Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, and Montenegro (which we had visited in September) were all part of the former Yugoslavia, which violently imploded in the 1990s. While it seemed that Croatia has done a pretty good job of recovering and moving forward, I was interested to see how Bosnia and Serbia compared. I was also curious to see how different things would be traveling solo compared to the last 11 months with Lisan.
Even though only 850 miles separate Copenhagen from Sarajevo, it was a full day of travel beginning with a short flight to Stockholm (completely in the wrong direction), followed by a 5-hour layover (actually quite fun since I was able to enjoy a late lunch with Jessica, Martin, and Cleo in Uppsala), and a longer flight to the Bosnian capital (which unfortunately arrived at night so I couldn’t see the dramatic mountains surrounding the city). Even in the dark, the contrast between Scandinavia and the Balkans was readily apparent, and I was excited to explore.
It wasn’t until the next morning that I really got to see Bascarsija (the old town), with its twisting alleys full of cozy cafes and restaurants amid a conglomeration of mosques, churches, and synagogues. The crumbling Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian architecture made for an interesting mix, while scars from the almost four year long Siege of Sarajevo are still eerily present. So much so that they even coined the term “Sarajevo Rose” for a concrete scar caused by a mortar shell explosion, later filled with red resin to mark where they resulted in deaths.
Heading out of town toward the airport, you can check out one end of the “Tunnel of Hope,” the ~800m long lifeline dug under the airport runway to provide the supplies that proved essential to the city’s survival during the extended siege. Climbing up the mountains surrounding the city, you can see numerous cemeteries for the 5,000+ civilians that were killed, picturesque yet sobering reminders of the tumultuous times that this city has faced just in the last 30 years. Back down in Bascarsija, the Latin Bridge (built by the Ottomans 1500s) where Archduke Franz Ferdinand (the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary) was assassinated (eventually leading to WWI) serves as a reminder that the history and tensions here go back much further.
Heading SW toward Croatia, along flowing rivers and in the shadows of craggy mountains, I arrived in Mostar, whose main attraction is Stari Most, a beautiful stone bridge originally built by the Ottoman Turks in the 1600s that was blown up by Croatian forces in 1993 and eventually rebuilt in 2004. While the bridge itself is a famous symbol of reconciliation, there are numerous other structures throughout town that still show damage from the heavy fighting.
Keen to see another side of the story, I continued on to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia (and the former Yugoslavia). The bus ride through several hours of rolling hills and beautiful forests made it easy to see why there was such intense fighting over this land. I wasn’t sure what to expect upon arrival, considering that history doesn’t shine a very pleasant light on Serbian actions (especially those of former President Slobodan Milosevic).
Walking around the city, there were some slightly defiant and ironic scenes, including banners outside the National Assembly stating that “EU and USA ignore Serbian victims” (because they were generally considered to be the aggressors) and the ruins of the former Yugoslav Ministry of Defense (bombed by NATO in 1999 in an effort to stop human rights abuses in Kosovo, now a protected monument). In stark contrast were the young Serbs that I hung out with, who were some of the nicest people that I’ve ever met and seemed more interested in looking to the future than dwelling on the unpleasant past.
Overall, it was really interesting (and somewhat sad) to see firsthand the results when the long-simmering tensions between the Orthodox Serbs, the Muslim Bosniaks, and the Catholic Croats boiled to the surface. Even more disconcerting was to observe that those tensions aren’t completely resolved, leaving me to wonder what the future holds and to hope for the best. As for now, I had a blast in the Balkans and the biggest problem that I ran into was the incessant smoking (and the ruthless hangover it caused); while that was frustrating, I’d still love to come back and explore further.