Pokin' Around Post-Yugoslavia
Trip Start Oct 20, 2005
31Trip End Nov 04, 2006
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After little sleep on the overnight train - due to the many border crossings (Hungary - Croatia - BiH) we rolled into the main train station at 6AM. We had arranged to be met by the staff of a family-run pension. Yet we did not spot the "bearded Bosnian." That was 0 for 2 with being met at a transport station.
While discussing our dawn-time options, we were approached by the owner of a train station cafe
The Yugoslavian Wars 101
Justin's degree in history is being put to use again (see there is a utility in majoring in history!). He has prepared a brief overview of "who did what to who" for those of you who wish to read it. If you don't, skip to below the dashed line.
If you can't recollect the wars in the Yugoslavian or Balkan region in the 1990's without the aid of a map, multicolored pens, and a Ouija board, you're certainly not alone
Because of its strategic location between Europe and Asia, the whole Balkan area has been for over two thousand years, a crossroads of trade and defense, and therefore, a fault-line of different cultures and religions.
Start by thinking about the religious and cultural make up of this land - about the size of France - as a lasagna. On bottom of the dish lay down the Christianity of the Roman Empire, which broke into two sects (Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox) right along the border of present-day BiH. Then add to this savory creation, 400 years of the Ottoman Empire domination which ruled from present-day Turkey, from 1463 to 1878, and brought Islam to the area.
Several main cultures coalesced in this richly flavored mix: Serbs (Eastern Orthodox Christians), Croats (Roman Catholics) and Bosniaks (Muslims). In addition, smaller communities were sprinkled on top: Hungarians and Albanians emigrated, and because of the Ottoman Empire's policy of religious tolerance, one of Europe's largest concentrations of Jews evolved in Bosnia in the 1500's (just in time as they had been kicked out of Spain by Queen Isabella in 1492)
It would be wishful thinking to say that relations amongst these "ingredients" have always been congenial: over 700 years, there have been tensions, often serious. But what always kept the flames down (but the embers smoldering) were foreign domination (0ttoman Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire) or outside events (World Wars I & II).
Likewise, starting in the 1940's communism held these states together in the form of Yugoslavia. Communism effectively "froze" old disputes based on national identity and religion. But Yugoslavia, like the Soviet Union, began to break up in 1990.
But why did Yugoslavia and not the USSR descend into brutish warfare? One factor (certainly not the only one) was leadership. While the USSR had Gorbechev and Yeltsin at the helm, this area had Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and Franjo Tudman of Croatia.
Milosevic wanted to make sure that Serbs dominated the new Yugoslavian government.
So in 1992, the Yugoslavia Peoples Army (JNA) under Milosevic attacked Sarajevo in BiH. This was part of a strategy to pull together all land with even a small number of Serbs into a Greater Serbia. This area included Serbia, of course, but also Krajina, parts of Croatia, and BiH. Non-Serbs (both Croats and Bosniaks) were pushed out (at least one million people) or slaughtered - in CNN parlance - "ethnically cleansed."
The Croats started off as being allied with the Bosniaks against the Serbs
Like other 20th-century bad apples, these guys used nationalistic rhetoric and selected anecdotes from history ("X people did Y to you") to stoke hatred in their respective peoples. Remember that in all of the formerly communist countries in the early 1990's, people were apprehensive about their future, namely the transition to a market economy, and so were susceptible to this kind of propaganda though, we think, individuals should definitely be held responsible for their own actions.
What was the rest of the world doing about this? The United Nations (UN) took two steps:
First, it passed an arms embargo against all sides. But since the Serbs had almost all of the Yugoslav army equipment and ended up being the forth largest standing army in Europe, they weren't affected. Likewise, the Croats had been building their army for some time. The Bosniaks had very little to defend themselves with - two tanks and two personnel carriers.
Secondly, the UN sent in a large force to parts of BIH for "peacekeeping" and to "secure humanitarian routes." These mandates, delitcately crafted to offend nobody, were grimly laughable since UN access to these routes was only at the whim of the Serbs, and the UN troops were not allowed to defend themselves - shoot back - and consequently were often hit by Serbian/Croat fire themselves
The UN had a large force in Sarajevo, keeping the Serb & Croat armies from capturing the city, but resulting in a deadly stalemate, as the besiegers cut off the water and electricity to the city and managed to kill 10,000 civilians through sniper and artillery fire over the 3.5 year siege. The city's literal lifeline was a 700-yard tunnel was dug by under the UN-control airport by the city inhabitants, which ended in "friendly" territory outside of Serb/Croat lines. For 3.5 years, this was the only route into the city and so food, medical supplies, and guns were carried inside by hand or cart.
After several years of failed UN diplomacy, NATO began bombing the Serbs, allowing the Croats and the Bosniaks to retake large swaths of land, and pushing all parties to the negotiating table in Dayton, Ohio.
"And now we return to our story...."
As we inched towards the old town on the very old tram, we watched Sarajevo wake from its slumber. As the gray sky lightened, we could see everywhere that the ravages of war have not been erased from this city. Unlike other Eastern European cities that had been ravaged by the World Wars, but long ago been rebuilt leaving no traces of the destruction, Sarajevo's war-time scars have not yet faded. You can still see the kisses of mortar shells and bullets on most of the buildings in the city
All over the city are the haunting reminders of bloodshed: "Sarajevo Roses" - holes in the sidewalk caused by exploding shells that resulted in civilian casualties, but which are now filled in with red plastic as memorials to those innocent victims. In somewhat random locations are crumbling buildings that have never been reconstructed and now stand vacant - a ghost amongst the lives that now thrive in this once besieged city.
The old town consists of two distinct parts that neighbor each other. There is the Turkish quarter - a legacy of the 400 years of Ottoman rule and the newer city center which resembles any Western-style city. Beautiful old mosques dot the city and surrounding hills.
In every city we've visited in Eastern Europe, we've found our way to the Jewish quarter. There is no true Jewish quarter in this city, but there is a synagogue. It being a Friday, we asked if we could join in the Shabbat services. We were warmly invited.
Since the beautiful, historic sanctuary was under renovation, we sat in the tiny social hall where we participated in the fastest services we have ever experienced - Justin timed it at 26 minutes
The rest of our time in Sarajevo was spent doing what we do best - wandering. The alley ways that lead up to cemeteries, the cobble stoned streets of the Turkish quarter and the remains of the Olympic village (the 1984 Winter Games were in Sarajevo), provided interesting sights to see. One souvenir that we decided not to buy was carved ammunition casings from the millions of projectiles that rained on the city during the 3.5 year siege. It was a bit too morbid for us.
Just as the cloying scent of alcohol will forever be associated in our "smell memory" with taking the night train into Russia, the smell of tobacco will always be associated with BiH
We noted that many people chain-smoke here, not just with drinks or after dinner, but all the time.
You may have read about (or experienced) the calming effect that tobacco has on people in war. But it wasn't until we went to the Historical Museum in Sarajevo to view the exhibit on the Siege of Sarajevo, 1992-1995, did we learn how integral tobacco was to people's survival during the war.
The museum has an extensive discussion on the importance of tobacco to the people in the city while they were being sniped at, mortared, and bombed from the surrounding hills for 1,132 days. There is the stress induced by exams or awaiting a birth...and then there is living in Sarajevo, during the siege.
Apparently, early in the war, the main cigarette factory in town was blown up, which meant that people had to make do smoking anything to calm their understandably frayed nerves. One quote:
"We will be exactly aware of what the cigarette during the war meant to us only when the days of smoking tea will be a sad memory"
The power of this statement resonated with Justin more than anything else he read on the Sarajevo siege because it demonstrated how, in times of extreme crises, a small (yet harmful) pleasure can become so crucial to keeping one's sanity
The Siege of Sarajevo exhibit was also remarkable because of the way the war was presented: no anti-Serb or anti-Croat rhetoric or blame, or attempts to answer "why?," just matter-of-fact color photos, many graphically violent, and artifacts, accompanied with neutral explanations on how the siege affected the daily lives of regular people for over three years.
Remarkably, there were several "normal life" events that incongruously took place during the siege: the Sarajevo String Quartet managed to hold performances and the city held a "Miss Sarajevo" beauty pageant.
For us, viewing the exhibit at this museum turned the Bosnian war from a long series of nightly news stories into a reality. Despite what the citizens of this beautiful city went through, their hospitality and geniality towards us was quite clear. As we have experienced in other war-torn or nature-damaged countries, the people here have picked up the pieces and continued living. [Admittedly, we will never know how well they are coping with the horrendous memories that are surely there]
What was especially shaking about the photos, in the exhibit, is that they were clear, crisp, and in brutal color, not grainy black-and-white pictures of an ancient war. We recognize those clothing fashions of the people in the pictures as from our time! In the 90's
Leaving Sarajevo, we headed south to Herzegovina territory to another war torn city - the city of Mostar
A highlight for us in Mostar was a wonderful interaction we had with a local - something which epitomizes the joy of travel for us.
We walked into Karadoz Begova mosque and started talking with clean-cut guy in his mid-20's, who was wearing jeans, a windbreaker, tennis shoes. He introduced himself as Izudin Mezit and started telling us about the history of the mosque, how it was built by a renowned architect from the Ottoman Empire.
We found out that Izudin is an imam or Islamic holy man, as were his father and grandfather before him. He seemed remarkably open and spoke matter-of-factly about everything, from the war to the veiling of women (it was very rare to find a woman in BiH with her head or face covered). As has happened frequently in our trip, this meeting further shattered stereotype: the TV news-spawned image of a bearded, fiery Islamic holy man gave way to this kind, baby-faced young guy who likes U2. Later in the afternoon, we heard Izudin chant the "call to prayer" as he does five times a day [Go to the "picture" section and click on the AVI file to hear Izudin]
Izudin quietly lamented the lack of spirituality and religiosity amongst Moslems in BiH. Wait a minute? Isn't that what we hear US religious leaders say? To be sure, veils seem to be quite uncommon and alcohol ads are everywhere, even in predominantly Muslim areas. Head scarves here are much more cultural than religious: Eastern Orthodox women wear them, too. Perhaps clergy worries about their flocks' lack of faith occur in all religions?
After leaving Izudin, we went across the street to mosque's cemetery - every single of the 50-odd gravestone was dated 1993, the year of the big battle in Mostar. Izudin said they had to hold funerals in the middle of the night to avoid snipers. The vast majority of the deceased were born in the 60's through 80's!
We found the number of completely bombed and gutted buildings, which were much more common in Mostar than in Sarajevo, to be especially jarring
In talking with Izudin and others in town, it's clear that the animosity between Croats and Bosniaks is still there; subdued, but strong. After a tenuous peace was negotiated and a government formed, initially, two of everything had to be created because neither side trusted the other: two fire squads, two police departments, two school districts, etc. So, according to Izudin, it is a mark of progress that over a ten-year period, everything has been combined, except the schools.
Mostar's old town is built on both sides of the Neretva River which was the most spectacular turquoise blue-ish green. The two sides of the river are connected by the old bridge built in the Ottoman times - destroyed in the war and rebuilt. Several old Ottoman houses miraculously survived the last war and were open for viewing. Intricate carved wood work filled the walls and ceilings. Colorful old kilims (woven rugs) lined the floors and plump pillows sat in front of tables welcoming the visitor for a lounge. It was a good peak into the Ottoman lifestyles of the rich. If Robin Leach had his show during those days, these houses would have definitely been highlighted...
After a few days of exploring Mostar and the surrounding areas, we headed south to Croatia's Dalmatian Coast - geographically, the southern third of Croatia.
At this point in the trip (with six weeks to go), we can not wait to be in our own bed - with the mattress of perfect firmness and pillows of just the right fluffiness
We will give the people in this profession the job title of "Sobe Hucksters." "Sobe" is Slovene/Croat word for room. These hucksters actually provide a great service to us as backpackers. Rooms come to us; we do not have to go seek them out. These individuals wait at the bus, port or train stations looking for tourists who might need a place for a night or two.
As soon as you step off a bus, you are approached by people asking you if you want a "room, zimmer, or sobe." If you say "yes," the pictures come out and the bargaining starts. We have learned a lot about ourselves through this process. We have learned that just as they have their methods of snatching a boarder, we have our methods of picking who we engage with. First impressions are important to us and we have realized that we can be discriminatory. We first approach those with a kind face or a gentle demeanor - most often the grandma type or motherly type. Those who have a harsh look or a stern face we tend to avoid. We have also learned that first impressions are not always lasting impressions. On one occasion, in Dubrovnik, Croatia, we were passed off by one person to a gruff, abrupt man who ushered us to his car. The transaction happened so fast that we were not sure what was going on.
Following him turned out to be the best experience we have had in sobes in Croatia. He drove us to his sister's house which had a beautiful room, comfy bed and a balcony with a spectacular view of the Adriatic Sea and the bay where the port is situated. Our stay with Ivo and Maria was perfect. To top it all off, Nickolas offered to drive us to the bus for Montenegro the next morning and then pick us up again when we returned. So, this gruff looking, man and his family turned out to be quite generous and very friendly.
We thought we had open minds through our travels, but this experience taught us that when you least expect it, little prejudices do pop up. We also realize that this profession takes a lot of hard work and persistence, and is not one that we envy.
After one night in Dubrovnik, Croatia, in this hospitable house, we ventured to Montenegro. We decided to check out Montenegro, mostly because it is the world's newest nation, voting for independence earlier this year from Serbia
We have no shame in admitting that we spent more time in our room watching English TV than we did on the shores of the "Riviera." Jamie discovered the show "Mega Machines" and "Mega Structures" on the National Geographic channel and became hooked (note, we don't have cable TV at home, so this was a true novelty). Several episodes were aired each day and she did not want to miss a single one. After weeks and weeks on the go, it was nice to feel like we didn't have to do anything, and that is just what we did - nothing. It was what we needed.
Yes, since we do like to wander, we did check out the town. There was the ubiquitous old town with narrow streets built within protective walls. It took about 10 minutes to explore the entire old town. There was also a "boardwalk" dotted with seafood restaurants and "cheesy" souvenir stalls. We were told that this area caters to the Russians who come down on packaged holidays
At first Jamie didn't like the town, but it soon grew on her. The local wines and amazingly fresh and melt in your mouth feta cheese which is put on the best organic vegetable salads helped make the experience enjoyable. Everything grown and sold is local and organic; both Bosnia Herzegovina and Montenegro do not have the economic means for pesticides and we hope as they move towards joining the EU some day that does not change. Interestingly, Montenegro uses the Euro as their currency.
Of course, being by the sea - no matter where you are - is thoroughly enjoyable. We did manage to pull ourselves away from the TV each day for a dip in the cool Adriatic Sea.
After four days of sluggishness, we carried our packs and our rejuvenated bodies to the bus station, headed for the town of Kotor.
While waiting for our very late bus to Kotor, a town 18 miles away from Budva, we were assured by a fluent English-speaking Serbian man, that the bus would come. Another 45 minutes later, with no bus, we decided to forgo the bus and split the cab fare with the same man and his wife.
They are Serbians who live in Oxford, England. At moments like this, Justin unfailingly blurts out that he lived in the Oxfordshire town of Abingdon in 1984
Often when we meet somebody unexpectedly, we say "small world." But every once in a while, you're presented with a reminder of how truly small the world is. We figure that we have more of a chance of getting hit by a car (yes a bit morbid analogy) than sharing a cab with a plasma physicist who knows of Ron Waltz (Justin's dad), and actually knew what a "tokomak" is. Do you? If you'd like to fritter away more time at work,Click here to jump to more info on fusion research
Through conversation, we learned that Dragoslov Ciric (cool name!) is a plasma physicist that works at the same lab (Culham Science Center) that Ron worked at 22 years ago. Dragoslov heads up Neutral Beam & Pellet Operations (we couldn't make this up if we tried). Out came the physics speak and the amusement that we were in Montenegro and shared a cab with a Serbian ex-pat who knows of Justin's dad!
We both decided it was worth coming to Montenegro just to see Kotor. Kotor is another old town with white stone houses built on top of each other, cobble stone streets and crooked alley ways sandwiched in between the city walls
Kotor sits on the only fjord (a narrow inlet of sea between cliffs) in Southern Europe. The karsk (arid limestone formations) hillsides that tower around the fjord create a dramatic scene. Between spurts of rain, we explored the town, with details and carvings in the centuries old stone buildings. Banners denoted whose palace was whose and what centuries those families occupied them. The next morning, with the sun shining, we climbed the 900 feet up the rocky hillside to St. Ivan's Fortress. The walk up the steep stairs made us acknowledge the feat it must have been to build such a towering fort perched on top of the hill. Once on top, the view took our breath away. As has happened so many times on this trip, one feels so small in comparison to nature. On our decent, we came upon wild goats hanging off the cliff's edge munching on the trees that grew between the solid rock. Justin wanted to join the goats, but Jamie told him he wasn't wearing the right set of hooves for hanging on the hillside. None the less, the wildlife sighting added to the allure of the place.
To top it all off, we happened upon an amazing restaurant that served up the best seafood we have had in this region yet
After six days in Montenegro, we hopped on the bus back to Dubrovnik, Croatia where we had spent one night. Nicola (our brusque friend) picked us up and took us back to Maria and Ivo's house. They let us use their kitchen to make dinner, did our dishes, and served us beer and home made cake for dessert. They even did our laundry for us. Even though they only spoke a few words of English and we spoke a few of Croatian, we felt at home and loved. It was a nice entry into our 14 days in Croatia.
For many, Croatia might bring to mind images of war. For us, the soothing music in the CNN Europe advertisements for Croatia plays in our minds. The images they show in this commercial are of the crystal clear turquoise waters that lap the rocky shores of the islands where white limestone hills loom over white stone old towns. For once, the commercials advertise the truth - what you see is what you get. Pure beauty. Our first stop in Croatia was in Dubrovnik, on the Dalmatian coast.
Dubrovnik is an enchanting city perched right on the Adriatic Sea. The old town, similar to those in Montenegro, was the largest one we visited. Walking around the 1.2 miles of the perimeter walls gave you a top-down view onto the red tile roofed houses and jumble of stone buildings nestled in between the walls. It was the most spectacular and grand old town we had seen so far
One of our nights in Dubrovnik, we met a British couple, Nicola and Joe, on holiday. We had a very entertaining evening with them. Along with the many laughs, they gave us an opportunity to interact with to other people - something we were in need of. You know someone has to be fun when you ask them what they do and they say they are in the circus. Joe is a professional juggler who once performed for the Queen.,Click here to see Joe Hague in action
They were not sure of where they were going next, so we convinced them to come with us to the island of Korcula. Two days later, they met us on the ferry to the Island. On board, we met an American couple - newlyweds - who were on a year's honeymoon. Upon alighting on Korcula, we got an apartment with our new friends, Joe and Nicola from Brighton, England. They kept us laughing, so we knew were in for a few days of fun. Korcula town on Korcula has the typical old town that we have been seeing with beautiful views of the mainland across the way
We planned to stay on the island a few more days before hitting the mainland and working our way north towards Italy, but we met an Australian couple who convinced us to check out another island. So we boarded another ferry and headed to Hvar Island. That decision turned out to be a great one. Hvar town on the island of Hvar is a bit different from the towns we have been to thus far on the Dalmatian Coast - less enclosed - and we instantly fell in love with it. A three night stay soon turned into six nights.
Hvar is said to be one of the most pretentious islands with the wealthy Croatians and Europeans flocking here in July and August in their million dollar yachts. The main strip in town is lined with swank bars and cafes catering to the "yacht-sters." Thankfully, we were able to avoid the obscenely-priced restaurants because Jamie found the fish market. She made dinners which we enjoyed on our apartment's roof top terrace. The best thing about being here in the low season, aside from no crowds, is we were able to find a great price for an apartment right over the yachts. Being here in the low season, the town is not over run by the masses
Since the island is not crowded, we have the pick of places to stretch out and pretend we were cats basking in the sun- being October, the temp has hovered around the low 70's. The walk way that wraps around the contours of the island through pine forests provided an ideal setting for some early morning walks. In the mornings, we indulge in a cappuccino in the plush bay front lounge at the local swank hotel while watching the white stone buildings turn pink to white as the full brightness of the day emerged. It is also fun to watch the yacht-sters wake up, prepare their boats and sail out.
So we easily passed a week (with two days of rain) hanging out on the beach, drinking local wines and cooking great dinners with the local ingredients. We highly recommend a trip to Croatia. It is easy to get to if you happen to be in Europe with so many new cheap air carriers and well worth it! (No, the department of tourism didn't pay us to say that!)
From Croatia, we took what we hope will be our last all-night bus ride northwest to Slovenia, to the seaside city of Piran. It was enjoyable, but we were hard pressed to see how it differed from Croatia, except in the prices of food and lodging which were akin to Italy's. A day of buses and trains took us, once again, to Milan where we are basking in the hospitality of Sandro and Barb, before we head out on our trip's final leg - to Jordan and Israel.