A Trip to Bosnia - Alec Fullerton
The plane's tyres struck down on the asphalt at just before midnight local time. We had landed in Tuzla, a city in the Northeast of Bosnia, around 120km from the capital, Sarajevo. Despite being declared one of six UN safe zones during the Bosnian War, a heavily criticised initiative, not least for the horrifying butchery that took place at Srebrenica, Tuzla was not spared. The industrial city witnessed several massacres during the conflict that lasted from 1992 to 1995.
This is the thing about Bosnia. You can't talk about it without making people think about the war. It was only in late November this year that the odious Ratko Mladic, more appropriately known as The Butcher of Bosnia, was handed a life sentence for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. You might not believe it, but the man who is responsible for murdering at least 8,000 Muslim boys and men at Srebrenica in 1995, and who waged siege against Sarajevo for three years, killing thousands of civilians with constant shelling, is still celebrated as a hero by Serbian nationalists.
The recent memory of this conflict is why, upon telling family and friends that I was heading to Bosnia, they were somewhat taken aback; still imagining it to be a wild and unknown warzone, certainly not the first choice for an undergraduate jaunt. And to some extent, it was an exciting prospect; it felt like more of an adventure than other trips to more routine destinations. After all, how many people do you know who've been to Bosnia on holiday? It's certainly no Costa del Sol.
Spotting extortionately cheap tickets and having our curiosities peaked for the country, we set off with open minds and a fairly limited knowledge of the conflict that came to an end literally days before I was born. It ended up being one of the best holidays of my life, and certainly one of the most culturally, historically, and even gastronomically, fascinating. Although it's not a normal holiday choice by any stretch, I couldn't recommend Bosnia any more.
Walking across the runway and into the 'airport' in Tuzla was quite the experience. Queuing in the darkness, we slowly filed into a room occupied by two stern-faced, chain-smoking guards. The Soviet era vibe meant it felt like stepping onto the set of Armando Ianucci's recent film, The Death of Stalin. Border control navigated, we piled into a cramped minivan for the two and half hour drive to Sarajevo.
One of the first things you'll notice when you go to Bosnia are the constant and stark reminders of the war. We witnessed our first on the way to Sarajevo. Going round a bend, I spotted a red rectangular sign brightly illuminated in the van's headlights. It bore the words "Pazi - Mine", accompanied by a skull and crossbones. I'd been warned before coming about not going off the beaten track in the Bosnian countryside. And this was why: there were land mines everywhere. It was estimated in 1996 that two million mines had been planted in total, and even in 2013, after considerable demining efforts, they believed more were still scattered in 28,699 locations.
We finally pulled into the empty car park of Sarajevo's train station and set off on a 45-minute long walk through the pouring rain to our hostel. The next day we set out to explore the city.
Evidence of the city's siege, the longest in modern military history, is visible on every street corner. Far from your eye being drawn to them, the shell-blasted walls and bullet-peppered tower blocks instead seek out your gaze; freeze-framed monuments to the war and its dead. As we walked about the place, every five minutes we'd come across a house more damaged by gunfire and shelling than the previous one.
With the most badly damaged buildings it is striking both how heavily pockmarked they are, but also how often they have been left in this state yet are still inhabited. Talk a walk down the notorious 'Sniper Alley', where during the war civilians would have to risk their lives in the dash across, and you'll see the full extent of the devastation. Make no mistake; this is no alley, but the main commercial boulevard, a good 100 yards across. On both sides are blocks of flats still bearing the scars of this bloody siege over twenty years on.
You might ask yourself how people can still live day-to-day with these relentless reminders of the war and of the family or friends they may have lost in it. Even after a day, we began to realise why- after seeing your twentieth house ravaged by artillery fire and bullet holes, you start to become numb to it; it becomes normalised. Bosnia is a country struggling to move on. And with ongoing social tension and the superficially imperceptible, at least for a foreign visitor, but deeply entrenched division still present in Bosnian society, it's got a long way to go.
Please accept my apologies for the tourist brochure cliché, but Bosnia truly is a place where East meets West. After travelling south from Sarajevo to Mostar, we spent a day exploring the countryside in a battered old VW camper with two banks of seats. No seatbelts, of course. Second stop was the hillside village of Počitelj, where the winding cobbled streets are towered over by two opposing obelisks: a medieval Catholic bell tower and the minaret of the Hajji Alija mosque.
Looking out from the guard tower on the Northern side of the village fortress, these structures frame your gaze down the valley. This pairing is oft found throughout the country and whilst it celebrates the diverse culture and history of the land, it tragically highlights one of the root causes, or at least scapegoated excuses, of so much bloodshed during the mid-nineties.
The two roughly five-hour bus trips we took, first from Sarajevo to Mostar and then down to Dubrovnik in Croatia, could well have been low points of the trip. In fact, they were almost entirely spent gawping out of the windows: Bosnia is a stunningly beautiful country. The views from those buses as we trundled along perilous mountain roads and wound our way through river gorges were among some of the most breathtaking I've ever seen.
The architecture too is reason enough to book plane tickets today. Take the Stari-Most bridge in Mostar's old town, it doesn't get more postcard-perfect than that. Especially when admired from the top of the Koskin-Mehmed Pasha Mosque's minaret. Of course as chance would have it we also arrived just in time for the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series’ stop in the City, where predictably narcissistic divers went full narcissus and dived from a platform on the bridge.
Even here, however, we can't escape the memories of the war. The 16th-century Ottoman bridge that had stood for 427 years in Mostar is not the bridge they were diving off. The original was destroyed in 1993 on the orders of former Croatian army chief Slobodan Praljak in his siege of the Muslim Bosniak old town.
Bizarrely enough, just as I was sitting down to pen this article there was a breaking news flash involving Praljak. On Wednesday 29 November 2017, after having his conviction appeal rejected at The Hague, he stood up and shouted "I am not a war criminal, I oppose this conviction", before drinking a small vial, allegedly containing poison. He died in hospital later that day.
Although the tragic events of the Bosnian War have inevitably dominated this article, it should not put you off. We met some exceptionally welcoming and friendly people in Bosnia, enthusiastic to speak about their experiences and share their culture and history with us.
The horrors that devastated this beautiful country just before most of us were born is something that, I believe, everyone should witness first hand. Through the act of exploring, discovering and interacting with other cultures and people we are learning the greatest lesson the Bosnian War has to offer: the overwhelming importance of tolerance.