Monday, December 19

Scar Tissue

After saying goodbye to Berengere, I continued south from Sarajevo, going to Mostar. This is one of the towns that was hit the hardest during the war. It's hard to describe how disturbing it is seeing bullet marks on pretty much every building wall in town. The majority has been rebuilt, but every block has several buildings that are still completely bombed out. The roofs are totally gone, and there are holes from the shellings all over what's left. It's hard to believe that the war has been over for ten years.

Walking through the grave yards was also quite moving. Almost everyone buried in some of them died on the same day.

Last year, they remade the town's main tourist attraction, called the Old Bridge. The original was built about 500 years ago, but was destroyed during the fighting. The Serbs damaged it quite heavily, but it was in fact the local Croats that finished the job. They were fighting both the Serbs and the local Muslims [who they had lived along side for decades], and found that the Muslims were using it to carry back supplies...

George Bernard Shaw once said that 'Those who seek paradise on earth should come to Dubrovnik'. It's a town in the south of Croatia, and it was my next stop after leaving Mostar. The quote is perhaps what the city is most famous for.

The borders with Bosnia are set in a very strange way, so it in fact made sense to go back to Croatia, rather than having gone there directly from Split. Even so, I had my passport checked four times on the way, as the road keeps going between the two countries.

The town is lovely, being built into a huge medieval castle overlooking the Mediterranean. Of the four days that I spent there, the weather was only nice for one. It was incredible how much this improved the ambiance there. Looking out at the sky blue waters when the sunlight is reflecting off was incredible.

For accommodation, I stayed in a B&B. It's quite odd when you first step off the bus, as the little old ladies that run the B&Bs wait at the station to grab tourists as soon as they set foot on the sidewalk. Sometimes, if there aren't many tourists on board, things can get really ugly. It's in some ways entertaining, in others disturbing, watching them fight over you. I didn't understand when they were yelling at each other, but I got the feeling it could get physical pretty easily if someone provoked them. In the end, I bargained for the lower price, and a few of them lost interest.

From Dubrovnik, I caught a night bus to Beograd [pronounced Belgrad], capital of Serbia. I had arranged to stay with one of the locals, Zlatan, who offered to meet me at the bus station. I had sent him the time that the bus was supposed to arrive, but unfortunately there was a snowstorm in the mountains that the bus had to cross. In the end, we got in four hours late. Of course, I didn't expect him to still be there, and was planning on calling him on his mobile once I arrived. When he was standing right outside the door of the bus as I got off surprised me, to put it mildly.

I stayed with him for five days, and the hospitality that he and his family showed me didn't let up in the least. His parents were concerned that if I slept in the living room, they might wake me up on their way to work. So they insisted on taking the couch themselves, and putting me in their own bed.

Zlatan is part of a Serbian dance team, and along with his three close friends, travel around Europe doing competitions. Together they showed me a wonderful time, taking turns bringing me to different places when each had free time. Check out

This sort of hospitality seems to be a Serb thing in general. In addition, I met quite a few other people through the same website who also brought me to great cafes and museums. Elena, Milena, Nebojsa and his girlfriend Desa, Jovana, Marianna, just to name a few. In the five days I spent there, the only time that I was alone was when I was sleeping.

After Beograd, I went north to Novi Sad, the much smaller capital of Vojvadina, one of the few provinces of the former Yugoslavia that never had a strong separatist movement. Just as in Beograd, the highlight of my time here has been the people that I've met. I've been staying with someone named Slobodan, who has also been a great host. As well, I've been shown around by two others, Dragana and Ivana.

I find it very sad that, although on the surface everything seems normal here, everyone expects another war soon. Recent history almost always comes up in the conversations, and although I've only met people who are very nice, there are of course others who are a bit different. I've seen several street merchants selling calendars. Some feature pictures of convicted war criminals. For too many in these areas, they are heroes.

Over the centuries, there has been so much fighting here that it seems to be bred into many people. Even the nicest have come to expect war, and in some ways see it as a part of life.

Sunday, December 4


After leaving Slovenia, I spent a few days in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. I stayed with a very nice couple, of which the girl, Mirta, was born in Canada. She moved to Croatia, oddly enough, in 1992. This was when the war of independence with Serbia was in full swing. Though luckily, she never saw much of the war, as Zagreb never came under major attack. Apparently, her father was very patriotic, and felt it was his duty to come back to fight the Serbians.

As near as I can tell, most of the tensions in the region started to come to a head when Slobodan Milosevic started to nationalize the political structure in the late 1980s. In the past, regions such as Slovenia and Croatia had much more autonomy, but Milosevic wanted to centralize most of the decision making in Belgrade. He didn't do this with enough grace, and in the end alienated these regions to the point where they were wanting to form their own countries.

In 1990 and 1991, Slovenia and Croatia held referendums on independence, which passed by a landslide. But keep in mind that the Serbs in Croatia boycotted these, so it wasn't quite so unanimous as it appeared. They both declared their independence shortly afterwards, and the Yugoslavian army rolled in a few days later.

Serbia's official motivation was the protection of the Serb minority. It's hard to say how much the violence escalated things, but the ethnic Serbs mostly fled to Serbia. In the international media, it's seen as having been more of an operation to keep the country together, similar to tactics used by the Soviets in eastern Europe. Yet since the Serbs lacked the absolute military dominance of the Soviets, the regions were able to fight back with a hope of winning, despite still being heavily out-gunned.

In the end, the major fighting on Croatian soil only lasted for about two years, though there were little spats until the official end of the war in 1995. Most of the fighting in the later years took place in Bosnia.

After Zagreb, I went to Split, a coastal city and the focal point of Croatian tourism. It was hard to believe I was in the same country as Zagreb. Being in the mountains, it treated me to a blizzard, perhaps to keep me from feeling too home sick. Yet Split felt just like Italy or the Cote D'Azur, not just in terms of architecture, but also climate. Unfortunately, the blizzard must have been following me, as a small hurricane hit the town the next day. But instead of snow, it was more like a tropical storm.

While in Split, I met two locals, who had interesting perspectives on their history. The first was Ivana, a girl who was half Serb and half Croate. Understandably, she wasn't very accustomed to talking about the local politics. Her family had learned to keep a lower profile. The other was Mara, who told me stories that left quite an impression. She talked about growing up in Split in the early 1990s. Although the city didn't come under any major attacks, Serb airplanes used to approach from time to time, and everyone had to run to bomb shelters. Each time the alarm would go off, someone would wait on a tall building for everyone to start the dash to the shelter. He would then try to pick off as many people as possible with a sniper riffle. She was about fourteen at the time, and would make this run clutching her teddy bear, while bullets were hitting the sidewalk around her. These sort of situations are impossible for most of us who were lucky enough to grow up in safe countries to imagine. Of course, the saddest part is that she had it relatively easy compared to people in the towns that were actually shelled, or of course, to people in Bosnia.

Bosnia. It held a referendum on independence in early 1992. Again, it passed by a landslide, but this was again due to the Bosnian Serbs having boycotted it. All hell soon broke lose.

Ethnic Serbs represented a much larger percentage of the population in Bosnia than in Croatia. Still, they were the minority. Throughout the war, the combined army of Serbs and Bosnian Serbs was out-manned, but were much more well armed. There was also a sizable ethnic Croatian population, and so Croatia got involved in the conflict from the early stages as well.

Over 100,000 people died in the war, mostly civilians. I'm told that convicted rapists and murderers were commuted and brought into the army, as they didn't have enough recruits. This led to horrible abuses of prisoners of war and civilians by all sides, with some of the worst examples being rape camps to 'ethnically improve' certain regions.

Though the war was fought between three groups, the Bosnians and Croatians were usually on the same side. Sometimes they would break down into squabbles over territory that they mutually controlled, leading to a complete battle royal.

Both the Serbs and Croates justified their actions as protecting their kin. Although the ethnic Serbs suffered horrible abuses as well, as in Croatia, it's hard to say how much the military actions escalated this. How many atrocities would have happened had the war been avoided and Bosnia been allowed to democratically succeed? It's impossible to be sure.

The Croates and Bosnians officially made peace in 1994, and the Serbs signed a similar agreement the next year, effectively dividing the country into two autonomous regions, drawn along ethnic lines.

The 'capital' of the Serb region is Banja Luka, in the north of the country. This was where I wanted to go after Split, but the bus schedule was a rude surprise. Although there were four buses a day to Sarajevo, there was only one a week to Banja Luka. It left at 11pm Sunday night, and got into Banja Luka at 5am the next day. Apparently there's still a fair amount of resentment between Croatia and the Serb region of Bosnia, and both sides take little jabs at each other when they get the chance. Sometimes tourists get caught in the middle.

I'd been in touch with Berengere, a girl from France who was teaching French in Banja Luka. She offered to let me stay with her, and didn't even mind me getting in at such a horrible hour to let me in. She showed me a great time while I was there, and introduced me to several other people in the French community there, some of which had been refugees in France during the war.

I also got to meet two other Bosnians, Alex and [another] Ivan, through the Couchsurfing website. Ivana told me about how much she wants to travel, but how her visa applications keep getting rejected. Bosnians need a visa for almost every country in the world. Canada is in fact one of the hardest countries to get into, with a completely anal immigration process. I already knew about this from friends in Montreal who had gone through the process [Eugene, Mehdi], but after meeting such a nice person who so desperately wanted to see some other places, it reminded me of exactly how stupid the whole thing is. Canada has more than enough space to absorb the entire population of the Balkans, if we were to just tell them that they couldn't move to Toronto.

Berengere was planning on going to Sarajevo for a conference at the French embassy, and so after spending the night at a concert put on by Alex's band, we went down to catch an early morning bus.

The drive to Sarajevo left quite an impression. Seeing the bombed out houses, mostly near the ethnic divide, was the clearest testament to the violence that ended just ten years ago. It's also considered quite dangerous to go hiking in the forests, as they still haven't cleared the land mines.

Sarajevo is the capital of the country, and is almost entirely Bosniak [Muslim]. Although most in the middle of the city aren't very religious, you're much more likely to see the girls wearing veils in the poorer suburbs. I can't help but find it weird to see girls with blonde hair and blue eyes dressed in traditional Muslim attire. Apparently their ancestors were converted from Christianity back in the days of the Ottoman Empire.