This week has been emotionally challenging, eye opening, intense and of course a lot of fun. In the week when Manchester Arena was bombed we were in a country very much characterised by war. I was deeply saddened by the attack on Manchester and it has affected me all week. I’ve felt homesick for the first time but being amongst people from all over the world I’ve been touched by how everyone I’ve met has offered their condolences. This post will be long because a lot happened this week. Just look at the pictures if it’s too much for you (Jess).
We arrived in Sarajevo as our bags were thrown out of the back of the bus and were left wondering where the hell we were. Turns out not Sarajevo but some random place just outside of the city that was pretending to be “Sarajevo bus station”. A man with a broken arm who was picking the thorns out of a rose tried to give us directions to something. We had no Bosnian Marks, my card was declined and then after some faffing we got a taxi. The taxi driver refused to listen to where we wanted to go, said “no” when we asked to get out until finally after much insisting we got out and walked to the hostel.
We spent two days in Sarajevo and it was intense. I only knew the minimum about the war before I went to Bosnia and after a week of cramming my brain with information I’m still not clear on what happened. I’m not going to spend time trying to explain it, but I can talk about the effects that I’ve seen for myself. Bosnian people are still living with the atrocities of the war. Horrific war crimes, bombed out towns, poverty and corruption. We spent some time exploring in the mountains around Sarajevo and the landscape is beautiful. It’s chilling to think that the views of the city allowed snipers to shoot anyone who moved from 2km away.
This photo was taken from a sniper’s den, once a majestic hotel with a panoramic view of Sarajevo.
This photo shows the “tunnel of hope”; an 800m long tunnel built underneath Sarajevo to link the seiged city to the rest of the country. I asked whether Serbs knew the tunnel was there and the answer was yes. Why didn’t they just bomb it? Because they wanted to see people suffer. They could have killed every person in Sarajevo but instead they allowed them to live on the brink of existence for 4 years with only this tiny tunnel as a way of smuggling supplies and people in and out of the city.
After the first day I felt exhausted. It seemed impossible to understand how such a diverse country had become subject to such a horrific war. Ethnic cleansing, torture, intimidation tactics…it was incredibly difficult to listen to the tales of the local people we met. Everyone was bitter, everyone had a different version of the truth.
The next day we decided to test our emotions further and visited the War Crimes museum. Museums about the war are not supported by the government, there is no education for the next generation about what happened. The museum was harrowing, especially the information about rape camps. I had to sit down at one point. When I read about a school teacher and most of her class getting wiped out by a grenade, I cried.
After this museum we went to the War and Childhood museum. What a depressing trip is what you are probably thinking at this point. Yes in some ways it was, but I felt it was important to understand. There were lots of interesting stories in this museum. The two that struck me the most were these:
There was a school poster made by two teenage girls who created a school in the basement underneath their block of flats for all the children living underground during the siege on Sarajevo. I watched a video of them teaching English to these little children and they were so professional about their make shift school. It was touching.
The other was a letter from a girl in Chester who had sent a humanitarian aid package to a child in Bosnia. I can remember making a shoe box to send to Bosnia, and as I was a child when the Bosnian war was happening I felt like the stories in this museum showed an alternative reality to mine.
I read the story of a girl who wanted to play in the garden with her sister. They had a new swing. Their mother said she must not take the baby outside because it was too dangerous. The girl was desperate to put the baby in the swing. She took her sister outside, placed her into the swing and went back inside to get some toys. While she was inside a bomb hit the garden and killed her baby sister. The girl’s date of birth was 1990 and the date of the story was 1993. I cried when I read this and I’m crying writing it. Far too similar to my own family and yet incomparable.
It was not all doom and gloom in Sarajevo. The people are incredibly friendly, reliant somewhat on tourism and keen to teach the world about who they are. They try to be a multi cultural city despite the corruption and segregation surrounding them. We went to a very quirky bar where the toilet spoke to you when you went in there. We visited the bob sleigh from the 1984 Winter Olympics.
We saw some cute goats chilling in a bombed out ruin.
The first thing to talk about is our hostel. Hostel Madjas was amazing. Run by a family, it was so welcoming it was just like living in someone’s house. The owners are brother and sister and they spoke to us extensively about their experience of the war. The sister fled the country for London and spent time there before it was safe to return. Baja, the brother, was hilarious and crazy but had clearly been through a lot. He had been smuggled out of Mostar in an ambulance as the family have Muslim heritage (he himself was not aware of this until the war). He talked about the day his Croat friends and neighbours left unexpectedly. The next day they were firing on their own town from the hills. He talked about how he hid in the chimney for two days when their home was raided. He fled to Sweden, where he says he went to therapy and came to terms with his experiences. He returned to Mostar, reunited with his sister and parents and they opened the hostel. It’s wonderful, and the food they make is amazing. Also the shower was the best shower I’ve had in my life…no exaggeration. We also met some great people and I’ve decided that the New Zealand accent is my favourite- thank you Jen for the peanut pretzels in my hour of need.
While in Mostar we visited the Kravice waterfalls. They’re so beautiful! We went swimming and my God it was freezing.
Later on we passed by what can only be described as a fairytale castle. Pocitelj- medieval village. Stunning!
So many beautiful locations in Bosnia! We also visited the village of Bladaj which isn’t really a village it’s a cave and a monastry. I didn’t take any photos of this place because I was too busy having an active imagination. The cave definitely inhabits some kind of cave monster and there’s these creepy stone steps on the cliff wall leading to another cave. Cue flashbacks to “The Descent”. I found out that divers have been trying to work out where the flow of water comes from and they can’t. “A work of God” say the locals. Apparently someone climbed the cliff and found all these cave drawings on the walls and some kind of graveyard. It was all too much for me I was scared and off creating a horror story in my mind.
I almost forgot to talk about the Old Bridge, the heart of Mostar…or the “Grandpa” as they call it.
I got attached to this bridge because it means so much to the locals. It’s a tradition to jump from the bridge although you couldn’t pay me to do it it’s a scary thought! I watched a video of the bridge being bombed by Croats on 9.11.93 and when it finally fell into the river I felt heartbroken. Honestly you can’t help but become absorbed in the war and because the local people are just so generous and welcoming I started to feel some of their pain.
We also hiked up to the top of Hum Hill/Mountain (no one seems to be too sure) and it’s a magnificent view.
Then this monstrosity of a cross marks the summit.
Then you realise that this is a symbol of Christian domination over Mostar, looking down on the mosques below. Also this hill was where Croat nationalists shot at civilians and rolled tyres filled with dynamite down onto the town below. Once again a beautiful spot with a harrowing story.
I’ve learnt a lot about Bosnia this week, unfortunately most of it has been negative. I’d love to tell you that they’re moving forward after the war but it’s not the case. Mostar is segregated into the Croatian side and the Bosnian side. The Bosnian side is mostly bombed out buildings and these deceiving facades where the front of the building has been restored but inside it’s a ruined shell. Apparently this is to give the impression that the government are restoring the city. The Croatian side has a beautiful park and shopping centres. Children have to choose between a Croat or Bosnian education in Mostar. The country has 3 presidents. The country is split into the Federation of Bosnia and the Republic of Sprska with invisible boundary lines. Be prepared to show your passport and potentially bribe police to let you drive further down the road. The segregation is very sad to see. Bosnian people think the world doesn’t care about them and sadly I think they’re correct. However I certainly care about them and I’m now very attached to this friendly and beautiful country! Bosnia, you’ve touched my heart and given me a lot to think about. ❤ Thank you Chris for being my travel buddy this week xo
Next stop: 29 hours in Dubrovnik ☉