Bosnia & Herzegovina
Border crossings have been simple. Typically, documents are shown to personnel at the semi-official looking station of the country you are leaving, whereupon you sit around for a few minutes while they retreat into some small dark cubicle to perform mysterious rituals and incantations before returning your documents; then you continue down the road for a few minutes before stopping at the semi-official station of the country you are entering, whereupon the process is repeated. We have encountered no problems or delays in particular.
Entering Bosnia the procedure is no different, but the setting is. We've taken a more-or-less-one-lane road from a relatively unknown, obscure (yet fascinating) part of Montenegro into a relatively unknown, obscure (yet fascinating) part of Bosnia. The road has meandered through rolling farmland, with continued evidence, in the form of damaged and abandoned structures, of the region's conflict. But this looks less like a border crossing than like a farmer's backyard. A small valley encircles a crumbling country house, blooming fruit trees, sprouting vegetable fields, and rickety tables with stools and empty shot glasses. It looks like a stage set for an imaginary scenic off-the-beaten-track bucolic border crossing. The driver of a huge logging truck speaks English and helps us through the gate, the wooden fence into Bosnia.
Bosnia looks like Switzerland here in the mountains. From a distance. Up closer the houses are poor relations to chalets. The town hall of the first village we pass through has its roof blown off entirely and walls half turned to rubble. Despite this, the small main street is bustling with activity. People look at us in a not-unfriendly, curious way. Children wave. There is an energy here that feels more alive than just across the border. More small markets, more people outside at the cafes. More cafes.
The road descends from its heights at the border and the trees and countryside change accordingly. However, the periodic appearance of gutted homes remains consistent. Goradze is the first large town we enter, with its beautiful turquoise river. Goradze was the site of a declared "safe area" for Muslims during the war, a term not respected by Serb forces who killed many people there. Now, international flags deck a bridge not crossable by motorcycle as it has been turned into a pleasant pedestrian walkway. More cafes, and that feeling of bustle, life, energy.
Minutes later we get our own surge of energy when lights flash from behind. Cops, pulling the bike over. No speeding has transpired, so we wait patiently to see what will happen. Two cops with big grins step out, asking questions about the Transalp. How big is the engine? What year is it? The older cop proudly proclaims that he rides a BMW. That seems to be that--we're back on our way. Not much later, Erika spots some cops up ahead as Dave starts to overtake a slow moving truck. "Cops", she shouts, but it's too late. Sure enough, they pull us over again. All that seems necessary are a few apologetic gestures, and we're on our way once more. There will be many, many more police patrolling the roads but we will have no further personal interactions. Fortunately, the high level of traffic enforcement seems to keep the other drivers under control.
Sarajevo is amazing. Most people probably enter town via the long approach from the airport, which we will see later, with its drab wide streets lined with endless gray sniper scarred apartment blocks. But we are approaching from the mountains at the other end and get a very different impression.
We are directly propelled into a bustling melange of visual and emotional stimulation. First the river; across, a range of high hills with houses cascading down, stopping only to surround two large patches of what look like endless white matchsticks--the graveyards. Then a dense burst of traffic and people, a huge mosque, smoky gray 19th century classic European style buildings, tram lines, cobbled streets, more hills, church steeples, Turkish bazaars, women in headscarves, women in tube tops.
A guy with a long ponytail on a motorcycle pulls up and asks if we need any help. He identifies himself as "Bacardi--it's my band name" and has us follow him through a lawless roundabout to a very nice hotel--too nice for us. Another lead comes from a tourist agency and again we follow Bacardi up a steep cobbled street that loops around another large cemetary. The Transalp has little traction on the slippery stones and Erika has to disembark so that Dave can manoeuver it up the hill. We find our room near a small park with a striking view of the city.
It is unnerving to walk past the graveyard back to our place the first night, but the sight quickly becomes familiar. Most of the tombstones show dates of death as 1993.
Kids walk past, coming home from school, giggling like kids coming home from school; elderly people hobble back from the grocery store like elderly people hobbling back from the grocery store. Life has gone on with the tombstones as common as the tasks of the day. What horrors did the schoolkids miss...what horrors did the elderly see... Occasionally as we walk along the city streets, we notice the deceptively pretty "Sarajevo Roses"-- flower-like formations in the sidewalk filled in with colorful paint. The "roses" are actually bomb craters filled in to commemorate where 5 or more civilians were killed by bombs.
One evening it is a full moon and as we walk past the illuminated marble spires, the Moslem call for prayer echoes over the city. Singers send out their wavering melodies from mosques throughout town, which bounce off the mountains in a sequence almost harmonious yet rather staggered so they hover just off key like some rondo gone awry. The wailing chants, the silent headstones, and the shining moon create a haunting moment.
Two mornings at our room in the home of the Hasibahs we are invited up for coffee, traditional Moslem hospitality.
They speak no English but their nephew Salim is fluent. He was raised in Algeria and is currently working as a translator while finishing his degree in chemical engineering. He was not in Sarajevo during the war but tells of his aunt and uncle living in one room beneath the stairs of their home, the only place in the house fortified with sandbags against sniper fire. Salim helps translate one day when Dave needs to find an auto/metal shop to straighten out a bent rack on his bike. His uncle knows just the place. An hour and a half, four lemonades and $10 later everything is back in order. Most everyone we meet in Sarajevo is warm and helpful.
Dave has made contact with Pietro through the Horizons Unlimited website, which contains information on international motorcyclists interested in meeting other travellers. Pietro is Italian but lives in Sarajevo, working for an international aid organization. His wife Marta and 4 month old baby Ludovico are visiting from their home base in Italy. We all meet for lunch in the atmospheric Turkish Quarter and eat cevapcici (meatballs stuffed in bread pockets.)
Walking around town, we stroll past the busy cafes and notice impeccably dressed and made-up Moslem women and their western counterparts, big old Austro-Hungarian schools and libraries, beautiful mosque spires, and a multitude of cell phone shops and boutiques.
Later Pietro drives us through the other end of town, past the airport, to the War Museum Tunnel.
We watch a video of wartime TV broadcasts of buildings in flames and re-enactments of people using the tunnel to move food and artillery between inside and outside of the beseiged city.
This was the only link to the city from the outside as Serbs surrounded most of the city; in addition, United Nations forces controlled the airport and apparently would not let any Sarajevan leave as, they strangely rationalized, this would be a contribution to the Serbs' goal of "ethnic cleansing".
On the way back Pietro drives us through the communist-highrise part of town where more evidence of the siege is apparent.
Pietro and Marta have done extensive motorcycle travel before Ludovico was born and tell us of their travels. Though we have still had some hope of going through Iran as opposed to entering Pakistan via "the 'Stans" (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan), their experience in the first 2 "stans" affirms what we've heard from others--that these countries have been highlights of their travels. Marta was uncomfortable in Iran in full chador (covering head to toe) plus motorcycle gear in 95+ degree heat. If we could even get a visa, unlikely at this point as Americans, we would be in the Iranian desert in the even higher temperatures of August. This prospect, plus gear and chador, does not thrill Erika. Though we've also heard great things about the hospitality of the Iranian people and the fascination of that country, we decide to head eventually for the Stans. It's been really helpful to hear Pietro and Marta's experiences, which inspire us and help solidify our future travel route. And Ludovico is adorable! Thanks Pietro and Marta.
The road from Sarajevo to Mostar descends further through green valleys. The sky is gray again but this doesn't darken the beauty of this scenery. A good portion of the road flanks a wide clear river which opens up into a lake surrounded by small homes and villages. We'll need to backtrack later on this same road to go north; though "backtrack" is usually an evil word in Erika's vocabulary, she is happy to return to this scenic area.
Closer to Mostar the terrain is drier, rockier and more spread out.
We can't figure out how to get to the old part of town and circle the suburban outskirts. Eventually we find the town center with its typical apartment blocks. The main street of town is the most concentrated example of devastation we've seen. Huge carcasses of large buildings crumble in a series down the street.
Mostar is currently divided by its beautiful river into two areas, Croats on the west side, Moslems on the east. During the war apparently both had been united against the Serbian forces but at some point the Croats turned against the Moslems. No opportunity will present itself to talk to any local people, to understand how people coexist or feel about each other now, more than ten years later.
Finally we locate the old town and a cozy "pensione" within it. We cross Stari Most, the incredibly picturesque 16th Century bridge which had been bombed in 1993 and was only rebuilt a few years ago.
Both banks of the river host lovely restaurants where we will eat two meals in possibly the nicest settings we've seen.
Our pensione on the Croat side of the river looks like it has been recently built to replace the remains of a home no longer standing. On the Moslem side are more destroyed buildings coexisting with new or repaired homes, shops, and restaurants. There is a "Diving Club" right next to the bridge and we watch a young man dive proudly off the top.
We visit a traditional Turkish home on the river
and the Karadzoz-Bey Mosque.
Later, we have coffee and greasy meat burek (how we will miss burek) at one of the many cafes in the newer downtown.
Then two days are up and it's time to head north towards Serbia. Bosnia-Hercegovina is divided into Bosnia, where Sarajevo and most of the rest of the country is located; and Hercegovina, where Mostar and a smaller portion of the country is located. To further confuse us, Bosnia-Hercegovina is divided into the Croat-Muslim Federation and the Republika Srpska, neither of which is particularly fond of each other. In a few more days when we enter Serbia, we will talk with a man who tells us that while the people of the Republika Srpska identify as Serbian and feel above the Bosnian Croats and Muslims, the Serbians look down upon anyone not a SERBIAN Serb, including the Bosnian Serbs.
Before crossing into Serbia, we will spend just one day in the border town of Zvornik, in the Republika Srpska. Dave will later read in his book "To End A War", by Richard Holbrooke (on the Dayton Peace Agreement which ended the Bosnian conflict), that a mass grave was discovered near Zvornik.
Hotels in town are pricey, so we ask a taxi driver if he knows of any rooms. He leads us to a place right next to the river where chaos immediately ensues as the driver, his friend, an old guy, another guy, a 17 year old girl, and a German speaking couple all bumble around. It is totally unclear whose house it actually is or whether they even understand that we're looking for a room. Nada, the 17 year old, turns out to speak a litle English and Mihajlo, the other guy, turns out to be the owner of the place. After further confusion we are settled into a small room for not a cheap price, but it would seem impossible to back down now...
We are under the surveillance of Mihajlo from this point on. He sits us down at the table and proceeds to offer Dave multiple shots of his own homemade firewater while Erika bonds with Nada cutting cucumbers in the kitchen.
Soon preserved meats, smoked cheese, veggie salad and bread is brought out and we are joined by Nada's mother, brother, mother's friend, her son, and Nada's friend. Some hours later Mihajlo comes out of the kitchen with a flourish and a platter of potatoes boiled with onions, carrots, much salt and a large amount of lardy meat. Breakfast the next day will also be included, consisting of bread and huge portion of fried eggs with the aforementioned lardy meat. Mihajlo passes on the bread and eggs and sticks with lardy meat, salt, green onions and firewater.
Mihajlo offers to let us stay a second night for free, but though we've enjoyed his boisterous hospitality it is time to take our calorie-laden bellies over the border to spend a few days in Belgrade, Serbia.
Posted by Erika Tunick at May 27, 2005 02:30 PM GMT