Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015:
We turn to a more somber topic today as we enter Bosnia-Herzegovina– the topic of the wars that arose from the dissolution of the former Yugoslavian republic in the 1990s. Fair warning: the subject matter covered in the next few posts is not the fun, light-hearted travel fare I usually bring you, but I hope you appreciate the deeper dive on history and politics of this region. Like many Americans, I can say I have had an incomplete understanding of the many forces that led to these wars prior to this trip. However, even though Croatia was also a victim of these wars, having been attacked by Montenegro and Serbia, and the city of Dubrovnik having been besieged; today we get another perspective as we learn about Croatia, the aggressor, in these wars.
Our tour today takes us from the far southern end of Bosnia-Herzogovina (from now on, I’m just going to call it Bosnia) in the medieval town of Počitelj (pronounced “posh ee teli”) through Mostar and into Sarajevo. Although the entire country of Bosnia was absolutely decimated by those wars, the towns of Mostar and Sarajevo were the scenes of particularly horrific examples of hostility, although for different reasons.
When we were planning this trip, neither of us was particularly jazzed about going to Bosnia, although I did want to see Sarajevo, mostly because I had watched the winter Olympics in 1984 broadcast from there. However, since Bosnia is a majority Muslim nation, I was a little worried that I would feel uncomfortable as a Westerner in their country. I needn’t have worried! From the very beginning, every Bosnian we met was friendly, funny and helpful, and we truly felt welcome in their country, which although predominantly Muslim, is a fully European country in all senses.
Let me briefly cover a bit of Bosnia’s history and culture so you can understand the context of our travels for the next few days. Bosnia was originally settled by the Ilirian peoples several hundred years before the Romans invaded about 200-300 B.C. and started colonial settlements along the Dalmatian coast and up into the heartland of Bosnia. The Romans ruled until the end of 5th century A.D., and Roman Catholicism was introduced into the area by Charlemagne. In the seventh century A.D., the Slavs moved into the region and introduced Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The Bosnians somewhat melded the two religions, forming a Christian sect known as the Bogomils, although of all the Balkan countries, Bosnia remained the most ethnically and religiously mixed for the last two thousand years. The Ottoman Turks invaded in the 14th century A.D, and ruled Bosnia for about five centuries. However, instead of forcing the existing inhabitants of Bosnia to become Muslims forcibly, they instead accomplished a majority position by assimilation, with Turkish Muslims intermarrying into Catholic and Orthodox families. The Turkish Ottoman invasion basically split the Balkans in two along what is roughly the current day Bosnian-Serbian border. Serbians in particular were against the Ottoman rule as the Ottomans defeated the Serbians in 1389 at the Battle Kosovo Polje, which lost them the region of Kosovo, considered by most Serbians to be their ancestral homeland. This battle may well have set the table for the ethnic battles waged against Bosnia by Serbia in the 1990s.
Back to Bosnia’s history: Bosnia also welcomed Sephardic Jews who were forced to leave Spain in the middle ages. In the late 19th century, Bosnia was conquered by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and came under the influence of the House of Habsburg, which was how it remained until World War I. Following the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of WWI, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was formed, and its countries held together until WWII, when Germany invaded Yugoslavia and formed the puppet state known as the Independent State of Croatia. Sadly, the puppet government called the Ustaše, carried out its own program of ethnic cleansing, but the the largest number of ethnic minorities killed were ethnic Serbians; although Jews, Roma gypsies, political opponents, and homosexuals were also sent to work camps and exterminated.
During WWII, Josip Broz “Tito” raised a partisan communist army to rise up and take back Yugoslavia and then ruled the Republic of Yugoslavia for nearly 50 years until his death in 1980. During this period, all six nations within the republic were peaceful and prosperous, and the form of communism practiced was not particularly hard-line and had no ties to Russia. Above all else, Tito mandated cooperation among the Balkan states in the Yugoslav Republic, and many who lived in Yugoslavia during the Republic fondly remember the camaraderie of living in a mixed society.
Following Tito’s death, the Yugoslav Republic adopted a system of rotating presidencies among the six constituent states, but growing nationalism movements, particularly in Serbia, and also in Croatia began to undermine the Republic. In particular, as early as 1987, Slobodan Milośevič, the Serbian president started giving provocative speeches in which he implied that Croatians and Bosnians were plotting against the Serbian citizens in those two states. He kept accelerating these hateful speeches until those countries felt that they might be better served as independent nations which led to the break up the Yugoslav Republic. However, the Croatian president, Franjo Tudman, also had his own nationalist dream.
Our first stop was in Počitelj, which was mostly a rest stop, but where we climbed up a hillside to get the view from the ancient fortress. However, to get to the fortress, we walked past a mosque and we could see several minarets within our immediate view.
Then, it was on to Mostar.
One of the most troubling things about Bosnia is that even though the Yugoslavian wars of independence have been over for twenty years, virtually everywhere you go in Bosnia, there are still visible signs of the destruction. Interestingly, many of the cultural icons which have been repaired were paid for by countries in the Middle East. As we got off the bus, we immediately saw bullet holes and grenade marks pockmarking the facades of several buildings. Moreover, there were several crumbling husks of buildings, bearing signs that such ruins were dangerous.
But then, we entered the Turkish section of town and everyone we met had a smile for us. We went to a great restaurant called Šadrvan, where we were introduced to yummy Bosnian cuisine.
After lunch, we visited the rebuilt medieval bridge which stretches over the river Neretva. The bridge was completely destroyed in 1993 by Croatian forces, which had profound logistical and psychological effect on the residents because it stranded the old, traditional historically Muslim part of town from the newer more western part of town where the ethnic Croatian population lived. The bombing was part of a dastardly secret plot between Franjo Tudjman of Croatia and Slobodan Milośevič of Serbia to partition Bosnia. I have struggled to get my head around this fact, since it was Serbia’s attack on Zagreb (and attempt to assassinate Tudjman) in October, 1991, which led to Croatia declaring independence, and the siege of Dubrovnik beginning in December, 1991. Croatia and Serbia were still viciously at war with each other while these partition talks were ongoing.
The bombing of the bridge had no strategic value, but was destroyed largely because it was the cultural heart of Mostar and symbolically represented centuries of cooperation between Muslim and Christian citizens of Mostar.
Nonetheless, the world community came together in the postwar years to rebuild the bridge, and they did a fabulous job re-using the ancient materials recovered from the river to rebuild the bridge. As you can see from the pictures, this is a lovely picturesque site.
After walking through the bazaars of the old Turkish section we got back on the bus and drove to Sarajevo. Sarajevo, even more than Mostar, still bears the scars of war, but we’ll tackle that topic tomorrow. In the meantime, we checked into our hotel, the lovely Hotel Europe in the old part of Sarajevo. We checked into the hotel, and went to a restaurant Djulagin dvor where we had a killer traditional bosnia meal called cevapci, which consists of grilled pieces of a mixture of ground beef and lamb, served in a wonderful big puffy piece of bread like middle eastern flatbread, served with condiments of a local creamy cheese, ejdar (pronounced aye dar) and minced onions. We waddled back to our hotel and prepared to learn more about Sarajevo in the morning.