well-known for being the city where Franz Ferdinand was shot, sparking WWI.

The Arabic influences of the city are evident in the numerous minarets, the strong Turkish coffee and coffee culture, and hookah everywhere. I loved the understated pace, the Turkish coffee pots on sale everywhere and the smoke emanating from chimneys, giving me the feeling that I had traveled back in time.

After an early night in a kitschy bar called Zlatna Ribica (“The Goldfish”), we turned in to make it to our early tour the next day. Through Sarajevo Funky Tours, we hired a guide for a half-day tour called Siege of Sarajevo. “You know what you signed up for, yes?” she asked us before we started. Naively, we said yes.

We learned about the tragic recent history of Sarajevo and Bosnia. In 1992-1996, Sarajevo was under siege from the Serbian army, as a result of their desire to follow Slovenia and Croatia and secede from Yugoslavia. We learned about endless shelling becoming part of Sarajevans’ lives, lack of food and medical supplies, and the systematic mass rape and murder of Bosniaks. It’s hard to believe that this happened in my lifetime, with so many eyes watching. We visited the Tunnel of Hope, which was the only way in and out of the city during this time, and was used by Bosnian forces and civilians to sneak in food, medical supplies and weapons during the siege. We strolled down the former Olympic luge (Sarajevo hosted the 1984 Olympics), used a mere six years later as bunkers for Serb forces. Our guide spoke of her personal experiences, including working in reconciliation after the war, something that was nearly impossible due to Serbs’ lack of acceptance of responsibility for the many lives lost and ruined. I remember this time in history, remember seeing war on the news, but never really absorbed what was happening. Seeing the sorrow in our guide’s face, hearing her voice break while talking about this time, was really powerful. “I cannot believe the world let it happen, and I cannot believe it’s happening again,” she said, commenting on present-day Syria.

Later that afternoon, we drove to Mostar, a historical town known for its old bridge (Stare Most), built by the Ottomans in the 15th century. We marveled at the cobblestones, lit up in gold at sunset, and turned in early for the night to watch No Man’s Land, a powerful account of the Bosnian War. It showed with such poignancy the uselessness of the UN during the time, who could not stop any of the fighting but merely offer humanitarian aid, treating the symptoms rather than the problem. It showed how neighbors had turned on each other – people that were basically one and the same, had the same language and customs – because of power-hungry politicians. Everyone was wrong, and no one was.

I ended up reading a lot about the Bosnian War after this: the role that journalists played, since this was one of the first wars that was almost live-stream broadcast all over the world, how, objectively, Serbia was the aggressor, and how the international community truly failed Bosnia by not stepping in sooner. It was a complex conflict, and remains heavily contested to this day (flashback to our Serbian city managers describing Serbs as the victims of US bombing…). But I couldn’t stop thinking about the hundreds of thousands that lost their lives or have broken families forever.

Everything about this trip was beautiful. The scenery, the culture, the sad history. I loved experiencing the slower-pace of Sarajevo and Mostar, reflecting on what we can do as global citizens in the face of the horrors of war, and feeling grateful for so many things in my life that I’ve fallen into by luck: my family, growing up in peace and safety, and having so many opportunities to succeed. Bosnia has rebuilt and is moving on, but the scar of war won’t fade from the collective psyche anytime soon.


2 thoughts on “Week 33: The One Where I Went to Bosnia

  1. I love this post! The pictures are amazing and the story is compelling as well. My wife and I were in Bosnia in November and fell in love. We also spent 9 days in Croatia and hit all the highlights, including Krka and Plitvice Lakes (!!!). Mostar and Sarajevo were magic – we have to go back. If you want to read about it here’s a link to one post that links to our other Balkan posts. https://topochinesvino.com/2016/11/06/ive-a-feeling-were-not-in-croatia-anymore/

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