Mostar

Jul 10, 2008 in Balkans 2008

Mostar

I got a tram from near Haris’s place to Sarajevo train station. It was in the newer, less fantastic part of town, with a large quiet square in front of it called “Srebrenica Massacre Square”. So often in Bosnia it was easy to begin to forget what had gone on during the 1990s, but there were always reminders.

The train to Mostar was a few hours late. It arrived in Sarajevo at the same time as a train heading for Zagreb, and neither station nor train seemed to indicate which one was which. I got on the one that had come into the platform I was on, stood by the door in case I felt the need to jump out suddenly, watched the station recede and then uncertainly decided to take a seat. If I’d accidentally got the Zagreb train, then I would just go to Zagreb. Why not? There was only me and one other person in my compartment and I asked him, in a patronising traveller-style gesturing sort of way, if this was the Mostar train. He replied in normal English that it was.

We started talking. He was called Sasha, and he was a Bosnian Serb, about the same age as Haris. He was a metaller, bearded, long-haired and dressed in black. He told me of the constant grief anyone who looks a bit alternative gets from the police in Bosnia. He said all the police were uneducated country boys and would stop and search him at pretty much every opportunity.

We spoke of many things. A native of Herzegovina, he said it bothered him a bit that everyone calls the country “Bosnia” when really it’s “Bosnia and Herzegovina”. But his Herzegovina nationalism was not particularly serious and he was generally more concerned with enjoying being a student in Mostar. We talked a bit about the war, and he said he thought Bosnia was healing, slowly. But I remembered Haris saying he just didn’t know if he could ever be friends with a Serb, after all the horrors he’d lived through. I wondered what would happen if these two good people ever met. Would they get on, or would the legacy of the brutality be too great?

Bobsleigh run

Jul 08, 2008 in Balkans 2008

Bobsleigh run

The next day, Haris took a few of us from the hostel on a tour around the city. It was another blazing hot day. I went to a shop to grab a bottle of water, and as I walked back to Haris’s van I got something in my eye. I thought nothing of it, and jumped into the van. Haris put a sign saying ‘pimp’ in the window, put Right Said Fred loudly on the stereo, and we drove off into the Sarajevo traffic.

We went to the tunnel museum. The city had been besieged for almost four years in the 1990s, and the only way in or out was via a tunnel under the airport runway. Only a small section of it still remains. Walking down ten metres of it on a quiet summer day was fairly claustrophobic; it was hard to imagine how nerve-shredding it must have been to walk the entire 800m during wartime.

We drove through the city centre, and stopped near the parliament buildings. The bright yellow Holiday Inn stood nearby. During the war, journalists based themselves here and the façade was covered in bullet holes. Buildings nearby were still pockmarked with war damage, but the Holiday Inn was repaired.

Then we went to the Olympic Museum. Whatever I’d got in my eye early this morning was still there and was now incredibly painful. There was a sad video in the museum contrasting Sarajevo in 1984 when the Olympics were hugely successful, and Sarajevo ten years later when it was filled with misery and death. Moving though it was, I don’t think anyone would expect public weeping from visitors, and I felt embarrassed that my eye was watering profusely. Determined to sort this out, I ended up lying on the ground outside the museum while Will and two of the other travellers squirted mineral water violently into my face. Amazingly this worked, and I felt much better.

Our touring done, we found our way to an Ottoman courtyard in Baščaršija and drank coffee and smoked shishas as a thunderstorm suddenly raged over the city.

Sarajevo

Jul 07, 2008 in Balkans 2008

Sarajevo

The very word Sarajevo evoked sadness, to me, before I went there. It called back memories of seeing war, death and destruction on the TV in the mid-1990s. My recollections of the news from back then seemed to be mostly of bleak snowy scenes. To arrive on a blazing hot July day was to instantly dispel the preconceptions.

We stayed at Haris Youth Hostel. There were many reasons that I liked Sarajevo a lot, and this hostel was one of them. Haris himself was a young eccentric. At the age of 15, when talking to his neighbour about what careers he might follow, the neighbour had suggested working in the tourist industry. Haris thought this was a good idea, and without telling his parents, he found hostelword.com, and listed the family home as Sarajevo’s first hostel. You’d have thought it would have been unbearably awkward when the first travellers turned up. Haris had a lot of explaining to do, but in fact his parents took it in their stride and joined in the fun. When we arrived, his mother ushered us in, brought us a cup of strong Turkish coffee, and we knew that we were welcome in this city.

We set out to have a look around. Haris’s house was on a steep hill overlooking the historic city centre. On the way, we passed a cemetery, its white headstones visible from a long way away and the year on almost every one of them was 1995. In the evening, I sat on Haris’s balcony looking over the city as the call to prayer sounded over the city and the heat of the day gradually dissipated.

Bus to Sarajevo

Jul 07, 2008 in Balkans 2008

Bus to Sarajevo

I wanted to get to Sarajevo at a reasonable time.  This meant leaving Belgrade at the very unreasonable time of 7am.  It was already hot when I got up, so it was very nice to be staying right across the road from the bus station.  Four of my room mates from the hostel were getting an early train to Novi Sad for the EXIT festival, and we all headed across to the station.  As we crossed the road, one of them, Will, spontaneously decided that with the festival not starting for a couple of days, he might as well visit Bosnia too.

We sat at the back of the bus, and soon we were stifled by the extraordinary heat. After a couple of hours we reached the border and we were through quickly. The scenery in Bosnia was impressive straight away, with vivid green rolling hills and forests. We stopped at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, and it was a relief to get off the roasting bus for a bit. As we got back on, we realised that in fact we only had to sit a few rows forward; it was only the very back of the bus that was superheated. We enjoyed the rest of the journey a lot more.

After a couple more hours, we rolled into Istočno Sarajevo bus station. We were in the Republika Srpska, one of the two ‘entities’ which make up Bosnia. A few years ago, travel across the internal border was not possible but now it was straightforward, our only problem being finding the cash for a taxi into central Sarajevo. The cash machine at the bus station didn’t work, so we walked under the blazing sun to a nearby shopping centre which had a big sign on saying “Shoping Centar”, and exchanged some Euros for Bosnian Convertible Marks. We hailed a passing taxi and headed into Sarajevo.