A Bosnian Journey

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27 December 2005 – FD writes:
We started our journey in Dubrovnik, Croatia, with spectacular views of the Adriatic Sea. The old city walls are said to be one of the most beautiful fortification systems in Europe and a walk within these ancient walls allows one to take in the breathtaking history of the city, while at the same time meeting the present in the many chic designer boutiques.

28 December 2005
Travelling towards Mostar along the Dalmatian coast, we caught a glimpse of the fabled islands – thousand the history books say. The 140 km journey took us on Route 8/E65 passing by the small towns of Zaton, Trsteno, Slano, Doli and Neum, with its 24km coastline being Bosniaís only entrance to the sea. A short while later we were back in Croatia. It was my first experience of a border crossing and I felt rather nervous. During the war these crossing points became boundaries of hell for the thousands of refugees fleeing ethnic cleansing.

On entering Mostar the lane we were travelling in suddenly became a right turn only and like a bad dream, straight ahead was a traffic officer who waved us down. An easy mistake to make but most of all it looked like a prime spot for unsuspecting tourists who did not know any better. After a spot fine of 200 kuna (around £20) we were on our way to the nearest hotel – avoiding police officers and double lanes.

The Stari Most or the Old Bridge, built in 1566, now divides the city along ethnic lines ñ Muslims on the east and Croatians on the west. The bridge was destroyed in 1993 but was rebuilt in 2005. The new Stari Most was truly awesome. I had seen footage of the bridge being destroyed and the utter despair on the faces of those whose lives revolved around it.

29 December 2005
With a morning of light rain, my umbrella -battered by the wind and seen better days- was consigned to the dustbin of history. Well it was nothing that dramatic ñ just a sidewalk litter bin. The new one was made in China, of course. The cobblestone streets of the old city provides a treasure trove of souvenirs and countless number of artists and craftsmen who have sketched, shaped, painted and chiseled the Stari Most from every possible angle and with just as many materials. Denad Bakamovic doubled up as artist and gate keeper of the Neziragina Mosque, on the banks of the Neretva River.

30 December 2005
The drive from Mostar to Sarajevo was slow and treacherous because of the heavy snow. It took us three hours to complete the 136 km which normally takes around and hour and a half. We were only a couple minutes out of Mostar when we feared the worst ñ the snow on the mountains was low and thick and the further north we drove the thicker the snow became. And so too the temperature began to drop. We drove through Potoci, Dreznica, Jablanica, Konjic and Hadzici and could clearly see the signs of war. Ethnic cleansing must have been extremely unsparing here. The devastation was shocking.

Sarajevo is surrounded by five mountain ranges: Bjelanica, Igman, Jahorina, Trebevi„ and Treskavica. During the war, Serbian troops laid siege to the city and bombed the inhabitants from these high points.
We met Djidji (pronounced Gigi) on the outskirts of the city where he was working. Driving into the city he related this story: I remember when you returned a second time to Sarajevo from Italy and brought back about 30 eggs and onions. You prepared the eggs with onions and paprika for us to eat. We had not seen eggs for about one and a half years and my niece thought the onion was a toy, can you imagine that? You slept with six blankets during the winter as there were no windows in my apartment. My mum made us a lot of Burek (pastry filled with some green herbs as there was nothing else to use for the filling).

Barija, the old city, is extraordinary, with its beautiful Ottoman style Mosques and quaint shops. The meeting of religions is quite evident as a mosque, cathedral and synagogue share the same street. There is an unmistakable melding of civilizations and cultures – Austro-Hungarian, Roman, Ottoman. There is no shortage of eateries where one can indulge in a feast of traditional fare. And then there are the coffee shops! I soon cast away my caffeine inhibitions and joined the locals. The only drawback was that when I emerged from these coffee shops, I smelt and felt like a nicotine junkie. Smoking is almost a national pastime here, coffee drinking being the first, of course.

We visited one of the many graveyards where the fallen of Sarajevo are buried. In this particular one, is the grave of the first president of an independent Bosnia, Alija Izetbegovic, nicknamed ìDedoî or Grandpa by the Bosniaks.

31 December 2005
It was not a good day to be visiting the ski-resort on the Bjelasnica mountain range. I was in for a howling surprise! I needed snow goggles as I could barely see where I was walking. It was definitely not a memorable experience for me but I soon forgot about the discomfort after having a hearty bowl of soup, coffee and apple pie.

We met some friends on New Years Eve who found it a little disconcerting to hear fireworks exploding as the city welcomed the New Year. Barely ten years before, these explosions were killing people.

01 January 2006
We spent the day with a Bosnian family and listened to an unbelievable story of how, during the war, the youngest daughter would steal electricity to help families in her neighbourhood so that they could have hot water and heating to keep warm and prepare food. This would be done by cutting and attaching cables from buildings that had power – like the police headquarters – and leading them to homes where it was needed. She became a special target for the police. On one of her missions she had a friend assisting her. She gave him strict instructions not to let the two cables touch, but as she turned her back, he took hold of one of the cables, while standing in snow and wearing shoes that did not have rubber soles. He was electrocuted (low level) – his hair was spiky, his face blackened and his legs jerked and twitched as he walked home. She said it was a sight that had them all rolling in laughter.

On another occasion she felt unsettled as she knew the police was looking for her. As luck would have it as she went about her business, this time praying continuously, a trap was laid for her by the police. As she lay on pieces of glass to try and attach the cable, it triggered an explosion. At first she thought that she was in heaven but then heard her name being chanted by the people in the neighbourhood, she realized that she was still alive. She jumped approximately 5 metres from the building and with trembling knees walked the route home from memory as she was temporarily blinded by the explosion. She could not understand why she had been getting strange looks. She had very short hair, jeans and shirt and remembers someone asking her: ‘Brother are you ok?’  ‘Yes why not’, she replied. He held up a lantern, she looked at herself in the mirror -her eyebrows were blown off, eyelashes singed and her face was black. She asked him, why he did not say anything to her, he said: ‘Brother, I was scared of you’.

While their father was at the war front, the family – mother, two daughters and a two year old baby boy- had to fend for themselves. In the midst of the war, their father died and life could not have got worse. But they survived.