Trip Start Sep 01, 2005
72Trip End Ongoing
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Shefik said, "Oh, Josh, you go to Bosnia? You no need go nowhere else. Everywhere you go people happy, people dancing, people singing. You call my cousin in..."
Fikret said something indistinguishable to me, always mixing Bosnian with English and German then said "Nyan nya," his home town and then "fishing," pantomiming a cast.
Esad smiled and looked at the horizon then said, "Bosnia... you like Bosnia very much."
Allan said "Josh, you are going to Bosnia? Why do you want to go there? You might get killed
Senad, the one I know best said, "go to Sarajevo and call my brother. He will find Apartment for you. You really will have no problem. Go to Sarajevo and really call my brother. You will like it very much, it is a beautiful city," as he wrote the name Seyod with a phone number on the back of his business card.
As we crossed the boarder in our old bus, I began to feel further away from home. We passed through Mostar, a small town infamous for a brutal ethnic cleansing siege in 1992. At first it was hard to imagine when we saw a few houses with bullet holes littering the walls, but as we went further into town it grew more and more incredibly real. Everywhere I looked I saw bullet holes. Some had been patched and maybe repainted, but many remained untouched. What were small country homes were rained on by bullets. We passed through in a matter of minutes but we saw lots of destruction.
Driving up hills and through pastures we entered the Balkan mountains and followed a beautiful wide, green river. It was Fall and the leaves were changing. We had seen the beginning of Winter in Poland, then caught the last of the Indian Summer wave in Croatia. The mountains were steep and dark. Tall trees made great canopies of shade but few lower branches left it open beneath
After eight hours of fighting a moving chair that slid into the middle of the aisle when we made right turns (it has a lock to keep it still but mine was broken,) we made it to Sarajevo. Buildings were grey and broken. Nobody greeted us at the station trying to underbid each other with offers of apartments in downtown. There were no tourist offices there and where we were let off was not on the map. The only English that people seemed to speak was "no." It was a little intimidating, but at least I had a contact of some sort. I dialed Seyods number.
"Alo?" the voice on the other end answered.
"This is Josh, a friend of Senad's. Do you speak English?"
He replied in Bosnian, speaking one word in English, "problem," then we were disconnected.
I tried back ten minutes later and he answered again.
"Yes, moment." Then an English speaker came on the line saying, "Hello, who are you?"
"My name is Josh, I am a friend of Senad's, the brother of Seyod in the United States."
"Are you in Bosnia?"
"Yes, we are at the bus station
"Seyod is at the hospital, visiting me. I just had surgery. He says that he will go for his son, then pick you up."
"Great, but tell him no problem, don't hurry. We will eat something as see him later."
We found the equivalent of a diner by the station and ordered the Bosnian equivalent of a burger. Cevapi, is a large fluffy pita stuffed with a dozen or so small spiced minced meat sausages and onions. It is only good for you in spirit, it tastes good, it's cheap and it can be ordered almost anywhere.
After a little while Seyod showed up with his daughter ***, and a big smile. I could tell that it was he because it looked like an older Senad. We sat, and had coffee, then translated by ***he said that he could show us a hotel that was "economic." They were both very friendly.
The hotel that he was thinking of was not as economic as he thought, and driving out of the parking lot he asked if we would like with them. It seems like in situations like those there is always a little awkwardness. For both of us, the easier thing for us to do would be to get a hotel. Then there is no question of intrusion, nor a feeling of obligation on either behalf. But communicating with people and making friendship is a magic, indispensable part of life.
We tried to communicate as clearly as possible that if we would not be imposing, then we would like to stay with them. With that it was decided.
We sat in their apartment drinking Bosnian coffee and mineral water, getting to know each other
Seyod is now 44. In 1991 he had just retired from the military a step below general (I think that it is called a brigadier general?). That year, Bosnia Serbs began attacking, killing many Bosnian Muslims in the name of a "Greater Serbia." Many people became refugees, leaving their homeland, immigrating to anywhere that they could. His wife, Senada, and their two children, ages 3 and 5, moved to Holland. His brother and sister moved to the United States. He rejoined the army as a high ranked commanding officer. That night he took us for a tour of Sarajevo.
As we drove into the center or town we could see destruction everywhere. The majority of buildings had at least bullet holes in them. He pointed to one of the taller ones, maybe 16 stories in height. There were no windows in it and it was abandoned. Bullet holes riddled the sides. There were large blast sites, maybe a foot in diameter, radiating embedded streaks like an artillery shell had hit, surrounded by bullets making a sun shaped crater in the concrete. "Bosnian Parliament, the black house," he said making a joke and smiling at it. Looking at another building, again riddled with bullet holes and abandoned, "Electric company," he said. We passed another, "University." We saw wrought iron fences with many pickets having holes through them. How many bullets would have to by flying to hit so many 3/4 inch pickets as to leave then barely hanging on? The same destruction was everywhere, though plenty of peole were out enjoying the night.
We parked in downtown Sarajevo after passing the exact point where an assassin's bullet had killed the Hapsburg Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, sparking WWI. The first area we walked through was the Turkish quarter, where short wooden buildings lined many curvy cobblestone streets. Seyod told us that in Bosnia there were many types of people varying in ethnicities and religious heritage. For the first time on the trip we heard the call to prayer, sung from mosque towers. Continuing we abruptly entered the part of downtown built during the Austro-Hungarian dynasties. Immediately, the buildings rose, built with cement and stucco. It was the same grandiose that we had seen in Budapest.
Seyod led us through an open air market and pointed to a small blast in the concrete floor saying, "'94, bomb here. Kill 67 people, shopping. CNN" We continued on our way to a café where we could get a small cup of the strong, fine-grained and non-filtered Bosnian delight. Pointing to another hole on the way "Bomb here 1994. 16 people dead waiting for bread."
I started noticing small holes and divots all over the streets and sidewalks. "Seyod, are these all bomb marks?" I asked.
"Not those," he replied pointing to the darkest marks "those are chewing gum. The rest are from bombs"
Sarajevo was under siege for several years. I believe that the idea was to kill and terrify as many people as possible, especially the Muslims, in order to destroy any resistance to a "greater Serbia." Snipers hid in buildings and among the hills that surround the city, ordered to keep shooting, irregularly, indiscriminately, indefinitely and unceasingly. Anything living was a valid target. Seyod showed us Pigeon Square, where his helmet had been shot off of his head. As he spoke his expression would change from contempt, to compassion, to sorrow. "Army," he said raising one fist. "Army," raising the other and hitting his knuckles together, "OK." "Army, women, children, people, no good." As he said it, it looked as if he had eaten something bitter.
We stopped for a Bosnian dessert on the way back to the car; a sugary, baked and glazed apple, swimming in a sweet golden sauce, topped with sweet whipped cream. You could see parallel bullet holes running down the sidewalk from airplane machine guns.
Just before we reached the car Seyod pointed to a group of people. "See him? President's son. Chief of police"
We told them what good tour guides they were. On the way home he pointed to another group of suits. "See him, no hair? President. Lucky tour." We drove past a large cemetery on the way home. It was November first, All Saints Day and the cemetery stretched for acres, filled with blazing colored of lanterns, lit by living relatives of the spirits.
That night, after watching some soccer, sharing conversation and some pear schnapps, Erin and Josh retired for bed. Seyod motioned for me to stay, and I was happy to spend some more time with him. His son and daughter had gone to bed also, so it was him, the dictionary and me.
"Josh, hotel?" he said pointing to "to desire" in the dictionary.
I pointed back at the word, then flipped to "to make," then to "friend."
He smiled and said "very good." Over conversation we finished the rest of the bottle that remained.
He told me that he was thirty when the was had started, and that the last 14 years since then have disappeared. His children were gone for what should have been some of the best years of their lives together, and that since then it had only just now become "ok." We talked about armies, civilians and families. As I went to sleep that night I had tears in my eyes.
We woke the next morning to an empty house. The kids were at school, Seyod was working, and Senada was still at work from the night before. We showered, packed a small day bag and left for a walk through the city. We covered much of the same ground as the day before, including a modern "Mamut" shopping center that had a large food court buffet. Being able to point directly at what you would like to eat makes everything much easier.
All day we were stunned at what must have been mayhem for the people living in Sarajevo in the early 90's. We saw only a few other tourist type like ourselves throughout the day. Burek, a flaky pastry filled with minced meat or cheese, had always been among the safest and cheapest things to eat from Köln to Sarajevo. In the latte we found the best. It was prepared, then baked in a large dutch oven with hot coals. There was a line out the door and Seyod had pointed it out as the best.
Images that had been flashes on CNN while I was in high school still stood in aftermath, and as we walked they became much more real. We returned after dark that night having spent the day looking at almost incomprehensible images.
Our hosts first brought out coffees, then sweet cakes, then some beers, and then cards... then the pear schnapps. That night we learned Bosnian Rummy as we sat around telling jokes and doing magic tricks. My uncle Frank (aka Presto Pugh, and Pughdini) is the type of person who can draw crowds of hundreds on the street. I've seen photos of him in markets in Guatemala, Egypt and Amsterdam. He taught me a couple of tricks, and with practice, I can entertain a small group of drunk people. The small party continued until the early morning. By 3 AM, after a jovial night, followed by some somber front line footage from Seyod's library.
The Bukva family was going to visit Senada's family in Montenegro the next day and we were bound for Belgrade. Our time was limited, and we thought that we would rather spend more time in Turkey than Serbia and Bulgaria. If things worked out well and we could make the connections, we may be able to make it to the Black Sea in a relatively straight shot. And maybe, just maybe there we could find another beautiful arrangement like the apartment in Hvar. This time I hoped for a place on the water. Juxtaposed with the tranquility of Hvar and the beauty of Dubrovnik, Sarajevo stands in my memories as being the most profoundly real. Life there was moving, and the people are beautiful.