Bosnia & Herzegovina. My introduction.

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Can you name the six countries of Former Yugoslavia? A little help needed?

C

B&H (you really should get this one…)

Ma

Se

Sl
Mo

(There is also a seventh, ‘K’ though at the time it was an autonomous province and presently not recognised by one of the others – bonus points for getting that one right!)

Do you know when each country split away from the capital in Belgrade? Why, and how it happened? How did the wars break out? Why did they even break out? Who was fighting who? And wasn’t there was a genocide? Against who? Why? How?

(Note: One of the main perpetrators, nicknamed ‘the Butcher of Bosnia’ has just been convicted, (22/11/2017) by the United Nations-backed international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Read more here )

 

It was not knowing answers to the above and,  watching a documentary on the ethnic cleansing during a Human Rights Masters seminar that initially made me want to visit Sarajevo. I banked it as a ‘sometime in the future’ trip. I remember watching the NATO bombings on the news when I was at school, and being disgusted. But really, I knew nothing about it. Should I have been disgusted? Fast forward on a few years and images of the Mostar bridge kept popping up, reminding me I needed  to visit to this region sometime soon. But when I saw a mates pictures of his Balkans trip it changed to, ‘I am too jealous*, I am doing this now.’

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*a terrible emotion, unless used to change yourself/situation in a positive way to make you no longer jealous 😉

And, without a doubt this trip has been one of my favourite trips, EVER. EVER. EVV-EEER (get it?)

IMG_1288With no direct flights to Sarajevo from London a weekend city break turned into a week long road trip,  flying into Zagreb (Croatia), and out of Belgrade (Serbia). My friend (wrongly) found out that the Zagreb-Sarajevo trains weren’t working, so we decided to rent a car. Not sure where she got this (mis)information from as when we peeked into Zagreb train station we saw one going to Sarajevo that evening. What a fabulous, fabulous mistake to make. A mistake I am so, so grateful for.

 

What struck and surprised me the most about CroBoSe (my spreadsheet name for the trip…) was how unbelievably gorgeous this region is. The countryside; the lush, green, green, green countryside. Never have I seen so many varying shades of vibrant green; in the trees, in the grass, in the rivers. I walked around with my mouth open. I drove with my mouth open. It was constantly BREATH TAKING.

And if we’d taken the train we never would have woken up by the Pljeva river in a teeny tiny B&B in Šipovo. Ran by a elderly lady, she wasn’t at all phased when we turned up at midnight, hours after our expected arrival time thanks to:

  1.  A burst tyre.

IMG_1250Driving to the Tvrdjava Kastel Fortress in Banja Luka we may have veered slightly too close to the curve. There may have been a loud bang, and perhaps some smoke, but on we drove to our destination. Spent an hour or so climbing over the ruins, and walking along the Fortress wall, taking photos and breathing in the experience, the air, the scenery. Had a quick dinner so to be driving on in light still,  we were served by an incredibly friendly waiter in what felt like a fancy, upmarket restaurant… had we been in the 1920’s, complete with piano music, smoky ambiance and a red and gold interior.

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Our ’emergency’ tyre.. that we used for the rest of the trip. There may have also been a burning out clutch incident too. Thankfully we’d been forced to buy full insurance because of going into B&H.

 

Driving away,  the car felt a little lopsided, and I may have noticed people staring at the right front side of the car. As I spotted a service station I shouted at my mate to go in there ‘NOW’ after spending the last few minutes saying ‘no, I think the car’s fine..’ with the faith there would be a gas station on the outskirts of town and that was the best place to see what was wrong. Until then, I thought, if we don’t know the problem, we can’t freak out about it (Genius I know). The tyre was flat. Not just a little flat, TOTALLY flat. I have no idea what we would have done if it wasn’t for the wonderful gas attendant, who spoke no English but quickly offered to change our tyre, with his own tools, as the ones in our car didn’t actually match the tyre, whilst running back to fill up his actual customers gas tanks. Only through persistence and insistence on our part did he take any money from us.

2. Getting lost up a misty mountain

IMG_1262Though that sentence somewhat sums it up, it lacks how dark and misty it was, and the steepness of mountain and the sheer drops a metre or so away from the car.  We were, a little terrified. After perhaps 30 minutes of climbing up we decided to turn around, head back down, and waited for another car to pass so we could utilise their light by driving behind them. Genius plan of Ashli’s.

This photo doesn’t really illustrate the darkness and potential to plunge into the abyss. During those sections I was glued to the dashboard talking to Ashl (who drove the whole way), just trying to keep us both calm and alive!

 

 

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Taking a slightly less mountainous route we were finally greeted on arrival with a welcome courtesy of google translate, hot tea, a large plates of cookies and some celebration eggs to join in the Easter game of trying to crack each others open.

 

It was these interactions and seeing more of the country than the main roads and towns that I cherished most. It gave us, I believe, a much wider and truthful overview of the region; capitals often distort the general reality of its citizens, not giving a true indication of the country, financially, politically or culturally.

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I had to visit Srebrenica to learn more about what happened there, and to pay my respects to the victims, and survivors. We booked a day tour with Sarajevo Funky Tours. In my experience guides are always better on memorial visits, usually taken by people truly interested in the subject matter, often personally connected, and more than willing to answer my persistent questions to give me a better understanding of the event/s and the situation and circumstances leading up to it.

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Srebrenica is a two hour drive from Sarajevo, and when I got in the back of the car I took out my notepad, and straight up told our guide that we didn’t really understand the history of the Balkans or the break up of Yugoslavia, and the more we had been learning the more confused we were getting, and would he mind explaining it a little to us.

He took this challenge head on, and provided us with a history starting in the 15th Century when the region was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, hence the huge Arabic and Islamic influence still felt and seen in many areas.

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Fast forward to 1878 and the end of the Russian-Turkish War, where at the Berlin Congress Bosnia and Herzegovina became occupied and administered by the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. The Treaty may have ended the conflict for the present time, but the Balkan region was described as the ‘Powder keg of Europe’ and with underlying tensions between ethnic groups heating up, it was in Sarajevo in 1914 that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, sparking WW1.

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Standing next to the Latin Bridge, Sarajevo, where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated

From 1918 – 1941 Bosnia & Herzegovina was part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (officially named in 1929) with Belgrade as it’s capital. It loosely (borders changed slightly so often) incorporated what we know as B&H, Serbia, Montenegro & Croatia. Nationalism was discouraged and instead Slavic unity promoted as well as the use of the Serbo-Croatian (often referred to as ‘Yugoslavian) language by 75% of its citizens.

In 1941 (during WWII) it was conquered by the Axis forces (Germany, Italy, Hungary & Bulgaria) and without going into much detail at all… the occupation was brutal, especially so in the Croat-region. Across the states there was a lot of partisan resistance, as well as fascist collaboration. Jews, Roma and Serbs were sent to concentration camps  and approximately 1 million people perished.

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In 1944, with the encouragement of the Western Powers, treaties were signed, known as  Tito–Šubašić Agreements between the Communist Partisans (led by Tito) and the Yugoslav Government in exile (led by Šubašić.) With support of the Allied Forces (including the Red Army) in early 1945 the Germany Army was being defeated in the region.

Elections were held in Nov 1945 and the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia was declared, despite King Peter II’s, (still in exile) refusal to abdicate. Marshall Tito held the real power and on 31 Jan 1946 , the new constitution of Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, was established. It was comprised of six republics (two  autonomous provinces (Kosovo and Vojvodina) with the Federal Capital in Belgrade.

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In 1948 Yugoslavia distanced itself from the Soviet Republic, building it’s own version/model of Socialism. Though life was not easy, and was also restricted from a Western Democratic point of view, Yugoslavian Socialism (often referred to as Communism) was very different, and less brutal and repressive than its counterparts in the USSR and other nations such as Romania. Ignorantly, I had just assumed daily life would have been very similar.

48 years later the genocide at Srebrenica took place. Approximately 7000 – 8000 civilian men and boys were massacred solely due to their status as Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and under the watch and therefore supposed safety of the UN Peacekeepers.** So what happened to cause such a horrific hatred?

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During the trip most people we encountered, in all regions spoke fondly of Marshall Tito, looking back on that time, even if just speaking  their parents words, with job security and a basic level of education. We were told he was a unifier, respected by most, and kept peace under the notion of Slavic unity. Many argue that it was the death of Tito in 1980 that led to the death of Yugoslavia, with political infighting, economic decline coupled with the rise of nationalism and the fall of communism in other European States. The differing cultures, religions and ethnicity’s were more starkly obvious driving from area to area, than I expected them to be.

 

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**I am currently writing posts about Srebrenica and the wider trip;  Sarajevo, the siege of Sarajevo, the underground tunnels, the graffitied bobsled tracks. Mostar and it’s surrounding areas; Blaga, Počitelj. As well as the incredibly gorgeous and interesting journey we took to Belgrade, stopping off at Višegrad on the River Drina, Andrićgrad, Drvengrad, Šargan Eight Railway and through the Tara National Park.

I didn’t want to make this post too factual-history heavy. There are others who know, and understand much more than I do. Do you want to find out more?

Yes! But only 5 minutes more:

Yes! Lots, lots more! BBC Documentary: The Death of Yugoslavia

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