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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  

Bosnian Flag BOSNIA


November 1.  SARAJEVO "Peace and Tolerance in Sarajevo"  We all made sure we were up in time to grab a coffee and some pastries before we started our tour.  As we sat in front of the cafe we saw a weary looking Sunny arrive at the tourist agency.  The tour was the five of us and a Japanese girl, to whom, as the day went on, I deeply regretted letting know that I spoke any Japanese.

Sunny was suffering most from a lack of cigarettes and coffee, but mostly cigarettes.  A week of Ramadan was up and he still had three more to go.  It would get better as he continued to fast but he was clearly in some pain.  To compensate for his lack of stimulants he cranked up Jimmy Hendricks in the van.

The tour took us across town, right through sniper's alley, past the destroyed Parliament building, and beyond the airport to the Sarajevo War Tunnel.  The tunnel was hand dug by people of Sarajevo as a way to get ammunition and supplies from the outside.  The UN negotiated with the Serbs to take over the airport in order to provide food and basic life necessities to the people in Sarajevo during the siege.  Other than the airport the entire city was surrounded by Serbian military.  The Bosnians had tried running across the airport runway, at the risk of being shot, only to be turned by the UN who didn't want to be "supporting" either side militarily.  It was a civil war at that time and it wasn't until the Serbs committed blatant acts of genocide that NATO came in an stopped the four year siege in just five days.  During those years the tunnel was the only physical connection the people in Sarajevo had with the outside world.  When the siege started they only had a hand full of soldiers and police and one tank.

A family that owned a home on the outskirts of the runway dedicated their home and land to the cause of building the tunnel.  Trenches were dug even beyond the house to enable people to get into and out the tunnel without being shot at by snipers. I encountered my first Sarajevo rose on the doorstep to the tunnel entrance.  Another one nearby marked the place where a grenade hit the ground, the grenade still buried in the middle of the concrete.  The tunnel was not very big and they had terrible problems with flooding at times but it was used for everything from gun running, moving wounded, transporting animals, and, as one photo showed, for people to get married.  A larger second tunnel was constructed toward the end of the war that could fit a car but the siege ended before it was ever put to use.  However, the tunnels are being maintained.  4000 NATO peacekeeping forces patrolling the city are presently the only insurance of ongoing peace.   We passed by the NATO compound not far from the war tunnel.

Driving through the city we asked Sunny about the reconstruction of Sarajevo.  There was so much damage still left to be repaired. Some outside funds had been coming in to help and eventually they planned to rebuild everything, not wanting to leave a visual reminder of what happened. Saudi Arabia had dedicated a mosque in one of the high-rise neighborhoods.  The Holiday Inn was already rebuilt but the obnoxious yellow building is so ugly that it is not any great asset to the city.  The damage done to the surrounding hills of the city will be the most difficult thing to repair.  Countless land mines populate the hills and are occasionally heard to go off when an animal trespasses across one.   The beautiful hills are inviting places to hike but it will be years, maybe generations, before that will be possible again.  Sunny was critical of the warnings in guidebooks about the mines, saying they unnecessarily kept tourists away.  He said that if people just ask they will be told where to go and not go.  But, as we were visiting the Jewish cemetery several of us walked up to visit the monument at the top and Sunny suddenly came rushing up to retrieve us.  Apparently the area in the cemetery beyond the monument "may not" be free of mines.   If even the local people are uncertain of where mines were located how could tourists be expected to keep it all straight.  It is an unfortunate reality that the people of Sarajevo have to deal with every day but the average tourist doesn't have their instincts and the guidebooks we be negligent not to warn people that the risk of land mines remains in Sarajevo.

When asked how the people in Sarajevo kept themselves armed during the war, Sunny told us that they took what they could get from wherever they could get it.  Iraq was a regular source of weapons.  The people in Bosnia became Islamicized back in the 1500s and that connection secured them allies in the Middle East.  However, being a landlocked country that had to get the weapons in and that had to be via Croatia.  He claimed that the Croatians started taking part of the weapons which led to conflict between the Muslim and Croats later in the war.

The Jewish cemetery was perched up on a hillside to the south side of downtown Sarajevo.  Jews sought exile in Sarajevo during WWII when they were fleeing other parts of Europe.  The Bosnian Muslim community even helped hide an important Jewish text in one of their mosques so the Nazis couldn't destroy it.  At the top of the cemetery stood a monument against the fascism of WWII.  Sadly, not even the large granite monument nor any headstone that I saw was free of bullet or shrapnel scars.  The cemetery was a key battle position for the Serbs, providing them a prime position over Sniper Alley.

At this point Sunny stopped to talk about life during the siege.  He told how the people in Sarajevo tried to keep their lives as normal as they could during the long ordeal.  People worked and children went to school, in the basements.  He commented, with a smile, that the women were even determined to keep themselves looking like they did before the war.  The women said that they wore makeup before war and they were going to wear it during the war, even if resources were limited.  Letting the war change their lives was like a kind of defeat.  People were regularly hit by snipers and Sunny shook his head at the foreign media who lingered by the bridges and along sniper alley just waiting for gruesome photos.   They were not without some dark humor though.  He told one joke of an old man who sat swinging in a chair on his porch and when someone asked why he said he was trying to piss off the snipers.   As grim the war was the people maintained as much happiness as they could.  Sunny said that he still had parties with his friends and they became very well read people, with little else for entertainment.  The books also served as a heat source and he claimed that Tolstoy burned the best.

He tried to be diplomatic about the war and called it war between democracy and fascism, not between Bosnians Muslims and Serbians, giving credit to the 20,000 Serbs that fought for Sarajevo as well as the Bosnian-Croatians.  There was bitterness towards the U.S. and U.N. role during the war, which he indirectly relayed in another joke about the Bosnian that was found digging like mad and when someone asked why he said that he hoped to find oil.  It is easy to look back and wonder why, if the war could have been stopped with just two weeks of bombing by NATO forces, it wasn't stopped sooner.  Certainly to a man who spent several years of his young life hiding in basements and burning books for heat it could never be understood.  But, the situation did not initially seem so clear.  When Bosnia-Hercegovina decided it wanted to separate from Yugoslavia it started to do so with opposition from its 30% Bosnian Serbian population.  So how do you reconcile the gap in logic between forcing the Serbian minority of Bosnia to accept succession from Yugoslavia while at the same time rejecting Yugoslavia's claim to Bosnia as part of the republic?  To the people of Sarajevo the Serbian forces were fascists that wanted to deny them the right to an independent state.  But, to the majority of Serbians in Bosnia the position of Sarajevo was going to deny them their right to remain part of Yugoslavia.  It was a Civil War and with many complications and a myriad of different positions.  When you broaden your view to include the other former Yugoslav states of Slovenia, Croatia and Kosovo it is only a question of time and place in history who is seen as the villain and who is the victim.  But, as the war went on the Serbs took drastic steps to win and in July 1995 an estimated 6000 Muslims were killed by Serbian forces in Srebrenica.  It was the second and worst example of genocidal tendencies that finally prompted NATO to take action.  Today the peace is maintained by NATO forces.  The Republika Serbska, the eastern third of the country, remains an almost entirely separate entity from the rest of Bosnia-Hercegovina and within the remaining areas the Croatians are concentrated in Hercegovina, to the west, and the Muslims around the center and in Sarajevo.  It is hard to see how the country will ever achieve a peaceful existence without outside intervention. 

Our final stop on the tour was a look out point over old town Sarajevo.  An old citadel stood on on a nearby hill but was off limits due to land mines.  He had us drink some water from a natural well at the top and then told us that all who drink from it are destined to return to Sarajevo.  Sunny's demeanor had lightened a bit and he brought an end to the serious discussion about the city's history and talked about the good things.  He pointed out the close proximity of a mosque, Orthodox church, Catholic church, and Synagogue in the middle of the Sarajevo, all just 100m from each other, giving the city the title of Europe's Jerusalem.  The hills were covered with cemeteries and I wanted to ask if they were from the war but didn't want to turn the conversation back to the topic.  It was a very scenic place and it was impossible to imagine that the hills surrounding the city once enabled the Serbian army to cut the citizens of Sarajevo off from the rest of the world.  A guarded tomb stood at the north end of town and we learned that it was the burial site of the Bosnia's latest President, deceased just 10 days.  It had been the Bosnian Muslim population's turn to have a President, in the six month rotation from the Croats to the Muslims to the Serbs.  Sunny said they didn't know who was running the country now but probably it was God.

Our tour finished back at the agency and we could tell that the day had taken its toll on Sunny.  He had a hard time maintaining his energetic personality on no cigarettes or caffeine.  But the sun was going down so he would soon have relief.  The Japanese woman our group cornered me before we left and asked me to translate our tour for her.  It was more of a demand than a request actually and she didn't just want a summary but a speech by speech recount of everything Sunny had said.  Even if my vocabulary had been up to it I couldn't have recalled everything he had said.  She was being pretty presumptuous and remembering her comment to Rob when we met I didn't feel like going out of my way to help her.  She chastised him for not learning more Japanese while he was in Japan with a sort of "shame on you" tone.  So, I decided that if she was going to write about the history of the former Yugoslavia then she should learn the local language or at least a more internationally useful language like English.  After all, English was part of the standard curriculum in Japan so shame on her.  I didn't actually say that but didn't go farther than giving her some overview comments.  She seemed sure that she heard Sunny say some things that I couldn't recall.  That just frustrated her since she somehow thought she had heard better than I.  At that point I just said that my friends were waiting and we left.    

We met up with Lesley and Luke at the cafe and had Turkish coffees. Nina went off on her own. The man at the counter in the cafe had asked for phone cards from other countries when we first met him so I had searched around and come up with Russian and Lithuanian cards.  He seemed delighted and it was evident that he was collecting them for a "friend" but for himself.  He wanted to reciprocate and offered me a brass tray from the restaurant with the name carved into it.  It was one of the little trays tha they used to serve coffees.  I tried to tell him it wasn't necessary but he insisted and then gave us an extra big serving of Turkish delight with our coffees.  Rob was getting suspicious that the guy was being too friendly but Lesley had spent enough time there to know that he was married.  He was genuinely thankful and looking for ways to show it.  Those phone cards must be hard to come by!

We spent the rest of the afternoon on errands to the post office, the bank, and to buy our Bosnian coffee set.  We met up with Lesley at the cafe again later and from there we took a final look around town. We passed by the market to look for Sarajevo roses, made a final visit to the bookstore and bought a copy of the "Sarajevo Survival Guide", made one last pass down the main promenade and watched a group of men playing chess in the square with two foot high chess pieces.  We found the largest Sarajevo rose right out in front of the restaurant where we had eaten the night before, To Be Or Not To Be, and I wondered how these people walked over these day after day.  Did it make them mourn those who died, make them feel proud that they still had their city, or both, or neither?  Did they still actually see them or have they moved on?  I had decided that I wanted to buy one of the engraved shells.  I understood the opinion that they were morbid but there was also something empowering about them, a sort of crude message of triumph over war.  They were a unique expression about something that had happened here and something only these people, a community of coppersmiths, could create.  It wouldn't make a suitable mantelpiece back home but for those who were interested, for those who cared, it told a story about something that they couldn't begin to imagine.

Luke, Rob and I had a drink while Lesley went to meet a friend for coffee.  We had to wait until after sundown to shop for a shell, after the people had their stomachs full and could turn their attention back to their shops.  With some nourishment they were harder at bargaining but we found a small shell at a fair price.  We met up with Lesley at our cafe again.  She and Luke ate burek for dinner but we couldn't take any more of that heavy food and opted for kebab sandwiches.  They returned to the apartment ahead of us so they could grab their things and get ready to catch the night bus to Belgrade.  Us old folks were going to wait for the day bus.

SLOVENIA Ljubljana Oct 7-8 Piran Oct 9-12

CROATIA Istra Peninsula Oct 13 Split Oct 14-15 Hvar Oct 16-18 Korcula Oct 19 Dubrovnik Oct 20-29


BOSNIA Sarajevo Oct 30 Oct 30 Nov 1

SERBIA Belgrade Nov 2-3

ROMANIA Bucharest Nov 4 Suceava Nov 5 Nov 6 Cluj Napoca Nov 7 Sighisoara Nov 8-9 Brasov Nov 10 Nov 11

BULGARIA Sofia Nov 12 Nov 13 Nov 14

MACEDONIA Lake Ohrid Nov 15 Nov 16-17

KOSOVO Prishtine Nov 18 Nov 19 Nov 20 Nov 21

GREECE Thessaloniki Nov 22 Athens Nov 23 Nov 24