How to describe the situation in Bosnia? There are three distinct cultures, all identified with a particular religion but with almost exactly the same language and on sight, physically the people are indistinguishable. Within the country of Bosnia & Herzegovina there are two states, the Federation of Bosnia & Herzegovina, consisting of: in the west Croatian Catholic communities and in the centre Bosnian Muslims with smatterings of Orthodox Serbs in the east; and Republica Srpska, a relic of the Dayton Peace agreements, which covers vast tracts of the east and north, and populated by Serbs.
The peace, to say the least, is an uneasy one. Some villages are Muslim, others are Orthodox, some are Croatian and others are mixed. War memories still remain vivid and forgetting, let alone forgiving, is not an easy process. While hitchhiking we have had the chance to meet people from all these different groups and perhaps two experiences might help to illustrate the problems that remain in this fractured state.
While attempting the tortuous hitchhike from Croatia to the unofficial Republica Srpska capital of Banja Luka we were picked up by a Muslim man who spoke some French and German which made basic communication possible. He was keen to impart his knowledge about the war in the local area and after inviting us for a coffee, he suggested a tour to the wartime concentration camp of Trnopolje, located a mere 5 km from the road on which we were travelling. The Trnopolje camp was prominent in war footage during the Yugoslav wars after British journalists discovered the camp’s existence and broadcasted images of it around the world. Our driver described how 20,000 people (mostly Muslims) were marched down the road surrounding by burning buildings to a ‘transit camp’ established by Bosnian Serbs, a terrifying image all the more shocking given the fact it was only 20 years ago. The numbers he gave us were at best an exaggeration but this only serves to highlight the misinformation that exists around the war and the way that figures are used to back-up one side’s perspective.
On the sight of the now dismantled camp stands a monument to the Bosnian Serbs war dead. A disgraceful and provocative attempt to rewrite history and one that serves only to widen the deep division in this already fractured land. He also took us to a local cemetery, an emotive and very physical reminder of those who lost their lives in the madness.
When we arrived in Banja Luka we made contact with our couchsurfing hosts Sasha & Branko and after cooking them my cheeky signature dish (rice towers with fried chicken, peppers and other vegetables, in case you are interested) we headed out to drink some beer and chew the fat. The atmosphere in the city was noticeably different to our previous experience in Croatia & the rest of Bosnia. Serbian flags flew proudly from official buildings, more of the writing was in the Crylic script and the accent was slightly different even to my untrained ear.
A few drinks, a shot of Rakija and the tongues were loose enough to turn to the subject of politics. Our hosts’ views on the war period were markedly different and whilst accepting that some atrocities were committed by the Bosnian Serbs, they instead focused on what they believed were the aggressions perpetrated by the Bosniaks and Croatians against them. They disputed the numbers, giving figures far below the U.N estimates. I also found interesting that despite being born and raised within the borders of Bosnia if they met foreigners that introduced themselves as being Serbian not Bosnian.
Like in all the ethnically divided places we have visited in the world, all the different groups were so much more similar to each other than they would ever give credit. Nice people exist in every culture and only silly prejudices stop them treating each other like the brothers they really are.
written by: Jon
Follow our 2 month hitch-hiking trip across the north of Italy and the Balkan Peninsula:‘The Balkan Peninsula by Thumb 2013′. It’s happening now!
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