Bosnia Part I – Eastern Bosnia
Into the unknown
Failing to spot anywhere suitable to camp on my last evening in Serbia; the dying of the light forced me to camp far closer to a village than I’d have liked. I wasn’t quite in somebody’s back garden, but I was close enough to keep my head-torch on its dimmest setting, and to set my alarm for 0445 – 30 minutes before sunrise – so that I could be packed and away before anyone had the chance to see me. I was awake before my alarm went off, packed up rapidly, and silently; and was away before the cloak of gloom had dispersed. My camp was only around an hour from the Bosnian Border, and for most of that time I had the major road I was on practically to myself. The road snaked at the bottom of a deep and precipitous gorge, the golden early morning sunlight illuminating the tops of the surrounding mountains. The depths were still in shadow, the temperature struggling to get above zero degrees, and the air was completely still. It was an atmospheric experience, and served to raise my nervous excitement considerably. I kept inspecting the road surface to see if I would see the tank tracks left from all the tanks that Serbia sent to fight in Bosnia, but I could see none.
I reached the border post shortly before 0600, the guards on both sides were bleary eyed, and seemed too tired (or lazy), to pay much attention to me; they barely raised their eyes to give a look over when I appeared in front of their window and presented my passport. I will admit that this was anticlimactic after the lead up, but what was I expecting after all? To be stopped by a gun toting ill-disciplined militia who leered at me threateningly while minutely checking my effects for signs of affiliation with an opposing side? I had been reading too many books about life during the war, and, obviously, life had moved on since then.
In view of Bosnia’s traumatic and spectacularly brutal recent history; I felt apprehensive as I crossed the border. I knew that my route was to take me through some areas which had been devastated during the war, far away from where tourists normally go. Given the UK’s role in the conflict, all nations* could potentially have cause for grievance, and possibly take exception to me because of my nationality. This sounds rather hyperbolic as I write it now, after having crossed the country and encountered the same wonderful hospitality as I had received elsewhere in Turkey and the Balkans; but we tend to fear the unknown, and rural Bosnia was a big scary unknown to me.
*Nation in this sense refers to Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim), Bosnian Croat (Catholic), or Bosnian Serb (Eastern Orthodox); these are the three dominant national groupings which reside in Bosnia. It was down these national lines that conflict broke out in the early 90s. Broadly speaking, the Serbs and Croats sought to carve out parts of Bosnia which they then wished to join with their respective “mother countries”, while the Bosniaks fought to preserve Bosnia as a unitary state within its pre-war borders. To this day, there are very few Bosnians who refer think of themselves as just “Bosnian”, or even “Bosnian first, Catholic second” (For example), which is a shame, and must be a key prerequisite for proper reconciliation.
A brief history lesson to begin
The war in Bosnia had a profound and lasting effect on the country. It touched almost every part of the country, and traumatised a significant proportion of the population. On the surface people have largely moved on, and are trying to get on with their lives. Below the surface, however, there are deep wounds, and the country remains mentally and physically divided along national lines. This is sure to have a strong effect on all but the most superficial of visitors, stimulating them to thoughtful reflection on how people could do such barbaric acts, and how such things could be allowed to occur. Being in the country and seeing first-hand the physical devastation and lasting effects on the people gave me a hunger to learn as much as I could about the conflict. I wanted to try to find out why it occurred, what made it so brutal, and what the role of the west was; to know whether I should be proud or ashamed of the actions of my country and the international organisations to which it belongs.
The causes, events, and effects of the war; and the systems of government put in place by the peace treaty which ended it (which still exist to this day), are ludicrously complex. I will, however, be alluding to these issues constantly during my Bosnia blog post, and so, to aid understanding for readers who are not well acquainted with the war in Bosnia, I will attempt as concise an explanation as possible. If you aren’t interested in a brief history lesson, or are an expert on the war, and just want to read about my experiences in Bosnia, feel free to skip forward to the next section.
The war was fought between 1992 and 1995, between the three national groups which made up the bulk at the population: Muslim Bosniaks (44%), Eastern Orthodox Serbs (33%), and Roman Catholic Croats (17%). The latter two nations were supplied and lead by their “mother-nations”, Serbia, and Croatia, respectively. It occurred in the context of the break-up of Yugoslavia, to which Bosnia had belonged. After the secession of Slovenia and Croatia from Yugoslavia, Bosnia held its own referendum on independence. The Bosniaks and Croats overwhelmingly voted to leave, whilst the Serbs boycotted the vote (they wanted to remain in Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, but knew that they were in a minority and would be outvoted)
Following Bosnia’s subsequent declaration of independence, the Bosnian Serbs, supported by the Yugoslav National Army, and the Serbian government lead by Slobodan Milosevic, mobilised their forces and moved to secure Serb held territory, and to capture strategically important towns, irrespective of the nationality of their inhabitants. The Bosniaks and Croats resisted them, and fighting soon broke out across the country. In the beginning the Serbs had an overwhelming superiority in military equipment, and they captured vast swathes of the country, surrounding and besieging several Bosniak towns in the process. Their goal was the creation of a homogenous Serbian para-state which could join with Serbia proper. The fighting was characterised by ethnic cleansing, indiscriminate shelling and sniping of population centres, mass-killings of soldiers and civilians, and mass-rapes. Atrocities were carried out by all sides; however, the clear majority were carried out by the Serbs (90% according to UN estimates, with the Croats and Bosniaks carrying out 6% and 4% of the atrocities respectively).
At the beginning and end of the war, the Croats were allied with the Bosniaks against the Serbs, however for a chaotic period in the middle the Croats turned on their former Allies, and fought to carve out a territory of their own. The violence and destruction of property were widespread, and touched nearly every part of the country in some way, although the areas with majority Bosniak population pre-war were particularly hard hit. The war was finally ended in 1995 by a combination of international pressure, NATO airstrikes, and a successful Croat-Bosniak offensive which threatened the Bosnian Serb capital and brought them to the negotiating table. The Daytona Peace Accords, as the peace treaty was called, split Bosnia into two largely self-governing entities, the Bosniak-Croat dominated “Federation of Bosnia of Hercegovina”(generally abbreviated to “the Federation”), and the Serb dominated “Republika Srpska*”(RS), with a state level Parliamentary Assembly, Presidency, and various ministries above the two entities. That is a real bare bones explanation, and if you are interested in finding out more, please see the suggested reading/media list after the conclusion
*No, this isn’t a typo. In Serbo-Croat – the language common to all three Bosnian national groupings – r can sometimes be used as a vowel, for example vrh (“peak”), smrt (“death”), and krv (“blood”). R is generally short, and always strongly rolled. Rolling your r’s is an essential skill for correct Serbo-Croat pronunciation!!
Eastern Bosnia – first encounters with atrocity, glimpses of humanity
After the anti-climax of the border crossing, the deep limestone gorge of the Rzav river continued tumbling towards its confluence with the Drina at Višegrad. I was on the South bank on a narrow main road hacked into the wall of the gorge, a cliff rising on one side of the road, and falling away on the other. There was no footpath, no easy alternative route, and frequent bridges and tunnels. The traffic was moderate, but the passing of HGVs in the confined roadway was a nerve jangling event. The tunnels especially terrified me; I would stand by the mouths listening out for cars or trucks, and if I couldn’t hear any I would run through, and only breathe easy on the other side. The road continued in this manner only for 5 km, but it long enough that by the end my nerves were well and truly jangled. It was in this state, that a beaten-up VW van pulled up next to me…
“Hey friend – where are you going? Do you want a lift?”
“(sigh) thanks very much for the offer, but I can’t, I have to walk”
“Ok, no worries – well me and my friends are building a restaurant, we’ve just taken delivery of the coffee machine, first building you will come to from here, you will see the van – come in say hi”
The soon-to-be restaurant (Restaurant Carev Most, Dobrun) duly appeared shortly afterwards, I was welcomed in, quizzed about my walk, and offered free coffee and cigarettes, and implored to stay as long as I wanted. It was being built by a group of friends from Višegrad, using their own hands, and as little money as possible. It was in a stunning location, and they had plans to eventually to create a campsite and rafting centre. It was a wonderful welcome to the country, and set became a decent template for most of my future interactions with Bosnians away from population centres – typified by curiosity, frankness, and freely given hospitality.
I got going on my way around midday, after a quick climb up to the magical ruins of the fortified old town of Dobrun, perched on a cliff overlooking the gorge and the restaurant. I was feeling very happy, and excited about Bosnia; the weather was clear and sunny, and the gang at the restaurant had said that no trains ran on the tracks on the north side of the gorge, and I could walk along them all the way to Višegrad, thus avoiding the nasty road. My mood was punctuated, and darker questions entered my head, when I noticed the number of empty buildings I was passing. It seemed as if every other house was empty, with the majority roofless and completely ruined (1).
Empty, ruined, and burnt out buildings and villages, would become such a common sight on the walk to come, that by the time I left the country, they had just become part of the scenery. Behind each one lies a horrific story of violence, or its threat; flight, and even death. But the human mind is adept at normalising such reminders of violence, when they are so ubiquitous. I arrived into Višegrad, a small town in the Republika Srpska on the Drina river, once again a little uneasy; but with head full of questions about what had happened here, and why?
The following day I took a day off from walking to explore Višegrad, and headed off to the tourist information office. The friendly woman in the office told me that the two main sights of the town were the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge – an exceptionally beautiful bridge across the river Drina (2), and Andrićgrad – A faux historic town opened in 2014 partly financed by a controversial film director Emir Kusturica (3). I walked over to the bridge and admired its clean lines, its symmetry, the attractive views up and down the Drina valley, and the craftsmanship of its construction, and of its recent restoration in 2010. At this point I wondered what had happened in Višegrad during the recent conflict in Bosnia, so I found the Wikipedia article on the town, and followed the links contained within.
It makes for horrific reading and, together with the other instances of ethnic cleansing and genocide carried out by Bosnian Serb forces in Bosnia (notably in Prijidor, Foča, and lastly Srebrenica), represents the bloodiest and most barbaric aspects of the entire war, and possibly in the whole of post second world war European history. The brief facts of what happened in Višegrad are as follows: In the 1991 Yugoslav census (d.), just before the war, the town had a population of just over 21,000, 64% of whom were Muslim. In the 2013 census (e.), it was 11,000, with fewer than 10% describing themselves as Muslim. In April 1992 the Yugoslav National Army took control of the town before withdrawing in May 1992 leaving the town in the hands of local Serb leaders (b.) (c.). These had control of all municipal offices, they declared Višegrad to be a Serb town, all non-Serbs were immediately sacked from their jobs, and then the campaign of ethnic cleansing began. In a rapid campaign, 1,000-3,000 of the local Muslims were murdered, including many women and children. The Muslim men who did not manage to flee were rounded up and sent to concentration camps from which many did not return; the women were raped en masse in specially set up “rape camps” and many subsequently murdered; and on two occasions women, children, and the elderly were herded into houses to be burned alive. I found it particularly difficult to read that the very bridge that I was stood on had been used as an execution site, day after day at the height of the killings, truckloads of Bosniak civilians were taken to the bridge, where they were shot, or had their throats cut, before being thrown in the river. A sports centre on the site which Andrićgrad now stood was used as use as a detention centre, holding many civilian detainees, prior to them being taken to the riverbank to be murdered.
On the map I had been given at the tourist office, there was no memorial shown to these events, there was no history museum where you could see them explained and put into context. I wondered – perhaps Višegrad is a poor town still suffering from the catastrophic economic effects of the war, and there simply wasn’t the money? But Andrićgrad stood not far off, gleaming in its newness, it was co-financed by the government of Republika Srpska (The Bosnian Serb self-governing entity), and it was clear that a lot of money had been spent on it ($17M in one estimate (f.)). I naively thought, on my second day in Bosnia, that this brand-new complex built to celebrate the history of the town; must have a museum within, or a monument, or even a plaque commemorating the horrific events of the 1990s. But there was none. I went back to the tourist office, and asked as innocently as I could, whether there was any memorial to the events of the 90s. The lady inside looked confused, and then remembered, “yes”, she said, “there is one up on the hill by the Orthodox church”. I duly trudged up, and found a memorial to the Serb soldiers from the town who had died, some of whom had probably fallen whilst committing the foul acts of the ethnic cleansing of the town.
Just a little bit of research of the information available on the web will reveal that whilst a handful of people involved in the genocide were prosecuted and imprisoned, the vast majority were not, and have suffered no punishment whatsoever. They continue to freely walk the streets of Višegrad, and occupy municipal positions there. I do not believe in collective blame. I know, from subsequent meetings, that there are many Bosnian Serbs deplore the events of the ethnic cleansing, and genocide, of Muslim Bosniaks from Serb held territory. I also know that there were some brave local Serbs who tried to protect their Muslim neighbour’s and stop the killing. They were often beaten and killed along with those they were trying to protect. But at that precise moment, the whole town of Višegrad made me feel sick, it felt like being in Nazi Germany after the war, if the Nazis had won. How could people, especially young people, continue living there, knowing what had been done, and knowing that many of those responsible were still walking the streets. Later, in other towns and cities, I would speak to more Bosnian Serbs, and ask them neutrally about the 90s, to get their perspective. But I was so shocked by Višegrad, that I just wanted to get out as fast as possible. I didn’t talk to anyone, and left early the next day. I, unfairly, felt that everyone in the town was complicit in either the massacres, and/or the rewriting of history which still goes on to the present day – typified by the whole edifice of Andrićgrad.
As I trekked up the hill on the western bank of the Drina, I passed the first of many red signs with a distinctive skull and cross bones motif, warning of minefields next to the path. Bosnia is one of the most mined countries I the world, all sides in the conflict liberally laid them, so that 2.4% of the countries land surface is considered mined, and whenever you pass over a former front line, you must be on your guard. It was raining heavily that day, and I had a tough time of it battling though thick forest, the path confidently depicted on my map being so over grown as to be irrelevant. I came down from the hills in the late afternoon to the bank of the river upstream from Višegrad, soaked to the skin, and freezing cold, my teeth chattering away, thoroughly miserable. I saw the minaret of a mosque, and beside it, joy of joys, a restaurant. I sheepishly came in the door, feeling bad that I was dripping profusely over the carpet, but the proprietor, an elderly woman, with not a word of English, gestured me not to worry and to come on in. Using google translate I could communicate that I was British, and walking to Sarajevo. When I finished my hearty meal, got out my wallet and tried to pay, simply smiled, and waved me away.
This simple gesture of hospitality, one that would be repeated many times, by Bosnians of all faiths and none, cheered me up immensely, after my experiences in Višegrad. Despite the horrors of the war, and the cynical appropriation and distortion of its memory by many of the politicians that have come since, huge wells of kindness and humanity survive amongst the common people and are a true joy to behold for the traveler.
A small favour – I am using my walk to raise money for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). These blog posts take a very long time for me to write, if you enjoy reading them and wish to support the author, you can donate to MSF via my fundraising page: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/wanderingpaddy
(1) At the time I remember thinking that the war wasn’t that long ago, and if the occupants of the buildings had merely fled, or been killed; then the houses ought to be in better condition. I later found out that the Army of Republika Srpska, and the various paramilitary groups under its control hadn’t been content to kill or drive off the Muslim inhabitants, but had systematically torched and/or bulldozed their houses, to ensure that they would never return
(2) Completed in 1577, it is one of Bosnia’s best known cultural artefacts, a UNESCO world heritage site, and was made famous by the book “The Bridge on the Drina”, an epic historical novel focusing on the story of the bridge, and of the people who lived close to it; from the period of its construction by the Ottomans in the 16th century, until its partial destruction during the First World War. It is the most famous work of Ivo Andric, the only winner of the Nobel Prize in literature to come from the Former Yugoslavia, or any of its successor states. It is an extremely readable and informative book, I highly recommend it.
(3) It was built partly to act as a location for a planned film version of the book “The Bridge on the Drina”, and is named in honour of the books author – Ivo Andric. It contains 50 faux historical buildings built of stone in various historical styles from the middle ages to the beginning of the 20th Century. Contained within it are cafes, restaurants, an art gallery and a cinema. It has been criticised by Bosniak survivors of the recent genocide in Višegrad as an attempt “to ignore and obscure” the crimes of that genocide, and as a “deliberate attempt to consolidate Višegrad’s transformation into a Serb town” (a)
(e) http://www.popis2013.ba/popis2013/doc/Popis2013prvoIzdanje.pdf (2013 Bosnian Census Results)