To many, it may seem like the last few months I have been all over the place, so let me fill you in a little bit about where I’ve been and why. First was an amazing trip to Switzerland over Easter. My girlfriends brother lives in Nendaz, so we drove there Friday night, had a beautiful few days on the mountain (my first real time snowboarding!) and headed back the following Tuesday. I joke that it will be the cheapest Switzerland trip I will ever make. We bought food for the trip in Belgium before we left, drove in a friends car and stayed at the brothers apartment. The only real cost was the ski lift.
Switzerland was just as beautiful as people say. And for me it was the sheer amount of peaks and snow filled valleys that amazed me. Also to be on the mountains, seeing them up close and from a different perspective was exciting. I’ve seen many many mountains but have only had a few opportunities to be on them so high up.
The next trip I made was for visa reasons, meaning I wouldn’t have gone if it wasn’t necessary but I also had an amazing time. As I’ve attempted to explain before, as an American in Europe I have a tourist visa (technically there is actually no visa) for 90 days. But I can use those 90 days however I want within a 6 month window, beginning from the time I land in Europe. My 90 days would have expired on May 6th, but I have an interview/assessment with Shelterbox May 11-13th so I needed to leave ‘Europe’ (the Schengen Visa Region) for a week or so, then I would be able to stay longer for Shelterbox.
So I found the cheapest flight Ryan Air had outside of the Schengen and off I flew to Zadar, Croatia. But knowing me, I didn’t stop there and after a night in Zadar I took a bus to Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. I had always wanted to visit the Balkans and really understand better the region and the war that ravished it, and being so close, I couldn’t resist. Like all of us, I’ve read the history books, seen the news stories and documentaries, but the Balkans/Yugoslav wars just never really made total sense to me (kind of like many types of Math, still to this day.) But being there was amazing and really allowed me to get a better grip and understanding of the complexity of the conflict and justifications (as ridiculous as they may have been) for war.
I am by no means an expert in this subject and am only going to say a short bit on the history, please read more from real sources! and I’ll also put a link to a great NY Times article that discusses the wars and the consequences of the peace.
Post WWII Yugoslavia was a communist country that comprised of several different ‘republics and provinces,’ including: Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro and provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina. The president, Josip Broz Tito, who himself had background of mixed nations (mother was Slovenian, father Serbian and he was born in Croatia) was able to balance the US (west) and Soviet Union to create a fairly stable economy and standard of living (of course this can be debated, but the nostalgia for that era is heavy.) With his death and the gaining of the presidency by Slobodan Milošević (pronounced Miloshevich), a pro Serbian nationalist, the multinational federation began to fall apart. Milošević wanted a greater Serbia, while the other republics both feared Serbian expansion and wanted their own ‘greater’ lands. The first war was with Slovenia, and lasted only around 10 days, the second was with Croatia and lasted roughly a year. These wars were fought mainly using the Yugoslav army (dominated and controlled by Serbs) against the local defense forces (croatian or slovenian) if they existed. Now on to Bosnia. Bosnia was the most culturally mixed republic in the area. It had large populations of Bosnian Croats (Roman Catholic,) Bosnian Serbs (Eastern Orthodox,) and Bosniaks (Muslims.) The communities were very intermixed and there was very little ethno-national tension ( Caveat: I say ethno-national when I really should say religious-nationalist. This is a very hard distinction to understand. All the people in the region are decedents of Slavic tribes, speak the same language and only differ in historical influences, culture and religion. The Croatians, Croats, were influenced by the Roman Catholic expansion and became Roman Catholic, the Bosniaks by the Ottoman Empire and became Muslim and the Serbians by the Byzantine Empire and became Eastern Orthodox, to simplify things.) The religious and cultural tensions were very much suppressed during the communist era, only to be ignited by politicians during the breakup of Yugoslavia.
In 1992, as Bosnia held a referendum on independence, Serbian troops had surrounded the Capital of Sarajevo (it sits in the bottom of a valley surrounded by hills). When the referendum was passed and independence was declared, the Serbians began to fire on and bomb the city.
The seige of Sarajevo lasted for three and a half years. The city was surrounded by Serbian troops who in the end killed over 11,000 people. Sarajevo had no army, no real weapons, and had to build civilian defense groups, and come together as a community in order to survive. They spent 3 1/2 years living in basements, darting across streets and always in fear of being killed. The city is still filled with cemeteries that popped up in all available spaces, school yards, soccer fields, parks, anywhere they could to respectfully bury the dead. It is also filled with roses, or what they call ‘Sarajevo Roses.’ These are places where Mortar shells hit, killing three or more people. They’ve filled in the crater and shrapnel holes with red paint as a memorial to the war and those who died.
These roses were all around the city. A few times, while looking at something I looked down to find myself standing on top of one of the roses, shocked as I thought about how the people who died were standing in this spot, and how out of no where, everything ended for them.
It was also a very beautiful and interesting place. With rich history from the time the Ottomans established the town, to the Austro-Hungarian empire and the assassanation of Franz Ferdinand near the Latin Bridge, to the present day. It has a wonderful Ottoman influenced old town with many beautiful mosques and even the oldest public WC in Europe. There are also many Austro-Hungarian buildings built during their rule over the land and the less beautiful communist section of the ‘new’ city. I did a few tours (which I normally don’t do but there was no way I would have learned so much so quickly without them) and really became enamored of the city, its past and future. (if you are going to Sarajevo, please do this tour www.sarajevowalkingtours.com definitely worth it!)
The next city I visited in Bosnia was Mostar. The place with the beautiful old bridge, Stari Most, as most people know it.
Mostar experienced a shorter war, but no less fierce. Here fighting was between the expanding Croatian republic and the Bosnians. The war saw families who had gotten along for generations split apart and a town which is still segregated to this day.
IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN THE CONSEQUENCES OF THE DAYTON PEACE ACCORDS READ THIS ARTICLE!
Mostar is a beautiful old city with a rebuilt ‘old’ bridge (it survived hundreds of years and two world wars but was destroyed during the Yugoslav wars.) I stayed at a great hostel called Hostel Miturno, which I highly recommend but unfortunately only had an evening and a day there.
After a week in Bosnia, I went back to Split, Croatia to spend the weekend with my girlfriend before flying home.
(ATTENTION: Ryan Air has flights from Belgium to Croatia for as low as 10€.Seriously, thats dangerous…)
We went the island of Brac and stayed on a beautiful beach, Zlatni Rat, for the day and also did a great sailing trip before hoping on a plane back to Belgium.
Croatia was beautiful, Bosnia was fascinating and in the end, I get to stay in Europe long enough to do the second assessment for Shelterbox, not a bad week.