Disclaimer: This piece of writing is based on my own observations in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the stories I heard talking to locals. However, I was just a visitor to this country. Having spent three weeks in BiH doesn’t give me full insight into living there or having lived there during the war. That’s why some things here might be misleading at best and inaccurate at worst. In addition, there is never just one version of the truth, even less so in a war where so many different perspectives can be found. I have tried to remain as objective as I can, and if you are interested in learning more, I strongly encourage you to find other sources of information, too, especially if you are planning to travel the Balkans.
After nine days of walking, I am ready to stop. My backpack digs into my skin, leaving ugly red bite marks even when I’ve draped another t-shirt around my shoulders to protect them. I can barely take another step. Later in the hotel room I’d count 29 individual blisters.
Kalinov is a small town at the crossroads of a checkboard of asphalt roads. The biggest town in the area, its three mini markets, two bars and a hotel make it seem like a countryside metropolis. As I walk into town, I smile at two little girls. While it’s obviously still summer holidays for them, they have picked the school yard as their playground. I let my eyes wander to read the sign hung above the entrance but I can’t understand it. It’s all in Cyrillic alphabet.
Without even realizing, I have walked into Republica Srpska – the semi-autonomous Serbian part of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Old men chain smoking in groups and young women drinking beer in their leather jackets eye me as I enter Hotel Moskva. I feel out of place in my yoga pants and walking stick, and I am unpleasantly aware of the smell of sweat and sun that I must be emitting.
The guy working the desk and the bar doesn’t speak great English, but he waves at me to wait as he rushes out with a tray full of drinks. The array behind the reception desk is baffling: old nautical souvenirs like a miniature ship and a giant seashell, a couple of old revolvers, a sabre in sheath, a Russian doll dismantled from largest to smallest. And, as a reminder of Serbians’ close ties to Russia, on top of the shelf a portrait of Putin keeping a watchful eye over the hotel lobby.
Even through the language barrier, I manage to book a room for two nights. The guy is astoundingly unhelpful. He spits out one-word answers to my questions, seeming to be in a rush to be rid of me. At one point he disappears, leaving my room key on the reception desk and me confused whether I had completed the check-in or not. After being used to Bosnian hospitality it feels like I’m on foreign ground.
I drag myself up two flights of stairs and to the comfort of my private room, still wondering about the receptionist’s bad attitude. I let my backpack fall and it lands with a heavy thud. The t-shirt I’ve draped over my shoulders slides down after it.
The t-shirt. The red-and-white checkered Croatian football shirt.
If you ask the locals why the Bosnian war happened in 1992-1995, they can give you all the standard answers. The old Yugoslavia was falling apart following the death of Tito, a benevolent dictator that most still seemed to hold in high respect. With their one strong leader gone, all the countries within Yugoslavia suddenly wanted independence. Macedonia separated without much conflict while Montenegro joined the Federation of Serbia; Slovenia went through three days of war. Croatia took a hit, too, but Bosnia and Herzegovina was the area that suffered the most.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is a region comprised of three major ethnicities and religions: Catholic Croats, Muslim Bosniaks and Orthodox Serbians. While it might seem unlikely that such different groups could have formed one unified country, the origins can be traced back to its history, when Bosnia and Herzegovina was under the Ottoman rule. If you ask locals, all these groups lived in peace with each other for hundreds of years. Until the war.
They say the war started because Bosnia and Herzegovina wanted to be independent but Serbia didn’t want them to separate, but no one is quite sure who exactly started it. While stories lay heavy blame on Serbian politics, Bosnians still don’t seem to hold a particular grudge against the people themselves. After all, there were Bosnian Serbs fighting on both sides.
What is remarkable about the war, though, is how brutally it turned people against each other. There are multiple variations of the same story: graduated students torturing their teacher, neighbours turning against each other, even brothers becoming enemies on different sides of the war. Bosnians call it the insane war. The war with no sense.
That’s why when you ask someone just why the war happened, you might get a short lecture on Yugoslavian history, or you might be met with a shrug and a haunted gaze. They don’t know how to explain it. They don’t know what could have caused the shift in people’s very mentality.
The war itself was possibly the biggest conflict on European soil in decades. It left around two million people – out of four million living in Bosnia – as refugees, many of whom moved abroad to Germany or Scandinavia. Sarajevo was under a siege for almost four years, during which time people went to work, studied and married, all the while avoiding sniper shots or getting struck by mortar fire. (There were about 100 explosions per day on average.)
The most shocking part is perhaps the systematic genocide of the Muslim population on areas bordering Serbia. One of the greatest tragedies of war was the mass murder of over 8,000 Muslims in the span of three days in the town of Srebrenica which was supposed to be controlled by the UN.
Because the war happened so recently, you would be hard pressed to find someone who wasn’t affected by it. Many people lost family members and friends and became permanently injured. Thousands of people are still considered missing.
I took two walking tours of Sarajevo and one of Mostar. On each one of them, every time someone local walked past, the guide would lower his voice and trail off until the passerby had gone. They explained that they don’t like to let people know what they’re talking about to avoid conflict. Many don’t like reminiscing about the war, and what is more, many have missing or conflicting information of what really happened. Modern Bosnia can be a touchy subject, especially when it comes to politics.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has possibly the most confusing political system in the world: three presidents, each representing one of the major religions: a Muslim, a Catholic and an Orthodox.
Or, as locals call them, three idiots.
The country is also divided into two autonomous regions with their own constitutions, Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republica Srpska. In a country of just four million inhabitants, there are over 180 political parties.
Mixing religion into politics is always a bad decision and it shows in Bosnia, where instead of uniting the country, the three separate presidents have just managed to increase preferential politics, nepotism and corruption. The system wasn’t made to last, though: originally it was just a desperate attempt at ending the war.
The peace agreement was made in Dayton, Ohio, where the leaders of each ethnic group were brought to discuss peace. Bosnia and Herzegovina got a new flag; the yellow triangle is said to represent the shape of the country, and apparently the blue and the stars are a nod to the rest of Europe. The Serbian areas were given semi-autonomy, and it was decided that three presidents, one of each major ethnicity and religion, would govern the country to assure equal treatment of each group.
(Later I learned that while this system was made to fail for more obvious reasons, it has another major drawback: to become a president, you have to be either a Catholic, a Muslim or an Orthodox. The small but visible Jewish minority, atheists or anyone of any other religion could not hold office.)
The system was put in place as temporary, but twenty-something years later it is still in force, and locals don’t hold out much hope that it would change. Getting into politics is difficult: you have to know someone, and even then any young idealists could not shake the system based on uneven distribution of power and corruption. When I asked a local man about this, he kind of shrugged his shoulders.
‘You drive a car over the speed limit and police stops you. Without corruption, you get a ticket and you have to pay fifty euros for it. But now you can just give the police ten euros and they will not give you a ticket. Why would people want to change that?’
To me this confirms what I already suspected: the system is corrupted on both sides. On one hand, corruption is beneficial to politicians, authorities and other figures in higher power, because it enforces their position in society; on the other hand, regular citizens can also benefit from the system. Well, to a certain extent. When taxes are high but 60% go towards simply keeping the government running, there isn’t much giveback to citizens.
‘People have too much freedom now’, says the man. He is about my age, which means he would have been a toddler when Tito was still in power, but still he feels nostalgic to the time when ‘everyone had a job, everyone had food, everything was great’.
This nostalgia for old Yugoslavia runs deep, not only among older population but with youngsters as well, which surprised me. Yugoslavia was a communist country and I expected young, educated people to be more informed about the drawbacks of communism. Perhaps they are but they just don’t want to see them. Modern day Bosnia is not an easy place to live in. It would be hard to find one single person who wasn’t affected by the war in some way. Yugoslavian passport was one of the strongest in the world, while nowadays Bosnian passport – if you had money and means to travel – doesn’t get you much anywhere. Depression and poverty are rampant, and the unemployment rate is at 44%, out of which over 60% are young people.
(Of course, I’m told, many work under the table so it is impossible to know what the real number is.)
‘Tito was a benevolent dictator, which means that he was good to his people’, says a tour guide in Sarajevo. ‘Sure, we couldn’t complain about him like we can complain about the politicians today. But what do you do with freedom of speech if that’s the only thing you have?’
On one of the walking tours that I took of Sarajevo, one of the other tourists asked our guide if he thought something like the war could happen again. He shook his head. Bosnia doesn’t have a real army anymore but a few thousand soldiers that are strictly controlled by NATO, he explained.
Still, tension exists. As I first entered the country, I was hitchhiking from Plitvice lakes in Croatia to Sarajevo. My first ride dropped me off right across the border, in the small city of Bihac, where I met a young Bosnian man also trying to make his way to Sarajevo. Together we managed to hitch a ride with an electrician on his way back to his home town. I was glad to have my new Bosnian friend with me since the driver didn’t speak any English. Maybe that’s why he felt safe relying the entire history of Bosnia to me during the next few hours. At one point I reminded him that maybe our driver was feeling left out since he couldn’t understand anything. He said something to the driver in Bosnian, undoubtedly repeating my words to him, and they both laughed a little. And then he went straight back to talking to me in English.
When we got off the car and thanked our driver, he turned to me and grinned sheepishly.
‘That was a bit awkward.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, I’m a Muslim, and he was a Catholic.’
‘How can you tell?’
‘I have a very Muslim name, and he had a very Catholic name.’
It had never even occurred to me how easy it was to identify the enemy in a place like this: where not only your appearances but your very name could betray you.
I learned more about this current division between people in Mostar. It’s the favourite city of all backpackers that flock to Bosnia. The old town is tiny but beautiful, crowded during the day but pleasant at night, the main streets built in slippery cobblestone that has people taking their sandals off and opting to rather walk barefoot. In the heart of the town rises the Old Bridge, an architectural masterpiece that curves up into the sky in an almost perfect half circle, 21 metres tall at its peak. If you’re brave enough, you can jump off into the river Neretva that flows underneath.
The current old Bridge isn’t all that old, though. In fact, it was built in 2004 after the 16th century original was bombed down during the war. It doesn’t take long to spot the shrapnel holes on walls here either. Mostar was also under siege, although for less time than Sarajevo.
Today, the city still remains divided. One side of the high street belongs to Muslim Bosniaks, the other to Christian Croats. Two war monuments, one for the fallen Croats and another one shaped like a lily, the symbol of the Muslim army during the war, stand next to each other by the street. Three days after their erection the lily was damaged in a small explosion. It now lays on its side with rubble at its feet, looking like another war casualty.
I’m told that destroying the monument was a statement: some locals thought it belonged to the other side of the street.
There is one school, though, where liberal-minded parents can bring their kids. The big, bright yellow building near the Spanish square is currently the only school in Mostar with mixed groups.
It is places like this school that show hope that one day Bosnia and Herzegovina will be more united in their diversity than they are these days. I think of the mish-mash of mosques and cathedrals and synagogues that adorn the streets of Sarajevo, and the strange line that separates the Serbian autonomous regions from the rest of the country like walking into a whole different world, and I see the differences.
But then I think of the people I met. People who showed me kindness and hospitality, who told me stories about their life and welcomed me as a visitor to their beautiful country. All kinds of people – Muslims and Serbs and Croats and people with no religion. There is no difference.
While it might be considered a form of denial that many don’t like to mention the war now, I’d like to think it’s the way of moving on from it. Even in the darkest moments, a sense of humanity must prevail. And these are people who never lost their dark sense of humour.
The guide in Sarajevo told us that during the siege, a graffiti appeared on the outer wall of the post office. It read: ‘THIS IS SERBIA.’
Someone sprayed under it the words: ‘Idiot, this is the post office.’
Hey, and thanks for reading! Obviously, as I already stated up front, I am no expert on this subject. However, if you’re into finding out more, here’s what I’ve been recommended:
Noel Malcolm: Bosnia: A Short History. A book that goes over all the major plot points of recent Bosnian history.
The Death of Yugoslavia. A 6-part documentary by BBC that discusses the entire area in more detail.
War in Mostar. You can find this 45-minute documentary by BBC on Youtube, and it gives you a little rundown of what you should know before visiting Mostar.
Plus Freeborn Aidan wrote about his own experiences in Sarajevo in this blog post: SLEEPLESS IN SARAJEVO – THE SPECTRE OF THE BOSNIAN WAR IN 2018.
Have you been to Bosnia and Herzegovina? Are you planning to go?