The border crossing from Montenegro had been brief and peaceful. Whilst the driver handled the passengers’ passport formalities, I unboarded the bus to take a quick piss in a densely green, daisy drizzled field. The warm morning sun gently caressed my back as I relieved myself against the vast backdrop of stunning lush mountains that recalled the idyllic, fairytale Europe last seen deep inside “The Sound of Music”. Yep, my first impressions of Bosnia & Herzegovina were very pleasant indeed, the countryside was just utterly beautiful and as the bus got moving again, I found myself straining to make video’s of the landscapes from out the window as we sped away from Montenegro;
“Wow, Bosnia is lovely and yet nobody ever told me”.
This impression was, however, quickly superseded by an altogether different one, one which would bring a whole new resonance to the “Sound of music” simile…
Republic of Srpska
The first stop inside of Bosnia was some little town not far from the border crossing and the driver announced that we would take a 10-minute coffee break before picking up the new passengers. I still had a few hours more bus time before we reached Sarajevo so decided to recharge my water bottle in the bus station bathroom. Entering the station, I noted that, interestingly, the signs appeared to be written in some form of Cyrillic alphabet rather than the Roman one used just 20km back in Montenegro so I was unable to work out where exactly the bathroom was. I would later learn that this use of Cyrillic is a conscious choice by the Bosnian-Serbs who inhabit the area to amplify their dissonance from Montenegro, Croatia & the west, and to re-assert their own heritage as well as their close ties with Russia.
Even though it was a Saturday afternoon the bus station was very quiet. The female clerk casually sat at an outside table sipping beer with a gentleman whom I presumed to be her husband. “How sweet,” I thought, “Her husband has come to keep her company whilst she works the graveyard shift”. Life in the small towns of Europe’s backroads is often still imbued with a simplicity, tranquility, and contentedness largely lost in the bustle of her aspirational Western nations. The couple smiled sweetly and directed me to the bathroom. They didn’t ask for money or insist that I buy anything, they were happy to let me use their bathroom simply because they had one and I needed it. Ever tried using a random bathroom for free in Paris, Amsterdam or even Halifax, West Yorkshire? Well, usually it doesn’t work…
I emptied my bladder, filled my bottle, washed my hands and headed back towards the bus now readying to move outside on the tarmac. As I did though, something caught my eye and hijacked my attention. Hanging above the ticket desk, in pride of place and ornately framed, hung a photo portrait. The portrait was of a middle-aged, pink-faced man dressed in military fatigues. Whilst I recognised him, I couldn’t remember from where and I could just not place his name or his position.
Back on the bus, some 15 kilometers and some 15 minutes later it hit me. Out of nowhere, without and even giving it a second thought, I suddenly remembered who’s image it was hanging in that frame hung in pride of place above the bus station ticket desk…
It was Ratko Mladic. Ratko Mladic the Serbian general. Ratko Mladic the Serbian warlord. Ratko Mladic, the convicted war criminal found guilty at The Hague for crimes against humanity and complicit in genocide. Ratko Mladic; “The Butcher of Sarajevo”.
With the realisation, my blood ran cold and I shuddered with shivers all down my skin. Sarajevo was my very next stop, the city where Mladic’s brutal legacy, and the legacy of the cruel Bosnian war, are still scarred deep into the city streets and scratched into the hearts, minds, and faces of its inhabitants. And yet out here in the semi-autonomous Bosnian-Serb region of Srpska, he is clearly remembered as something of a hero if not even as a martyr.
Sleepless in Sarajevo
The first thing I noticed upon arrival in Sarajevo was the masses of destitute men sleeping outside the bus station sheltering from the sun under trees, busses and borrowed umbrellas. Whether they were Roma people or refugees from the middle east was hard to say, but either worn out from fatigue or from the scorching summer sun, they were for now at least sleeping serenely and hardly even noticed me pass by.
That night would, however, pass more or less sleeplessly for me partially because of my choice of hostel. Sarajevo is at the very heart of the burgeoning, Balkan backpacker trail and the cities reconstructed old town is now teeming with backpacker hostels where sole travelers can form fast friendships and make new Balkan buddies to go out boozing in the old towns snug cafes and cozy bars. I had however opted for an altogether different hostel experience in Sarajevo.
The War Hostel was opened by its enterprising young owner, known as Zero One, as something of a living museum as much as a hostel. His concept is to allow guests to experience a snippet of life living under the siege of Sarajevo which lasted from 1991 – 1995. The interior walls are laden with dents and bullet holes, bedding consists of roll mats with UN issue, coarse, hair-blankets and the shower room operates only by candlelight. Another feature of the hostel is the omnipresent sound of gunfire and shelling played through speakers hidden in the hallway. The sound plays all day and all night and it was this, along with the hair blanket, the heat and all I had seen that day, that kept me awake into the night.
In Sarajevo, I was introduced to a delicious black beer called Sarajevska which is something of a local specialty and has been brewed in the city more or less consistently for hundreds of years. In Sarajevo though, it is not only the beer that is best served dark as the city is fast establishing itself as a world leader in “dark tourism”. Alongside the usual, generic walking tours, Sarajevo now specialises in “Walking The War” tours that take in “sniper alley”, war graveyards, and shrapnel holes randomly splashed across the cities facades and pavements. Then there are organised day trips to Srebrenica (an”ethnically cleansed” village which saw some of the Balkan wars biggest atrocities) and hikes up into to the hills where tourists can pose with their thumbs up next to the “Danger – Landmines” signs that puncture the forests throughout Bosnia.
Something in Sarajevo had immediately enthralled me and I liked the place straight away. I loved the old trams which still rattled along much as they probably did in 1918 and I totally dug the juxtaposition of communist, functional housing blocks alongside Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian masterpieces. In the (re-built) old town, I photographed the Turkish mosques, admired the pretty souvenirs for sale and, even as a vegetarian, salivated just a little over the smell of grilled meats cooking on outdoor bar-bq’s.
But there was something else about Sarajevo I liked. Something almost tangible somehow hung heavy in the air like some intoxicating aroma. The city felt alive with an integrity and earnestness and I witnessed an assured air of gravitas in the eyes of everybody there that I met. When I conversed with the citizens of Sarajevo, I knew that I was fully conversing with somebody and that I had their full attention. By accident I found myself falling into interesting and meaningful conversations with the waitress’, tram drivers and mostly of course, with Zero One, my landlord. I have experienced similar things in Beirut, Venezuela, and Tel Aviv. Basically, in troubled spots, people seem to appreciate that life can be short and therefore to live in the moment. I can only contrast this with my one month spent in California where nobody ever seemed to want to discuss anything other than the weather and the world series.
I was the only guest at the War Hostel. I had the candle-lit washrooms and bullet dented dormitory all to myself and this just added to the era atmosphere and forced extra time for reflection. In the evenings I conversed at length, in some depth with Zero One. He had been born a few years before the war and many of his earliest memories were of trauma. He had lost several family members during the siege although both of his parents had survived. His home, now the hostel, sat right at the foot of the Trebevic mountain so was directly in the Serbian forces line of fire. As if to bring home the reality of this, he showed me a very short home video which his father had shot one summers afternoon in 1992. The video is like many other family home video’s, a child plays in his backyard whilst his doting, adoring parents look on. Zero One paused the film to point out the shell and bullet damage to the home – what is now the big dormitory (my bedroom) was totally exposed to the elements having had its back wall blown completely off.
There was, however, something else far more troubling about the video. Throughout its 3-minute duration, the sound of gunfire and explosions never lets up. It forms a constant background noise and it is this relentless din which soundtracked Zero One’s childhood and the formative years of thousands of the twenty-somethings walking the streets of Sarajevo today. This cacophony of destruction was the sound of normal daily life for 250,000 people for 5 years. There are also many walking the streets of Sarajevo today with missing limbs; harrowing reminders of the indiscriminate atrocities still been committed 20 years later when some poor soul steps upon an old landmine callously laid back in the 90’s.
With Zero One I discussed life under the siege. We also discussed the causes of the war (the usual mix of power vacuums, nationalism, paranoia, prejudice and intolerance) as well as the indifference of the world which watched the conflict unfold on their TV screens every single night and yet did next to nothing for 5 years. It then became impossible to not draw parallels between what happened in Bosnia in 1995 with what is happening right now elsewhere in the world.
Because it is happening right now in the Middle East, In Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan this is happening as I write and as you read. And what have I ever done about it? How much have I donated to Save The Children, Unicef or the Red Cross? I can afford to spend a month backpacking the Balkans and yet I can’t even put £10 in an appeal box for Syria? I then thought some more. To what extent have I used my voice and my humble platform for communication which is this failing little travel blog, to speak out against the ignorance and refugee-phobia I encounter every single day in the UK?
I and Zero One did discuss my home country of the UK which Zero One recently travelled at length. Despite the many problems in Bosnia, Zero One still feels fortunate not to live in the UK. “You guys have a whole different set of problems. It’s just a very sad place. The drinking culture, the drugs, the violence. Man…its too much”.
How to reconcile the past with the future without the present to mediate?
Perhaps Zero One is needlessly torturing himself by imprisoning himself in his countries dark past. Maybe he is internalising the horrors of an entire nation and carrying the weight of it inside him each and every day that he awakes in his war themed hostel or shows foreign tourists around the shell-shocked, bullet-riddled ruins of Sarajevo. Perhaps he needs to simply to let it go and move on? After all, the past is the past right?
Except of course, that however hard we may wish to deny it, the past very much informs our present. In Sarajevo’s case, the past is like an explosion inside an echo chamber that refuses to fade and instead reverberates endlessly. The reminders of the war are literally everywhere in Sarajevo. Sure, after a while one will come to hardly even notice the mortar holes but the legacy of the war is much broader and deeper than this. The uneasy, US-brokered truce, along with a deeply embedded, embittered sectarian mistrust, has left Bosnia with one of the most shambolic and inefficient political systems on earth. The country has 3 separate presidents (drawn from the 3 major ethnicities) who are supposed to direct the country by accord. Of course, the inevitable consequence of this is ethnic politics, ineffective coalitions, and rife corruption. This has led to a regressive economy with a staggering youth unemployment of 65%; alcohol, drug abuse and suicide is high amongst the generations born without hope. There has been no truth and reconciliation committee and relatively few people have been brought to justice for war crimes. This means that many of the men walking the streets of Sarajevo will have committed unspeakable crimes before returning to their lives without any consequence and I recall the couple I saw sat at the bus station sunning themselves beneath a portrait of Mladic – that man would have been in his 20’s during the war and most probably in one of the Serb militias. Yes, considering all of this, it’s perhaps not quite so easy to simply “forget the past” and move on.
Besides that, forgetting the past in Bosnia can be mortally dangerous. On my second day in Sarajevo, I decided to visit the abandoned Bobsleigh Track which was built for the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, now seen as something of a swan song and last hurrah for the city before its terrible demise. The track is now overgrown with foliage and coloured with graffiti. Tucked into the Trebovic hillside that overhangs the city, it was until very recently quite difficult to locate and was accessed only by the most dedicated urban explorers willing to trek up the mountainside.
This has now changed as in April 2018, the gondola (cable car) which was closed in 1991 during the war, finally re-opened. This is seen as something as a major victory for the city as “re-claiming the mountain” is imbued with psychological and spiritual significance. It was from the Trebovic that Serb military forces bombarded the city for 5 long years and it is because they were so deeply entrenched here that clearing the mountain took so long. And it is because of this that forgetting the past, even for one leisurely afternoon stroll, is potentially fatal…
After checking out the bobsleigh track I decided to hike back down to the city rather than take the gondola cable car. On the way down, I passed a field with the erect shell of a ruined house in it. The house had clearly either been used as a target practice for the encamped Serb forces atop the mountain or had born the brunt of the return fire from the Defenders of Sarajevo. All that is left is the houses concrete skeleton riddled with shell holes. After checking out the house I decided to go “off road” and hike back to the city through the pretty fields and so I set off hiking into the long grass. After 10 minutes or so of walking, I suddenly stopped dead and for the second time in two days, my blood ran cold as panic spread through my body. As if roused from some walking daydream I was flooded with the realisation of where I was and what I was doing.
“This is Bosnia Aiden, the most mined country on earth and here you are deciding to go off-trail for a wander in the most heavily mined party of Sarajevo”.
Shaking with trepidation, I turned around, carefully following my own tracks back to the main road. I would later find out that whilst efforts have been made to mine-sweep this area, even today, unexploded devices are still found here and occasionally, walkers have stepped on them.
Back in the city, I finished my afternoon with a, moderately satisfying, war-themed free tour (I recommend paying for a specialised one and ideally one by the War Hostel) and by checking out a gruesome yet necessary exhibition about the Srebrenica massacre. The next stop was Serbia and Belgrade which wears war scars of its own.
This was my experience of Bosnia and I wish I had had more time to spend in the country. Maybe this all sounds a bit too grim for some of you out there? Well, of course, there is another side to Bosnia. There are the epic waterfalls and the charming old world towns that survived the war. Even within Sarajevo, there is the pleasant vibe of the old town and striking buildings (if you can ignore the odd hole and overlook the fact that many were rebuilt following heavy shelling) to admire. But of course, travel, proper travel is not all about “fun” times and taking it easy. Travel should educate, inform and on occasion terrify. It should cause us to reflect on both how beautiful and how awful this world can be and upon how lucky we are. In Bosnia, I did just that. If you don’t want that from a travel experience then I guess there is always a sun lounger in Benidorm waiting for you – just remember to use plenty of sunscreen.