Sometimes you don’t have to quit your job and go on an epic journey to find a new direction. In Spring 2012 I went to former Yugoslavia on an 8-day journey. It was this short trip that sparked my interest in conflict zones.
I first went to Yugoslavia when I was 2 years old on a car journey from Turkey to England with my family, shortly after President Tito’s death. Then again when I was 6. But it was not until Spring 2012 that I returned to see those lands properly — which by then had been split into 7 countries. Then again in Nov 2012.
For Spring 2012 I bought a flight ticket from London to Zadar, Croatia, and a return ticket from Thessaloniki, Greece, and improvised the 8-day journey between the two. In Nov 2012 I visited Belgrade and Zagreb.
Here is an account of that Spring 2012 trip.
From Zadar by minibus, via Split, I first went to Mostar. Split was a pleasant Mediterranean town with a white Roman Palace in its centre. But it was too carefree to my taste. It was when the minibus crossed the border into Bosnia-Herzegovina that the journey really began.
On the minibus I asked the local girl sitting next to me whether she was from Bosnia or Croatia. To which she replied: “From Herzegovina.”
Before we arrived in Mostar, I started talking to Elisabeth, a journalist from Sweden who was sitting behind me. She invited me to join her at the hostel she was going to stay at.
On the way to the hostel, the owner who came to pick us up, pointed at a tall building, saying, “That’s the snipers’ building.”
After dropping off our bags, that was the first place went to. This was the building from which snipers fired on people during the war. It was actually just the shell of a building. We couldn’t tell whether the walls had been blown out or construction had never been completed. The floors were covered in debris and broken glass. There were also holes in the floors and no handrails on the stairs. As we climbed the stairs, it became darker and more precarious. By the time we reached the top we started hearing voices and felt it was better to come back in daytime.
That night we also came across our first cemetery in former Yugoslavia. It was moving to notice that almost all people had died in 1992, during the war.
In daylight we saw that the sniper’s building was covered in graffiti and there were some bullet holes. It also offered sweeping views of the town, the Neretva River and the Mostar Bridge.
A lot of buildings in Mostar were bullet-riddled and some were abandoned. There was an international school called United World College in a renovated orange building where North Korea’s former leader Kim Jong-Il’s grandson was educated, and a super cool bar associated with Muzički Centar Pavarotti on Marshal Tito avenue.
Back at the hostel, talking about our tentative travel plans, Elisabeth and I agreed to continue on together to Sarajevo and Kosovo, and possibly Skopje. Cara, who had hitchhiked from England, joined us as well and the next morning all three of us took the train to Sarajevo.
There were signs that Sarajevo was once upon a time more multicultural than it was now. The old town had been renovated with donations from conservative cities in Turkey, and resembled an Anatolian town rather than a Balkan one. Many women were wearing headscarves.
Walking on the main pedestrianised street, I overheard the conversation of two elderly ladies in western clothes, complaining about how more women now were covered than in the past. Pointing at a rundown sweetshop, one of them was sharing her childhood memories. I also met a religious guy from Turkey going to university there — given that Turkey had larger and more internationally renowned universities, I thought it was a curious choice to study in Sarajevo.
Hidden here and there were cool bars. In the evening we went to one called Zlatna Ribica, which was cluttered with antique furniture. It was a place you would expect to see in Paris. It seemed to be a meeting point for the eccentric people of Sarajevo.
We also saw some buildings with bullet holes (but not as many as in Mostar) and cemeteries where death dates on gravestones were between 1992 and 1995.
From Sarajevo Elisabeth and I took an overnight bus to Novi Pazar in Serbia, from where we got a minibus to Pristina, Kosovo, in the middle of the night. We were surprised that the officer checking our passports at the Kosovo border was Swedish, and he was surprised to see a fellow Swede.
By the time we arrived in Pristina, it was light, and we were shattered and happy. “Kosovo!” we both said, standing by the side of the road where the minibus had dropped us off. We were finally in Europe’s newest country, which had declared its independence in Feb 2008.
With its chaos, the condition of its buildings and its roads — some of which were still not tarmacked — Pristina felt more like a city in a third world country than in Europe.
As it happens, at the hotel we met another Swedish girl, Emma, who was living at the hotel whilst doing an internship at Cultural Heritage without Borders. In the evening we met up with her friends at a cool studenty bar.
Speaking about how mixed the Balkan countries were… with Croats, Serbs and Bosnians living in Bosnia Herzegovina under a complicated federal system… the Bosnians in Novi Pazar… the Serbians in Kosovo… people having to go back and forth between countries for education, work, to see family… I shared my observation with one of them: “It’s like there are no borders. Borders don’t matter.”
“Borders do matter,” he replied.
That for me was the best summary of the Balkan conflicts, and why it was so difficult to resolve.
As Elisabeth was trying to prove to me the point that Swedish people travelled a lot, on the bus to Skopje the only other foreigners were a Swedish couple!
It was difficult to find beauty in Skopje. The city centre was dominated by communist blocks. On the main square there was a huge statue of Alexander the Great on his horse. And, rather absurdly, in the evening loud classical music started playing!
On the other side of the river was the old part with a lively bazaar similar to a Turkish one. There in a wooden building we were lucky to find Vinoteka Temov, a characterful wine restaurant. Where we ended our journey together by sharing a bottle of surprisingly good white Macedonian wine.