The second half of our time with Della’s parents was spent in the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This country has been through some tumultuous times in recent history, but currently is quite welcoming to visitors. However, tensions still remain from the war. Still, we quite enjoyed our time getting to know this area just a little bit better.
Driving Through Republika Srpska
As we did on our trip through Croatia and Slovenia, we decided to rent a car. The first leg of our trip involved driving from Dubrovnik in Croatia to Sarajevo, the capital of the country. This drive actually provided our first glimpse into the interesting politics of the region. We knew that we were in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but we saw signs for the “Republka Srpska” and plenty of flags that looked like the Serbian flag. It turns out that the Republic of Srpska is a separate entity within the country that is composed mostly of ethnic Serbs. They have their own government and are culturally much more similar to Serbia (Cyrillic was much more commonly used), but it is still part of the same country.
We spent three nights and two full days sightseeing in the very interesting city of Sarajevo. This city is in the other main political entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina called the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The majority of the residents in this part of the country are ethnically Bosniaks, which means that they are mostly Muslim (as a holdover from the long occupation by the Ottoman Empire), Therefore, you see a lot of mosques around. We even had the chance to visit the inside of one of the most important mosques in the city, the Gazi Husrev-bey Mosque. However, Sarajevo has always been a place where the different cultures mix, so we also saw Serbian Orthodox churches and a Catholic Cathedral (for the Croats).
The Ottoman influence is definitely also felt in the architecture of the Old Town. The core of Old Town, called Baščaršija, looks and feels like a Turkish bazaar. We wandered through the narrow alleyways and took in the sights and smells (and sampled some cheap food!). Leaving this part of Old Town, you immediately see another culture that influenced Sarajevo: the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Another stretch of the Old Town feels a little like Vienna. There is an interesting spot within Old Town where you can clearly see the shift between the two styles.
The Austro-Hungarian occupation led to another event that Sarajevo is famous for: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, an event which set off a chain of events that led to World War I. There is a small museum at the assassination site that we spent some time visiting.
After immersing ourselves in the older history of the city, we knew that it was time to learn more about the recent war.We paid a visit to a moving and disturbing exhibit called Gallery 11/07/95 – a series of exhibits that attempt to explain some of the tragedies of the way, mainly the genocide at Srebrenica. Our guide gave us a brief overview of what happened there. It’s hard to give a concise explanation in this space, but the gist of it is that over 8000 Bosniak people in the town, mostly males, were killed and dumped into mass graves by the approaching Army of Republika Srpska, even though the town was supposedly under UN protection. We walked through the photo gallery, watched a documentary, and also listened to the stories of some individuals who were affected.
The gallery also included a small display and a documentary on the siege of Sarajevo. We vaguely remembered that Sarajevo was in the news when we were kids, but I don’t think we realized the scope of what the town went through. It was under siege for almost four years, which is the longest siege in modern history. The residents had to live in constant fear of being attacked by snipers in the hills surrounding the valley that the city sits in. The documentary, called Miss Sarajevo, was shot during the siege and showed the resilience of the residents in the face of this (and was later turned into a U2 song). It is extremely moving and worth a watch. (If you do watch the documentary, and you should… its linked in the previous sentences… and you find yourself as taken with the young girl in the beginning and the end as we were, here is a video of what she was doing in 2009!)
After leaving the museum, we went and walked through the downtown core which was the home of “Sniper Alley,” one of the areas that was most vulnerable during the siege. You could still see a lot of old damage, such as destroyed buildings and grenade and bullet scars, but at the same time, the city has also repaired and rebuilt many sites.
Even with all this tragedy in the city, we still found our time there enjoyable. People are friendly and the food was interesting, cheap, and easy to find. Sarajevo has had a lot of bad things happen in the past, but we felt perfectly safe visiting in the present. We didn’t get a chance to talk to too many locals about the war, but the ones we did talk to said that they hoped to move forward as a united nation. However, they also made it clear that many in the older generations do not feel the same way, and the same ethnic tensions remain. It is clearly hard to forgive other ethnic groups for the terror everyone went through.
After our time in Sarajevo, we spent one more day in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the town of Mostar. This town provided another interesting glimpse into the complex fabric that is Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was the site of major battles during the war, but this time between the Croats and Bosniaks (as oppose to the more Serb/Bosniak conflict in Sarajevo). Even though they have rebuilt since the war, you can still see many damaged buildings, and also damaged relations: there is a clear geographic divide between the Croats and their Catholic churches on one side of the city and the Bosniaks and their mosques on the other side of the city.
The big attraction in Mostar is the famous Old Bridge. It was originally built during the Ottoman era, and was an architectural marvel of its time. Unfortunately, the original bridge was destroyed during the war. However, post-war, multiple sources chipped in and the bridge was rebuilt in the same manner as it had been previously, once again spanning the Neretva River. One interesting tradition that has regained popularity is that locals will collect tips and then dive off of the bridge into the river far below.
On our last night in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and our last night together as a group of four for a while, we ate dinner at a nice restaurant overlooking the bridge. As the sun went down, we were serenaded by multiple calls to prayer from the mosques in the area. It was a fitting end to our fascinating trip through this interesting nation.