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september 27, 2004 -> bosnia 101

Four days, a local contact, an ex-soldier, and an excellent history book was all it took to finally understand Bosnia.  On our trip, we have learned a tremendous amount about the world, but perhaps nowhere as much, in as little time, as we did in Bosnia. 

We added Bosnia to our itinerary at the last moment.  My mother's friend's daughter, Riley, was working in Sarajevo.  If not for that admittedly tenuous link, we might not have visited the country at all.  On the morning we arrived (by bus from Zagreb, the capital of Croatia) we met Riley for lunch.  She began to answer our myriad questions about the country, but was pressed for time, and encouraged us to speak to her friend Amir - a freelance journalist and ex-soldier who leads historical tours of the city. 

We arranged to meet Amir the next evening, hoping to follow him on an abbreviated walking tour of Sarajevo.  Instead, fierce rain sent us scurrying to a local restaurant.  Over the next two hours, Amir carefully explained the history of Bosnia, stopping frequently to answer our questions.  When he began to talk about the 1992-1993 siege of Sarajevo, we both sensed the emotion in his voice and knew something terrible was coming.  It was.  He had lost his father and his grandmother in the conflict.  The most tragic thing is that his story is far from unique – it is all too common in Sarajevo.  After dinner, in driving rain, Amir led us to the spot where the Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in June 1914, the event that precipitated World War I.  We returned to our apartment soaked to the bone, but beaming with our new knowledge. 

If the Balkan conflict seems an unsolvable puzzle, it is mostly due to confusing terminology and misinformation.  The most important thing to learn is that Bosnia is not a place of ‘ancient ethnic hatred,' as it is often portrayed.  Croats, Serbs and Bosnians are all Southern Slavic people – or Yugoslavs – descendents of Slavic tribes that migrated to the Balkan Peninsula in the 6th and 7th centuries CE.  Any ancient ethnic rivalries, therefore, are inventions of the mind, not products of the genes.  The Croat, Serbian, and Bosnian languages are essentially the same thing.  Everyone understands each other.   

Bosnia sits at the tidemark of several great empires: the Catholic Austro-Hungarian Empire, Eastern Orthodox Tsarist Russia, and the Muslim Ottoman Empire.  Whereas Slovenia and Croatia are predominantly Catholic, Serbia Eastern Orthodox, and Albania Muslim, Bosnia has been influenced by all three Empires, all three religions.  Though a majority of Bosnians are Muslim, large numbers of Catholic and Eastern Orthodox believers exist.  Oddly, in the Balkans, it is a man's religion that determines his ‘ethnic' identity.  Croat essentially means Catholic, Serb means Eastern Orthodox, and Bosnian means Muslim.  Thus, a Bosnian Serb is simply a person living in Bosnia who identifies with the Eastern Orthodox faith.  For centuries, people of all of three religions lived together in relative peace (the Ottoman Empire was known for its tolerance) – particularly in Sarajevo, which is highly multi-religious.  Intermarriage between people of different religions had been (and still is) common. 

Like most wars, the modern struggle for Bosnia was essentially about power, land and money.  Under Tito, the Yugoslav government in Belgrade had been relatively even-handed in its treatment of the different republics and religions.  After Tito's death, however, Serbian ultra-nationalists (crowned by Slobodan Milosevic) began to concentrate Yugoslavia's political power and wealth on Belgrade, and Serbia.  The Yugoslav Army, once composed of troops from all the republics, was quickly transformed into a Serb force. 

When Slovenia (the richest of the republics) declared independence in 1991, Slobodan sent in the troops - which were routed in 10 days.  Croatia declared independence at the same time; soon after Serbs (and Montenegrins) shelled Dubrovnik.  Rather than let Bosnia gain independence, Milosevic ordered the shelling of Sarajevo.  This unprovoked fusillade that would turn into a 4-year siege that left more than 12,000 dead and 50,000 wounded.  Noel Malcolm's “Short History of Bosnia” is the best way to come to grips with the country's complex past.  A testament to the lies and half-truths told inside and outside Bosnia, the author spends much of his time debunking commonly-held truisms. 

Sarajevo is a weeping beauty.  It is almost unbearable.  The surrounding mountains give the city the feel of an Alpine hamlet - a bucolic ambience rare for a capital city.  One is immediately struck by a desire to climb these hills and view the city from above, but no right-minded person would, for the hillsides are strewn with landmines and unexploded shells.  The mountaintops were perfect artillery positions from which to bombard the city; the foothills were the front line.  Now, white tombstones gleam from cemeteries on every green hillside.  The dead were in their twenties; most had died in the siege.  It is hard to find a building without bullet scars.  Some buildings are completely riddled, but many of the bullet holes cluster around windows and balconies – of course it is obvious that people were trying to kill each other, but to see such evidence is chilling.  What look like repaired potholes are actually the filled-in craters of mortar rounds. 

In 1984, Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics.  A few years later, most of the same venues that had seen performances by the world's best athletes were damaged or completely destroyed.  Though the lettering was long removed, the silhouette of a large Sarajevo Olympic sign (with its stylized snowflake logo) remains near the entrance to the Holiday Inn.  Today, after much reconstruction, contemporary guests may not even notice the bullet scars on the concrete awning that once sheltered visitors from rain, snow, and later, hail of gunfire.  One cannot even approach the bobsled course because of mines.  The “Zetra” arena for ice sports was all but obliterated.  

But Sarajevo is not all doom and gloom; far from it.  It is a fun, exciting, edgy place to visit.  Mass tourism has not yet made it to Sarajevo.  Shopkeepers sincerely welcome you to the country.  Here, the tired old cliché of “East Meets West” finally rings true - on a single street that passes through the atmospheric old Turkish Quarter (with its mosques, public fountains, and covered markets) to the modern facades of banks, hotels and shops.  Visitors may be surprised by the raucous crowds of teenagers and twenty-somethings that fill sprawling outdoor cafes and bars.  History comes alive on the streets of Sarajevo, but much of Bosnia's young population is determined to leave history to the past. 


On our way to Croatia, we spent one day at Mostar, a town famous for its 16th-century Ottoman Bridge.  The elegant “bent” bridge was destroyed by Croatian artillery in 1993, and recently rebuilt.  (Some Croats still insist that the bridge was crumbling and about to fall on its own, and that the reverberations from the shelling brought it down, this despite footage of several direct hits and the resultant collapse.)  Mostar – from the Slavic ‘most' or ‘bridge – was famous for its ‘divers,' a fraternity of intrepid young men who ‘dove' from the top of the bridge into the Neretva river, 60 feet below.  Brave they may be, but I had to stifle a chuckle when, after nearly an hour of psychological preparation, a young men leapt from the bridge and did a ‘pin' dive, that is, feet first.  The cliff divers of Acapulco would have been in stitches.  Unlike Sarajevo, Mostar was close enough to Dubrovnik, Croatia to be seen on a day-trip.  Not long after we arrived, a mob of Italians, Germans, and Scandinavians stormed through the town, over the bridge, and back again.  In the evening, the town was empty.