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Snipers and sunsets: A few days in Bosnia & Herzegovina

April 12, 2013

If walking up Berrnini’s staircase in the Palazzo Barberini, Rome, was heavenly, DSC_1583the staircase up the various floors of the ex-Yugoslavian bank is hell: it exists as part of a concrete shell, daubed with graffiti, littered with piles of broken glass. Up five floors, past empty shell and bullet casings, and discarded bank papers, you come to the sniper’s prime position. The sun is setting and the view over Mostar and the mountains which surround it is beautiful, if you look beyond the gutted block of flats on the opposite side of the square.

I’d arrived here after several hours on a sweltering coach from Split, Croatia, DSC_1575where I’d spent a couple of days wandering around Diocletion’s Palace, it’s nooks and crannies, courtyards and alleyways like a film set. It’s a different film here in Mostar though, or the aftermath of one. I wasn’t expecting the war to be this evident – there were bullet holes in the metal gate of the hostel I stayed in and inside the owner had some pictures to show how the house was pretty much destroyed, like 95% of all the buildings here and, of course, the famous old bridge.

The old bridge has now been rebuilt and it looks stunning. The place is gearing up for the busy summer season. Now they make pens and model tanks out of the spare bullets and you can buy them with either Bosnian marks, Croatian Kuna or Euros in the streets of souvenir shops around the bridge. I had to buy one of the pens, as personally I thought it was a great use for the bullets, the pen being mightier than the gun and all that. It writes beautifully. In the early evening, with the call to prayer echoing through the streets and the air around the bridge filled with the scent of intense, Mostar feels very peaceful now.

I was a little apprehensive about the veggie options in Bosnia, but my fears were unfounded. There’s a definite middle eastern influence, with grilled vegetables and lots of aubergine-based dishes. For dinner I had a bowl of Djuvech, which I have to admit tasted like a Vespa rice dish with a few more vegetables added,. The Sarajevska beer, brewed in Sarajevo, was good though.

And it was to Sarajevo I was headed the next day. The coach journeyed through mountains, rivers and lakes to get there. I was coachsurfing for the first time, staying with a guy called Oli, who runs a nightclub in Sarajevo. His DSC_1613beautiful house up in the hills overlooks the city. We went into town with two of his other guests, Americans who were trying to rent an apartment here in the huge tower blocks near the old frontline (think Peckham with real bullet marks). It’s amazing that some of these tower blocks withstood the war…I’m crediting that to the fact they were built under socialism. We joked that the landlord was going to do a runner with the money they’d given as a deposit, and then when he took ages to come and meet us, actually started to think he was really going too, but he turned up, his tardiness probably due to the fact that the bus and tram workers were striking for five days. After going to Oli’s club and sampling another local delicacy with some of his friends, far too early in the day, we picked up some Pita, a type of pastry filled with cheese and spinach. It’s made in impressive metal ovens cooked in a open-air over and is absolutely delicious.

Another night, another sunset and this time me, Kurt (another American who is working at Oli’s through the HelpX scheme), and Blackie the dog went up to the watch it on some rocks on the top of the hill. Oli had warned us that there might be unexploded mines in the area, but I can’t resist a good photo opp. Having climbed up there without getting blown up, the view was worth it. The city entire city was sprawled below us, filling the valley. As Kurt remarked, this unfortunately made it so easy to attack and in fact, these rocks were also sniper positions. Seeing this gorgeous sunset and the countryside the day before, I wondered how such atrocious violence could happen when humans are dwarfed by such stunning natural beauty, the whole conflict seemed so pointless to me.

The next day I went on a free walking tour with Neno – something I’d definitely recommend if you ever find yourself here. Neno spent three hours telling me all about the city, from its formation under Ottoman times to the current day, now the Bosnians are facing economic crisis like everyone else in the Europe. Many of the old Austria-Hungarian buildings were completely destroyed in the war, and have been rebuilt pretty much exactly the way they were.

A 'Sarajevo Rose'... resin filling in the holes made by a shell that killed someone.

A ‘Sarajevo Rose’… resin filling in the holes made by a shell that killed someone.

Neno was just a child in the 1990s and spent the whole of the siege living in a basement. He told me how his mother, unable to bear staying underground, decided to go and work to help some public services keep running, but this meant walking though one of the most dangerous places on earth every day. I just can’t comprehend what it must be like to be a child in a war, cooped up in a basement and wondering if your Mum will come home each day. We had a Bosnian coffee and Neno preferred to eat the sugar lumps, dipped in coffee over the Turkish Delight that came on the side, it’s a trait developed in the siege when he would eat grains of sugar as there were no other sweets.

DSC_1628It was over coffee that I plucked up the courage to ask my burning question: why do Bosnia and Serbia give twelve points to each other in the Eurovision? Neno reckoned that it’s probably because of the number of Bosnian Serbs that live in the east of the country, but also the fact that Bosnians like Serbian pop music, and yes, for the Serbs, their twelve points is a small peace offering. Neno was optimistic, despite the high unemployment in the county, that things would continue to get better. Whether it is really is progress or not is debatable, but looking out across the city from Oli’s house, you can see the few shiny new glass buildings built with Russian money and I expect more will go up in the future.

I’m writing this blog on the coach to Belgrade, a torturous eight hour journey that seems to stop at every single service station in Serbia. I am hungover (thanks for the wine, Oli!) and have spent the whole journey being serenaded by bad Slavic pop music, though now the radio is actually playing Emile sodding Sande. Not wanting to end this blog with the words, Emile Sande, I’ll end by saying that at one of these service stops, I treated myself to a Serbian Kit-Kat-like chocolate bar and I can report that is actually tasted better than a real Kit Kat.

Transport so far:

63 bus from East Dulwich to Kings Cross, Eurostar to Paris, Paris metro to Odeon, bus to Gare du Lyon, overnight train to Florence, train to Assisi, car up the winding roads to the artist residency.

4×4 back down the mountain, Assisi to Rome train, the notorious number 64 bus, number 23 bus.

Train from Rome to Ancona, overnight ferry to Split, coach from Split to Mostar, coach from Mostar to Sarajevo, coach from Sarajevo to Belgrade.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 12, 2013 1:07 pm

    Awesome telling.

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