Stepping into a War Zone

Trip Start Nov 29, 2005
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Trip End Nov 21, 2006


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Flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina  ,
Wednesday, August 16, 2006

If Belgrade hadn't really been in the works until about two or three days before I went there, then Sarajevo was even less a part of the itinerary. I had heard even less about Bosnia then I had about Serbia, and in a way my images of Bosnia were even worse. The name just carries the connotation of war, especially in Sarajevo, the capital. I can practically hear the sound of gunshots as I hear the name Sarajevo.

Walking the streets of Sarajevo it's even more obvious than in Belgrade that there was a war fought a decade ago. Many buildings are bombed out, many are still scattered with bullet holes and the streets of Sarajevo are littered with what are called Sarajevo Roses, the outlines or mortar shells painted in red. The shame of it all is that Bosnia is one of the most beautiful countries I've been in. The landscape is impossibly green, like something out of a fairytale and all the bus rides go through spectacular rolling hills and along blue rivers. I entered Bosnia on a bus that brought me back to my days in Asia -- no AC, no windows that can open, bathroom stops, even squat toilets. Along the way I started talking to Marian, who grew up in Sarajevo, was forced to take refuge in Serbia when the war started and then emigrated to Toronto as soon as the borders opened. I met him because he was able to translate the ticket guy who was shouting at me to put my shoes on (apparently it's illegal to take your sneakers off on a bus in Serbia and Bosnia). I've had this experience throughout Eastern Europe, meeting Americans, but more often Canadians, who were born behind the Iron Curtain and by piecing together when they moved, realizing that it was at the first chance they got. Now that the borders are open and the tourism industry booming, they're coming back in flocks to visit family and see what the homeland is like with a democratic government and open borders.

It's incomprehensible now imagining the scene in Sarajevo a decade ago. It's a relatively small town set in a serene valley with hills on all sides. Yet it is also host to the longest siege in modern history. I concentrated my time in Sarajevo in the Turkish Quarter. The section is all marbled streets with small shops and quaint restaurants. When I wasn't ducking rain drops I was checking out mosques and visiting the bridge where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated (that would be the Archduke whose death helped set off WW I, not the Scottish band I saw live a week previous). I also took a walk over to the egregiously tacky Holiday Inn, a bright yellow eye sore that hosted most of the journalists during the war and is the closest landmark to finding what is now dubbed Sniper Alley, a famous road where Serbian snipers would take down anybody who walked the street, whether they were soldier or civilian.

From Sarajevo I spent half a day in Mostar on my way to Croatia. The bus ride, again, was spectacular, going through hills, hugging the river and slicing through tiny villages. If only I had a window seat and the window wasn't so grubby, I'd have some fantastic pictures. Mostar was devastated as badly by the war -- just about every building seemed to have a fair collection of bullet holes. Based on some of the expressions I saw from locals, I wonder how they must feel watching tourists coming through, snapping pictures of bombed out buildings and the bullet holes that are now not only part of their lives but daily reminders of the horrors they went through. After watching some tacky Spanish tourists, it made me break out my camera a little more discreetly. The big attraction of Mostar is its famous bridge (most means bridge in Bosnia, Serbia and all the other countries with the same language). The famous site is a big-arched pedestrian bridge where local boys would prove their manhood -- and worth for marriage -- by jumping off. The bridge was also nearly destroyed in the war and was only re-opened a couple years ago. I realized the significance of it as a symbol more than an actual structure a few days later while I was taking the bus from Dubrovnik to Split. I was sitting next to a nice older lady who had emigrated from Bosnia to South Africa. We were talking about Mostar and she was wondering about the bridge when I got out my camera. Since I had changed memory cards in Mostar I only had a couple pictures, all at night, but it nearly brought tears to her eyes when she was looking at what little I did have. I still only know so much about the war that effected these parts -- a souvenir shop in Mostar had a poster that spelled it out in very simple terms that was helpful -- but I was only 8 when it started so what I do is mostly in dull memories. I'm glad now, that I'm getting my education through the hearts and eyes of the people who were in the middle of it then if I had just picked up a book or an old newspaper.
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