This was our first stop ever in Bosnia and indeed, the first new country we’ve been to all year. Technically we were in Bosnia once before, four years ago when a bus we were taking to Dubrovnik stopped ever-so-briefly for coffee in a tiny stretch of Bosnia that runs to the coast and separates a piece of Croatia (including Dubrovnik) from the rest of the country, but we don’t count a tiny experience like that as having been to a country. Four nights though – one in Mostar and three in Sarajevo – definitely counts. Oh, and technically we were in Bosnia and Herzegovina but I am just too lazy to use the whole name. So Bosnia it is.
To most of us, of course, the name Bosnia evokes the terrible and complex Bosnian War that raged from 1992 to 1995. Yugoslavia was breaking up, with Croatia and Slovenia having declared independence, and Bosnia followed. It was more complicated there, though, because Bosnia was more ethnically diverse than other Yugoslav republics; at the time of independence the population was slightly less than half Bosniak Muslims, a third Roman Catholic Croats, and a little under a fifth Orthodox Serbs. The three groups had hated each other for centuries and this was the time to fight it out.
The Serbs in particular rejected the notion of independence and, allied with Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, they went to war. Initially the Bosnian Croats aligned with the Bosniaks but by late 1992 they split off and started what was essentially a war-within-a-war. And an ugly war it was.
From the comfort of our Stateside homes we watched war crimes like ethnic cleansing, as Serbians attempted to eradicate Bosniak Moslems from land they held, and mass rape; it is estimated that anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 Bosniaks were raped by Serbian soldiers. The Siege of Sarajevo lasted nearly four years, nearly a year longer than the Siege of Leningrad in World War II. In Srebrenica Serbians captured the town, which was supposed to be under the protection of Dutch UN troops. The troops stood aside as the Serbians rounded up all the men and boys they could find and executed them, some 8,000 in all.
That’s what I vaguely recalled from 20-plus years ago. Today the signs of war are all around – mass gravestones, shelled buildings – but it’s obvious that Bosnia is recovering. Many of the Serbian leaders, both those in Serbia proper and Bosnian Serbs, were convicted of war crimes, though sadly Slobodan Milosevic died of natural causes before he could be convicted and punished. Both Serbia and Croatia have formally apologized to Bosnia and, from our tiny experience, it seems as though today Bosnia is a peaceful and increasingly prosperous place.
Traveling for a few days with our friends Marc & David, we journeyed by bus northwest from Dubrovnik along the coast quite a ways before turning north for Mostar. We found a beautiful town of about 100,000 people, the most important town in Herzegovina, the southern region that makes up about a fifth of the Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was built by the Ottomans in the 15th century and named for the “Stari Most”, the Old Bridge, today a UNESCO World Heritage Site that spans the Neretva River and is the iconic symbol of the town. The bridge stood for over 400 years until Croat forces intentionally destroyed it, hitting it with perhaps 60 shells before it collapsed into the river. After the war, though, an international effort the rebuild the bridge was successful, using not just the same materials but even the same technology that would have been available 400 years earlier.
We had just a brief, one-night stop in Mostar, but we enjoyed the town and had a nice introduction to Balkan cuisine. The signs of war were unmistakable in the remaining bombed out buildings, but the signs of recovery were just as obvious. The next day it was back on a bus, this time through some stunning mountains en route to Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital. Though subjected to the longest siege in modern warfare, the city is again today thriving. Apparently Moslems from Emirates and Saudi Arabia love Sarajevo: they can enjoy Europe here without all the restrictions of their home countries without experiencing any of the anti-Moslem prejudices that they are likely to encounter in Christian-majority countries. So the city is full of restaurants and nightlife and apparently prostitutes catering to those Moslem tourists. It is not at all unusual to see women walking down the street in full burka and in at least one Lebanese restaurant we went to we were unable to get wine (horrors!).
I was reminded once we got to Sarajevo that, besides the Bosnian War, Sarajevo once played a big role in world history: it was here that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated, the fuse that started World War I. To my surprise – I have this naive sense that political assassinations are bad – Gavrilo Princip, the Bosnian Serb assassin seems to be treated as something of a hero in Sarajevo. The Archduke did, after all, represent the imperial ruling power from whom Bosnia wanted independence.
And again, reminders of the more recent war were omnipresent, particularly in the cascading cemeteries everywhere. I walked through one large cemetery with probably thousands of graves, every single one of which were dated between 1992 and 1995. It was a horrifying experience. And after that, while walking back to the hotel, I passed the city’s Jewish museum, housed today in an old synagogue that was abandoned after the holocaust. There were some 12,000 Sephardic Jews living in Sarajevo at the start of World War, very few of whom survived. And thus in very short order we have the history of the 20th century: a World War that eliminated the Ottoman, German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires; Germans practicing genocide against Jews, and Orthodox Serbs practicing ethnic cleansing and genocide against Moslems. Nice century there.