Warning: Graphic content in this post. Bosnia is a complicated historical situation and this post is my own understanding of it, based on the people we met this week.
After spending a week in Bosnia, it’s hard to know how to describe it. The scenery is gorgeous. The people are friendly and the food is delicious. The reminders from the war are everywhere.
From Dubrovnik we followed the coast to Neum, one of the few Bosnian towns along the coast. Bosnia has only 22 km of coastline, given to the Ottomans by Dubrovnik as a protective buffer against Italian Venice. If Venice were to attack Dubrovnik, the Ottomans would be obliged to defend the city.
We stayed three nights in Mostar, a city that is a perfect blend of Ottoman structures (mostly wooden), Austro-Hungarian buildings (very ornate), and communist hotels (utilitarian). Mostar’s most striking feature is the Old Bridge (“Stari Most”) built in 1566, at that time the longest bridge span in the world (30 meters). It survived up until 1994, when shelling during the war caused its collapse. Ten years later, with help from the international community, the bridge was restored with original pieces from the river Neretva, and once again connects the Muslim and Catholic districts of the town.
From Mostar we took a day trip to Blagaj, a tiny town that sits just at the source of the river Buna. The source of the water is somewhere deep in a mountain, so the water is clean and so cold. We had fresh trout for lunch and looked up at the ruins of a 2nd century Roman fortress up on the hill.
Leaving the southern (Herzegovina) area, we headed to the north (Bosnia). Sarajevo was named after the Turkish word for palace, “Sarai”. Under the Ottomans, a cultural and religious diversity flourished. They accepted Jews when they were expelled from Spain, as they were educated and wealthy and could pay high taxes. Christian Catholics and Byzantine Orthodox were allowed to keep their religions, but had to pay higher taxes and could not get a government job. In this “Jerusalem of the west”, the religious and ethnic groups got along.
In the 19th century the Ottoman Empire gave way to the Austro-Hungarian empire, and modernization happened quickly. One of the first electric trams was tested in Sarajevo, then installed in Vienna, electricity came to the city, and the switch to the Roman alphabet made education more readily available. By 1914, some elements of the population wanted to be free of the Austro-Hungarians, and in 1914 a six man assassination team was sent to Sarajevo to kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Amazingly, the first threw a bomb, which did not injure the Archduke, and they drove right past the other five assassins. Later in the day, Ferdinand requested to go see the injured in the hospital, and that’s when Gavril Princep got him. The dominoes fell, and World War One began. Ironically, four of the assassins received death sentences, but both the bomber and the shooter were still minors, and were released after 20 years.
In 1918, six Balkan nations together formed Yugoslavia under first a monarchy, then after World War II under Josip Broz, who fought under the nom de guerre Tito. Dubbed the “charming dictator”, Tito held the nations together under a socialistic regime, abolishing religions. When he died in 1980, the six nations formed a “collective presidency” but ethnic and religious differences arose. Nationalism won, and by 1991 Yugoslavia began breaking up, with each nation declaring independence and then the others declaring war on them. In 1992 Bosnia declared independence, and the war began here. From 1992-1995, Bosnian Serbs backed by the Serbian government laid siege to Sarajevo- the longest siege in modern history- 44 months. One of their first acts was to burn the national library, destroying over 2 million volumes of cultural history.
Our tour guide Merima was in first grade when the siege began. Teachers came to teach classes when they could in the basement of her family’s apartment building. Snipers on the hillsides shot any one visible in the streets, and an average of 300 mortar shells fell daily. The 1984 Olympic stadium, near downtown, had to be used as a cemetery. In July 1993, 3300 shells fell in one single day. Food was provided by the UN, who held the airport for food, aid, and journalists to cover the war, so the city did not starve. The city’s drinking water was largely provided by underground streams over which a brewery had been built in the 1860s, although to reach the brewery a runner had to cross one of six uncovered bridges under sniper fire. Merima remembers eating bread with dead worms in it, expired canned meat jello, and rice with bugs in it. It is safe to say that life was not comfortable during those years. In the siege, 11,500 Sarajevans died, and 1600 of them were children. Reading first person accounts written later by the snipers is just harrowing, as they thought about who to shoot first: a mother or a child, trying to cross a street. None of the snipers have ever been brought to trial, and many still live in the hills sourrounding the city. Sarajevans have a dark sense of humor, and one of their favorite jokes is “Everyone in Sarajevo is missed by someone- a sniper”. Also: “Sarajevo roulette: more complicated than Russian”.
In July 1995, 8000 Bosniaks (Muslim Bosnians) ranging from infants to old age were exterminated in Srebrenica, a picturesque alpine town that had been under the protection of a Dutch UN battalion. At last this act prompted the world to send in more than just “peacekeepers”, and the UN gave way to more robust NATO air strikes, the presidents of Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia were brought to Dayton Ohio for peace accords. The governing agreement they signed is very strange (3 presidents and 2 prime ministers must agree in order to pass a law- which only happened twice last year), but Bosnians are trying to make peace last. However, before the war, approximately 40% of people had mixed marriages, while now it is closer to 15%. Clearly the groups are trying to get along, but intermingling is rare.
Currently, Bosnia feels hopeful, with universal health care and free education (University is 50 euro per year). But unemployment is at 45%, and many people long for the days when Yugoslavia imported little and produced most of its own goods, and unemployment was 3%. Tourism is a main industry here, and they capitalize on the “east meets west” aspect as well as the war itself and their swift recovery. While you can still see hundreds of bullet holes, mortar impacts, and bombed out buildings, you also see a large percentage of completely renovated and new buildings. There are approximately 50 mosques in Sarajevo, with another 150 in the surrounding hills, about 35 Catholic Churches, and 20 Orthodox Churches. There is one synagogue, with a rabbi flying in once a year from Israel.
I’m very glad we went to Bosnia. Seeing the people in the cities, interacting with tourists and going about the process of rebuilding their cities, is a wonderful thing. However, something in me still thinks that the peace accord signed there is not necessarily fair to everyone, and has not provided justice or closure to a good number of people. I hope that the younger generation of Bosnians can overcome the obstacles that stand in their path of being a unified, healthy nation.
*All historical information in this post is gathered from my tour guides in Mostar and Sarajevo, two museums, a taxi driver originally from Belgrade, and our landlady, who worked at the Diplomatic Mission during the war. I also listened to “The Cellist of Sarajevo” by Stephen Galloway (based on a real incident), and watched Bill Carter’s documentary “Miss Sarajevo”.