As the scars heal, a return to Bosnia
by Ruth Ellen Gruber, Sarajevo
In the years before the Bosnian war of the early 1990s, I travelled widely in the former Yugoslavia. I'd almost always go by car, and I delighted in navigating tortuous ribbons of highway through some of the most spectacular scenery in Europe. Bosnia-Herzegovina was especially enticing, with its forested mountains, pristine rivers, picturesque towns and villages, and a vibrant ethnic mix that reflects the intertwined influences of Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic cultures.
The war, of course, put an end to such roaming. The conflict left a quarter of a million people dead and more than 2 million displaced. Urban centers were ruined, and homes and historic monuments were damaged or destroyed. Not only that, thousands of land-mines put large swathes of countryside emphatically off-limits. Since the Dayton Peace Accords ended the fighting nine years ago, foreign visitors were mainly soldiers, aid workers, diplomats, businessmen and, above all, religious pilgrims to Medjugorje, a village in the south where six teenagers saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1981. But ‘normal’ tourists are beginning to come back. Not only that, they're being actively courted.
Tourism is considered a major component in the economic, social and physical reconstruction of Bosnia-Herzegovina. And authorities and entrepreneurs alike are striving to change the local image from war zone to haven. It won't be easy. Grim reminders of the war are still widely visible, tourist information is limited, land-mines are still a threat in some areas, and thousands of foreign peacekeeping troops are still stationed in the country. But milestones like the reconstruction of the historic Old Bridge in Mostar will go a long way. Destroyed by Croatian Army shelling in 1993, the bridge and rebuilt old town around it were rededicated in July with a gala celebration and the town itself bustles today with shops, cafés and visitors.
Throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina, in cities and villages alike, many other monuments, urban infrastructure and even ski runs have undergone significant repair and rebuilding. Sarajevo, extensively damaged in the desperate siege that lasted from 1992 to 1995, is again a busy centre of politics, culture and spirituality, with new hotels, lively shops and restaurants and a vibrant cultural life.
The guide book
A comprehensive new guide book, published this year in Britain and the United States, should also help open up Bosnia to tourists. Bosnia & Herzegovina: The Bradt Travel Guide was written by Tim Clancy, a former aid worker who has lived in the region since 1992. Clancy now runs Green Visions, an ecotourism company in Sarajevo that promotes hiking, rafting and other cultural, adventure and outdoor tourism. Clancy knows Bosnia-Herzegovina intimately and clearly loves the country and its people, regardless of ethnicity. He revels in the landscape and local traditions and describes dozens of towns, nature preserves, monuments and other tourist sites in all parts of the country.
Just as important, however, he devotes nearly half of the book to background and practical information - ranging from history, accommodation, sports facilities and cuisine to ‘cultural dos and don'ts,’ including tips on navigating the roads and the ABCs of drinking the ubiquitous Turkish-style coffee. Clancy encourages visitors to engage with local people and to accept their hospitality and overtures at friendship. And he devotes considerable space to sensitive reflections on the physical and psychological impact of the war. ‘Scars take time to heal,’ he writes, ‘and the world returning to Bosnia-Herzegovina as welcomed guests and not humanitarian aid workers is part of that process.’
I travelled to Bosnia this summer, when I tagged along with a friend who was going there on business. It was a quick trip, and the itinerary was limited: a couple of days in Sarajevo, half a day in Mostar and stops in one or two other places. But we travelled by road, and just from the car window one can see the scars and savour some of the changes and contrasts across the countryside.
We drove from Zagreb and entered Bosnia across a bridge over the Sava River. Border formalities were minimal, and as we waited for our passports to be checked, we gazed across at the ruined hulk of a riverside hotel. It was defaced by graffiti extolling the rapper Snoop Dog but flanked by bright new buildings, café umbrellas and a river-boat restaurant. ‘During the war, we used to have to be ferried across,’ my friend recalled, with a shake of his head. ‘All those travel difficulties have faded into a blur of the past.’
Bosnia-Herzegovina is divided into two entities, the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska and the Federation, whose population is mainly Bosnian Muslim (or Bosniak) and Croatian. As we drove south toward Sarajevo, we crossed the border between the two entities several times, but there was no indication of a frontier.
It was harvest time, and the road wound past fields full of haystacks, drying corn and fat orange pumpkins. Farm stands at the side sold big net sacks of peppers, potatoes and cabbage. We passed war-ruined buildings, roadside graveyards and occasional military vehicles. But even more striking was the colourful mix of commerce and new construction. Above many villages, the slim minarets of newly rebuilt mosques pierced the sky. Raw new red-brick houses were going up, and, for the amount of traffic we encountered, there seemed to be an extraordinary number of roadside cafés, restaurants, motels and gas stations.
We stopped at one café that was set in a pine-shaded garden with a ping-pong table and a traditional rotary barbecue, designed to spit-roast entire lambs, a local specialty. At an outdoor table we sipped surprisingly good espresso and listened to the insistent strains of local pop music. Down a hill stood a little chapel that apparently had just been rebuilt. And in the garden, a few steps from the café terrace, was a memorial to a 14-year-old boy who had been killed by bombing in 1994.
Later, we stopped in Doboj, a crossroads town dominated by an imposing hilltop fortress dating to the Middle Ages. Here I had time to poke around for a couple of hours while my friend was in a meeting. Doboj was the scene of heavy fighting in the war. Its Muslim population was ‘ethnically cleansed’ by the Serbs, and only small numbers have returned. Photographs from the 1990s show the large central mosque as a gutted shell.
In his guide book, Clancy writes that Doboj ‘doesn't seem to have recuperated from its war days.’ And I, too, found it a somewhat melancholy place, overwhelmed, or just tired out, by the tides of history. Still, a walk through the town was instructive, and so were my brief encounters with local people. Much of Doboj consists of shabby, communist-era concrete buildings. But there is a pleasant little old town area, and here the central mosque now stands in rose-pink splendour, restored to pristine condition. On the same street, just a few dozen metres away, there is a church under repair, as well as a new centre and synagogue for the tiny Jewish community.
This article appeared in the International Herald Tribune, 15 October 2004