Bosnia & Herzegovina
“Sarajevo is everything I believe it to be from seeing these images over the the last ten years. The soul, the heart, the spirit of the city must prevail there and through all countries. Diversity may be the most interesting quality about living in our time. It is what keeps us curious and evolving. Without it, we are simply numbers filing forward in a rather dull, short lived journey. How dismaying to see there are people who want to diminish this quality. How tragic.”
“Both art and history provide the
opportunity to either learn or
Curator for the gallery 11/07/95, Sarajevo
on the photos of Bosnian genocide by Ron Haviv
This won’t be the happiest post you’ve read. It won’t just be a bunch of beautiful pictures; it isn’t a post about a vacation I took to the beach. It’s more important. It’s about a trip taken to learn–& to learn intensely. If you’re not into the dark side of history turn back now.
Bosnia is more than moody forests with skull warning signs announcing leftover untouched explosives. It’s more than Somon bread covered with a dishcloth for sale at a rural petrol station– still somehow warm from a baka’s (grandmother’s) oven. Its more than grilled Ćevapi sausages, more than the call to prayer echoing through the old town of Sarajevo, more than blue dragonflies that cast spells over turquoise waters and the magic of the grass-like plants that wave under the clear streams. I loved the Balkans, and I especially loved Bosnia.
Bosnia is sad,
It’s the place where I was horrified and disgusted at how horrible humans have the potential to be.
It’s a hate I will never understand.
This is a story, that for me, began in a police station of a small town that was formerly controlled by the
Republika Srpska. We were being politely harassed by (what I assume were) the ONLY six officers in town for speeding 15km (9ish mph) over the speed limit. Hmph! They made us go down to the station with them and detained Andrew for what seemed like hours. We escaped by paying a 15 € fine after causing some unintentional friction by trying to just pay them off directly. They didn’t like that. They didn’t like that I tried to snap a picture of their memorial to several young police who died in the war. And they didn’t like our Bulgarian license plate. Needless to say, it’s a cool story to say that we DID have our first police station complication in Bosnia.
The Big Idea
Read all you want to– you will never understand the old, centuries old, grudges between the three big ethnicities that fought when Yugoslavia broke up. The Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs fought over land in what was disguised as a civil war between religions. The Bosniaks were and still are Muslim, Croats–Catholic, and Serbs– Orthodox Christian. Despite the modern historical teaching about the 90s–
there was nothing religious about the ruthless killing that happened in the Balkans.
People abandoned their core religious values in favor of hate and violence. It was an ethnic cleansing disguised as a civil war that confused the international community. So they did nothing. The international community sat by and did nothing. Most Europeans didn’t even know it was happening in their own backyard.
Outside of Sarajevo
Headstones from 1992-95 all over Bosnia. The war lasted over 4 years. Over 101,000, mainly Bosniaks were killed.
View of Sarajevo from Mount Trebevic
We ascended Mount Trebevic early outside of Sarajevo. I wondered what the farmers did when the Serb army swarmed the woods and hills. People right outside of Sarajevo didn’t stand much of a chance.
My body physically hurts when I think about how a Bosniak mother was forced to roast her baby in the over by the Serbs. They say it looked like a roasted pig.
Srebrenica was a word I had never heard before.
It’s a town.
8,000 Bosniaks, mostly men and boys were hidden in mass graves by the Srpska Army at the apex and end of the war. U.N. troops were there harboring a safe zone for these civilians who made long and hard journeys through the mountains to take refuge under the flag of the United Nations. U.N. troops were commanded to stand down when the Serbs came to take the Bosniaks. They loaded them up on buses then drove them out to murder them in the woods.
While in Sarajevo, don’t miss the excellent gallery of the war. For a better understanding of the war I highly recommend one of the best non-fiction books I have ever read, one that gave me chills as I reflected upon closing the last page. It’s a book of photos by world renowned photojournalist Ron Haviv: Blood and Honey: A Balkan War Journal.
When watching closely, I discovered that the Serbian language had been spray painted over everywhere in Herzegovina (the Croat area of Bosnia that boarders Croatia). This is evidence of someones current feelings of disdain as a result of the war.
Sarajevo was the first world capital to have street cars. The idea came from Vienna who invented the idea– but Austro-Hungarians wanted to “Ahh let Sarajevo try it out first” , as a local nonchalantly described. (Because perhaps the experiments would have turned out bad).
The capital city has been inhabited since the days of Neanderthals. They’ve always been resilient as– the Illyrian tribe was the last to resist Roman occupation. But the Illerians left the valley due to the invasion of the Turks in the 7th century, leaving the valley uninhabited and ready to be repopulated by the Turks. The Apostles to the Slavs, Cyril and Methodius, visited the region bringing Orthodox ideas and the Cyrillic alphabet.
The Latin Bridge reminds us that Bosnia has long since been a place of important conflict. The bridge was where Franz Ferdinand was said to be assassinated. He was actually killed on the corner only after a first bombing attempt failed. Ironically his driver exited the same way he entered after hiding in a building. The worst performing assassin was surprised to see him and killed him. The assassins were young men who represented a group that wanted the South Slavs to break apart from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They were national heroes in Yugoslavia for helping gain independence. There used to be a celebratory memorial here. Bosnians have since changed their views– condoning the violence– and it reminded me of the cliche quote about one man’s terrorist is always another man’s freedom fighter.
This all leads up to the question that the South Slavs: Croats, Bosniaks, and Serbs, argue amongst themselves: Who was where first? Who has claim to the land? Who killed who first? Who can we kill to avenge our forefathers? Sarajevo is the Jerusalem of Europe.
To complicate matters further- Croat Slavic Ustaše killed and tortured Serb Slavs in Yugoslavia under the Nazi regime.
The 90s ushered in extreme inflation and unrest. (I took home a Yugoslvian 10000000000 ten billion dollar Dinara bill with Tesla on it as a souvenir). This twisted history, along with rising economic crisis caused the explosion that dirtied the word “Balkan” forever. As a mixed ethnicity (mother Bosniak and father Serb) Sarajevian resident told us: “When people have bread in their stomachs, they do not worry about who is who [ethnically].” He currently lives in a working class neighborhood that “Still looks like Swiss Cheese”. He can “See holes in his living room”, but declared that he is “Used to it”.
The geography and placement of Sarajevo defies the logic of the Middle Ages: to always settle the highest point for defense. The disregard of this tactic cost many their lives when Serb snipers seized the hills during the 44 month siege.
It’s a place that is moving on from the atrocities that happened there in the 90s. But what’s more striking is how the rest of the world (including me before I took this trip) doesn’t talk about it. I think every 18 year old sitting in an educational institution should be forced to learn about Bosnian Genocide. The international community has swept it under the rug. The fact of the matter is– a Holocaust happened much more recently than 72 years ago. It happened 22 years ago. It’s happening today in places like Syria. I want to scream it from the rooftops that history repeats itself.