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Heartbreak in Bosnia

For a very long time I have wanted and indeed resolved to visit Bosnia much to the bemusement of others. I don’t have any particular reasons just perhaps memories of a mesh of random pictures I stumbled upon at one point of the breathtaking beauty of Sarajevo and Mostar. Beauty which, when offset with the horrors the country is known for, the brutal, tragic war it has become synonymous with is all the more surprising, all the more potent. I admit I did not know too much about the complex and bloody history of Bosnia which is shameful considering I studied War for three years at university and it is such a recent event in ‘history’. Nonetheless, I wanted to go and so I planned a 5 day holiday for Ali and I shortly after our wedding as a surprise wedding gift. This was not wholly selfish as I knew that Ali had also wanted to visit Bosnia, so added bonus. Sarajevo was our base during our stay with day trips elsewhere. We stayed in two different places – for the first night we stumbled upon the most beautiful rustic two storey traditional house in the old town for our exclusive use.  Down a windy cobbled alley and with a huge wooden traditional door that looked like it had its own instagram filter and for the remaining nights we stayed at Bristol Hotel Sarajevo.

The rustic Sarajevo house we stayed in
The rustic Sarajevo house we stayed in

Sarajevo is undoubtedly beautiful. Situated in a valley it is surrounded by luscious green hills and streams of water. Conquered by the Ottoman Empire the Turkish influence is tangible – from the influence on food, the bazaars and the architecture it can be reminiscent of Istanbul at times.

The Shisha

The old town is made up of windy cobbled narrow streets. Trendy bars and clubs have prime place here showing the old versus the new. The Muslim call to prayer can be heard over the music and chatter from the bars. Shisha is quite big in the old town; groups of friends can be seen and heard smoking and drinking in the cafes surrounding the open squares till the early hours. Ali and I seem to have accidentally formed a travel tradition of sampling shisha in most countries we travel to and we were not about to make an exception here. We found a quieter shisha café in one of the squares and took a seat outside to have our pomegranate and something shisha (language barriers prevented us from understanding what secondary fruit this shisha entailed). We were both well and truly blown away; the flavor sweet without being sickly, thick but somehow so clear and therapeutic. It tasted simple and refined- from smoking shisha in North Africa to the Levant this was by far the best shisha I have ever had.

The Food

One of the most important factors for us in travel, in fact in life generally, is food. I have tried to fight this, suppress it, control it, and tame it but to no avail. Food is the most one of the most important things to me that I fully embrace now. A very traditional Sarajevo meal is beef kebabs in fresh bread with sliced onions. This might sound basic but the best food always is – not one to eat a lot of beef in London I really enjoyed this.

Cevapi - Sarajevo specialty beef kebabs, bread and onion
Cevapi – Sarajevo specialty beef kebabs, bread and onion
The famous Borek - pastry filled with cheese and spinach or meat, a must try in Sarajevo!
The famous Borek – pastry filled with cheese and spinach or meat, a must try in Sarajevo!

The other standard Turkish influenced food fare was also available in plentiful supply – stuffed peppers, dolma, meat balls in yoghurt etc. Sarajevo valley is surrounded by hill tops which are great for views over the whole city. There are a few highly rated swanky restaurants high up in these hill tops which we happily tried.

The view from the mountain top restaurants
The view from the mountain top restaurants

Mostar

No trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina would be worth the airfare without visiting Mostar which lies in the Herzegovina region and considered the cultural capital. From reading seat 66 I knew that the three hour train journey from Sarajevo to Mostar is claimed to be beautiful with stunning scenery. Both Ali and I go gaga crazy for train journeys – him for geeky engineering reasons, and me due to rail travel nostalgia born out of romanticized books harking back to the days of empire. The train was old, extremely spacious and a smoker’s paradise – slightly uncomfortable for non smokers but we just dealt with it and coughed out of the window. The journey it self did not disappoint – it had all the ingredients of an epic train journey; luscious green hills, valleys, streams, rail tracks suspended mid air traversing through luscious green hills over streams and viaducts (viaducts!!!! I bloody love viaducts). The best part was that the train stops at a number of ‘stations’ along the way, I say stations, but they were essentially just remote little shabby sheds where a plump little Bosnian man with an Ottoman empire throwback moustache would come out and signal something to the train driver then go back to his day until the next train comes in. Before arriving to Mostar I had seen both beautiful and devastating images of the famous UNESCO World Heritage Old Bridge from which Mostar derived its name, literally meaning ‘bridge keeper’ in the local language. The bridge – one of the most recognizable landmarks in the country – was built in the 16th century by the Ottomans and stood for 427 years until it was destroyed by Croat forces during the war. Whilst the bridge was reconstructed and opened in 2004 it serves as a potent metaphor of the devastation of war which destroys legacies, history and monuments in its wake along with lives and innocence. Though efforts are made to rebuild after, it is never the same as life before war; the bricks slightly out of place, the structure weakened, the simple beauty turned into artificial facade. The Old Bridge is set in beautiful surrounds that you could sit there and watch the world go by for a good few hours against the backdrop of the Niretva River and imposing mountains.

The famed Old Bridge in Mostar
The famed Old Bridge in Mostar

The city is also part of a famous Catholic pilgrimage route to nearby Medgugorje so there were large groups of Italian pilgrims, many of whom had never seen a hijabi before. Suffice to say I became a tourist attraction myself and can today be found in holiday albums posing with tens of elderly Italian Catholics on the Old Bridge. Mostar is one of the most ethnically segregated parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina today and the tension is tangible if you wonder beyond the touristy bubble of central Mostar and deeper into the city. Walking around a Croat mall I have never been so aware of my brown face, add to that a brown husband, and if that wasn’t bad enough, add a hijab to the mix and it made for some extremely uncomfortable window shopping.

Derelict buildings beyond the tourist bubble of central Mostar home to interesting art work and graffiti
Derelict buildings beyond the tourist bubble of central Mostar home to interesting art work and graffiti

All in all, Mostar was definitely a highlight of the trip and no journey to Bosnia & Herzegovina would be complete without Mostar on the itinerary.  

The War

When in Bosnia, you cannot escape Bosnia. That is, the war of 1992-1995. In the midst of trendy Sarajevo, the narrow roads, the picturesque bridges over the stream that runs through the capital, over the sweet smell of sheesha in the numerous squares of the old town you will see graves, hoards of graves. Graves in parks, graves on hills, graves on green plots of land – graves with one disturbing thing in common. Date of Death: 1993. A sea of graves everywhere, not of people who have lived full lives and died of old age surrounded by family. These were the graves of the victims of war, people who had full lives that were not destined to be lived because the drums of war had decreed otherwise.

Sarajevo - The city of graveyards
Sarajevo – The city of graveyards
Bullet hole buildings - a constant reminder of the war
Bullet hole buildings – a constant reminder of the war

This constant reminder served as the backdrop to everything else, for me, as a visitor to this country. To learn more about the war we went to the Srebrenica genocide museum in central Sarajevo. For those not familiar with the Srebrenica genocide or the wider Bosnian war here is some highlevel context: (how can war be turned into context, high-level at that? How clinical and vulgar language can be in trivializing human life and the devastation of War). Following the breakup of the Yugoslavia in 1992 Bosnia declared independence which triggered years of war due to the complex ethnic make up; Serbian, Croation and Bosniak (Muslims). The Serbs, supported by Serbia’s Milosoveic and the Yugoslav National Army came to control 70% of Bosnia-Herzegovina through ethnic cleansing, war crimes and genocide – this brings us to Srebrenica. Srebrenica is a small city located in the east near the countries border with Serbia. At the start of the war the city was under the control of the Army of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina which caused an influx of internally displaced people from surrounding areas into Srebrenica. In 1993 the UN declared Srebrenica a UN Safe Area under the protection of The United Nations Protections Force (UNPROFOR) and herein lies the tragedy. As a UN Safe Area Bosnians flocked to Srebrenica seeking safety and refuge from War – what they got however was the greatest European atrocity since World War 2. The UN Protections Force was made up of around 400 Dutch ‘peacekeepers’ carrying light weapons they did not know how to use, so when the Serbian forces attacked the town in 1995 little was done to resist them and the Bosniaks paid the ultimate price.  Men and boys were systematically rounded up and massacred. Up to 50,000 women and girls were raped in organized, systematic fashion by gangs of soldiers. In those few days following the fall of Srebrenica over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were massacred.  What occurred in Srebrenica, a UN Safe Zone where people had flocked to for safety and respite from the war, was genocide.

The Srebrenica Genocide Museum

The museum was practically empty when we arrived – the design very modern and minimalistic feeling more like a trendy arts exhibition than a museum. Large black and white images were displayed on the walls – images from Srebrenica. The names of victims inscribed on canvases at the outset…names, endless names. What was particularly disturbing were the pictures of graffiti in Srebrenica…some of which was graffiti by the Dutch UN peace keepers. For genocide to be possible the perpetrators embark on a campaign to dehumanize the victim population, reducing them to ‘unpeople’ who have no worth that can be wiped out in methodical massacres. This was evident here with the Serbian army, however what was extremely difficult to stomach was that the ‘peacekeepers’ charged with the protection of this ethnic group partook in the campaign to strip them of their dignity and humanity.

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Public opinion in Srebrenica regarding the UN
Shocking graffiti by the Dutch UN "Peacekeeping" Soldiers
Shocking graffiti by the Dutch UN “Peacekeeping” Soldiers

The museum is intentionally set up to start with the dead victims and end with the survivors of Srebrenica via survivor testimony videos on large individual screens with headphones. The testimonies are purposefully simple; no probing questions or interjecting interviewer just the survivor retelling their story in their own words. Watching video after video of different testimonies was one of the most heartbreaking experiences of my life. I cannot attempt to retell or even articulate the sense of pain of hearing these stories I can only suggest that maybe you will take some time to watch one or two or a few of these testimonies as these are all available online here. To give a voice to people who have purposefully been denied humanity (and continue to be) is not something to dismiss- to listen to their stories is to ensure that one of the worst atrocities to happen in recent history is not forgotten. Returning from our trip to Bosnia & Herzegovina many people asked us if we would recommend Bosnia as a holiday destination, if it was ‘the new Turkey, with less tourists’. My answer is no. If you want a feel good holiday with quaint bazaars and rustic shopping finds then Istanbul is great especially in spring. Bosnia & Herzegovina cannot be experienced in isolation from the Bosnian War – to attempt to do so is futile and callously reductive. If you are willing to engage with the tragedy of the War whilst having your senses shaken and your heart broken then make your way… 2013-05-30 11.39.24

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