The Balkans

Peter Braden
7th July 2009
Sarajevo, Bosnia

In the early 1990's, as Yugoslavia fell apart, Bosnia became the scene for one of the ugliest conflicts in recent history. I have a few memories of watching the events unfold on TV, and of the numerous trials for war crimes that happened afterwards, but I had very little idea of what had actually happened.

I had taken the bus down the Croatian coast to Dubrovnik, once one of the powerful city states on the Adriatic, and now a major tourist destination. In 1991, the city was besieged by Serbian forces. After the fall of communism, the Yugoslavian army and it's weapons were largely inherited by Serbia, as around 80% of the officers in the force were Serbian. With this powerful army, Serbia began their mission of to take all land with an Serbian ethnic 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 headed North-East to Mostar. As the bus enters Bosnia it passes bullet scarred apartment blocks. Mostar means 'Bridge Keepers' — it's eponymous bridge is perhaps the most enduring symbol of the conflict — joining ethnically differing banks, destroyed during the war, rebuilt after the conflict.

I spent my first night in one of the soulless pensions in the city, but heard about Hostel Majda from some fellow backpackers who I met drinking the cheaper-than-water beer below the bridge. The next morning I set off in search, armed with little more than a name. As I walked between tall concrete apartments, pockmarked by bullets, I began to feel twinges of doubt.

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 coffee was thrust into my hand — Bosnian hospitality is legendary — and I was booked on the about-to-leave tour of the area.

Bata, a great Bosnian bear, speaking a hundred words a minute, a smile fixed permanently to his face, led me down to the minibus. I was squeezed onto the bus — the 18th passenger in a bus registered for eight.

Put on your seatbelts, Bata told us, then seeing our confused looks, he beamed, spiritually I mean.

We drove erratically through the back streets of Mostar, Bata maintaining a commentary at brain boggling speed; we pass a popular local club — Turbo-folk is taking over the Balkans, something the army could never do.

Within a few streets though, we are among the skeletons of buildings in the old financial district, on the city's front line, a snipers nest above us. Bata is a Bosniak, and was living in the city as the chaos descended. He tells us his story — of the saboteurs who kick started the conflict by blowing up a truck; of being hunted by the Croats; of having his life saved by an ex-classmate; of hiding behind chimneys and escaping the concentration camps and execution.

It's an incredible story and we sit rapt and sweating in the back of the minibus.

Before the war, the Serbian leader, Milošević, met with the Croat leader, Tuđman, to draft the Karađorđevo agreement, which discussed the division of Bosnia between Serbia and Croatia. While the conflict is often discussed in terms of the armies involved, the real source of division is the region's patchwork of ethnic groups.

Bosnia is made up of Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks, each group linked to a religion. The nationalism that provoked the conflict exploited these differences promoting the partitioning of Bosnia under the guise of unity, joining predominantly Serbian regions with Serbia and Croation areas with Croatia. The Muslim Bosniaks were caught between the two factions.

Things were worsened for the Bosnian loyalists by the weapons embargo imposed by the UN. Croatia had access to weapons via its coastline and from Nazi sources to the north, and Serbia had inherited the majority of the JNA's arsenal. The Bosniaks were therefore trapped with no means to defend themselves.

Bata summarises the situation: The Croats wanted the North bank, the Serbs wanted the South, and the Bosniaks were meant to leave down the river.

The fighting finished more than 10 years ago, as the international community finally pressurised a cease-fire onto the table, but Bata explains that the conflict is 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 it was Croatian forces that destroyed the old bridge. Religious symbols are used as taunts — a huge cross stares down at the city from the former site of one of the biggest Croat fortifications, from where during the conflict truck tires filled with dynamite were rolled down onto civilian houses. The skyline of Mostar is dominated by one of the most imposing church steeples I have ever seen — monolithic concrete topped with an iron cross.

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.

It is a sobering and sad realisation that, while the fighting may have stopped, the war continues. But Bata's attitude brings me a lot of hope; one might expect the Bosniaks to bear hatred towards the ethnic groups that still discriminate against them, but Bata explains his philosophy: 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 this Bosnian spirit — telling us about the roots of his lack of bitterness in the philosophy of the region's medieval Bogomils and showing 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 and rise above the discrimination.

The next day I walk (a little sorely - I bruised my heels jumping of an 11m bridge during the tour) to the bombed out bank we saw during the tour. I climb carefully up the cracked concrete staircase amongst shattered glass and spent cartridges. I don't venture far from the graffiti, mindful of the potential for unexploded ordinance, but on the second floor the impact of the war is driven home. Here filing cabinets full of paper have been tipped across the floor. I look through the documents and find birth certificates, letters — people's whole lives are here, amongst the shattered glass and dripping concrete.

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.

The city is surrounded by landmine strewn hillsides, where during the siege of Sarajevo, snipers would pick off civilians; tanks and mortars raining down indiscriminate shells and terror. The markets where people gathered to barter for goods smuggled into the city through a tunnel under the airport were a favorite target and almost every one was the site of a massacre.

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 not to get emotionally involved in a conflict where innocents were slaughtered in such numbers, where rape was used as a weapon, where eight thousand men were murdered trying to escape from a UN safe area at Srebenica.

But Bata's attitude brings me a little solace — the inhuman acts of evil were by individuals, and one cannot rest blame upon a side, or army. The prejudices may still be there, but at least the refugees can return and begin to rebuild their lives.

A thunderstorm rolls overhead and in minutes a heavy tropical downpour is cutting through the humid air. Selena, who works at the hostel, brings me another coffee as I watch the rivulets of rain plunge down to the courtyard.

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, in Palestine for example. And through the evils that have taken place we have the solution in the Bosnian Spirit. The forgiveness that is displayed here is far more holy than the atrocities that have taken place in the name of religion.

Before I came to the region I had no idea of what had happened here, and perhaps we are all guilty of ignoring the evils that are happening. When I came here, in my mind Bosnia was a name synonymous with conflict, as I leave it has taken on a very different meaning — of hardships, of beauty, but most of all a spirit of forgiveness in the face of oppression.

I feel a little bit Bosnian.