This is a copy of an e-mail sent out to friends and family after a trip through the Balkans in the northern summer of 2006. As age does not seem to diminish my enthusiasm for archiving my life, nor for serialising my autobiography, I decided to include it here…
Balkans: June 8-15, 2006 (Part 1, June 8-10)
By way of an introduction…
“The Balkans” as a geographical idea did not really exist before the nineteenth century. The region was, prior to that, referred to largely as European Turkey, as it constituted all the European provinces of the Ottoman Empire. The word “Balkan” actually refers to a type of mountain. It was only as western European geographers began to penetrate into the region to conduct surveys that the term “Balkan” came to be applied more generally. It was chance more than anything else that the name stuck, as a consequence of the distinctly mountainous nature of the terrain.
When not thinking of their fabulous sausages, we tend to think of the Balkans as a place that has suffered dreadfully from conflicts driven by competing “nationalisms”. This is, however, only a relatively recent phenomenon. No such conception of nationhood existed prior to the end of the nineteenth century amongst the different ethnic groups, who did not use contemporary national identities to define their ethnicity. From the chaotic aftermath of the collapse of Byzantine rule, “European Turkey” lived in relative harmony under the tolerant umbrella of Ottoman rule. The universalism of imperial rhetoric and the higher allegiance to Constantinople was replicated under the Ottomans, so that Bulgarians and Serbians saw themselves rather as Orthodox and were more worried about the infiltration of Catholic missionaries and Venetian inquisitors than being ruled by an Islamic dynasty. Indeed, religious tolerance and diversity was a financial necessity for Ottoman rule since non-muslims paid higher taxes to the Sultan.
The rise of national consciousness amongst ethnic groups was sparked largely through agitation from Western Europe. The goal was to incite these populations to assert their right to national status against Ottoman rule. This long, slow and initially fruitless agitation began to produce results towards the end of the nineteenth century. It was greatly exacerbated by the political boundaries drawn around and through these ethnic groups by the Great Powers at the end of the First World War. In Romania only seventy-two percent of the population were ethnic Romanians, whereas in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, around fifteen percent of the population, such as the Bosnian Muslims, did not belong to any of these three dominant ethnic groups. The situation was unsatisfactory for both minority and majority – to quote Mazower, “The former found that their complaints fell on deaf ears… the latter were irritated by an arrangement which allowed other states to intervene in their internal affairs… Balkan states were, in effect, free to treat their minorities much as they wished.”
What a pity that the old indifference to “nationhood” was not replaced by a secular universalism instead of the creation of a bigoted cluster of nationalist ideologies with often falsely exaggerated historical and regional claims!
In the 1990s, the most significant minorities were the ethnic Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia and the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. When, in 1992, following in the wake of Slovenia’s surprisingly peaceful secession from Yugoslavia (six day war, only 66 dead), Croatia declared its independence, it suddenly found itself not only involved in a civil war against its ethnic Serbian population, but also in a full-blown war against the bulk of the Yugoslav army, the majority of which was commanded by Milosevic in Belgrade. Bosnia’s declaration of independence soon after led to a similar civil war with its ethnic Serbian population, neighbour against neighbour, town against town, the invasion of the Yugoslav army and the previously unthinkable situation of the siege of Sarajevo which was to last longer than any other siege in modern history (ie, longer than Leningrad) ; more than four years in total.
Of course, it was only after years of dithering by the international community during which time many terrible atrocities were inflicted on ethnic minorities that the conflict broke from its murderous stalemate with a 300-odd tank driven thrust by the Croats and Nato airstrikes against the Serbs. It had been a long time coming, particularly for the Bosnian Muslims who suffered the most. But more on that later…
So, in the middle of the afternoon on Thursday the 8th of June, I flew into Trieste with my old friend and travel companion Lizzie. We took the bus into town and made straight for the ticket offices once we arrived at the bus station. We were keen to get into the Balkans. After scanning the options, we decided to take a bus that was leaving in an hour, at 1700, heading all the way down the coast to Dubrovnik and stopping at Split at 0400 in the morning. It was at this point that we decided to switch to potential itinerary number three, and bought a ticket, then got ready to split for Split (sorry, had to be done.).
After a dash through the sottopassagio to the supermercato for supplies and back to the stazione, we soon found ourselves at the beginning of rather a long ride. It was always going to be a bit of a trial, but could have been a lot worse. Indeed, it was a spectacular and beautiful drive made all the more memorable by the rather inconvenient placement of the main highway right at the edge of the coast and the subsequent need for drivers to negotiate a seemingly endless sequence of hairpin turns. This road ran at times within only feet of the water and that night we were blessed with a full moon over the sea. Thus, contrary to what is often the biggest drawback with long night rides, we not only did not miss the sights, but saw them in the mesmerising silver glare of the moon.
In Rijeka, about two hours in, a chap called Irwin, an affable banker from Chicago, boarded the coach, sat in front of us and immediately engaged us in conversation. He was on his way to Dubrovnik and, despite looking forward to a twelve-hour ride, was in good spirits. The rest of the trip was interspersed with conversations with Irwin that kept us all in a positive mood. We swapped ideas, travel tips and stories amidst the banter. When we finally arrived in Split at four A.M., sore-bummed and legged, we joked with Irwin that we might bump into him in Dubrovnik later that afternoon…
So, there we were, in Split, at dawn. It proved a pretty enough harbour like so many around the Mediterranean and Adriatic littoral, providing spacious safe anchorage for the fishing fleet and passenger ferries. What had drawn us here, however, was the fact that Split is the site of the palace of the Emperor Diocletian (AD 284-305).
Its dimensions are worthy of note. The north-south walls extended 705 feet (215 metres) and were 7 feet (2.2 metres) thick and 72 feet (22 metres) high on the Adriatic side and 60 feet (18 metres) high on the north. There were 16 towers (of which 3 remain) and 4 gates at the compass points. Like so many monumental Roman complexes, when the Dalmatian provinces were overran in the seventh century and the nearby regional capital of Salona abandoned, the inhabitants grouped themselves around this handy fortification, building houses and workshops into and against the then largely intact Roman structure. Consequently, in the early middle ages, the site of the palace became a town in itself from which Split (Spalatum) has since expanded.
It was a gorgeous day that was dawning and a fine pleasure to walk through this chic old town with no one about but the cats. The pale blue of the brightening sky leant a tawny softness to the blocks of the palace walls and a pale, bone sheen on the smoothed stone pavement. For two and a half hours we wandered up and down before grabbing coffee and spending another hour watching peasants. The local markets had begun setting up their stalls at around five o’clock and by six thirty were in full swing. The ubiquitous Balkan peasant, something of an outmoded and clichéd rubric for the agrarian population, were in full swing – the heavyset, cankled women in black sporting winning (if toothless) resilience from beneath their headscarves; the men, lugging and toiling and permanently huffing on cigarettes. Vast piles of cherries and strawberries predominated, for the region is known for its soft fruits and berries. On the whole, however, the Dalmatian coast is a hot region sprouting palm trees, agaves, cacti, with pristine beaches, fjords and inlets and over a thousand islands in an archipelago stretching all the way down the Adriatic seaboard.
At around eight that same morning we boarded another bus for the journey to Dubrovnik and this time were able to view the coast all the way in glorious sunshine. Owing to the way the political boundaries have been drawn, with Bosnia and Hercegovina having been given a corridor through the tail of Croatian coastline stretching south from Split, we passed through four passport inspections in the one trip as at both checkpoints we were stopped first by Croatian then Bosnian officials, and vice versa at the other end.
We drove into Dubrovnik at around 1300 and immediately took up an offer of accommodation from a welcoming old gent. He drove us to a nice little flat and there we met the real proprietor of the business, his wife. Having shown us to our room, she then proceeded to talk us through a map of the old town and surrounding beaches. As she did so, a military helicopter flew overhead. All the blood drained from her face and her breathing became laboured, after which she began apologising for her “turn” saying that having endured so many bombing raids during the conflict in 1992 and 1993, she was still terribly unsettled by the presence of any aircraft. It was our first taste of the impact of the conflict, since everything we had seen so far had been either restored or remained undamaged by the conflict. Dubrovnik, however, was hit very very hard.
They say of Dubrovnik that you can estimate the damage to the old town by counting the number of new rooves. As we walked down to the old town from our flat on a hill above, the startling number of bright new terracotta rooves became immediately apparent. Dubrovnik was once known as Ragusa and had been a Venetian settlement and coastal stronghold, which broke away from Venetian rule in the fifteenth century to establish itself as a rival trading town in the Adriatic. The influence of Venice is most prevalent in its architecture, and as we walked through the huge fortified and crenulated gates leading into the old town, the stonework looked very familiar indeed.
Dubrovnik is something of a theme park these days in my opinion. It has been so perfectly restored, scrubbed, patched and scoured and, with polished marble streets, it gleams blindingly in the glare and seems only to exist for tourists to walk through. It is undeniably beautiful and situated at the end of a peninsula with a number of wooded islands off in the sea nearby. There was, however, no real sense of anyone doing anything other than catering for visitors. The Croatian tourism industry has been booming for years and this combined with the country’s fertility has enabled it to recover both very rapidly and very prosperously.
We were strolling along the main promenade when we were both surprised to hear our names called. Upon turning around we saw none other than Irwin rushing towards us, waving his hands and smiling like a garden gnome. This re-union, only ten hours since we had left him, called for a celebration of sorts, so we went straight to a restaurant and dined alfresco on mussels, squid, and squid-ink risotto with clams. These guys do a great line in seafood and the meal, washed down with plenty of mineral water and wine, came to around four pounds a head.
After lunch, fighting hard against the consequences of not having slept the night previous, we took a tour of the town and went up the battlements to walk the walls. The walls have remained completely intact and it is thus possible to make a circuit of the entire town, which we did, in around two hours. By the time we had finished it was around seven in the evening and Liz and I were so exhausted that we decided simply to go back to our hotel and get some sleep. We did this, farewelling Irwin again and expecting we had had our last encounter.
The following morning, having decided to leave town and get to our real target, Sarajevo, we got up at six and walked through the rain to the local bus stop. I should perhaps have expected it to happen, but sure enough, who should also be waiting at the very same bus stop, but Irwin, on his way to the coach station for a day trip to Mostar.
“Ha,” we said, “we’re off to Mostar as well. Perhaps we shall meet there too…”
Under normal circumstances it would have seemed unlikely…
We took a coach from the bus station and travelled back up the coast to the Bosnian corridor, at which point we turned inland. It was not long before we had passed through the rocky hills that line the coast and entered a broad, flat plain full of lakes and emerald rivers. The transformation was dramatic and the fertility of southern Bosnia was immediately apparent. The distinction was made all the more clear once the sun returned in full force. Bosnia is only about one tenth the size of France and with the exception of its corridor to the coast, it is embraced on the west, south and north by Croatia, with Serbia and the newly independent Montenegro on its eastern flank. In shape it is rather like a landlocked Tasmania. Whereas the north is mountainous and covered in thick forests, the south is flat and is ideal for cattle, wheat and fruit orchards. It was through such fields and orchards that we drove for the bulk of the morning.
On the road signs we passed were many familiar names from the war. Banja Luka, Bihac, Srebrenica, Gorazde, Tuzla, Jajce, and of course, our main destinations, Mostar and Sarajevo. As we began to enter more mountainous terrain, the view became increasingly beautiful. Thoughts of the suffering of the people and land were paramount and came to us continually, so that in a moment of optimism, Liz and I decided upon “Here comes the sun” as our anthem for Bosnia Hercegovina. It was heart-warming to know that this place was on the way to recovery, if in a rather stop-start fashion down a long, slow road.
As we neared Mostar, the devastation that had occurred here became immediately apparent. There were almost no houses at all which did not bear some visible scarring. If this was not moving enough in itself, as we entered the town proper, I found myself gasping at the state of the buildings along the main road. Hollow shells and bullet-riddled walls lined the way – dry and overgrown ruins, piles of rubble, burned out buildings, and a once towering hotel, with every level shot through, dominating it all. It was too much for the man in the seat behind us who began sobbing and then crying aloud as we passed through.
Still, once we were further into this small town we could see to what degree people had picked up the pieces and were getting on with their lives. The minarets on all the mosques had been rebuilt, having been shot down in 1992 and ’93; small businesses were open and lively along the main streets; and busloads of tour groups were rolling on in to see the famous bridge.
Mostar had it worse than most places during the war. After Bosnia declared independence, Mostar was first attacked by the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) in April of 1992. They were met in defence by the armies of Bosnia and Hercegovina (Armija Bosne i Hercegovine, ABIH) and the Bosnian Croat founded Croation Defence Council (Hrvatsko Vijeće Obrane, HVO). Thus began an eighteen-month siege. The forces of the Yugoslav army shelled and bombed the town repeatedly, destroying most of its buildings and killing thousands of civilians. Thirteen mosques, the Catholic cathedral, the Bishops Palace, a Franciscan monastery and almost all secular public buildings were destroyed. Half of the town was captured by the JNA after fierce street fighting and it was not until June 12th that they were driven out, only to make further use of the surrounding hills to enforce the long siege of the town. Mostar had previously been a mixed community of Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs, but with the commencement of the conflict, the latter of the three main ethnic groupings turned against the other two and bitter fighting took place between the civilian population whilst the siege was underway, leading to thousands of killings. Bosnian Serb forces soon joined the JNA on the mountains to the East and contributed to the regular bombardment of the town.
Things became worse when the HVO turned on the ABIH in anticipation of a Bosnian Croat secessionist campaign, and the two principle forces defending the city began fighting each other. This resulted in the division of the city into two distinct halves on either side of the Nevetna River, with the HVO on the western side. The HVO then commenced their campaign of systematic “ethnic cleansing” involving the rape, murder and dispossession of the Bosniak people on the western side. The fierce shelling and fighting across the river resulted in the almost complete destruction of the old town, which had been largely built in the 15th century. After a year of conflict, Mostar’s famous, world-heritage protected bridge, constructed in 1566, the beauty of which had been commemorated in songs and poems from the time of its construction, collapsed after repeated shelling. All the other bridges had already been destroyed and, with its collapse, the last link between families on the eastern and western sides was cut.
Though all of Mostar’s bridges have since been reconstructed, there is certainly much suspicion remaining between the main ethnic groups in the city. Mostar still contains peace-keeping forces from Eufor. Shortly after the war ended in 1996, the reconstruction of Mostar’s old town began. The buildings were rebuilt exactly to their original specifications, using stone quarried from the original quarry. The reconstruction of the old bridge (Stari Most) was finally completed in 2004 and has once again become a huge tourist attraction. It had always been a draw-card for Mostar. People had for centuries come to admire it, and when it was gone, they came to try to fathom how it could not be there anymore. It was a terrible wound, which has, thankfully, been healed as well as it can be.
It was a stinking hot day when we stepped off the bus. We set off through the ruined and the new, amazed and disturbed by the great holes blown through walls and the omnipresent bullet pocks. Mostar is a beautiful town and wonderfully situated on a rocky plain above a bright turquoise river. For a long time we were too moved to speak a word but as we passed through the gorgeous old Islamic quarter, in anticipation of the coming bridge, we began to sing a combination of “Here comes the Sun,” and an alternate lyrics version of Don MacLean’s Vincent which began “Stari, Stari most…”
We walked along rough cobbled streets through a crouching, close-packed bazaar selling copper ornaments, carpets, pottery and other handicrafts, and just as we rounded the corner to get our first glimpse of the bridge, we ran straight into Irwin.
He only had another hour and a half before he had to leave, so we wasted no time and went straight to the nearest restaurant. We were well up for another Balkan feast and this time we didn’t muck around with things that swim, but went straight for the hoof and the trotter. Pola pola, cevapcici and raznjici, all served up with lashings off raw onion and washed down with… mineral water, as we were in a Muslim establishment.
After lunch we toured the bridge and the old quarter more fully, then sat by the river watching the Icarii. These are men who hang around in Speedos waiting for someone to offer them enough money to dive off the bridge into the river below. It is a long-standing tradition, highly regarded as a great display of manhood. Sadly, only registered people are allowed to jump as it would be rather risky for some.
It was not long before we found ourselves farewelling Irwin for what was to be the final time. He was off to Montenegro and there was no way our paths would cross again. Off he went, and off went Liz and I to a bar. After sitting and drinking for an hour, we made our way to the decrepit train station to wait for our ride into Sarajevo. The air about was dusty, and soon a light rain began to fall…