In the early 1990s, Bosnia became the scene for one of the ugliest conflicts in recent history. I remember watching the events unfold on TV, and reading news reports about the war crime tribunals afterward, but I had very little idea of what actually happened in the conflict.
Communism had lingered in eastern Europe, but by 1991 the Socialist Yugoslavian Republican had begun to fall apart. The resulting conflict was extremely bloody, and became infamous for the ethnic cleansing and genocide that ensued.
I spent the summer of 2009 traveling overland through Europe and had taken the bus down the Croatian coast to Dubrovnik, once a powerful Byzantine city-state, and now one of the newly popular Adriatic tourist destinations. In 1991, the city was besieged by Serbian forces. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, most of the army defected to Serbia, since around eighty percent of the officers in the force were Serbian. Serbia then began to conquer anywhere that had an ethnic Serbian majority.
Dubrovnik shows little sign of the damage it took during the siege — a small billboard showing the locations of shelling, and a memorial in the side room of a museum were all the evidence I could find of the conflict. Of course it was not Croatia that took the brunt of the war — to see the real impact I would have to travel inland to Bosnia.
I took a bus northeast to Mostar. As the bus entered Bosnia, it passed bullet-scarred apartment blocks and scrub covered alleyways. Mostar takes its name from the Slavic word mostari, which means “Bridge Keepers.” The city’s eponymous bridge spanned the river Nerevata and joined its Serbian and Croat banks. It was destroyed during the war and was rebuilt afterward. It is perhaps the most enduring symbol of the conflict.
I spent my first night in Mostar in a soulless pension — one of the cheap hostels that are hawked by persistent old ladies at the bus station. That night, I heard about Hostel Majda from some fellow backpackers, whom I’d met drinking cheap beer on the rocks below the bridge. The next morning I set off in search, armed with little more than the name. As I walked between tall concrete apartments, pockmarked by bullets, I began to doubt whether this place existed at all.
But after an hour or so of searching I found it, nestled inside a first-floor flat. I had scarcely walked through the door before a great bear of a man, named Bata, thrust a coffee into my hand — Bosnian hospitality is legendary — and booked me on the tour of the area that was about to leave.
Bata led me down to the minibus, speaking a hundred words a minute, a smile fixed permanently on his face. I squeezed onto the bus — the eighteenth passenger in a bus registered for eight.
“Put on your seat belts,” Bata told us. He saw our confused looks, and beamed, “spiritually, I mean.”
We drove erratically through the back streets of Mostar, with Bata talking at mind-boggling speed. We passed a popular local club that shook with fast beats and Slavic singing: “Turbo-folk — it is taking over the Balkans, something the army could never do.”
Soon we were among the skeletons of buildings in the old financial district, Bata pointed out a sniper’s nest above us. Bata is a Bosniak, and was living in the city as the chaos descended. He tells us about the saboteurs who started the conflict by blowing up a truck; about being hunted by the Croats; about having his life saved by an ex-classmate; about hiding behind chimneys and escaping the concentration camps.
It’s an incredible story. We sit, sweating, cramped, but paying rapt attention, in the back of the minibus.
Before the war, the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milošević, met with the Croat leader, Franjo Tuđman, to draft the Karađorđevo agreement, which discussed the division of Bosnia between Serbia and Croatia. Bosnia is inhabited by Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks, who are predominantly Roman Catholics, Serbian Orthodox Christians, and Muslims, respectively. The nationalism that provoked the conflict exploited these differences by promoting the partitioning of Bosnia under the guise of national unity. Croatians and Serbians alike were motivated by the chance to consolidate the territory of their religious compatriots. The Muslim Bosniaks were caught between the two factions.
Bata summarizes the situation: “The Croats wanted the North bank, the Serbs wanted the South, and the Bosniaks were meant to leave down the river.”
The Dayton Agreement, signed in December of 1995, finally ended the fighting, but Bata explains that the tensions are still there, bubbling under the surface.
The majority of Mostar is now owned by ethnic Croats, and so many Croatian tourists visit the city that apparently it is forbidden for tour guides to mention that Croatian forces were the ones who destroyed the old bridge. The skyline of Mostar is dominated by a pair of huge Latin crosses: one that stares down at the city from what used to be a Croat fortification, where Croatian soldiers rolled truck tires filled with dynamite down onto civilian houses, the other atop the most imposing church steeple I have ever seen.
Even the beer tells the story of this silent rift. Sarajevsko beer, the biggest Bosnian beer, is unavailable anywhere on the Croatian side of Mostar, whereas Ožujsko, a Croatian beer, flows freely. Apparently bars serving Sarajevsko are forced out of business.
One might expect that the Bosniaks may bear hatred toward the ethnic groups that still discriminate toward them. But Bata explains that the opposite is true: “They say I hate you, I say I love you back, they don’t sell our beer, I drink theirs.”
Bata spends the rest of the tour showing us more of the Bosnian spirit. He talks about the medieval Bogomils from who he draws the inspiration for his philosophy of forgiveness, and shows us the incredible natural beauty of Bosnia by taking us to stunning waterfalls.
By the end of the tour I have a massive respect for the Bosniaks who returned to their homes after the war, determined to build a future in spite of downright intimidation.
The next day I walk to a bombed out bank that I saw during the tour. I climb carefully up the concrete staircase, which is littered with shattered glass and shell casings. On the second floor filing cabinets full of paper have been tipped across the floor. I look through the documents and find birth certificates, letters — the records of people’s whole lives are here, forgotten amongst the dripping concrete ruins.
I’m sitting on the terrace at Hari’s Hostel in Sarajevo, looking down through the humid haze at the city, and sipping on thick Bosnian coffee. The midday call to prayer echoes from the city’s minarets.
It is a good place to reflect upon what I have seen of the region. A fellow traveler told me not to take sides in anything I see, but it is hard for me not to get emotionally involved in a conflict where I have seen the evidence of the slaughter of innocents, a conflict where rape was used as a weapon, where eight thousand men were murdered trying to escape from a UN safe area at Srebenica. Every time I see the haunted look on a face I realise that if I had been here, I would have been amongst the fighting. This isn’t just history — this happened during my lifetime.
But Bata’s attitude brings me a little solace — the prejudices may still be there, but at least people are beginning to rebuild their lives.
A thunderstorm rolls overhead and in minutes a heavy downpour cuts through the humid air. Selena, one of the charming ladies who work at the hostel, brings me another pot of the potent coffee.
“Forgive, but never forget,” Bata said. “We forgot about the Second World War, and it all happened again.”
I think that is the message that I will take from the region. Humans are capable of great inhumanity. The atrocities of the conflict echo the countless conflicts that have happened before, and which continue to happen. Unless we remember them and remain vigilant, they will happen again.
Before I came to the region, Bosnia was a name synonymous with conflict. As I leave, I understand that it encompasses so much more: hardships, beauty, and most of all forgiveness in the face of oppression.
I feel a little bit Bosnian.