By Kami L. Rice
We entered Bosnia by road as night fell. A full moon rose and threw a spotlight down on houses scattered like carcasses through the countryside.
So very many carcasses.
Empty inside, roofless, with charred stone walls marking a former existence.
Silent, somber, haunting, poetic testimony to tragedy.
What exactly had happened here?
Suddenly it all mattered.
“You don’t have to worry about landmines as long as you stay on the trails.”
She had said this in earnest, without irony.
My American friend Cat had been expounding on the gorgeous mountain hiking to be done in her new corner of the world. A corner she loves so much that she’d just opened a hostel after doing plenty of research to choose the smartest location in the region. A corner that had grabbed her heart with its local charm, as well as with a charmingly bearded local whose ears might have burned during our conversation. A corner that her nomadic self had claimed as her finally-found home.
Virginia may be for lovers, but as much as Cat loves her new life, perhaps Bosnia-Herzegovina’s informal tourism slogan is “Come on over, most likely the landmines won’t bother you.” A perfectly attractive slogan for visitors who prefer the path not beaten, though in this case it sounds like they should, of course, remain on the path.
Plenty of important and interesting historical things—the kind of things sightseers are normally interested in revisiting—have happened in Bosnia, and specifically in its capital, Sarajevo, which hosted the 1984 winter Olympics and was the site of the assassination that sparked World War I. Despite the fact life’s been pretty calm around Sarajevo for twenty years now, Bosnia is still considered a semi-obscure tourist destination, though that’s changing, which is one reason Cat planted her hostel there.
Around twenty years ago was when this small country in the middle of the Balkan peninsula, which lies across the Adriatic Sea to the east of Italy, featured in evening newscasts reporting on a war my teenage self never really tried to understand. I just knew it meant another change in maps I’d thought were static, as Yugoslavia’s republics battled during the country’s separation. I didn’t even really know where Bosnia was. And I was more preoccupied by high school and college things than learning about why snipers were firing into the markets in its capital.
But uninformed as grown-up me still was, Cat’s raving about Sarajevo made for an easy sell. Mostly, give me a free place to stay, and I’m there. Landmines or no, it was time for a visit, which my home-base-du-jour in southern France made easier. I convinced my friend Olivier to make the long road-trip with me. He agreed despite his concern that a Frenchman might not be well received in Bosnia because of the French military’s involvement in its war. Thus, we headed toward the Balkans with two continents’ worth of fuzzy memories as the backdrop for our adventure.
Having grown bored with the less-than-inspiring highway views in middle Croatia, Olivier and I decided to test the extremes of our GPS-less travel. Guided by a paper atlas lacking fine details that would have made us more certain we were heading where we intended, we turned onto smaller roads that intersected villages and appeared to aim toward Bosnia.
Then as the sun set, we were crossing over the natural border created by the wide Sava River and being greeted by the cheery blue and yellow Bosnian flag as we waited our turn at the border crossing at Brod, a town name based on the old Slavic word meaning “river ford.” The border agent first appeared serious while asking in limited English for “the green card.” As we struggled to figure out what he was requesting, he began to laugh like he was telling us a joke each time he repeated his request. Once we finally determined that we needed to show him the international car insurance card, the awkwardly pleasant border agent checked our passports and let us proceed into his country without further ado.
Nearly immediately we began to see burned out ruins of houses through the encroaching twilight. Roofs and insides gone. Nothing left but crumbling exterior walls. These charred remains stretched here and there along the highway, reminding me of the way homes border the main road that winds into the mountainous East Tennessee county where I grew up. A few of the shells of buildings were at the edge of the road, perhaps they had been businesses, and others were set further back, surrounded and sometimes invaded by trees and bushes. In some places, new homes stood near the skeletal remains.
Ruins litter many a world landscape, but here there were just so many. We had seen nothing like this in the Croatian villages we had just wandered through on the other side of the border. Soon we passed a road sign depicting a camera with a diagonal line through it. A sign neither of us had ever seen on a roadside. But then we also hadn’t seen stone and cement corpses like these either.
Despite the no-picture-taking rule and our desire not to be voyeurs, we disobeyed when no other cars were near, pausing a few times beside the road to capture grainy images of what we were seeing in the light of the gorgeous rising moon. Rather than exploiting another’s tragedy, we hoped the visuals would help us piece together and absorb what those empty, ruined homes testified to.
The next day we acted on Cat’s recommendation to join a Sarajevo walking tour guided by Neno, a then-29-year-old Sarajevan who was a child in the city with his family during its mid-1990s siege. We met Neno and other tourists on the steps of the columned, white National Theatre to begin our two-hours-plus walk through the city.
Early in the tour, Neno noted that Bosnia is more segregated now than it was before its war, which was a conflict between Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Christian Serbs, and Catholic Croats. Between members of the country’s ethnic groups, there used to be more mixed marriages—like that of his parents, one of whom is Muslim and the other of whom is Orthodox. Sarajevo itself was once nicknamed the Jerusalem of Europe for the way adherents of the world’s primary religions coexisted. Mosques, Orthodox and Catholic churches, and synagogues were within easy reach of each other in the capital city. At the time of our 2014 tour, Neno said that Sarajevo was 3 percent Serb Orthodox, 5 percent Croat Catholic, and 85 percent Bosniak Muslim. Recently released numbers from a newer census show small changes from these demographics, yet the proportions remain much less diverse than the city’s pre-siege demographics. Neno also noted, though, that not all Bosnians really practice their religion. Rather, some simply like the customs that are part of their respective heritage.
His description matched what Olivier and I observed as we pieced together clues during drives outside Sarajevo. The final hours of our first arrival to the city had been well after nightfall, and lighted minarets, pretty as they poked through the darkness, had announced that we were in a predominantly Muslim part of the country. Later daylight explorations showed us that communities outside the capital seemed to have either churches or mosques, but rarely was a mix visible from the road.
As the group of around 15 of us followed Neno through Sarajevo, we couldn’t ignore noticing the inhabited buildings whose walls remain pock-marked from shelling and bullets even so long after the war’s end. But other buildings hadn’t been so lucky. Neno paused on one street corner before the skeleton of a four- to five-story building whose large windows were devoid of glass and whose interior was filled with trees and other wild greenery instead of furniture and flooring and walls. It seemed to represent the war-injured, barely alive and technically still standing, though their eyes are vacant and distant, their spirit not yet recovered.
Despite enduring the longest siege of a major city in modern warfare, Sarajevo is now fully functioning and vibrant, yet these scattered memorials remain. According to Neno, there’s money for restoration, but authorities are still trying to track down the buildings’ owners. They likely are dead, but there’s no proof. Legally no one can do anything to either rehabilitate or give a final burial to wounded buildings that on paper still belong to someone.
Our tour also took us through Sarajevo’s delightful Turkish-bazaar-meets-Vienna architectural mash-up. Two old superpowers that I’d heard of but never studied in school now mean something to me. The Ottoman Empire—that’s the Turkish bazaar part—grew Sarajevo out of an existing settlement and ruled it for 400-plus years before the Austro-Hungarian Empire—yep, the Vienna part—began occupying Bosnia in 1878. This latter empire used Sarajevo as a testing ground for new inventions before implementing them in Vienna. So, for example, Sarajevo was one of the first European cities with an electric tramway. Of course, superpowers usually lose their power eventually, and both of these empires found final demise in World War I.
More than historical, architectural, and demographics facts, Neno’s tour also gave me insight into questions I’ve rarely posed out loud as I take in the news from today’s conflicted places. Sometimes news reports can make markets seem like the most dangerous locales in the world, for example. Why do people keep returning to such an obvious target for suicide bombers and their ilk?
As we stood in Sarajevo’s open-air Markale market which now includes a glass interior wall printed with the names of victims, Neno explained that it was out of defiance and resilience that shoppers returned to Sarajevo’s main market the day after it was attacked during the siege—which happened in February 1994 and again in August 1995, killing over 100 people and injuring more than 200 others between the two mortar shell attacks. Sarajevans didn’t want to slink away and let the people targeting them win, so the market was open every day, even if it was mostly only selling canned goods supplied via international aid rather than the present-day cornucopia of fresh produce.
In addition to survival by defiance, there’s also survival by black humor. Neno said that at first in war you’re scared. But eventually you don’t care, and you just try to go about normal life because if you just stay home, you’ll go crazy. So the national theatre stayed open. A teacher came to Neno’s basement to teach him and other kids two to three hours per day. People continued to laugh. Joking about survival is part of surviving.
As Neno recounted his stories then and as I write them now, it's impossible not to think of today’s despairing news reports from Syria, its desolate images, and the hopelessness and suffering fomented by its interminable war. A video report of an underground preschool somewhere in Syria thrust me back to Neno’s account of his basement tutoring. Reading that people have managed to operate hospitals in Syria’s present unforgiving environment, and continue to give some form of medical care even after many of those have been bombarded, had me picturing Sarajevans refusing to stay indoors despite the snipers on the hilltops around their city.
In short, listening to Sarajevo’s stories has planted the tiniest grain of hope as I take in Syria’s despair from afar: the defiance and resilience that send people back to besieged markets are the same human qualities that have allowed survivors across time to somehow recover their selves and their communities from the atrocities other humans have visited on them. They won't be the same selves or communities—scars are unavoidable—but seeing, and loving, Sarajevo has me hoping Syria’s besieged cities will one day be alive and vibrant again too.
The day after our tour with Neno, Olivier and I drove up a rutted road outside the city center, guided by that well-bearded local who had captured Cat’s heart on her first research visit to Sarajevo and who has since entered her life permanently. He took us to the informal restaurant run by Dragan, another charming and storied local man who is much older than Cat’s now-husband.
After drinks on the welcoming patio of Dragan’s place, which is nestled in the folds of Sarajevo’s northern hills, we struck out to follow the hiking route our locals had recommended.
Not one of us paused to ask any of them what landmine precautions we should take.
Rather, Olivier and I and four other hostel guests traded stories as any normal group of international strangers would as they meandered by foot up an empty road past barbed wire fences and hillside fields to the trailhead.
The trail wound down through the woods to the misty base of 98-foot-tall Skakavac Waterfall. We absorbed the view and the spray, took photos, lingered, and eventually climbed back up for the hour-long return walk to spend the late afternoon tucked in warm conversation indoors at Dragan’s cozy cabin while a rainstorm passed through.
And Cat was right.
We had stayed on the trail, and we had encountered nary a landmine.
And like Cat, we responded to Sarajevo’s wooing. We began falling in love with its fascinating self. Just maybe Sarajevo and the rest of its country, like Virginia, are absolutely for lovers too.
KAMI L. RICE
Photos: Olivier Peyrous
Kami Rice, Culture Keeper’s managing editor, moved to southern France in 2012 to study French for a semester or two. Years later she’s still in France, and her French is still frustratingly imperfect. Being based in Europe, presently at the base of the Pyrenees in Pau, makes it easier to explore the world, courtesy of the friends who welcome her into their far-flung homes. She aims to cover international stories with as much nuance and as little caricaturing as possible. Follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter.