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Travel in the Balkans: born from the fires of war

The countries in the region offer a peek into the horrors of war, and the craving for peace

Mostar was the most bombed city in the Bosnian war.
Mostar was the most bombed city in the Bosnian war. (iStock photo)

As our bus, with a motley group of tourists, careened down the hills, the spires and minarets dotting Sarajevo came into sight. Slowly, the city, sitting pretty between hills, began to unfold itself. As cameras clicked, our Slovenian guide, Osman, interrupted: “It is an advantage to be protected all around by hills but it is also a disadvantage, the people here have suffered.” Osman was ostensibly referring to the Bosnian war of 1992-95, when snipers took position in the hills and held the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina to siege.

Serbian troops besieged Sarajevo from April 1992 to 1996, deploying thousands of soldiers, targeting it with both heavy and light weaponry. The siege, deemed the longest in modern history, killed over 11,000, including some 1,600 children. “...all we want is peace,” Osman remarked.

As the bus descended into the city, part of our 10-day tour of three Balkan countries, our attention was focused on taking in the views before we alighted at Holiday Inn, the hotel that played host to journalists covering the Bosnian war. Later, on our walking tour, we found ourselves near the Latin Bridge and the exact spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were shot dead by a Serb assassin, sparking World War 1.

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Sarajevo suffered during both the world wars and the 1990s war. They have left their scars—buildings with bullet holes, broken windows, cemeteries with memorials, the Sarajevo roses on streets (crater marks caused by shooting filled with red resin to look like roses and serve as memorials), museums on the siege and wars and sombre memories in the minds of survivors.

In most war-torn countries, the resilience of its people is remarkable and Sarajevo is no exception. Today, the city has a thriving art and culture scene. The annual Sarajevo film festival brings people from the world over; tourism is a big draw, given the city’s landmarks and history dating to Ottoman times.

Different ethnic and religious communities coexist peacefully. The 16th century Ferhadija Street is where East meets West, literally. One moment we are marvelling at the stunning Austro-Hungarian buildings and the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, the next moment we are gawking at Ottoman architecture. That an Orthodox Church, a mosque and a synagogue are all located in this area is testimony to the city’s multicultural ethos. It was from Ferhadija that Europe’s first tram headed out, adding to the street’s popularity.

The Turkish bazaar, Baščaršija, founded in the 15th century, retains its historical charm with mosques and madrasas, a clock tower, restaurants, shops selling Turkish coffee pots and fine metalware. An open-air stage ensures live entertainment in the evenings. After strolling around the narrow winding streets, we sat at an outdoor café opposite the iconic wooden-domed fountain Sebilj.

In the Turkish quarter, it was humbling and pleasing to see the City Hall, a neo-Moorish edifice destroyed during the war and now restored. Converted into the National Library in 1949, its nearly two million books, including rare volumes reflecting Sarajevo’s multicultural life under the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, were reduced to ashes.

Entering Mostar, the beautiful southern Bosnian city, we were struck by the number of cemeteries; some old buildings and houses still wore the wounds of the war. Mostar was the most bombed city in the Bosnian war that killed over 2,000 Bosnians and left several thousands injured.

Walking around its cobblestone streets, one comes across old Turkish homes, rebuilt mosques and churches and impressive bridges across the quietly flowing Neretva which divides Mostar. The winding alleys with colourful bazaars lead you to the star of the show, the Stari Most, a giant stone bridge that connects one side of the old town to the other. You can sit for hours sipping Turkish coffee or eating cevapi (grilled meat sausage with pita bread and raw onion), watching the dare-devilry of high divers who jump off the bridge into the river below.

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Neighbouring Croatia, which became a separate state after gaining independence from erstwhile Yugoslavia, is blessed by nature, with forested hills, rivers and the Adriatic Sea on one side. Dubrovnik, the famous port city at the southern tip of Croatia, was the worst hit during the wars. It was shelled for six months, with some 60% of the buildings damaged or destroyed; strategic infrastructure, such as water, power lines and telecommunications, was bombarded. In one of the fiercest attacks in December 1991, shells fell on the old town, hitting churches, palaces, hotels and cultural monuments, leaving the city in flames. Hundreds of civilians and soldiers died and thousands were rendered homeless.

After the war ended in 1995, though, much of the damage was quickly repaired. Dubrovnik is stunning, with breathtaking architecture and landscape. A medieval walled city, its historic Old Town, surrounded by stone walls, is filled with cobbled streets, palaces, ancient monasteries and Baroque cathedrals, Renaissance fountains and open-air markets. The Old Town Centre is a Unesco World Heritage site; an episode of Star Wars was filmed on its main Stradun Street. Some famous scenes in the Game Of Thrones television series too were shot in the city. Best of all, the Old Town offers great views of the Adriatic Sea and nearby islands.

Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, which had suffered during World War II, was attacked by Serbs in the 1990s war. While it looks colourful and modern, its darker history is on display at The Memorial Centre of the Rocket Attacks on Zagreb, World War II tunnels and museums. The old parts exude a medieval atmosphere, while the main town has a mix of old and modern buildings, with the iconic blue trams plying. Still operational is the Funicular railway, the oldest and shortest public transport in town dating from 1888, connecting the lower town to the upper town.

Slovenia was least affected by the war. Was it because it has “love” in its name? I am not sure. But one can easily fall in love with its beautiful, tiny capital, Ljubljana—scenic, clean and green. Like its neighbours, Ljubljana has historical monuments, impressive bridges, museums and markets, as well as rivers, lakes and hills.

Travelling through these war-torn south-east European countries was a profound experience and learning—of the long histories and momentous events, the horrors of war and its aftermath, the deaths of innocents, the loss and pain, the rebuilding of the places and lives, the craving for peace and the joy of freedom. Will lessons be learnt from the past? Osman’s words echo in my ears: “We hope and pray that there will be no more wars. All we want is peace.”

Stanley Carvalho is a Bengaluru-based journalist and writer. He is the author/editor of three books on the city.

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