Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Tito's Little Balls

After an auspicious introduction to Bosnia in Bihac and Banja Luka, we made our way to Jajce, a beautiful town perched on the edge of a thunderous waterfall. The old town is dominated by a hulking fortress crowned with black crows that broods over the steeply pointed gables of the houses clustered below it.  The whole ensemble, set against a craggy backdrop of gray rock and deep green pine, is striking.

We got in Monday afternoon, and met up in the evening with Elis, yet another acquaintance from Couchsurfing.  We had a few beers at a bar called Amadeus, then headed back to his grandmother’s house.  The house was poised on the steepest slope I’d ever had to climb outside the realm of mountaineering, although that was before discovering the hills of Sarajevo—but I chronologically digress.  Regretting every item in my backpack, I finally crawled to the top.  We spent the next few hours talking, playing guitar—Elis is a musician, among other more marketable skills—and drinking.

Elis could only host us for one night, and we packed out the next morning when he left for work at 7:00.  Yawning from our late night and shivering from the biting cold, we tracked down the Jajce Youth Hostel, which turned out to be unheated during the winter months.  We crashed into sleep under mounds of blankets, our breath showing in little puffy clouds above our faces.

When we awoke the second time, we went to explore the fortress and old city walls.  We fortified ourselves with warm, flaky spinach burek before clambering up the preserved keep and watchtowers.  Jajce also has a set of catacombs, built for the last duke’s family but never used; these we descended, snooping around for hidden passages or secretly buried skeletons like we were Bosnian National Treasure.

The next day we went to a museum about the founding of Yugoslavia, established in the building where the Antifacist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia hammered out the federation in November of 1943.  The hall where the resolutions were drawn up is still filled with chairs, the walls divided into six sections for the six constituent states.  Perhaps reflecting something about former Yugoslavia today, the English translations of these exhibits were erratic, clearly done independently for each of the six presentations.  Slovenia’s English was excellent.  Bosnia’s was worded oddly, but mostly readable.  Serbia’s was painful, with inconsistent grammar and words misspelled multiple ways in the same sentence.  Montenegro couldn’t even be bothered to provide a translation. After we puzzled our way through the texts, the docent led us back to his office, where he presented us with a table laden with tchotkies-- lighters, shot glasses, calendars, pencils, prints—all of them Tito themed, the face of Josip Broz gazing up at us from every direction. There is, it would seem, a certain amount of nostalgia for the halcyon days of employment in Tito’s Yugoslavia.

Thursday we finally made it to Sarajevo. 

The city has been cloaked in fog since we arrived, a constant low cloud hanging over the skyline and obscuring the view of distant skyscrapers and the urban sprawl that spills up the hills.  Sarajevo is in a natural bowl of mountains, which is what made the 3-year siege during the Bosnian War so deadly; of milder consequence, this topography encourages smog and cloud to settle during the colder months.  Apparently Sarajevo is known for the fog, which I find easy to believe.  It’s been pervasive.  In theory, a city in fog sounds romantic; in practice, it’s kind of like someone draped a wet blanket over everything.

We are staying in Haris Hostel, a lovely hostel unfortunately located at the top of the actual steepest (or at least longest) hill I’ve ever had to climb. On the bright side, there’s a great view of the fog, and our thighs are slowly transforming to steel.

My tenuous grasp of the history and politics of the region (pre-travel research in rural Africa was a difficult proposition) is getting a little better.  I have been learning quite a bit in the last week here, and have realized in so doing that I have been asking a lot of dumb questions (Igor and Maja, as the primary recipients, I apologize).  I’m hoping what I’m gathering through conversations and readings will help me at least better know what questions to ask.

We started our self-education by delving into First World War history.  We went to Latinska cuprija, the Latin Bridge, where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and the war declenched; obviously, at such an important site, we had no choice but to reenact the events.

I got to be Gavrilo Princip.
We followed this with a visit to the Muzej Sarajevo 1878-1918, a small museum with a surprisingly thorough set of presentations.  It mostly dealt with Bosnia in the Ottoman Empire, the brief transition to Austro-Hungarian hegemony, and, of course, the assassination.

We spent a few nights out with people we met at the hostel.  We quickly made friends with Hrvoje, a Croatian journalist and writer with the most Croatian name I’ve ever heard.  He’s impressively well-travelled, and has a thoughtful and nuanced grasp of history and politics.  Will and I found it a relief to talk about Cameroon with someone who’s spent significant time in Africa (albeit East Africa) and understood the culture and mindset we had been confronting.  It’s been difficult at times to know how deep to delve, particularly when most hostel conversations follow an unchanging script (“Are you going to Belgrade next? We were just there, stay at this place and definitely make sure you go out here”, etc).  It was nice to have meandering conversations about everything from international politics to poetry with such an interesting interlocutor.

Last night we met up with another Croatian we’ve gotten to know at Kino Bosna, an old cinema converted into a traditional music venue.  The screen has been removed, as well as about half the seats; the remaining theatre rows supplement tables and seating on the stage and floor.  A group of four musicians and singers circulated the space, setting up somewhere new every few songs and playing music the Bosnians in the crowd seemed to know.  The drunker they got, the more they evinced a proclivity to stand, throw arms around each other, and sing along.

This morning Will and I went on an abbreviated city tour with Haris, the hostel’s namesake and owner.  He’s young—26—but seems older, in the way of some people I’ve met here.  It may be overly facile, but I’m attributing it to being forced to grow up quickly in a time of war.  We drove to the escape and supply tunnel that burrowed from besieged Sarajevo under the UN-controlled airport into free, unoccupied Bosnia.  Haris rattled off his presentation (used for 3000 clandestine passages a day; 3 meters underground; 1 meter wide; 11,000 dead from the siege) in the manner of one who has long ago committed to memory, if not soul, the information he presents several times a week in the course of his job.  He got more personal when he spoke of his own experience crossing through the tunnel at the age of seven with his parents.  They trekked for three days to reach Croatia, where they bought supplies and walked back, laden with packs doubled front and back.  Once in the city, the deadly race to avoid grenades and snipers posted in the surrounding mountains began.

In the section of the tunnel that's been preserved.
Having lived one of Bosnia’s darkest and most harrowing moments, Haris understandably had bitter things to say both about the Serbian attack and about the UN—why did they wait so long to send airstrikes against the Serbs?  Why did they not let Bosnians cross the airfields to get to safety and supplies?  It seemed in his estimation that the UN in its inaction was all but complicit in the siege, sitting on its hands at the cost of thousands of lives.

We drove from the tunnel up one of the Olympic mountains—Sarajevo’s golden moment, before the siege, was hosting the Olympics in 1984—to the now disused bobsled run, repurposed during the war as a Serbian bunker and sniping vantage point.  It’s abandoned now, other than as a venue for graffiti; it cannot be put to use until the surrounding forest is cleared of surviving landmines. It began to snow lightly as we drove further up the mountain; Will and I, having been deprived of snow for nearly three years, were like Texan children on a snow day, giddily climbing into the bobsled track and exclaiming over the bare dusting of snow while Haris, accustomed to Bosnian winters, tried not to laugh at us.

I do want to end with a disclaimer: I wanted to educate myself about the war and the siege, so I made a point of spending my time at museums and sites related to the subject.  However, Sarajevo is more than the war.  It’s past that.  Yes, there are still buildings pockmarked with bullet holes, and occasionally a building that was destroyed, partially torn down, and left for lack of financing—but most of the city has been beautifully rebuilt.  There are nice cafes, great bars, a beautiful river, abundant cheap street food, active nightlife, and a bustling old town.   Lest I leave anyone with an outdated impression of Sarajevo as a wartorn and violent place, it’s not.  There is high unemployment, but surprisingly low crime.  People have been extremely friendly to us, here as elsewhere in the Balkans.  I’ve enjoyed spending a week here, and will be a little regretful to move on to Serbia tomorrow.

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