Trip Start Sep 02, 2005
32Trip End Dec 10, 2005
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My eyes were like saucers for much of the journey between Dubrovnik on Croatia's coast and Sarajevo in Bosnia Hercegovina. Some things I don't have good words to describe without resorting to cliché but I'm sure I will never tire of the sight of clear blue-green rivers, jagged mountain peaks finishing in the clouds and dense green forests.
The bushland in Bosnia Hercegovina is distinct from the Australian kind but I felt a strong connection and sense of comfort as we drove through it. As Australians we are so fortunate to have easy access to (relatively) clean beaches and take for granted bushwalks, BBQs and jogs in the national park.
Bosnians don't go on bushwalks because their forests are full of landmines and unexploded ordnance. In March and April alone this year eight people were killed or seriously injured by landmines.
And as we travelled on through small villages and the town of Mostar in the country's south west, there was a stark contrast between the images of fertility and regeneration in the forested areas, and the skeletal remains of bombed and burnt out buildings we witnessed time and time again, which Bosnians walk and drive past each day as they go about their business.
To cut a very long and complicated story short, the war in Bosnia Hercegovina began in 1992 when Serb nationalists began seizing Bosnian territory, and in the same year Sarajevo came under siege. Bosnian Serbs began a campaign of 'ethnic cleansing' - in order to create a corridor between Serbian ethnic areas in the West of Bosnia and Serbia Muslims from northern and eastern parts of Bosnia were expelled.
Later in that year 7500 UN troops were sent to Bosnia Hercegovina as the UN authorised force in order to deliver aid to the people there. In 1993 NATO took action against Bosnian Serbs after sixty-eight people were killed by a mortar bomb attack in a Sarajevo market. A no fly zone was declared and the UN took over the airport in order to deliver aid to the people of Sarajevo. As the war continued, Croats and Muslims also took part in their own ethnic cleansing. In 1995, 7500 Muslims were murdered by the Serbs in Srebrenica, a supposed safe zone. The people of Sarajevo spent three and a half years dodging bullets and bombs in their city before a peace agreement was brokered. In all, two million people are said to have been driven from their homes as a result of the war.
We learnt that Bosnian Croats, Serbs and Muslims are ethnically indistinctive which made me wonder how you know who to hate when everyone looks the same. I realise now how much my impression of people and their standard of life comes from the buildings they live and work in. To see the brick shell of a beautiful old building yet to be restored or bulldozed ten years after the war it was destroyed in is one thing. But to see rows of flower boxes overhanging the bullet riddles balconies of occupied apartments is another. What happens inside of a person, a city and a nation when bullet holes and craters from mortar bombs on your high street becomes normalised? Construction seemed to be going on, and maybe I am naïve in assuming that things should look better ten years on.
We came to Sarajevo after a week enjoying several of Croatia's lovely islands. While we waited for our bus in Dubrovnik, our last stop in Croatia, a woman approached me and asked where I was going.
'You stay with my sister Jasmina. She has a good room. Only six minutes from the city. What is your name?'
When the bus pulled in to Sarajevo's central terminal, Jasmina, in power suit and with blonde highlights and a businesslike red folder under one arm was waiting patiently for us.
'Melanie?' she mouthed through the window.
Our apartment was close to the city. You took a right and then right again and then it was straight ahead.
The first part of a walk through the city centre is a park with loads of flowers, a large memorial sculpture and an Orthodox Church. The next kilometre is shops like you would find anywhere - clothing, watches, jewelry. Men in suits, teenagers texting madly and old men and women just sitting and watching life happen.
You are now walking parallel to the Miljacka River which is the colour of chocolate. In a few minutes you are in the old Turkish quarter. Polished cobble stones and winding lanes through rows of stone cottages with red tiles. Inside craftsmen work with leather and brass and shop after shop are selling Turkish coffee sets. Their work is beautiful but it is hard to believe they can sell enough to make a good living when everyone else is selling the same thing. In a one kilometre radius from this point you have several mosques, a Jewish synagogue, a Catholic and an Orthodox Church.
People, mostly men, sit in comfortable wicker chairs in cafes drinking black coffee that is server in a decorative brass pot and poured into a shot sized ceramic cup, drunk through a lump of sugar on the tongue.
We tried a local kebab in Sarajevo a semi circle of Turkish bread stuffed with small rissoles, cabbage and a generous serving of raw onion.
We crossed the Latin Bridge where Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated in 1914 the event which ultimately sparked WW1.
On the other side of the river is the Sarajevo Brewery where we tried the dark local lager and poor Brad was abused as he attempted to take a photo of the sign above the Brewery gate.
Sarajevo's centre is teeming with European army men, in jeeps, restaurants, cafes and walking in the streets in packs, a NATO (I think) alliance stabilising force. A cab driver joked that they will be here for the next 30 years. Or was it a joke?
There was a lot of normality going on by appearance, people doing the same things they do in Sydney or London or any other peaceful city. But the backdrop is burnt out apartment blocks, rows of desolate shops, now 'open air', and grey windowless people-less high rise apartment blocks scrawled with graffiti. Fifty metres to the left of our hotel is the main road leading out to the airport. It was known as 'Sniper Alley' because Serb snipers would shoot at civilians from the apartment blocks on either side of the road.
Jasmina organised a cab for us out to the 'Tunnel Museum' near the airport. People would run across the fields in front of the airport attempting to escape. Serb snipers would fire on people as they ran across. If they did manage to make it to the airport, the UN would send them back, as part of their agreement with the Serbs was that no Bosnians would be allowed to escape through the airport where they were delivering aid.
'The UN gave them another chance to be die,' says Edis, the 28 year old man who runs the Tunnel Museum.
Because they were frustrated at the lack of help being provided by the UN Bosnian Croat engineers built an 800 metre tunnel from Edis' family house across from the airport to the free zone behind it, and each night up to 3000 people would travel backwards and forwards through it to bring back food, arms and other supplies. The tunnel was one metre wide and less than 2 metres high. We were able to walk through the 20 metres of it that remain.
Edis told us a little of what it was like in that time.
'I think I have been through the tunnel more than anyone - about 500 times'
He was 17 when the war broke out and became a military policeman. The village the house is in was destroyed by the Serbs, who knew of the tunnel but could not find or reach it.
The tunnel was a lifeline for the people of Sarajevo, as the food aid provided by the UN was insufficient, Edis says. Injured people travelled through the tunnel for medical treatment in the free zone, and it was also used to smuggle in arms for defense. We watched video footage of people coming through the tunnel, their backs bent carrying heavy food parcels weighing more than they did, along with live animals and other resources. The home-style video showed Edis' grandma standing at the end of the tunnel offering people water and food as they came through.
We left Bosnia Hercegovina feeling frustrated by the slow and painful process of fixing what is destroyed in war and disbelief that something like this could happen at the end of the 20th century in Europe. We also feel amazed and humbled that people can forgive each other for such atrocities to the extent that they can live and work side by side so soon after.