Our six-week adventure starting Aug. 4, 2018, included five new countries for us: Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
We were intrigued by the complicated politics as we researched the Balkans beforehand, and fascinated by the reality we confronted.
You can enjoy this beautiful region just as a tourist. But you would be missing out on its heartache and promise. Being former journalists, we have painstakingly attempted to summarize what happened.
Following the death of long-time leader Josip Broz Tito in 1980, Yugoslavia began fracturing into independent regions. War began in 1992 as the Serbs, who controlled the military, sought to expand their territory. Fighting was predominately between the Serbs and everyone else, but later the Croats also fought the Bosnians, many of whom are Muslim.
The Siege of Sarajevo by the Serbs lasted nearly four years until 1996. It was the longest siege in modern history. Set in a valley, the city endured nearly daily shelling (average of 300+ mortars a day) and sniper attacks plus loss of electricity and water as the Serbs controlled three-quarters of the high ground. Death toll estimates range from 14,000 to 100,000.
25 years later, the country still is conflicted on many levels.
Just as bullet-strafed buildings remain prevalent, so wounds, tensions and divisions remain sharp, and threats of Serbian expansion persist. However, widespread war seems unlikely as the Serbs no longer control all the military forces as they did when Yugoslavia broke apart.
A mostly autonomous enclave within Bosnia is called the Republic of Srpska (pronounced subska), who were the siege aggressors. There are three Bosnia-Herzegovina presidents (Croat, Serb and Bosniak) who rotate eight-month terms as chair. As of the 2018 election, there have been 31 presidents in 25 years, with three Croats holding offices twice (Wikipedia).
A week after the elections, 17 Bosniaks were indicted for war crimes by Bosnia’s state prosecutor’s office. Army commander Atif Dudakovic and others are accused of killing more than 300 Serbs, mostly elderly civilians or prisoners of war.
In 2017, former Serb warlord Ratko Mladic was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity, including directing the Sarajevo siege and the massacre of some 8,000 Bosniaks in Srebrenica. He was one of 161 people indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. A week later, Bosnian Croat commander Slobodan Praljak, charged with destroying Mostar’s famed 16th-century bridge in 1993, took poison as he was being sentenced and died.
This is the first year children will be taught about the war at age 14, said our fabulous guide, Camil Sahovic, who as a young man fought to protect his beloved Mostar. But different schools segregated by ethnicities will teach differing viewpoints.
In Mostar today, Bosniaks live mostly on the east side of the Neretva river while Croats live on the west. Camil is subdued when asked about the future. He cites lack of interest and funds by the rest of the world as limitations, along with not being part of NATO, which would provide reinforcement of peace, as tenuous as it is.
Here are some of the top symbols from Sarajevo today.
- The Suada and Olga bridge is the site of at least 3 key events: Suada Dilberović and Olga Sučić were among the first deaths on April 5, 1992, marking the beginning of the war. “A drop of my blood fell, and Bosnia never dried up,” is quoted on the plaque. A year later, a young couple were shot crossing this bridge; their bodies laid entwined in the open for a week. They became known as Romeo and Juliet because she was a Bosniak and he a Bosnian Serb. Indicative of the continuing tensions between Serbs and Bosniaks, each side still accuses the other of shooting the couple; and the site is not marked because of disagreement as to how it should be recorded. And in 1995 about 100 soldiers from the UN peacekeepers fought Serbs to retake the bridge.
- The innocent Markale market was the target of two mortar attacks, in 1994 and 1995, killing 100 civilians and injuring 200. The plaques along the red wall in the back of the market honor the victims.
As research, we had read “Logavina Street” by Barbara Demick, bringing to life the siege through the families on one street. The basement of this school at 52 Logavina (still a school today) was used as a bomb shelter. Plaques honor fallen soldiers from the neighborhood.
- Pinned down by Serbs, the Bosnians resorted to building a tunnel under the airport (controlled by the UN) to bring in life-saving supplies, both food and ammunition. Prior to its opening in July 1993, Bosnians trying to reach the outside world would attempt deadly runway dashes. This half-mile-long “tunnel of hope” was 3 feet wide and 5 feet high at its highest point. It flooded often and had no air ventilation. Yet thousands of people used the tunnel daily for years.
This original segment is open to the public in the cellar of a home owned by the Kolars, who have created a private museum. Note the bullet holes on the building.
How we visited Bosnia-Herzegovina:
- Great tour guide Camil Sahovic of Herzeg Day Tours took care of us from Dubrovnik onward.
- One night in Mostar, at the Shangri La Mansion.
- Two nights in Sarajevo, at the Hotel VIP.
- Half-day tour up to the old Jewish cemetery where the siege snipers caused havoc; the Trebević mountain where you can walk on the old Olympic bobsled run; and to the Tunnel of Hope, built under the airport.
- Day trip to rugged Lukomir, the most remote village in the country.