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Back to Bosnia: insights from a war zone

I get two images in my head when I think of Bosnia. One is that of the war zone, the countless hours of radio and television news that I saw my parents watching when I was younger, reporting on the massacres that were going on in the area.  The other is a place filled with history and culture, a place unfortunately destroyed as a war-ridden area.

Driving down the rugged and flooded main road towards Sarajevo, I felt as if I was to some extent cut of from the rest of the world. I knew it is only a couple hour drive from my home country Slovenia, but the drastic change that happened as you pass the borders of Croatia and the Republic of Srpska seem hard to comprehend.

Apparently it had been raining for the past couple of days, meaning that the roads were flooded and barely passable. We were driving down the main road to Sarajevo, but in Bosnia the main road does not mean a highway, but a country road, one without a line down the middle, indicating the two sides of the road.

The scenery, though pretty landscape, was probably even more shocking than the road. The hills were decorated with newly built houses, standing next to burnt down houses showing the effect of the war. It seemed to some extent surreal that only some years ago this peaceful area was a war zone. I saw a selection of protestant churches placed next to mosques and I wondered why and how people that were neighbours and fellow countrymen for so long suddenly seemed to turn against each other.

It was a good six hour ride to Sarajevo, the length mostly due to the poorly built road and flooding, but despite this it was an eventful journey.  Any radio station in the area blast out typical Bosnian music, and if you are a fan or not, as I am, you must admit that it fits the scenery. Besides this you are taken back on a history trail that no museum can offer you. The beautiful and equally sad thing about Bosnia is that you need not search deep to find its history and culture, it hits you right in the eye when you enter it.

We arrived in Sarajevo in the evening and were received by the receptionist with a sleepy and annoyed look. This look was clarified to me when her first words uttered to us were, “Šta če mo?” roughly translating into ”What shall we do”. Kindly expalning the resevartion on our name, she than slowly made her way to give us the key and explain the facilities.

Spending only two days in Sarajevo left me even more confused with my imperssions of the city. My expectations had been high before arriving, mostly because everyone that I knew who had visited said it was beautiful. I did see the beauty of Sarajevo, the culture, the smell of Cevapčiči and Shisha on the streets of Baščaršija, the small cobbled streets and the old fountains. I was told by a local that a famous writer once said that Sarajevo was the place to go because the water was so clean and there were fountains everywhere.

But there was another side of Sarajevo. The side that showed the effects ofg being under seige from 1992 to 1996. The number of burnt down houses, left only to the used as squat places and graffiti walls. Or even the number of houses that were in the process of being rebuilt, a very long process, houses that peopel lived in without windows or doors.

Probably the best example and museum we visited in Sarajevo was the Tunel Museum, an experience for anyone who would want to see most clearly how the life under the siege looked like. The Tunel is a house, under which a tunnel was built during the war as a means to transport food, water and artillery to the Bosnians. It was the only means of escape from the city. However the biggest effect seen from the war is something that you can’t escape if you visit Bosnia. These are the mass graves that take up any space left in the cities and the countryside.

What I saw as the real beauty of Sarajevo is how effortlessly and happily the people are living, despite the horrors that happened not even 15 years ago. A walk through any street in the city leaves you filled with images of people sitting together in cafes, laughing, talking, and eating. It is the true beauty of Sarajevo, the warm feeling of the city.

A day trip stopover in Mostar on the way back to Slovenia showed me another side of Bosnia. It was a beautiful sunny day and the mountainous landscape we drove through, took us up and down like a rollercoaster. Once we arrived in Mostar, the scenic picture of the town opened up on us. The river running right through the middle of it, with the picturesque stone bridge embracing it at the end, connecting the two sides of the bazaar filled streets. The colours were suddenly stronger, royal purple, strong red, sunny orange. The streets were full of locals and tourists marvelling at Mostar’s beauties. It was as if you entered another land, a fairytale land.

I must admit that after visiting Mostar, I was even more confused of my overall impression of Bosnia, if that was even possible. To see such destruction and such beauty in one country, it became hard to comprehend what I could really expect from the country. I realised that I had decided to visit Bosnia because I felt that I wanted to know more about my past. Not my direct past in particular, but the past of the former country of Yugoslavia. However on my arrival there I found out that despite sharing a past which was still quite obvious, to me it was like visiting a foreign land, where the language was vaguely understandable and similar to mine. It wasn’t a bad feeling, because it still felt close, but at the same time still quite mysterious. And that something, as we can say, “in our old neighbourhood”, was still so mysterious left a sense of enigma in the air, a land still to be discovered. But one thing is for sure, the visit to Bosnia erased all those memories of the war zone that I had in my head since childhood.

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