To be honest, prior to this trip, I did not know much about Bosnia and Herzegovina and its history aside from the fact it was part of the former Yugoslavia and had been battled by war. Thus, heading into our bus ride from Split, Croatia, I had no idea what to expect except from Calvin’s Balkan’s Trip in Summer 2017 and seeing his photos of the Old Bridge (Stari Most).
Boy was I in for a surprise.
After catching a quick breakfast in NoStress Bistro, we went to the Split Bus Terminal early to catch the 10:55 AM Croatia Bus/Globtour bus to Mostar. After a 10-minute delay and 1 unexpected bus transfer, we arrived around 3:45 PM at Mostar (East) Bus Terminal.
Hoping to maximize our limited time in Mostar, we quickly walked to our hostel, Hostel Miran, which was a short 6-minute walk from the station. Signage to the place were helpful, making it super easy to find the hostel.
While booking for the hostel, I remembered that the host, Miran, offers a day tour visiting several sites around Mostar as well as the Old Bridge. Being that we arrived later than expected and most of the day was already gone, I thought the best we would be able to do was to visit the Old Bridge, the Old Town Bazaar and dinner. However, feeling ambitious, I decided to ask Maja (Miran’s wife) who checked us in if we could still do at least part of the tour. To our surprise, Miran said yes and for a discounted price of 25 euros per person (normally 30 euros per person from 10AM to 6PM).
Miran, the owner of the hostel, is a native of Mostar who grew up during the Bosnian War of 1992-1995. A very passionate person who is enthusiastic to teach others an important part of Bosnia and Herzegovnia’s history, Miran would go out of his way to make sure his guests were well attended to. Normally his tour includes visiting Blagaj, Pocitelj, Kravice Waterfalls, Medugorje, Mount Velez and a war tour with his own personal stories. However, he is very accommodating and willing to tailor his tour to what we wanted to see as well.
In the end, we decided to skip Kravice waterfall since we recently saw Plitvice Lakes NP and Krka NP in Croatia.
First, we stopped by Pociteji, a preserved, fortified Bosnian town dating back to 1383 with beautiful examples of medieval and Ottoman architecture.
Then, we stopped by Blagaj, a historic Dervish monastery built into the cliff along the karst Buna river which flows out of the surrounding mountains. Known for being one of the strongest spring in Europe, many will stop to drink some of the water after eating some pomegranate seeds sold at a nearby local stand.
Finally, we came back to pick up our friend, who couldn’t join because she injured her knee, to see the Old Bridge (Star Most) at night.
Along the way, Miran stopped by several streets in town to show the remnants of the bombings and destroyed buildings with penetrating bullet holes from the war. In addition, Miran gave his take on the war, his perspective on socialism vs capitalism and much more. It was interesting to connect what we learned in the past coming from the US and the differences seen firsthand. It was a true learning experience.
Photo Credit: Miran, 1992-1995
Photo Credit: Miran, 1992-1995
Photo Credit: Miran, 1992-1995
While there were many places to eat for dinner (Urban Grill was suggested by many), Miran suggested Rota Grill a cheaper and better restaurant for Cevapi and Sudzukice (home-made sausages). It was by far one of the best authentic meals we ate.
Just while we thought we would have to end our night early to catch our 7AM bus to Dubrovnik the next day, Miran by chance told us he also offers direct transfer to our hostel in Dubrovnik. For about the same price (20 euros), it takes only 2 – 2.5 hours instead of the estimated 4 hours by bus. This is because the bus companies cross 2 borders and drive through the scenic route along the coast. Instead, Miran’s transfer drives through Bosnia, only needing to cross one border by passing through the town, Trebinje. Plus, you get to see the country side.
As a result, we got to sleep in and got to try some home-made jam and traditional Bosnian coffee (free breakfast) in the morning.
A true legend, who knows practically everyone in town, Miran was one of the biggest reasons why as a group we fell in love with Mostar, even though we were there for less than a day. His hospitality is unlike any other and he is a great guy with a big heart. Thanks again Miran and his family for hosting us and allowing us to be part of his family for the day!
I embarked on a journey this past August that would take me through a diverse set of nations, cultures, and landscapes in Europe. The heart of this trip was a segment in Bosnia, Croatia, and Montenegro. Holland and Hungary were other destinations along the way. It had been over a decade since I’d been in Europe, and this was the first time I’ve traveled there as an adult with a fuller appreciation of the places I’d be visiting.
I read Mark Mazower’s The Balkans: A Short Historyto expand my admittedly lean understanding about the history of the region outside of the role it played in instigating World War I, as well as the more recent Yugoslav Wars. One of the first points Mazower makes is to debunk the commonly held misconception that the Balkans are somehow especially prone to conflict for one reason or another. This caution led me to reflect on the history of conflict across Europe and not just the Balkans. I’ll elaborate below with an account of each stop on my trip. Given where I traveled, I found the trip especially poignant as it fell one year short of the centennial of the end of World War I. How conflict unfolded and how the people recovered afterwards in all of these areas are as relevant and instructive as ever, perhaps especially so in light of concerning trends as of late.
It’s hard to imagine while strolling along the harborside esplanade in Volendam, the placid polders adorned with windmills in Zaanse Schans, or the boisterous canals in Amsterdam that Holland has been through more than its fair share of destructive conflicts over the course of the last 500 years. Indeed, the Dutch Republic was born of the Eighty Years War during which the Dutch wrested independence from their Hapsburg rulers. The conflict took a horrible toll, but in the end, not only did the Dutch gain their independence, they also launched headlong into a golden age that has left a legacy across the globe. This includes my home in Flushing, which takes its name from the town of Vlissingen in the Scheldt estuary.
The marks of earliest conflicts in Dutch history are still visible today. The Eighty Years War broke out in part due to the religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in the wake of the Reformation (the 500th anniversary of this just passed). In Utrecht, on a casual night out, my gracious hosts took me to a bar in a building that once housed an underground Catholic church. The facade of the building is understandably undifferentiated from the surrounding buildings, but on the inside, the ceilings are massive. Adornments typically found in a Catholic church occupy the inside, including an organ. Many are unaware of Utrecht’s history as a Catholic stronghold in Holland even well after the Reformation. There is even a historic papal residence in town. Utrecht’s strategic importance as a nexus of trade routes sitting astride a now defunct channel of the Lower Rhine ensured that it would be fought over. Catholics were surrounded on all sides by Protestants and faced such persecution that they felt the need to clandestinely convene away from their neighbors. The Dom Cathedral in the heart of the city was burned and vandalized. The desecrated statuary and other relics are preserved for visitors and natives alike as a silent memorial to this unfortunate chapter.
A defaced relief sculpture inside Dom Cathedral in Utrecht
Anne Frank House in Amsterdam stands as a stark reminder of the horrendous cost conflict fueled by religious hatred. And yet Holland at this point looks no worse for the wear having survived two world wars. It’s a thriving place where the investments the Dutch people have made in building up their infrastructure and institutions put many others nations to shame. This is in no small part due to effects of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe after the cataclysm of World War II, in stark contrast to Bosnia which I’ll address later.
Religious conflict continues to afflict northern and western Europe today. This time it’s a renewal of the longstanding tension between Christian Europe and the Islamic world. Extremist groups like ISIS have conducted a wave of terrorist attacks across France, Belgium, and England. Geert Wilders, the firebrand Dutch politician, offers among the most vociferous and impassioned resistance to extending an open hand to immigrants and Muslims in response. He is not alone in this sentiment, as the next destination I visited is also seeing a rise in nationalism in the face of a wave of immigration from Muslim nations.
Budapest was a true delight to visit, and its impressive panoply of architectural styles captures in stone the city and nation’s long and diverse history. Gleaming new glass and steel constructions, Soviet apartment blocks and metro stations, the iconic Hungarian Parliament, Turkish bathhouses, medieval palaces and churches, and Roman ruins each bear witness to a distinct era. Throughout all of these periods, this crossroads of Europe has been the scene of sweeping changes and has seen wave after wave of invasions.
At the ruins of the Roman city of Aquincum, one can picture what life was like on the very edges of the empire. The threat of invasion from any number of barbarian tribes was ever-present. The high cost in blood and treasure incurred by securing this long Danubian frontier was among the factors that eventually led to the collapse of the Roman Empire. The vacuum of power left by a retreating Byzantine Empire set the stage for Árpád and the first Hungarians to invade and settle the fertile plain created carved out by the Danube and TiszaRiver.
Ruins of a Roman bath at Aquincum, just north of the Buda side of Budapest on the west bank of the Danube
The Hungarians established a burgeoning kingdom that lasted for several centuries before they themselves were taken over by the Ottoman Empire, a force that will figure prominently in the rest of this essay. Traditional Turkish style bathhouses the Ottomans built in Budapest stand as the most visible testament to their legacy, since mosques were largely destroyed after Christians reconquered the area. It is remarkable to think that I could have soaked in the very same baths that pashas, sultans, and their entourages would have visited 600 years ago.
For the Ottomans, Budapest was a convenient staging point for their ultimate goal: the conquest of Vienna. This was a goal that would occupy The Porte for centuries. The thrust on Vienna was also the galvanizing moment for Christian Europe to organize a united defense against the Islamic armies of the East. Austria gained territory as it pushed the Ottomans back, and it became the next sovereign over Hungary. The restlessness of the Hungarians in wanting to throw off the Austrian yoke would force the Austrians to negotiate the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, establishing the Dual Monarchy with Hungary as a co-equal in the newly established Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The half century following the Compromise would see the ascendancy of the Dual Monarchy and elevate it to Great Power status. The famed Szechenyi lanchid, and Metro Line 1, the first subway in Continental Europe would be built in Budapest during this time. Culture also thrived, Franz Liszt being among one of the exemplars of this period. It was multi-ethnic state in every sense of the word, but in the end the experiment in multiculturalism would come to a catastrophic end, embroiling the entire continent in a war like none before it.
The economic dislocation brought on by the collapse of the Dual Monarchy has consequences that still endure. A much weakened Central Europe would later be no match for Germany and the Soviets after that. Europe has done what it can to re-integrate the continent with the institutions of the European Union, but the same tensions that pulled apart the Dual Monarchy a century ago persist. Viktor Orban’s administration has taken a hard-line stance on issues of immigration, just as Geert Wilders advocates in Holland.
BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA
If there’s one itinerary item that highlights the rapidity, brutality, and ever-present threat of conflict, while also showcasing the ability of a people to recover from such conflict, it’s Bosnia & Herzegovina. This crossroads of the Balkans was a centerpiece of Ottoman Europe, and was the heart of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Over centuries, trade interests and invasions brought a mix of Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Muslims to settle in the area. The capital, Sarajevo, retains the physical legacy of these heterogeneous origins. Ottoman era mosques dot the skyline. The main landmark is a square around the Catholic Cathedral of St. Mark. This diversity of religion has been at times a auspicious blessing for Bosnia. Other times, disaster can and has unfolded when there’s been a confluence of the currents of ethnic and religious tension.
The old and the new share space in Sarajevo’s skyline
One point Mazower drives home in his history of the region is that these ethnonationalist identities were almost non-existent prior to the late 19th century — they arose in part due to the intervention of Great Powers who sought to sow unrest in Ottoman Europe so as to resolve the “Eastern Question”. Even religious identities were fluid during the Ottoman Era as people often found conversion to and away from Islam could be expedient at different times. Mazower recounts that some people would go to mosque on Fridays and attend Orthodox mass on Saturdays. If the imam failed to remove a hex on you, you might go and see the patriarch. Ottoman rule, though clearly flawed and unfair, was at least stable up until the advent of ethnonationalist movements.
The resolution of the Eastern Question cost the Great Powers a world war. It brought about the demise of Dual Monarchy and the Romanov Dynasty, destroyed by the very forces of nationalism they had seeded in Ottoman Europe. The interwar period didn’t bring much relief as economic woes spread. The economic gap between former Ottoman Europe and the rest of the continent was wide, and it could not be closed easily. World War II brought a fresh set of horrors, occupation by yet another in a line of aggressors, but it did spark a successful partisan movement led by the charismatic Tito that would set the stage for a unified Southern Slav state after the war.
The infamous Latin Bridge on the Miljacka River that runs through the old city (Stari Grad) area of Sarajevo. This was the site of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary by Bosnian Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip that sparked World War I
By some of the accounts of the people we met traveling, Tito’s rule was not only stable, it was also fair and led to prosperous growth in Yugoslavia. But it didn’t last. Brotherhood and Unity began to unravel almost as quickly as Tito was put to rest in 1980. What transpired next was a descent towards internecine and religious conflict. We were led by a tour guide named Meme (short for Memović) on a journey back to the brutal Siege of Sarajevo during which he was born.
Meme noted that even in the 1980s one could see the bonds of unity that Tito had carefully cultivated fraying. Yugoslavian flags and anthems were replaced by those of the constituent republics even before any formal move towards dissolution of the union took place. This process began as Slovenia, then Croatia declared independence and were welcomed by the international community in the early 1990s. Bosnia & Herzegovina was not so lucky.
Meme took us up to the hilltops overlooking Sarajevo and recounted to us the background and setup for the Siege of Sarajevo. This siege lasted 1,425 days (3 years and 5 months), the longest ever in modern warfare, longer than the infamous Siege of Leningrad in World War II. Bosnia’s diverse makeup of Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosniaks, held as a shining example of Brotherhood and Unity, now became the trigger for regional conflict. Yugoslav forces composed primarily of Serbs and Bosnian Serb forces undertook any means necessary to turn back the renewed tides of ethnonationalism that threatened to break apart Yugoslavia. Croats at times fought with and against Bosniaks as they tried to secure their own future as independent entities. The scars of the savage fighting between these sides are still plainly evident in the holes on buildings created by bullets and mortars.
Sarajevo Roses — the blast marks from mortar rounds hitting concrete
The Sarajevo Rose and the ever watchful white tombstones that dotted the hillsides surrounding the city were ample reminders of the war, which is why there are few actual war memorials as Meme pointed out. Divisions still remain. Meme alluded that the potential for renewed conflict was real, especially if the economy continued to stagnate. On our ride up to Trebević Mountain, we passed into territory administered by the Republika Srpska, an autonomous region governed by Bosnian Serbs. Immediately, you could see Serbian flags flying. It was from the abandoned bobsled track that Serbian forces launched mortars down on the city, and from the side of Trebević Mountain, their troops took hold of the skyscrapers overlooking what would become known as Sniper Alley.
At Trebević Mountain, you can see the themes of renewal and rebirth, too. The entire bobsled track is functionally an outdoor gallery of street art and there are people who do actually use it for luge. The city and its people stand as a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit even in the face of overwhelming odds and prolonged suffering. Stari Grad is rebuilt. Wandering around the streets at night, you could be forgiven for forgetting a war happened here only 20 years ago. We were there during the bustling film festival, and throngs of tourists eagerly soaked up the atmosphere of the renewed city. But unlike Western Europe after World War II, the nations of the former Yugoslavia didn’t have the benefit a Marshall Plan recovery program and fund, and sadly, the differences are stark in comparison to Holland.
CROATIA & MONTENEGRO
Resiliency in the face of conflict when combined with adequate resources in recovery and renewal can work wonders — Dubrovnik in Croatia is a sterling example of this and provides a more proximate contrast to Bosnia. Though Croatia was far from being immune to the impacts of the war, it fared better than Bosnia, partly because it served as the entry point for aid UN ad deliveries. Today, the streets of former Ragusan Republic are teeming with hordes of tourists. You can hardly tell the city was shelled extensively from nearby Montenegro during the Yugoslav Wars. The superficial damage has largely been repaired. Indeed, looking out from its daunting defensive walls over its rooftops, you can see some of the only signs of this conflict in the bright orange tiles of restored roofs compared to the aged brown tiles of older roofs that stood through the war. Bullet holes are there, if you look closely, but not nearly as noticeable as in Sarajevo.
Dubrovnik from atop its famed city wall
Perhaps Dubrovnik’s quick ascendancy can be in part attributed to its historical legacy as a powerful, independent city-state with a prowess for trade. At its apex, Ragusa vied with Venice for control of lucrative Mediterranean trade routes along the network fostered by the Ottoman Empire that eventually connected with the Far East. Circumventing this monopoly was in part a trigger for the Portuguese to seek a new route towards India and China around Africa. Ragusa’s imposing defenses were built with the riches from this trade, in order to protect this very lifeline. To this day, the old harbor of the city continues to be a place teeming with activity. But even this prosperous place was quite literally built on foundations of parleyed conflict. It is said that the Stradun, the main street of Dubrovnik, was once a channel that separated one part of the city as an island. Greeks and Romans inhabited this island while the “barbarians” were kept at arms length on the mainland.
The Stradun at night
From Dubrovnik, we journeyed onward across a short, but painfully time-consuming border crossing into the picturesque environs of the Bays of Kotor. This ria (not a fjord) has also been a point of contention between multiple parties over history. The bay itself provides a sheltered, deep water harbor, so it’s no wonder that it has attracted the eye of empire builders from the Ottomans to Austrians to the Russians. This has kept up even to this day. Montenegro only recently left the orbit of its traditional protector, Russia, in favor of joining the EU despite of heavy investment from Russia. Opinion on this decision remains divided.
In light of all this, the Montenegrin national identity has developed a strand of fierce independence, dogged resistance to external aggressors, and defiance in the face of overwhelming odds. We saw abandoned as well as extant villages and farms deep in the remote mountainous terrain of the rural areas of the country. Whenever the Ottomans or whatever other imperial power with designs on Montenegro invaded and captured its urban centers, its people would simply retreat into the relative safety of the isolated mountains. Such a scene is visible just on the other side of the commanding heights of the fortress of Kotor.
It was fitting one of the last sights I saw in this trip was the mausoleum of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš. Njegoš was known not only for his leadership skills but for his contributions to the canon of Serbian literature. His seminal work, an epic poem entitled Gorski vijenac (The Mountain Wreath) tells the largely apocryphal tale of a tortuous decision Christian Montenegrins of old make regarding what to do with their Muslim family, friends, and fellow countrymen. An ultimatum is handed down to the Muslims to convert back to Christianity on a certain Christmas Eve or face the consequences. Those who refuse meet a predictably fiery end. This work is considered seminal to both Serbian and Montenegrin culture, and yet is so controversial that it is sometimes not taught in an ethnically and religiously mixed setting like Bosnia. This, I think, speaks volumes about the scars that many centuries of conflict have left in this region.
Mausoleum of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš, constructed during the Yugoslav era
As Mazower cautions, it’s all too easy to buy into the tropes presented to us about the Balkans having some propensity towards bloodshed, a place where divisive nationalism is as much a part of the landscape as the dramatic mountains and coastlines. Indeed, the Balkans are hardly alone in inheriting this kind of legacy, as I’ve alluded to throughout this piece, and there are crucial lessons for us all of the various histories and geographies detailed above. From what I saw, signs of historical and contemporary conflict are everywhere. While we were ambling along the alleys and plazas of Dubrovnik, we were also getting news about the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and its violent aftermath. Meme’s caution that “when ethnicity becomes more important than nationality” you’re in serious trouble seemed particularly apropos at this time.
Many of the same threads of risk factors for serious internal, internecine conflict that I saw along my journey are present in the United States today. Political ideology is becoming identity: the new tribe. Underlying racial, religious, and cultural differences are increasingly in sharper relief. Economic dislocation and inequality allows some to genuinely not understand how others are struggling or only just making it. We’ve been waiting for political saviors of our chosen tribe to fix our problems the way we want them fixed, while refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of other people’s grievances. We demand instant solutions for problems that have slowly accrued over generations. These trends are not new to the Trump era. They have simmered for decades. In many ways, these are echoes of the traumas of our own prior internal conflicts that we’ve never truly recovered from.
Violent conflict arises when people refuse compromise and only choose to see irreconcilable differences, eventually dehumanizing those they have no common cause with. But conflict, internal or external, is not inevitable. How we as individuals, communities, societies, and nations cope with a bewilderingly diverse world in which integration is accelerating at the expense of established identities will be decisive. This will be complicated by real physical constraints from continued growth and climate change. The scale of the challenge is unprecedented, and indeed can seem paralyzing.
When I ask myself what I can do, I think the only practical answer is to start from a foundation of sound knowledge of myself, genuinely understand and embrace the diversity around me (especially the views of people who I don’t agree with), draw on these lessons from history as a guide, and commit to serving the greater good, organizing with others to enhance my impact. I’m betting I’m not alone.
The bus ride went pretty smoothly although I felt bad for the other folks who couldn’t get a seat because of our group (so get there early!). And this was thanks to the very professional services of Get By Bus, I was able to reserve a batch of 13 discounted bus tickets online. FYI, if you request a name change, ticket change, etc. their customer service via e-mail is STELLAR. Best I’ve ever experienced.
We arrived at Mostar bus station (the eastern one) at 2pm to a HOT 99ºF sunny day. Don’t forget your sunblock here.
We then checked in and dropped off our bags at Dino Hostel about a 10 minute walk south from the station, and only a 5 minute walk away north from the old town.
The first stop was Karadozbegova dzamija mosque, which costs 2.5 euros to enter and 5 euros to climb the minaret.
But I advise to save your money here and to walk further into the old town bazaars…
…and turn around a corner to see the reason why everyone comes to Mostar: the restored 16th century Stari Most (Old Bridge), that was previously destroyed by the Croatian HVO army when a stalemate between the Bosnians and Croatians divided and nearly destroyed this city in November 1993.
You can then climb up the bridge itself but be careful by the overly worn down, slippery steps up:
Views from the top of Stari Most:
We then had a reasonable dunch at Sadrvan on the other side of the bridge.
After paying the bill, we walked down a few steps down by the river bank to get our feet wet and watching amateur and professional divers leap off the 75m high bridge. Be careful of getting to far deep in the river unless you’re a great swimmer as the down-current is deceptively strong.
Photo Credit: Taylan Stulting
Photo Credit: Lei Zhao
Stari Most just got served
At this point most of the tourist crowds coming to Mostar as a day trip from places like Dubrovnik will begin to head back. I recommend spending at least a one night’s stay here despite Mostar’s tiny size and lack of sights other than Stari Mosts and its surrounding mosques — you get the whole city to yourself and better views of the bridge at sunrise and sunset that daytrippers won’t be able to enjoy.
So noticing that the crowds of tourists were thinning out, we made a circle around to Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque, where after I haggled a discount from 6 euros/person to 3 euros/person given the size of our group (huzzah!), we climbed the minaret for arguably the best angle of Stari Most at sunset.
While ontop of the minaret a French-Canadian traveler named Carol began laughing at one of my jokes, after which a polite conversation led to her joining our group for post-sunset shisha at Café Luft. We spent about an hour and a half kicking it here before heading back down to the bank for night views of the bridge.
We then said goodbye to Carol and headed back to the hostel for an early night — tomorrow we catch a 7am bus to Dubrovnik.
- At time of posting in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, it was 37 °C -
Humidity: 22% | Wind Speed: 14km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy
If it’s not already playing, press play. And then start reading.
A Sarajevo Rose is a concrete scar caused by a mortar shell’s explosion that was later filled with red resin. Mortar rounds landing on concrete create a unique fragmentation pattern that looks almost floral in arrangement. Because Sarajevo was a site of intense urban warfare and suffered thousands of shell explosions during the Siege of Sarajevo, the marked concrete patterns are a unique feature to the city. — Wikipedia.
While silliness ensued at our first day in Sarajevo, today would present itself as a more somber affair, beginning our day with Sarajevo Insider’s Times Of Misfortune Tour that led us on a 3 hour journey through the horrors of living under Serbia’s nearly 4 year siege upon Sarajevo from 1992-1995.
Our tour first returned us to the Yellow Fortress and then onwards to the White Fortress, learning from our guide Almedin “Meme” Memovic — who was born and raised during the siege in 1993 — about the factors during the post-Tito breakup of Yugoslavia that would eventually descend into genocide
The views of Sarajevo from White Fortress gave us a better insight of what the siege may have looked like from afar and how Sarajevo was surrounded by incoming Serbian forces.
Meme recalled for us the days of Sniper Alley as we drove down it, where 1.2km of a main boulevard along Zmaja od Bosne Street and Meša Selimović Boulevard were lined with snipers that targeted civilians as they went about their daily life.
Because the road connected the industrial part of the city and Sarajevo Airport to Old Town, it was a necessary street for locals to traverse despite the obvious danger from the many high-rise buildings and mountains surrounding the city that gave snipers plenty of opportunity to gun people down. Signs reading “Pazi – Snajper!” (“Watch out – Sniper!”) were posted everywhere.
This is Sniper Alley today:
Because the city was under constant Serb siege and the civilians of Sarajevo had to routinely risk their lives to move about the city in order to survive, people would either sprint across the street or wait for United Nations armored vehicles so they could walk behind them as shields.
In 1995, 1,030 people were wounded and 225 were killed by sniper fire, 60 of whom were children.
You can still see the bullet holes made by errant sniper fire today.
As the city continued to be surrounded from all sides by Serbian forces, with a narrow chokepoint centered on the UN-occupied international airport, it barely survived upon the food and supplies that were shuttled through a 1m-wide, 800m-long, 1.6m-high, lifeline of a tunnel, which was hastily constructed underneath the airport.
Therefore our next stop after Sniper Alley would be the Tunnel of Hope, where 20m of the 800m tunnel still remains despite a complete collapse of the rest of the tunnel.
We spent about half an hour here before returning to the city to try the legendary Ćevapi at Zeljo.
The next part of our plan was to find cabs to take us to the nearby abandoned bobsled track of the 1984 Winter Olympics. But after an hour waiting for available cabs to take us there, we eventually dispersed into free time in Old Town as not a single taxi was available due to the Sarajevo Film Festival.
However, by sheer dumb luck about another hour later, the hostel receptionist and I luckily snagged 4 cabs all at once on the street, where I promptly mass texted everyone to run back from where they were in the city. And by additional sheer dumb luck (or destiny), within 5 minutes of my text all 14 of us were able to get into all 4 cabs before they decided to pull away. Hence, our own little miracle in Sarajevo.
And off we explored for an hour one of the highlights of our trip: the aforementioned Abandoned Bobsled Track of the 1984 Winter Olympics:
Photo Credit: Beverly Tchang
Photo Credit: Beverly Tchang
Photo Credit: Beverly Tchang
Surreal. After a day like this we had to celebrate. And we did: We pregamed, we rallied, and we raged.
A recommendation made by Berina (once again who lamed out early because of something called WORK . . .yeah yeah) was to watch live music go down at Underground, featuring some local crowdpleasing Bosnian cover bands.
The 13 of us then headed onwards to Cinemas Sloga where although they initially charged us 15km per person for entry, we stood our ground. Then it went down to 75km for 11 people. And yet we persisted. Then it became free.
And then we got backstage passes…? That escalated quickly.
We eventually returned home in the wee hours of the morning, screaming over the ringing in our ears like typically obnoxious Americans, in an otherwise eerily quiet capital city.
Tomorrow we forge ahead to Mostar.
–UPDATE: The next morning we woke up to this on our social media:
- At time of posting in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, it was 27 °C -
Humidity: 42% | Wind Speed: 14km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy
Photo Credit: Sidian Lan; the irony is that he was the only one who didn't drink on the bus
Photo Credit: Sidian Lan
Coming from Belgrade via a detour to Srebrenica, we arrive in Sarajevo at 6:30pm at Travellers Home Hostel, where we dropped off our stuff and reunited with the 3 other monsooners Lei, Maria and Anthony.
Photo Credit: Rucha Deshpande
We would also be joined by Sarajevo local Berina, a cousin of Mihaela (once again that badass monsooner who arranged our transport from Belgrade to Sarajevo), who was kind enough to show us around.
We first started west at The Academy Of Fine Arts Sarajevo, formerly a church and now a fine arts school.
We then walked east along Miljacka River…
…before turning towards the beautiful pedestrian mall down Ferjadija, which was packed because of the international Sarajevo Film Festival that was going on at the same time.
We first stopped by at the City Market.
Afterwards, we walked further east to the ruins of Taslihan, a former inn for caravan travelers and now a bustling bazaar.
From there we stopped by at Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, a serene oasis among the busy streets outside and the largest historical mosque in Bosnia & Herzegovina and one of the most representative Ottoman structures in the Balkans.
To the north of the mosque lies the Serbian Old Orthodox Church, which costs 3 marks to get in.
Like churches? You can also visit Sacred Heart Cathedral, a few meters down from City Market:
On the eastern end of the city center lies Sebilj, an Ottoman-style wooden fountain in the center of Bascarsija Square, and a prime location for pigeon squatting.
Walking a little southeast, we reached National and University Library of Bosnia & Herzegovina.
From here you can see Sehercehaja Bridge and right across from it Inat kuca, a restaurant that was taken apart and put back together brick by brick to be relocated for the National and University Library of Bosnia & Herzegovina.
You can also walk across to quickly visit Emperor Mosque:
After this, we headed up a steep incline for 10-15 minutes to reach the ruins of Yellow Fortress…
…for city views at sunset, with the adhan (Muslim call to prayer) in the background:
Photo Credit: Rucha Deshpande
BTW, did I mention yet that 4 of us on the trip all went to the same medical school? Here’s our first Downstate reunion photo!
Lingering here for about 20 minutes, we then headed back into the city for classic Bosnian Pizza…
..and dinner at a local favorite Nostra Cucina, following with dessert most notable for a traditional Bosnian apple-walnut pastry…
…and alternative Bosnian ice cream at Egipat:
Then after Berina decided to be lame and head back for an early work day tomorrow (calling you out here!), we celebrated our first day in Sarajevo with a round of tea and shisha at Dibek/Male Daire Lounge.
Photo Credit: Rucha Deshpande
Photo Credit: Sidian Lan
We then walked back to the hostel, passing by the Latin Bridge (the site where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, leading to the outbreak of World War I).
(I would come back the next morning to pay my respects)
World War I just got served
While some of us retired at the hostel, others went out to Summer Lounge for further partying, making our Monday night the new Saturday night.
I had first heard of the Srebrenica Massacre back in 2005, when I was a college freshman and busy running the first national undergraduate film festival at Columbia University (CUNUFF). One of our first film submissions was a short film and documentary that highlighted the Srebrenica Massacre, and in response we created an entirely new award category — The Outreach Award for best community service film — to honor that film. To this day I have been unable to forget the impact that film submission had on me, and I knew that one day I would have to go visit Srebrenica.
And today would finally be that day.
For those of you who don’t know, in 1995 Srebrenica was the site of Europe’s worst mass murder since the Holocaust of World War 2, where over 8,000 Muslim Bozniaks — mostly men and boys — were systematically massacred at the hand of the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) under the command of General Ratko Mladić.
Although the UN had declared the area of Srebrenica as a “safe area” under UN protection, UN PROFOR’s Dutchbat soldiers stationed in Srebrenica failed to prevent the town’s capture and subsequent destruction by the VRS.
Although Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić officially made an apology for the massacre in April 2013, he stopped short of calling it genocide while the Netherlands was found responsible in its own supreme court at The Hague for failing in its duty to protect the populace. Therefore to this day it remains controversial among the Serbian population whether the massacre actually happened, and if it did, that the Serbians would be responsible. Therefore it took an obscene amount of effort to find a bus company that would be even willing to take us to Sarajevo from Belgrade that would include a controversial of a stop as Srebrenica.
And although I was a bit nervous that a Serbian bus company would actually follow through on this, Mihaela and her referred company delivered splendidly.
And away we went, arriving at the border at around noon.
While waiting in traffic, we gave our passports to a border officer so we could be stamped out of Serbia. We then got them back about 10 minutes later and we went on our way across the border along Drina River.
We then stamped back into Bosnia & Herzegovina and continued onwards another 2 hours south to Srebrenica, passing by a row of bombed out houses littered with bullet holes before arriving at the Memorial Site at 2:30pm.
The place is a somber, humble place with tombstones marking the 6,938 genocide victims that so far been identified through DNA analysis from the remains that were found in the dug-out mass graves here. It was opened in 2003 by then US President Bill Clinton.
On the opposite site of the road is the Srebrenica Memorial Room, a large abandoned complex that now houses exhibits providing context and background to the massacre.
After about half an hour here we returned to our bus and continued onwards to Serbia.
- At time of posting in Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, it was 15 °C -
Humidity: 84% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny