A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Bosnia (Yareah)

The low-cost plane lumbered to a stop in bright April sunshine. Cheap holiday travel had come to Bosnia. Nearly two decades after the Siege of Sarajevo (1992-1995), I was standing on the tarmac that flashed across the TV screen of my early adulthood. It was hard not to immediately imagine a sniper fixing me in his sight as I walked to the immigration counter of the admittedly very small Sarajevo airport. I handed over my American passport with silly pride, as Americans tend to believe. more or less, we helped to finally end the war by firmly pushing NATO to end the slaughter. Stamp! My doubled-paged passport (to accommodate, also said proudly, all my travel) was now imprinted with SARAJEVO CAPAJEBO, BiH (abbreviation for Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the longest names for a country in history). The border guard handed it back, smiled, and much to my surprise as border guards usually never say anything, said in English, “Welcome to Bosnia!

I found a taxi, and one of only two female taxi drivers in Sarajevo whisked me into town. She told me her husband had been seriously wounded in the war, eventually died, and left her with six children. I wondered if it were a ploy for tips, but decided to leave a large tip anyway. Anyone, but especially a woman, who drives a taxi should get a tip. Road signs sprang up like Bosniak massacres from what now seemed like ancient news: Tuzla, Srebrenica, Mostar. I couldn’t help myself but begin to search for damaged buildings, mortar remains and bullet holes. There was little, but it was there, and I was shocked at my morbidity as I was slightly disappointed that most had been repaired. 

This was the Sarajevo where for three excruciating years, a hopeless (indifferent?) world looked on as 11,541 mostly Bosniak people, including over 1,500 children, were killed, and 56,000 people, including 15,000 children, were wounded (out of a then population of about 400,000 inhabitants). Barrages of bullets, mortars and rockets rained down on a mostly civilian population by Serbian nationalists from the hills that ring Sarajevo. In peacetime, the hills are extraordinarily sublime, and give Sarajevo a Swiss-like feel with houses imbedded in the sides. In wartime, the hills were efficient platforms to make Sarajevo a merciless killing ground. What I admired then I deeply respected now: the Bosniaks did not submit.

Most were killed going about their lives: work, school, play. Life did not stop, even if there were so much death and no safe place. When I was in my early 20′s, I remember watching the pre-Internet nightly news with fascination and horror, trying to figure what I would do in such a situation. I was young. Go out for a beer and risk sniper alley? Take the tram and get hit by a mortar? Get food (scarce, but brought in through a tunnel, now a tourist attraction, under the airport from Bosniak-controlled territory)? Try to escape and lose a limb from landmines (some of which tragically are still very much alive…going off the beaten path is not a good idea in Bosnia)? Our eyes were filled with the sights and sounds of longest siege the planet had seen since the end of World War II. War without end, in Europe, after 50 years of cold peace.

The population of Sarajevo has nearly rebounded to its original size, but now the population is predominately Bosniak Muslims. Like Germans displaced after WW II, Bosnia has been split into the somewhat messy cantons of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska. This line in the sand doesn’t really function and stops the country from moving forward, but at least there is peace. History is long in the Balkans.

I fell in love with Sarajevo immediately and wondered why it had taken me so long to get there. Long promenades filled with ice-cream stands and amazing food so cheap that surely, this most be one of the cheapest places left in Europe. Mosques, churches and synagogues stand on opposite corners like Starbucks in America. The people are young, as there seems to be a lack of men 35-45, and the city has a soul. Unemployment is high, but mortar holes have been filled in, and the spots where civilians were run down are now called roses. It is a city full of roses.

My hotel was run by a family that had managed to stay intact throughout the war, but nearly everyone says they lost at least one member, somehow or another, during the war. The hills are marked by masses of white tombstone graves from before the war, but somehow they remind visitors that this was very much a death zone for many years. The long-term psychological effects of the war are there, just below the surface, and you don’t want to push people for anything. There is no tipping in restaurants, and however charming and cheap, makes everything slower. 20 years on, much to the chagrin of Bosniaks, who have done so much to move on, you can not help feeling bad for everyone. There was no poor service at the hotel, however, where two incredibly attractive brothers ran the business.

The older one radiated charisma like positive ions at Niagara Falls. You felt good around him. The younger one had a smile that could melt ice cream in a freezer. When I stupidly missed all transportation to Dubrovnik, Croatia, easily within distance to BiH, he offered to drive me at 1/3 less than the taxi price. It wasn’t the ride so much as the road trip I wanted then, and I jumped at the chance. Sure, he was cute, but I wanted a story.

He told me we had to go through three border checks to get to Dubrovnik, so we were in fact going from Bosnia, through Croatia, to Bosnia, to get to Croatia. Geo-politics and common sense be damned! Within two hours of driving through some of the most amazing countryside I’ve seen in awhile (Bosnia is stunning) while listening to ambient techno, which we both love, I found out that he was Muslim, liberal and tolerant, and in love with a beautiful woman. He found out that I was an Atheist, liberal and tolerant. I learned more about the modern Muslim world in that car ride then I had on all my trips to Muslim countries. As liberal and tolerant as I thought I was, my views of the Muslim world had been seriously tainted by other events of the same two decades since Sarajevo.

We stopped in Mostar, (“bridge keeper” in most Slavic languages), where Disney-like roaring brooks crisscross the still horrendously damaged city. Bosniaks and Croats literally are divided by a bridge, and for the most part do not get along. Yet they are not killing each other now, even if a giant cross overlooks the city, commemorating the spot where the Croats, predominately Christian, fired a shell that destroyed the 427 year-old bridge and symbol of Bosnia, built by Muslims.

When we crossed the border into the newly EU-ascendant Croatia, the Croatian border police decided to check nearly ever inch of my luggage.  We had to cross through Bosnia a second time to reach the Croatian coast. This time, there was no check, and we whisked through as friends. A funny thing did happen on the way to Bosnia. It was confirmation that we are indeed, after all, quite human, and sometimes forget that we are indeed, after all, quite reasonably equal.