Bosnia and Herzegovina

A news article.

I was at a couchsurf in Tuzla, BiH and a friend of theirs asked if he could interview me because of my travels. Of course I said yes!!

Muris translated as the interviewer would ask questions and I would answer. It wasn’t a very long interview but it was fun to tell my story a bit.

I mentioned a couple of moments in Srebrenica that made me feel uncomfortable. Two guys in particular at different times had reactions to finding out I was American. This was the first time I had felt that vibe coming from anyone on my entire trip. I just didn’t feel welcome and remained quiet the rest of the evening and then retreated back to the hostel as soon as I could. I don’t hold anything against them and everyone else I met that night was very nice. But I still felt out of place and I couldn’t shake it.

I didn’t expect it would be mentioned in the article. I don’t regret saying anything, only that I couldn’t say it directly and had to use a translator. If I had the ability to express myself in Bosnian, I’m sure I could convey my thoughts. Nonetheless it was mentioned and I heard through the grapevine that some of the guys in Srebrenica were not very happy or at least surprised to be mentioned even if it wasn’t by name. I think I can take a lesson from this. I will be more careful what I say and understand that anyone who hears what I say is free to do with that information whatever the feel compelled to do. Maybe others can learn a lesson as well. Travelers want to feel welcome. Some, like me for example, am not going to assume I’m welcome in your country or bar or home unless I experience a welcoming atmosphere. I’m ok being alone. I’d rather be by myself than be in a space I don’t feel welcome. That’s me. For whatever it’s worth.

For the record, Bosnia was a very welcoming country. I really did feel comfortable everywhere I went. It’s a beautiful place and I won’t forget it. I hope that despite a small part of the article, the message of appreciation will come across.

Also, I haven’t read the article. I’ve only been able to use google translate, which comes up with a kinda hilarious version.

Bosnia news portal

http://www.klix.ba/vijesti/bih/amerikanac-u-tuzli-dao-otkaz-na-poslu-i-biciklom-krenuo-na-put-oko-evrope/140509067

Andiamo!

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Zdravo Bosnia i Herzegovina

When I crossed the border I was nervous. I won’t feign bravery or confidence. I haven’t heard much about Bosnia since the war when I was at an age that I can recall few images and little connection with the events. It was easy for me. I just changed the channel. We all did at one time or another. We still do I’m sure.

I felt compelled to come and see. I felt pulled in a way I didn’t understand. This was the first war of my life. It was the first one that I can connect my memories to the timeline of the war. I can remember what I might have been doing in this or that month or year. I came from a privileged upbringing. I’m grateful and unashamed. I didn’t do anything except be born on that side of the world.

Lucky me.

But meanwhile, a kid my age died because a mortar somewhere landed next to him while he was walking, or playing, or sitting, or sleeping. A kid my brother’s age got shot in the leg by a sniper. People my parents age were killed everyday, just crossing the street, or the bridge, or the living room.

I can’t know war like you have known it. I likely will never know it the way you have. I’ll never have to push the tears deep inside while I bury my best friend and move on with my day and my life. I won’t have to spend four months digging a tunnel so I can smuggle pushcarts full of necessities through 800 meters of mud and water with 100 pounds of supplies on my back. I won’t have to walk down a street that we all named “sniper alley” for good reason. I’ll never have to leave my home and hope and wonder if I’ll ever be back. I’ll never have to cross a bridge in the car with my family and watch my mother’s chest explode as the sniper’s bullet takes her away from me. I’ll never have to be held captive like an animal with thousands upon thousands of my countrymen while we starve and suffer and survive.

I’m sorry you had to endure that. I’m sorry this person or that person didn’t do what was right when they should have or when they could have. I’m sorry you have to live with this for the rest of your life. I”m sorry it’s so heavy on your shoulders. I’m sorry you’ve had to carry this all by yourself.

What can I do?

I can’t fix anything. I can’t honor anything that hasn’t been honored. I can’t tell a story that a hundred people haven’t told already. I can’t explain anything better than anyone else and I can’t find a way to make it all worth it. I can’t find a happy ending to this one.

At the Srebrenica exhibit in Sarajevo, the tag line is “You are my witness.” Do you know the sign I’m talking about? You’ve seen it outside the exhibit, I’m sure.

So here I am. I’ll be your witness. It’s all I can do. It’s all I have.

For as many times as I’ve felt like a stranger in a strange land, I’m grateful to know that children playing sounds the same all over the world. Dogs barking in the distance echo through a valley just the same. Green trees are green trees and flowing water sets the calm in the ways I’ve known in my life back home. Sneezes are universal. A kind smile and a wave of the hand break down walls faster than words ever can. Language isn’t necessary to communicate. People want to help. Stories want to be heard. We all want to laugh with each other.

So I’ll be your witness.

I’ll see the guys in Srebrenica try to give a childhood to the kids that will grow up there. I’ll see them build a music scene and record the first album from that town. I’ll see hundreds of cars pass honking and waving and throwing candy on their way to celebrate a wedding. I’ll see the farmers laboring in their fields, reaping what they sow. Sure, I’ll buy some vegetables from you and you might as well push some of that med (mead) over here too. I’ll learn how to make coffee your way. I’ll see the way you fix your buildings; erase the bullet holes and move forward. I’ll see a shopping mall that looks just like the ones I know back home. I’ll hear tv shows that echo a familiar setting like I’ve known. I’ll burst with excitement when I taste your first microbrew. I’ll get to know your rakija, very well. I’ll hear your stories and remember.

I didn’t know what to expect when I came here. People I know and people I don’t know alike would ask why I was going to Bosnia. They would exclaim about safety and war and do I really know what I’m getting into!?!?! I’ll admit that I didn’t know. I was scared. And now I cross the river Drina, leaving your fair country in my past and in my memory. I hope that I’ve shared a smile enough, that I’ve cared enough, that I sang loud enough, that I thanked you enough and that I honored you enough. It was entirely my pleasure and privilege to behold your beauty. I’m not scared anymore.

Hvala

Andiamo!

An unexpected tumble.

I wanted to jump off the bridge. The locals do it and sometimes tourists do. It’s 23 meters high. If you do it, you can become a member of the Mostar Diving Club, get a certificate and then be allowed to get a tattoo of the bridge. It’s a rite if passage and has been for a very long time.

I very rarely remember my dreams. So rare in fact, that I joke to myself that I sleep dreamless nights.

This morning I awoke and was immediately taken aback by the anxiety and fear I felt from my slumber. I kept having images flash through my mind of falling. I would shake my head sharply to dislodge the images . I knew right away that I wasn’t going to jump.

It was cloudy, cold and threatening rain.

I decided instead to ride about 40km to a picturesque waterfall, despite the rain and then maybe over to the Dervish House.

As I began pedaling my legs felt heavy, sluggish, weak. Maybe I just need to warm up I thought. I kept going.

On a particularly long uphill section I had rode about half way up. A car pulled up next to me, a man at the wheel with two children in the other seats. He said something and I responded in English. He was nice and smiling and reached across to the passenger window and began tapping the frame of the window. He pointed ahead to the hill we were on and tapped the window frame again. I understood that he was offering to tow me up the hill! Sure! Why not?! I smiled and laughed and grabbed the window, braced myself and away we went!

It was exhilarating! I laughed as did he and the kids! Some cars passed us and honked and raised their hands in support of our adventure. Up and up we went! Near the top I told him to slow down and he complied. I finally let go and coasted over the top of the hill, waved and hollered as he drove off doing the same.

It was drizzling now but I thought that I would press on regardless. It’s only 40km and from what I understood of the route, that was the biggest uphill section, now behind me. I still felt heavy and could not seem to find the energy to push myself.

An hour down the road I checked my gps. I had not gone far at all. I was cold, wet and still feeling sluggish. I had just competed another larger uphill section and I finally conceded that the anxious and nervous feeling that I had when I awoke had not left my mind. I don’t know exactly why but I decided that I was turning around. To carry on meant that once I reached my destination I would have to repeat the distance to get back to Mostar and I knew that I wasn’t prepared to do that.

As I coasted down the section that had just challenged me with incline, I was trying to maintain what felt like a safe speed as I curled around the serpentine roads.

In an instant the rear wheel locked under the pressure of the brakes and the slipperiness of the road. It fishtailed left to right dramatically and quickly. Letting off the brakes I felt momentum hurling me forward faster than I now knew I could stop. I pressed the brakes again, fishtailed and when I let off I was moving quickly towards the shoulder. The shoulder was narrow and dropped off sharply.

There were many cars approaching around the bend. I knew I couldn’t stop without hitting them. I knew I couldn’t straighten my path without falling into them either. I knew I couldn’t take the corner at this speed without hitting them. I knew that once I hit the dirt, there was very little my brakes would do to help me. I had to make a decision of how best to crash. In mere seconds I calculated chances of survival, risk of injury, at what point I would lose control completely, what objects could injure me the most if I hit them…. and over the edge I went.

I leaned hard and turned to avoid the large boulders in front of me. As expected my brakes were useless. I shifted my weight back and let the front tire hit dirt first. I tried to hang on to my balance. The front tire sank in fast and hit a rock.

The bike stopped.

I didn’t.

In the air I thought “well at least I missed those boulders.”

Thankfully my feet came unclipped from my pedals and I did not take the bike tumbling with me. I tucked and slammed and rolled. As I came to rest on my back I felt the pain in my shoulder and hip. The contact had been hard and I was hurting sharply. I stood up.

“Ok? Ok? Ok?” a man from a car asked.

I was only moaning and as I stood up, my body gave out and I fell immediately back down. “Oh good, my legs work” I thought.

The man came over. Others too. Several cars had stopped. People were all speaking in Bosnian and he was asking me if I wanted the ambulance. He told me to lay still and take a moment. Can I feel my legs? Can I feel my arms? Can I move them? He was asking all the preliminary questions. I tried to sit up and he said no and to be calm.

Some time passed. Finally, struggling, I made it to my feet.

Someone at the hostel I had told about my dream when I said I wasn’t jumping said that maybe this was the fall I dreamt about after all. I can’t figure it out yet. Something was heavy on my mind today. I knew it right from the start.

It was an unexpected fall that reminded me that I need to respect the rain and be careful. I also need to remember that I have people to call if I enter in trouble. The hostel owner came and picked me up after I limped to a gas station and used their phone.

Not the kind of day I was hoping for, and I may be a little worn.

But…. Andiamo!

Mostar.

“The Serbs caught two Bosnian men. They threw them off the top of that building.”
“My mother used to work there. It was a shopping mall. ”

They were the first to die in Mostar. That started the fighting. There is a plaque with some words about them there and a Bosnian flag on the corner of the roof top, from where they were thrown. The grey walled building is surrounded by a fence. Abandoned. Devoid of any facade it may have once had.

My eyes wash away.

Now we stand in a room at the bridge. The Mostar Diving Club.

They jump from the bridge. The Mostari. A long tradition since the bridge was built. The bridge was a gift from the Turks. It was a main thoroughfare and connection between people and places. The locals walk on the ridges that run left to right across the bridge. Tourists don’t pay attention. The story goes that the king said if the bridge wasn’t perfect, the workers would be beheaded and if it was perfect they would be rich. Most of the workers fled before they removed the final scaffolding to see if the bridge would fall. Those that stayed leapt in joy from the 25 meter high keystone into the water below when alas, it stood on its own. This bridge is Mostar as much as the people are Mostar.

“We didn’t have time to cry when we lost our family and friends. We buried them here and put the stones on top. There wasn’t any time to cry.”

As the film footage shows the final missile that brought the bridge down he says “many many people cried when the bridge fell.”

I know very few collapses that have moved me so deeply. It’s as if I can hear the ghost moan of a city weeping in unison.

Now we are standing in a cemetery. “This was my best friend.”

His name was Bertan. Born 1976. Died 1993. As I look around I start to see…1991…. 1993….1991…..1992….1993 and I’m falling apart inside. “Do you see the flower I showed you on the old Bosnian flag? That symbol is forbidden. Do you see the gravestones? They are the flower. This is a Bosnian cemetery. People are angry. They come here every day. They lost a loved one. They cannot fix it. They are only angry. They will always be angry.”

I see a man sitting on one of the stones. He is old. He is wearing nice clothes and his head hangs low and still as he looks at a picture in his hand. He doesn’t look angry here. Here, he looks tired.

Now we are standing on the street, the main dividing line between east and west Mostar.

“West Mostar there. East mostar there. There is nothing in between. Only bad memories.”

“Do you think the city will ever reconcile?”

“Honestly…… no. We cannot forget what happened. It will always be like this now.”

Now we are in front of a building. Torn and ragged. Blown apart inside out. There isn’t a square foot that doesn’t have a bullet hole. Sand bags in piles line the windows. They have long since broken open and spilled into an ever degrading pile.

“The “army.” We were all volunteers. No training. This is my home. Do you understand?“

“I couldn’t fight because I was still recovering from the sniper that shot me. I became interested in mortars. I was quite good. They offered me an army contract after the war. I said no. I am not a soldier.”

Now we stand on the tallest mountain. Overlooking the city. You can’t see the scars from here.

The Croatian nationalists put a 20 meter cross on this hill and then painted a Nationalist flag on the back meant to provoke the Bosnians. A nationalist flag has the checker pattern of the Croatian flag except the first square that starts the pattern is white, not red. “This is how you can tell they are bad guys.”

“In the war crime trials not one prosecuted criminal is Bosnian. Not one. On this hill the Croatians. On that hill, Serbs. And see the middle? Bosnians. What could we do?”

“There was a trade embargo on weapons. The Croats could get them through the Hungarian border, the Serbs from the JNA and so it was in the end, only an embargo on the Bosnians. Our weapons were the ones we could take from the attackers. They would fire a mortar, if it didn’t go off, we would take it apart, rewire it and make it a grenade to throw back at them.

Now we stand in the city center. It is empty.

The EU has funded a school that houses both the Bosnians and the Bosnian-Croats in Mostar. It is a beautiful building with a lovely courtyard park. This is called Spanish Square in honor of the 23 Spanish UN soldiers that died clearing the area of land mines. The job isn’t done yet. The most recent death, 2008. “We changed the name to say thank you for helping us.”

“You see some of the buses have a red dot like the Japanese flag. Japan wanted to help and asked what they could do to aid our rebuilding process. We needed buses. They gave us a fleet of buses.”

“Do you see this? It’s a chess board, but there are no pieces. It’s symbolic. A city center with no people.”

There is graffiti that is meant to show what life was like before the war. Bicycles, children, cats, life. Behind it is an old tower building of communist architecture, built to withstand an atomic bomb, blocky and sharp lines. That’s where the snipers were. He was shot in the leg by a sniper when he was 17.

“Before the war, did you think something like this could happen?”

“Before the war we were all brothers. No, we had everything we needed. Life was good. It was normal. This isn’t a third-world country. We didn’t see this coming. We didn’t think this would ever be possible. For things to get so bad. For nine months we were cutoff. It was a no fly zone except for the Americans. They would drop supplies sometimes. But they would drop them in no-mans-land and you could die just trying to get to them. We would wait until dark and go looking for food. Anything. If you could catch a wild pigeon you could eat dinner. Sometimes the parents would have to prepare it elsewhere so the children didn’t know what they were eating. Sixty thousand people stuck here with no way to get out. For nine months. When President Clinton found out what was happening and finally decided to step in, the fighting was over in two weeks. What took them so long?”

I can’t bear to think of this for more than a few moments. I think about the home I love. I hear the story that someone was thrown off a building. I see the buildings of my beautiful city beaten by endless gunfire. I see the bridges collapsing. I see the people scared and helpless. I see the courage of the resistance forming in the faces of the young and able, and watch those same faces disappear and age faster than I would have thought possible. I can’t bear to imagine what it would be like to experience this. In my streets, outside my door and in my home.