When people think of Europe, usually it gets divided into Western and Eastern parts, in a political line that the Cold War left after it finished. In this divide the Balkan peninsula somehow seems to be blurry. It’s like there’s a hole between Austria and Greece. Like these South Slavic people couldn’t fit into Western or Eastern Europe. Even if it’s out of instinct, the countries that made up former Yugoslavia (plus obscure Albania) seem to not belong in Europe. Slovenia and Croatia have become more known over the last decade or so, but the rest of ex-Yug is still quite off the beaten path.
So, as most people, I knew really little about Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) before I visited. Because of my studies I knew a lot about the war there in the 90’s, when it broke away from Yugoslavia. But I could barely tell you more about the country itself than a few city names. I have read about Sarajevo, its capital, defining itself as the place where the east meets the west, and that statement got stock in my head. The mix of religions, ethnicities, traditions, and rulers throughout history made it completely logical. Western and Eastern Europe clashed in this part of the world, that’s why it feels like it doesn’t belong to any. It has a soul of its own. It’s a crossroads of different worlds. It’s close enough to be in the interest spheres of both east and west, but not close enough to be assimilated by any. This singularity gives BiH its uniqueness.
BiH has been part of many empires and has been ruled by many different peoples. From the Illyrians, to the Romans, to the South Slavs, to the Ottomans, to the Austro-Hungarians, to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, to the Independent State of Croatia, to Yugoslavia, to a bloody war that gave it its independence, BiH is today a place where cultures, ethnicities and religions coexists. I wish I could say peacefully…
It’s impossible to understand what’s going on in BiH today without knowing a bit more about the ethnicities of the area. Since the arrival of the South Slavs in the 7th century, they started to grow apart, under the influence of different religions: Islam, Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, developing into today’s Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs.
Yugoslavia put them all under the same roof, an experiment that was a ticking bomb. Until it exploded. Everyone wanted independence. But BiH was trapped between Croatia and Serbia. To put an end to the war, a peace agreement was sign. BiH would be an independent country, composed of two entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, inhabited mostly by Bosniaks and Croats, and Republika Srpska, populated mostly by Serbs. However, the nationality of all three ethnicities is Bosnians. I know, it’s horribly confusing! And it gets worse!
The presidency of the country is tripartite, which means a three-member body that collectively serves as head of state: a Serb elected by Republika Srpska, and a Bosniak and a Croat elected by the Federation. A three-headed monster, like in mythology, the one that ends up eating its own body. Literally, a nightmare to reach any important decision. Never looking to the well-being of the country as a whole.
The saddest thing is that all three ethnicities are South Slavic people, and have a very similar (I’d say the same, but out of respect of readers that might differ, I’ll stick to ‘similar’) cultural and historical heritage. Even the language is, with few distinctions, the same. However, emphasizing the differences is deeply ingrained in them, every nation having a strong sense of its own national identity.
Today in Sarajevo there are reminders of the wars the country has endured everywhere. I’m sure you can remember school lessons telling you that First World War started with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Where? In Sarajevo.
There are reminders of the Yuguslav war too. The ones that I found incredibly touching are the Sarajevo Roses, a concrete scar caused by a mortar shell’s explosion that was later filled with red resin. Isn’t that the most artistic and beautiful way to remember?
The architecture also allows you to see the country’s historical fate and geographical position. Walk around Baščaršija, and you’ll feel like you are in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet, turn to Marijin Dvor and you’ll be transported to Vienna. Continue to Ciglane and you’ll find yourself in the middle of communist Yugoslavia. Truly, Sarajevo is where the East meets the West, at the heart of Europe.
Don’t leave the city without learning a bit more about the horrors of the latest war. Galerija 11/07/95 is the best place to do so. Prepare yourself, though. What you’ll see is truly heartbreaking.
Another great way to see and learn more about Sarajevo’s history is to go to the top of the mountains that oversee the city, to the abandoned venues of the Winter Olympics, which Sarajevo hosted in 1984. Back then no one would have imagined than only a few years later the tracks would be used as the frontline of a war, let alone that they would facilitate the siege of the city. See, Sarajevo is in a valley, so when the Serbs took control over the mountains surrounding it, the city fell. And the siege lasted for almost 4 long years.
Today the area is still full of mines (you can easily find them walking around), but even so, Sarajevo is a vibrant, cool city, that managed to transform something somber into beauty.
If you’re a history freak like me, I’d recommend that you stay at the War hostel. It’s a small hostel, run by a family that survived the war and that is willing to share their personal stories with the world. You’ll find items from the war which serve as decorations, sleep in a bunker bed, and drink rakija in a room lighted by a candle, as it was during the war. This is clearly not for the ones looking for comfort, but if you want a unique experience, this is the place to get it.
The dad served in the Bosnian Army during the war, and he took me to the frontline, where the Olympic ruins are. Nothing beats seeing a place with a local, right?
Beyond the history and the architecture, what really should convince you to visit BiH is its people. Bosnians have a heart of gold, and the best sense of humor I’ve ever encountered. They will invite you over for a cup of coffee or for a shot of rakija (the local spirit around the Balkans) after meeting you for a few minutes. They will treat you like you’re family. The will show you the greatest smiles you’ve ever seen. And they will joke about themselves, and about all the tragedies they have endure in a way that you will wish they actually were your family. When you visit, make sure you have time to talk to the locals. Learning a couple of words in their language will take you a long way (and it will help you also in Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, where the language is basically the same).
Quick guide: The 5 things you need to know to make friends in BiH
٭ What’s your name?: Kako se zoveš? / My name is…: Zovem se…
٭ Nice to meet you: Drago mi je
٭ Thanks: Hvala
٭ Please: Molim vas
٭ Cheers!: Živjeli!
–> Was it worth a spot in the list?
After all I rambled about this unique city, I guess the answer is pretty clear. But just in case there’s doubt, YES! Do yourself a favor and leave some time to explore a bit further than Sarajevo. Mostar and its surroundings are great destinations to experience more of this beautiful country. I’ll talk about these places in a future post…