My recent trip to Bosnia was one that will be etched in my memory for a very long time.
Normally, when I travel somewhere new, I like to read up on where I’m going and get to know the place before I arrive, and perhaps consider what I’d like to see and do.
This trip was different, however. I was so busy in the run up that I had little choice other than to throw a few things into my suitcase the night before our flight. I didn’t even know what time our flight was, nor from which airport, until the morning we left home!
Flying from London Gatwick, we arrived in Croatia after a short flight and were met by our local driver for the week. He showed us many beautiful sites on our way from Dubrovnik to the charming city of Mostar, where we planned to stay for the first night.
These first few hours, gazing in awe at the spectacular scenery that rushed passed the window and wanting to stop at every vantage point to take photographs, were the beginning of a deeper understanding of the country of Bosnia, and one which I hope I can develop further in the future.
Our Route to Sarajevo
On the second day of our trip, we travelled to Sarajevo. Much of the journey was dominated by the Neretva River, which is wide and calm and the most beautiful emerald green you could imagine. Framed by mountains and a vast blue sky, it was hard not to stop every five minutes to take photographs.
In fact, the scenery throughout the journey was captivating and I often found myself scrambling around the car, looking from left to right to the rear window, desperately trying to absorb all the impressive views around me. There were hills dotted with stone villas, villages nestled into the rugged mountains and vistas punctuated by lofty minarets that pierced the sky, reaching up to the heavens.
Learning About Bosnia’s War-torn History
I don’t know if I had been aware or had just forgotten, but I learnt very quickly that Bosnia had been conquered by the Ottoman Empire, the remains of which – including minaret after minaret – can be seen throughout the country.
The most poignant reminders, however, were those of the Yugoslav War, during which the city of Sarajevo was besieged.
What really struck at my heartstrings was our visit to the Tunnel of Hope in Sarajevo. Dug by candlelight over a period of six months, this 800m tunnel was the only connection that the then besieged Sarajevo had with the outside world (from July 1993 until the end of the Siege in February 1996). Once completed, the tunnel enabled residents of the city to finally gain access to important food supplies, as well as pivotal things like telephone communication lines, oil, electricity and munitions.
Some 20 metres of the tunnel now harbours the Sarajevo War Tunnel Museum, which tells the story of the siege and displays relics of what has been noted in the history books as the longest-running siege of any city in modern history.
At one point, I really had to hold back the tears – it was seeing a wall of photographs of the men who had built the tunnel. I looked into their faces and read their names, feeling that they each deserved their names to be read and faces acknowledged.
It was so sad and I don’t know what pained me more: the sight of the old men who were thrown into this war at a time when they should have been enjoying their grandchildren, sipping Bosnian tea, spending time with their friends and reminiscing about the past, or hearing about the young lads who, barely out of school, were forced into a war and thrust into adulthood far too soon. Their mothers must have worried for them every single day and night that they were away, praying for their safe return.
Some of these men will still be alive and some will have died during the war. Some may still be haunted by memories of the past, others may have forever been changed by the things they were forced to see and experience. These are the faces and the graves of an innocent people who were turned upon for no reason other than their religion. These are the faces of people who were forced to fight a war they had no training for, and no weapons. Just everyday people: schoolboys, farmers, mechanics, the old and young. Ordinary, everyday people who found themselves in extraordinary circumstances.
Gaining a Local Perspective
I found it extremely valuable and insightful to learn how the Muslims of Bosnia felt about the war. It was clear from all of my conversations that they felt betrayed. Quite literally overnight, their friends, neighbours and companions became fierce enemies.
They had lived harmoniously, side by side, for centuries, even inter-marrying. But, all of a sudden, the people they trusted most, and considered more than just their fellow countrymen, turned on them.
Many still feel haunted by this stark reality today and there is a clear lack of trust. Yes, people have tried to forge new lives for themselves in their new world, but there’s a sense that they fear history could repeat itself, that there is always a sense of caution lingering in the background.
Exploring the Capital City of Sarajevo
As the capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo is such a contrast to the smaller and prettier Mostar. Initially, I wanted to return to Mostar, but am glad I gave Sarajevo more time. It is an eclectic mix of different architecture, cultures and religions, where you can see impressive Austro-Hungarian architecture and churches alongside centuries-old Ottoman mosques and minarets, as well as the more modern and austere reminders of the city’s communist-era buildings.
The Sarajevo Rose Memorials
Sarajevo (as well as Mostar) is still visibly scarred from war, another reminder of the country’s recent past. The Sarajevo Roses – memorials around the city made from mortar shell craters that have been filled with red resin – mark the spots where three or more people were killed during the war.
The first Sarajevo Rose I came across was at a site where people waiting to buy bread were killed by mortar fire. Though it is little more than a splattering of paint on the ground, it was very difficult to stand nearby and imagine those innocent people simply waiting to get their daily bread, but never making it back home.
Sarajevo’s Bascarsija (Old Town)
I absolutely loved my early morning strolls through the narrow, cobbled 15th century alleyways of the Baščaršija. You can really imagine what it must have been like centuries ago, with traders arriving in the city from afar to sell their wares.
Whether sipping tea at a cafe or strolling aimlessly, you can’t help but fall for the charms of this immensely-storied city.
Sarajevo’s Green Spaces
From the Ottoman villages built into the hills of Sarajevo to the Austro-Hungarian parks around the city, there are some delightful green spaces to explore (or ‘white’ spaces if you travel in winter, as we did, due to the heavy snowfall!).
Veliki Park is home to the famous Children of Sarajevo Monument, a glass structure which was erected in memory of the children who died in the war – the columns are etched with the names of no less than 521 children who lost their lives.
Soaking in Bosnia’s Serene Landscapes
Bosnia’s ruggedly beautiful landscape is characterised primarily by its seemingly endless mountain ranges and verdant horizons. Our driver would take us along meandering roads that seemed to stretch out forever, cutting into woods and forests. We’d assume there couldn’t possibly be anything to see other than trees and mountains but, sure enough, we’d end up discovering a magnificent waterfall roaring away in the depths of the countryside, or a traditional little village tucked away out of sight. There were also restaurants to explore, all off the beaten track and only known by those who had heard about them from a friend of a friend.
Parts of the country reminded me of Italy, with hills and lakes dotted with red-roofed villas. You can even hire a boat for the day and enjoy a scenic trip followed by a delicious Bosnian barbecue prepared by locals.
Remembering the Past While Looking to the Future
So much time has passed since the Yugoslav wars and, while Bosnia is clearly moving on from those devastating years, the past has definitely not been forgotten.
Reading articles about Bosnia, I noted that many writers seemed intent on presenting Bosnia as having progressed from that time. However, the war ended only 23 years ago and this is still far too recent for people to find pride in ‘moving on’.
We still remember those who died in World War II every year, and that was 75 years ago. Personally, I feel it would be disrespectful to forget a war when those who were affected by it, those whose families died because of it and whose country is still recovering from it, are alive and still living with the consequences of the war.
While travelling in Bosnia, it’s highly likely that you will meet Bosnians who will talk openly about their country and all it has been through. It didn’t escape me that one of the first things our driver talked to us about was the war and the impact it still has today. This was understandable and told me that the shock, pain and sense of betrayal they felt at the outset of the conflict is still very much felt today.
Equally, however, we were also regaled with positive stories of foreign visitors and the meeting of cultures and building of new friendships. We heard beautiful descriptions of the Bosnian landscape, which, of course, we also experienced first-hand. This is a country whose people are immensely proud of the beauty they are blessed to live within.
Helping Bosnia Flourish
I am strongly opposed to the concept of wealthy foreigners buying up land and buildings in less well-off countries. Quite simply, it strikes me as exploitative and it saddened me to hear of people doing this. I was, however, humbled to hear stories of visitors in the region who have actively gone out of their way to help the Bosnian community.
There were stories of people who have helped build hotels and set up activities to provide employment for the local population. I heard about an Arab businessman who helps a small cottage industry by exporting their organic oils out of the country. And there are countless other people who have paid for Bosnians to go on Umrah (pilgrimage), sometimes keeping their identity a secret so the recipient would not know who gave them this gift of a lifetime.
I also heard a story about a prince who asked to visit a village and not have his visit announced. He spent time with the villagers, drank coffee with them, ate with them, and then, generously, sent them to perform the Hajj. It amazed me to hear all these heart-warming stories and I wanted to share them with the hope that others may also feel inspired to follow in their footsteps. Not just in Bosnia, but wherever we see people in need of our kindness elsewhere in the world.
An Ethical Look at Travelling in Bosnia
When we travel, there are many ways we can help the local economy and those who are not as well off as ourselves. However, we should be careful not to exploit their situation or seek to change and alter their way of life. To help is good, but it must be done respectfully and while preserving the local people’s culture and way of life.
As ethical or responsible travellers, this can be done by simply exploring traditional dishes at locally-owned restaurants or by buying souvenirs from local craftsmen and small local stalls. We can also support the economy by buying traditional foods produced by locals (lots of Bosnians sell honey, oils, cheese and cured meats), and by leaving tips for waiting staff.
Ultimately, it’s about respecting people’s country and traditions and leaving them as we found them – without littering or harming the environment.
Most importantly of all, we can give warmth simply by smiling and offering a kind word, as the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said that even a smile is charity.
By being kind, not only will we build new friendships, but we will also help to make others feel happy and excited about the prosperity that tourism could and should bring them for many years to come.