Beyond Bullets: Learning about Bosnia
August 26, 2011 § 4 Comments
When we first told people we planned to visit Eastern Europe, reactions were mixed. Some questioned why we would want to visit “a bunch of war-torn countries with bullet holes everywhere”. Coming to Bosnia was just that – our opportunity to see those bullet holes, but also to see beyond the limited view we had from the media snippets in the 90s. As we were in junior high during the Bosnian War, we had little recollection of what happened. Even hearing the events firsthand from people who lived it was confusing at first, trying to piece together the many interests at stake. The Orthodox Serbs fought to hold the crumbling nations together for Greater Serbia. The Catholic Croats partaking in the land grab to establish their new post-Yugoslavia state. The Muslim Bosniaks quite literally caught in the middle being pushed from all sides. Visiting the actual sites of the events, getting to know the people, seeing the more beautiful parts of the country made our week in the Bosnian cities of Mostar and Sarajevo a living learning experience.
We exhausted the tourist sites in the town of Mostar, Bosnia in just a couple of hours. That included wandering the old Turkish town, viewing the spectacular reconstructed Stari Most bridge, and climbing the former bank turned sniper tower, just near the front line during the Bosnian war. The abandoned building is just as it was over 15 years ago with broken glass and bullet shells amidst official bank documents. But the real reason Mostar will remain in our memory is probably due to the tour for which we purposefully lingered an extra day.
Bata, our infamous tour guide, started the 13 hour tour off with a bootcamp-like drill, lining us up outside and barking warnings to try and scare us off before we even boarded the van. After all 11 of us persisted, he proceeded to make tongue in cheek jokes about backpackers, how we are “not regular tourists” and how we are actually “world conquerers”. With a start like this, how could you not love him?
We toured everything from an up and coming holy Catholic site to a centuries old Muslim holy site. Catholic believers are in the process of proving the 1981 miracle to the Vatican, when 6 children claim to have seen an apparition of the virgin in Medugorje. This has transformed a middle of nowhere spot into a non-stop tourist pilgrimage. The Muslim spot is marked by a whirling dervish lodge/Sufi monastery positioned just over a seemingly endless source of fresh water which has proved deadly to several divers who have attempted to gauge just how deep it is.
The real excitement came when we got to swim in this idyllic waterfall setting. We explored the caves behind the waterfalls and also indulged in some cliff diving. Luckily we had a daring Kiwi in our group who literally tested the waters at each jump site so all we had to do was follow. The first jump was at around 4 meters. Since we successfully cleared the nearby rocks, Bata decided to show us the even more daring (some might say crazier) spot where we could jump 9 meters into the chilling water below. I guess we can add cliff diving to our list of adventure sports!
And don’t forget the food. Burek, the local pastry of filo dough filled with spinach, cheese, or minced meat was our midday treat. We got to see and FEEL the heat of the fire-oven room in a traditional bakery where ladies slave in 100 degree heat to concoct the tasty, filling snack. Later, we stopped for traditional “Bosnian” coffee at a local woman’s house, and played “guess the flavored soda” made with syrups from the fruits, flowers, and herbs from her garden. We topped off the day with a dinner of cevapi, the minced meat served in finger-like shapes (don’t dare call them meatballs or sausages!).
Throughout the day, Bata provided invaluable commentary on his family’s experience as Muslims during the war. A caring Croat neighbor hid Bata until he was able to flee. Bata made it to Sweden before the borders were closed to additional refugees. His sister made it to the UK, and his parents were directed to yet another country. He recounted the even more ancient history of the surrounding area as we visited a nearby medieval village. And he kept things ever lively playing Serbian “Turbofolk” music, urging us to turn the van into a nightclub on wheels, complete with discoball and strobe lights.
Bata’s tour has since become the bench mark for all of our other tours and tour guides. The tour is so well-known that at any hostel in the surrounding Balkan countries, you can simply mention Mostar and you are likely to hear a nearby traveler chime in with his/her recount of the Bata tour.
In contrast to Mostar where there remain ubiquitous bullet holes and half-destroyed buildings, Sarajevo has nicely covered over most its war wounds, at least the superficial ones. We toured the Turkish old town and got a sense for the multiculturalism that was once thriving in this part of the world – within a few blocks there is a synogauge, a mosque, and both orthodox and catholic churches!
When Sarajevo was attacked by Serb troops in 1992, everyone was surprised at the rag tag Bosnian army’s ability to keep the Serbs from entering the city. However, with the city surrounded, there was no way for the locals to obtain food and ammo reinforcements. A 3,000+ foot long tunnel was built to ferry supplies from the free part of Bosnia, underneath the neutral UN zone, to the inner Bosnian zone, unbeknownst to Serb forces. We visited the tunnel museum just outside the city and heard from our former-soldier-turned-tour-guide about what the standoff meant for the citizens trapped inside Sarajevo. Life carried on during the 4 years that the city was under siege, but normal came to mean hearing bullets ring out daily. Gathering food and fuel could be an all day affair since supplies were scarce and citizens had to dodge sniper fire from Serbs in the hillside. Within the so-called “Ring of Sarajevo”, Bosnians did not exit and the Serbs did not enter.
Visiting certainly broadened our previously limited view of the country and gleaned some light on the history and culture. We don’t claim to be any sort of scholars on the historical events or the ongoing political situation (it’s actually still composed of 2 autonomous republics, schools are still segregated by religion, etc). However, we hope you too can learn something and enjoy some great sites from Bosnia and Herzegovina in our photo album.