Bosnia Herzegovina is a divided country. It acts 'internationally' as one unit, but in reality it is split and works independently of each other. Bosniaks in the Federation and Serbs in the Republica Srpska have different schools, hospitals and police. And they are not moving together any time soon.
The landscape of Southern Bosnia is rocky and red-hot in summer. Winding roads bring tourists from the Adriatic resorts to see Mostar’s historic Ottoman bridge as it towers above the crisp-cold waters of the emerald Neretva River. Even more tourist numbers make the pilgrimage to Medjugorje near-by.
Moving north towards Sarajevo, the landscape takes on a greener, more mountainous form. Vineyards and walking trails dot the rolling hills along with small highland villages akin to an Austrian alpine fairy-tale. On passing through it is easy to see why Bosnia Herzegovina was such a tourist draw back in Tito-ruled Yugoslavia. Although tourist numbers are low yet growing, the country is still battling stigmas that have framed international perceptions since the Bosnian wars of the nineties. Sarajevo, when mentioned, still conjures thoughts of its desperate three year siege. The word Bosnia itself is more synonymous with genocide and mass graves than it is with skiing and its distinctive cultural mix. Travel in the Balkans presents a certain edgy appeal to the more adventurous explorer. Here is a country waiting to be rediscovered, rising, literally, from the ashes of its past.
I struggle with my shoe laces while simultaneously trying to down a coffee at the hotel reception. The desk attendant proudly wishes me the best with a firm handshake. As it happens I am going to his hometown of Foca for some rafting in the Tara Canyon; an area in Eastern Bosnia renowned for its wild beauty, deep canyons and lush green mountains. The war left deep seethed divisions in this part of Bosnia. The violence became brutal and laid on heavy by opposing sides. It resulted in a demographic shift that has left Foca and its environs void any other ethnicity outside of Serbs. This is ‘Republica Srpska’, the second regional entity after ‘The Federation’ that makes up Bosnia Herzegovina.
Sarajevo was quiet. It was the morning after the end of Ramadan celebrations which saw the city centre pulsate into the late hours. While adjusting my rucksack on my back the heavy hotel door slammed behind me. Looking ahead onto the deserted street, a cat lay dead stretched out in front of me. He was 'Tigir'-orange, freshly deceased by the looks of it and pretty much stopped me in my tracks as I turned right onto Marshall Tito Street. I felt sorry for the little guy...tongue hanging out of he's head. It felt like a bad omen. I power walk downtown towards what was previously known as Sniper Alley, one of the main arteries leading into central Sarajevo. The streets are empty, albeit for a few street sweepers and the trams tearing on past. I reach the Holiday Inn, nowadays minus the battle scars, where I steer right towards the central bus station. The heat is climbing already and I work up a sweat passing the American Embassy. It’s a long building. Why does the Embassy have to be so huge? A strategic move in the game of regional dominance? It takes up a good portion of Robert C. Frasure Street that leads up to the Central bus station. Four weeks later this street would see a lone gunman, supposedly a radical Islamist, taking pot shots at the embassy with a high-powered rifle. With its fortress style construct I’m not surprised they handled the attacker with relative ease.
With the bus station in view, it presents a different image to the same building I saw photographed during the Sarajevo siege. Back then it looked straight up blackened, bombed out...decimated. Now it was modern, busy and thankfully peaceful. Queuing for a ticket, the people in front of me are varied in character; a few elderly folk with bags of vegetables, a middle aged guy and young lady with her little child. I just want to get a coffee and sit down somewhere. At the window the cashier makes my heart sink, there is no Foca bus until noon. He tells me there is a 7.40a.m. bus leaving for Foca from the Serbian bus station across in Serb Sarajevo; a sector of the city to the south west of the centre. Time is cutting tight. This is not good. Outside in the parking lot I get to the first taxi I see. Panic sets in but two things I can't afford are a rip-off taxi or a slow driver. I throw my rucksack in the back seat and ask to be taken to Serb Sarajevo station. The driver nods and puts on his glasses. Jackpot, he looks like a straight up guy.
Traffic is easy going and we move out of town towards Serb-Sarajevo with fifteen minutes on the clock before the Foca bus departs. The taxi driver has no English, no surprise. I wipe my eyes with a tired sigh and take in the modern tower blocks. The radio has the Bosnian morning chat going on. Closer to Serb Sarajevo, I see the area has come a long way since my previous visit eight years back. Although it is still part of greater Sarajevo it is annexed across ethnic lines; Bosnian and Serbian. Back then the station was a tense place to visit. Belgrade was the destination of choice and tickets were purchased in advance, yet the bus driver adamantly objected to my travel partner and I boarding the bus. 'Belgrade?' I asked the driver. He immediately put his hand to my chest, said ‘no’ and pushed me slightly back, walking back to the luggage hold with an air of menace. He then turned back and asked in Serbian for our passports. I flicked open the passport page showing my photo with the Irish insignia. He's face lit up. 'ahhhh Irish! You just like us!! Come come apologies apologies!' He took our bags, threw them in the luggage compartment and signalled our way onto the bus with a beaming smile saying ‘I thought you were American!’
But this morning it was straight onto the bus; no surprised looks, no questions. Time moves on thankfully. The bus was dotted with elderly Bosnians who looked as if they were heading out to their respective towns and villages. The road winds deeper into the forest and I nod off to a light sleep, shattered from the stress-induced sprint of my morning departure from Sarajevo. Rafting is in two hours after a breakfast at the base camp.
My bus gradually empties as we near Foca. The elderly are dropped off as villages pass by. In Foca, a large town in contrast to those en route, I am met by the rafting company’s representative. With little English he still manages to communicate to me who he is and where we are going. I jump in the jeep and we leave the modern looking town quickly enough, making our way along the windy and sometimes precarious road towards the Montenegrin border.
The rafting camp, set down from the heights of the Tara Canyon in a flat plain by the banks of the Drina, is impressive in its layout. Little houses for sleeping guests are dotted around the perimeter of the camp, with shower facilities, rafting gear and overland vehicles at the ready. I sit with the others from my group in a bar restaurant by the river’s edge. I dry my hair off after the few hours water rafting. It took four of us two hours of manoeuvring rapids from the Montenegrin border back to base camp towards Foca; and it was nothing short of exhilarating. The mood is positive and kinetic as lunch is served; a large selection of soup, vegetables and grilled meats. Excitement from the experience has generated a buzz with the adrenaline flowing strong. The day begins to warm up and the panorama surrounding us reveals an outdoor enthusiasts dream. Rising forests and valleys, nature and the spirit of free exploration – the green mountainous expanse has beauty beyond what I initially expected. Despite taking it all in and enjoying the here and now, I’m a bit sad to be leaving for Montenegro shortly.
This is where the journey takes on a dreamy, slightly panicked yet almost cinematic quality. Never knowing when it’s going to end and with an unimaginable amount of footwork along an unfamiliar, winding, dusty uber-hot country road. Like one long hot session in a sauna. The Tara Canyon — I was slap bang in the middle of it now. The second biggest canyon in the world. Feeling a bit lost and very unsure of what lay ahead; I keep moving on. The boss man from the rafting club had quantified what lay ahead quiet well '17 km along the road into Foca....all the best', and at the time I was grand with that, to a certain degree. It didn’t seem so far or unmanageable to cover in a few hours by foot. But now I felt slightly out of my depth. The road is elevated high along the south bank of the canyon. The view to my right hand side as I walk towards Foca is simply breathtaking, and I can see the Drina river below wind its way on towards the Montenegrin border behind me. The sun had beat down on me unmercifully for the last three hours of the trek. Two cars passed me during that time, but no lift to Foca. I promised myself next time I better bring my sun screen. I can feel my pale complexion take a bit of a reddening this afternoon. My neck is feeling scorched and I didn’t even have the common sense to bring a hat with me either. I feel like a bit of a loser now. I have 15 euro in my still river-wet wallet. It was now hitting 5.30pm and I wanted...needed...to keep to the schedule I had pinned down for myself. I needed to get to Foca, get on the bus and be in Podgorica, Montenegro by nightfall. Although that plan was starting to look highly unlikely at this hour.
The dust on the road erupts as a car skids past in the direction of Foca. I see faces through the back window checking me out curiously. 'Who the hell is that?!’ I imagine them saying. I'm unlikely to meet any other tourists or wanderers I figure. Passing some farm houses, residents look out at me, curious and slightly surprised. Wanderers are few and far between I gather.
I come along a straight stretch of road and estimate I must definitely have gone over the 10 km mark at this stage. I figure I’ll make it at some stage but I’m getting seriously hungry and ache all over. The right hand side of the road begins to open up to a cleared plot of land containing a small caravan and what looks to me like Bee hive boxes scattered around the front leading to the road. A gentleman sits back in a picnic chair in the middle of his bee kingdom looking out as I pass. He gives me a huge wave and a cheerful shout and continues to stare out over the canyon from he’s perch. The honeyman. He looks like the happiest guy along this road right now, selling his honey to passer-bys and taking in the scope of the canyon from he’s picnic chair. I wave back, my arm stiff from the heat and the rucksack.
No not good, not good. I’m losing faith in myself fast as the sun begins to dip and time pushes on towards 8.30pm. Where is the town!? I’ve been walking forever and I’m out of water the last two hours. I see headlights in the distance coming against me so I keep in along the verge, half paranoid I could fall over into the field on my right which seems to take a near vertical slant towards the river below. The vehicle turns out to be a van, and well well, what do you know, the van turns out to be Militia! That’s the police around these parts. The van slows up and stops, windows rolled down. Two young guys in the front and two young guys in the back. They are all in their mid-twenties at a guess and all peer out at me with delight as the driver shouts ‘passport’. This is something they don’t see too often, a lobster coloured Irish guy at dusk on their typically quiet patrol route. I pass the young policeman my passport. While he checks out my details I spot an open can of beer in the front and another one in the back. Super. They ask me where am I coming from and going to. I nervously explain my rafting affair and the long walk afterwards towards Foca. They all start laughing and he flicks the passport back at me, revs the engine and gets in gear to drive off. I get a loud ‘bye bye!’ from one of the backseat passengers as they leave me for dust. Time to get off the road before they come back more drunk than they are already. I’m a bit shaky and begin to consider stopping at some house to ask for a place to crash. No I can’t do that, how can I!? But timing is with me this time. I see a restaurant ahead on the right. A picture of a cow on bright sign? It has to be food. I cross towards the building and see lights with cars parked outside. I wander in glad to be getting off the road and away from any more cop encounters. I immediately encounter a lady at the restaurant door, she looks like the owner so I ask for a room for the night. ‘Of course, yes we have! And do you want something to eat also’ replies the woman. Music to my ears.
Foca’s main street is busy this Saturday morning with everyday locals going about their business. I get some furtive looks. I’m thinking it’s the backpack, shiny new and bright yellow; my favourite colour. Stranger alert is closer to the mark I'd imagine. I notice a shop window adorned with orthodox icons. Icons have always intrigued me and Orthodoxy I find glows with historical resonance. What surprises me more is the presence of a second shop just up a few doors selling... more icons! On the same street....over-kill? Maybe not in this town. I remember the graffiti I passed this morning as I walked the short distance from the motel. It was on the crumbling gable of an empty roadside house just on the edge of town, slogans for Milosovic and Mladic accompanied by a roughly drawn orthodox cross. I remember back to yesterday, when the young skipper on the raft removing his wetsuit to reveal a heavy crucifix around he's neck. He had the largest cross I've seen anyone carry since Jesus struggled along Mount Calvary. The reality of how important religious identity is in this region begins to hit home hard.
I walk on in search of a cafe to get out of the sun. A local guy coming against me sports the Serbian colours on his soccer top with 'Srebje' printed across the chest. 'Srebje', 'Place of the Serbs', was what the locals renamed Foca after the war ended with the expulsion of the Muslim population. The name was later revoked in 1995 and Foca was reinstated. I presume this was to prevent any more unwanted outsider attention and provocation, not to mention to abide by the initiatives, courted by the International community, encouraging the return of refugees in exile. At a guess this guy looked like he would have only been a kid, barely hitting double digits, when the war ravaged this part of Bosnia. If anything it signified that notions of nationalism and the sense of being in 'Greater Serbia' were alive and well in Republica Srpska. No one seemed to bat an eyelid, so I check myself, stop my gawking and carry on. I eventually find a cafe near the river with shaded outdoor seating. Off the main street, with what looks like food and drinks on offer, and not to mention a perfect people-watching vantage point. I take my seat. My bus to Montenegro leaves in one hour.
Reading up on Foca beforehand proved grim and frankly, unsettling. The inhuman atrocities that overtook the town in the early-nineties played on my mind. I tried to fathom how just fifteen to twenty years previous, this town was mixed Orthodox Serb and Bosnian Muslim. Fifty-fifty at an estimate, but now is 98% Orthodox. The majority of Muslims were all kicked out under extreme systematic force involving the use of rape, expulsion and murder. Local media manipulation (essentially propaganda) proved a key factor in turning neighbour murderous upon neighbour. The local sports centre, hotel and police station were converted into rape camps where sex slavery and a campaign of genocide was orchestrated. While holding images of stunning cliffs and the green waters of the Tara Canyon, I was also aware of the dark past of Foca and the Republica Srpska. The town hotel, just down from where I was enjoying my coffee, had been reopened after the war, with all previous history denied by the current proprietor. Foca and its outlying area is where war-criminal Radavan Karadizc hid out in the loyal company of Serbian locals. It is a region of deep gorges, wide canyons and large lush forests, sometimes referred to as ‘where the wolves go to fuck' by non-Serbs. Intimidating description, I know. The place presented a prime modern day example of where ethnic cleansing had been a success. Curbing over analysis, events seemed deeply buried in the past. People carried on around me with their lives today.
The town and its people are living in the today, naturally trying to live life as normal and best they can. There are bills to pay, jobs to go to, kids to clothe, loved ones to take care of, ice cream to eat; this is the reality. But the remnants of its past are frozen for the outside world via media, books, and by the victims who fled for their lives; no matter how some sectors of Foca’s society want to bury things. This is the other reality, of a people who lived, worked and loved but were forced to flee. No reconciliation has taken place despite the Mayor of Foca doing his best, along with members of the small Muslim community residing here today. Some are afraid to move back here and others are not wanted back. It’s a complex story of pain for all communities, still being continued and played out in a little corner of Southern Europe today.