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Welcome to the War Zone

My friends have often had reason to question my judgement, but when I told them I was going to Bosnia, they thought I had completely flipped out.

“It’s covered in mines. You’ll lose a leg,” said my most optimistic friend.

Bascarsija fountain, Sarajevo

I laughed off his concerns, but as the train pulled into Sarajevo station, I began to fell jittery. The sight of the tattered ruins of Tito’s Barracks, once a glorious complex that housed thousands of the former-Yugoslav dictator’s army, did little to calm my nerves.

On the way to the taxi rank, I avoided every suspicious lump and crack in the tarmac that could denote a mine. Safely in the front seat of a beat-up Mercedes, I relaxed a little and groped around for a non-existent seatbelt.

“You don’t need a seatbelt,” said the driver, and screeched into traffic. I clung to the door handle as he undertook along tram lines, ran red lights and posed a menace to pedestrians.

Even though the buildings of Zmaja od Bosne – known as Snipers’ Alley during the siege – passed in a blur, the remnants of the war were obvious. Bullet-holes pockmarked the walls of flats, scorched buildings lurked amidst the cityscape and sunlight glinted on the headstones of overflowing cemeteries on the green slopes of the hills that pen the city into a narrow valley.

We stopped at a crossroads, and the driver pointed out the spot where he had watched his cousin die at the hands of a sniper. I now understood his erratic driving a little better: he had narrowly escaped death, and was now blasé about his own mortality. When I exited the cab on shaky legs, I had my own near-death experience to draw on. Already, I felt a little more Bosnian.

The hotel owner assured me that I had nothing to worry about regarding mines. Cities such as Sarajevo have been cleared, although visitors are advised to stick to the tarmac – unless the locals are walking on the grass – and not to enter abandoned buildings. The remaining mines are confined to the countryside along the former conflict lines.

Sarajevo National Library

Reassured, I caught a tram to the town centre, avoiding the Roma who frequent public transport and try to relieve unsuspecting tourists of their wallets, and followed the flow of pedestrians along the Ferhadija precinct. Turbo-folk, a frenetic meld of traditional folk and electronic music, blasted out from the pavement cafes where locals passed the evening sipping fruit tea and chain-smoking. <–page–>

Strolling past the imposing Austro-Hungarian buildings and upmarket shops, I could have forgotten this was a city recovering from conflict, were it not for the Sarajevo Roses. Random shell-fire gouged these holes into the Sarajevo pavements and the authorities filled the wounds with red rubber to create the Roses, both a tourist attraction and a monument to the dead.

Before long, the pavement gave way to the cobbled lanes of Bascarsija – the legacy of the Turkish Ottoman Empire – where minarets spiked the sky above rickety one-story buildings. Here, the shops were awash with engraved cartridges, ranging from rifle bullets to heavy-artillery shells, and bus companies advertised tours around massacre sites.

Sarajevo Rose

Although a touch ghoulish, the war has added an extra dimension to what was already a fascinating city. Graceful architecture and natural beauty sit alongside stark reminders of mankind’s brutality, creating striking vistas. There’s no city in the world like Sarajevo.

One of the most impressive sights in Bascarsija is the 16th century Gazi Husrev Bey Mosque. This intricate place of worship is one of the oldest and largest in the city, and many still come here to pray. In Bascarsija, the call to prayer often warbles through the streets. As I wandered, the singers clashed for supremacy from the numerous minarets, each taking his turn to command my full attention. When the voices clicked into unison, though, the calls melded into an enchanting rooftop symphony which swelled my heart and sent a chill down my spine.<–page–>

I ordered a meal in Bosanski Kuce and waited 45 minutes before the waiter informed me they had no chicken. Just as I had decided on an alternative, he rushed back to tell me the chicken had arrived. Squawking came through the half-open kitchen door as the chicken tried to leave again, and then an ominous silence descended. Another 45 minutes later, my dinner arrived.

Mostar, the former frontline

Halfway through the meal, the power cut out, and I began to feel a decidedly British outrage at such poor service. Nobody else seemed concerned. In the darkness, diners held up lighters while the waiter passed out candles. The group at the next table told me of the constant power outages and food shortages during the war, and of the daily struggle to survive the arbitrary death visited upon them by the encircling Serb army. To these people, slow service and a power cut wasn’t even worthy of a frown.

I repaid them for this lesson in humility by recounting the sex scandal surrounding Paddy Ashdown, now the High Representative of Bosnia. They roared with laughter when I mentioned The Sun had christened him ‘Paddy Pantsdown’, and they promised to tell everyone they know. I felt I had dealt Paddy’s languishing credibility amongst the locals a mortal blow.

On the way back to the tram, I followed the river past the National Library. The Library was firebombed in 1992, and has been undergoing refurbishment for many years. In this building I saw a symbol of the city itself: ravaged but still standing, battered but still beautiful, and in the process of slow regeneration.

Nearby is the spot where Gavril Princip fired the shot that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, thus sparking WWI. I stood on the plaque, looking across at the bridge where the Archduke died, and savoured the rich legacy of this astonishing city, which has been at the centre of so many historical events down the centuries.

The next day, I travelled to Mostar. The train ambled through undulating hills, on which tiny farms contentedly puffed smoke into the blue skies; it squeezed through a vertiginous canyon, where a climber dangled precariously over a sickening drop; it trundled past a mountain range which would have disappeared into the distant haze, were it not for the sunlight reflecting from its snowy peaks. All of this scenery was perfectly cloned in the brilliant turquoise waters of the Neretva River. Generously, the train driver provided plenty of time to take in these sights by driving in a particularly relaxed Bosnian manner. At one point, a tractor overtook us.<–page–>

Outside Mostar station, the sun shone through the fronds of palm trees and I wandered around in shirtsleeves, drawing glances from locals still clad in winter clothing. Here, people don’t start wearing summer clothes until the temperature is at least 30 degrees.

Rebuilt Mostar bridge

I sat on the terrace of one the cafés that stack the steep riverbank in the Old Town, watching workmen scuttle over scaffolding as they restored the 16th century Old Bridge, which Croat forces destroyed during the war. The locals are looking forward to reviving the tradition of diving from the 60 feet peak of the arched bridge into the Neretva.

According to local legend, the bridge fell down during the first few building attempts, so the Turkish architects sacrificed a virgin to appease the gods and embedded her body in the bridge, which then stayed up for hundreds of years until the Croats blasted it into rubble.

The rebuilt bridge is supposed to be a symbol of unity in the divided town, so I asked my Muslim waiter if he thought it would help bring people together. He pointed to the massive crucifix atop one of the brooding hills that encircle Mostar.

“The Croats built that out of spite. They used to shoot at us from up there,” he said. He shook his head and walked away.<–page–>

The Catholic Croats have also built a ridiculously large church spire. It stands bolt upright like an extended middle finger, dwarfing the minarets on the Muslim side of town. The spire is so tall it’s now beginning to list. When the call to prayer warbles through the air, bells thunder from this spire, creating an astonishing cacophony as the two cultures wrestle for supremacy.

Neretva in Motar

After lunch, I wandered through narrow alleyways, past an ancient mill and over a miniature replica of the Old Bridge that crossed a stream of gushing clear water. The stone walls of the Old Town enfolded me, obscuring the view of the more modern parts of the town, and for a while I felt I had travelled back in time to when the Ottomans still held sway over much of Bosnia.

I emerged onto the former frontline, which divides the town into Muslim and Croat enclaves. Reconstruction here is incomplete, and brightly-painted homes sandwich bombed-out skeletons in a bizarre dichotomy of old and new. This street has two names, depending on which side you talk to: the Avenue of Croatian Youth and the Boulevard of National Revolution.

Although ethnicity still divides Bosnia, the people are united by the belief they have one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Semir, a local journalist, accosted me as I took a picture of the frontline. When he found out we shared a common profession, he insisted on showing me the bars and restaurants of Mostar. <–page–>

After enjoying a lip-smackingly fresh sea-bass in Hindi Han restaurant, we sat on the rooftop patio of Calamus, and watched the sun set behind the hills, lending a pink hue to the sandstone minarets that bristle across the skyline. Once darkness had enveloped the town, Semir decided to tell me the legend of Zuti (Bosnian for ‘yellow’).

River near Mostar

“A few hundred years ago, a man with blonde hair and blue eyes appeared out of nowhere. On the 22nd June, they found his clothes lying by the river and assumed he had drowned. He reappeared a month later, walking naked through the streets. He had fallen in love with a mermaid, but the King of the river didn’t approve, and banished him to forever walk the streets of Mostar. Now he is seen from time to time. Children aren’t allowed to swim in the Neretva on the 22nd of June.” Semir leans in close and grins maniacally. “Somebody drowns on that day every year.”

I blamed the dropping temperature for the rising hairs on my arms.

Despite the fact the average wage is only £100 per month, Semir refused to let me pay for his drinks, and spent the rest of the evening convincing me there was a Bosnia beyond the war legacy. He spoke of a land of generous people, manipulated into war by self-serving politicians, of a land of cultural history and of rich natural splendour, of a land where the people are trying to put the conflict behind them and get on with their lives. He seemed so pleased to be talking about his country I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was already convinced.

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