Category Archives: Bosnia Herzegovina

Wednesday, September 1, 2010 – Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina

Driving to Sarajevo was a beautiful drive through rocky mountains with lots of greenery and a turquoise green river running through the valleys. As we got closer to Sarajevo the temperature cooled down and the roofs of the houses were no longer stone but an orange coloured tile. We also started noticing farm animals such as sheep and cows. The tails on the sheep were so long they touched the ground!  We bop our sheep’s tails, at least I think we do because I can’t remember ever seeing a sheep’s tail being so long.  The closer we got to Sarajevo the more mountainous and hilly with fertile valleys in between.

Many of the houses we passed had balconies with no railings, just a flat deck with laundry hanging out or the odd flower pot. We couldn’t help commenting that we could not get away with that in Canada with all of our rules. We also noticed many grave sites from the recent wars (1991 – 1995). Until you actually come to the Balkans you really can’t begin to understand the damage to property and human life that has occurred over here.

There are approximately 600,000 people living in Sarajevo today. Sarajevo is a city of multi-cultures with Roman Catholic Churches, Islam Mosques, Eastern Orthodox and Jewish Synagogs.  It has been this way (multi-cultured) since the 16th Century.  Sarajevo is the micro version of all the Balkan Countries which were previously Yugoslavia. Again “generally” all the Roman Catholics are Croatian, Muslims are Bosnian and Orthodox are Serbs. The Jewish population is very minor. AND since the break up of Yugoslavia there are six separate countries or maybe seven if you count Kosovo the last one to declare it’s independence, but that depends on who you talk to. 

Slovenia who are mainly Roman Catholic, got it’s independence in 1991 by way of a referendum vote. Yugoslavia did not like this and bombed them for 10 days. Ljubljana the capital, was bombed four times with 3 or 4 bombs each time.  We saw evidence where houses were shelled and grave sites where people were killed but compared to the other countries Slovenia’s independence was easier.  At least that is my understanding.

Croatia is mainly Roman Catholic and mostly Croats live there.  Of course there are some Serbs and other minorities but not many. In 1992 Croatia was also attacked by the ex-Yugoslavia (Serbs) because they also voted for their independence.  There was lots of damage done by the Serbs with the Montenegro’s in Croatia. 

Bosnia & Herzegovina was the most damaged area by ex-Yugoslavia, the Serbs, who devastated Mostar and Sarajevo from 1992 until 1995.  The surprising thing here is that almost one half of Bosnia is Serbian. The Croats and Bosnians make up 51% and the Serbs make up 49%. For 100’s of years these three cultures got along. It is my understanding, that the Serbs of Bosnia joined up with The Serbs of Serbia who were the ex-Yugoslavia’s army to fight the Muslims and the Croats.  The capital of Yugoslavia was Belgrade in Serbia and the army was in Belgrade, Yugoslavia which was now the Serbian army. The war lasted 3 1/2 years  end of 1991 – 1995. Very confusing because the Serbians wanted to take the Serbian section of Bosnia and so the Muslins and Croats joined together to fight the Serbs.  Then the Croats thought if the Serbs are going to take the Serbian part of Bosnia then they should have the Herzegovina section as part of Croatia. So the Bosnians and the Croatians then fought with each other. Everybody was fighting each other and a lot of damage was done to the homes, buildings and also the relationships between the three different cultures who previously had all gotten along together. 

The other countries I will discuss later, right now we were in Bosnia & Herzegovina, specifically the capital city “Sarajevo”.

Sarajevo was built in three parts.  The first part was built in the 16th Century by the Ottomans. The second part of the city was built by the Austrian/Hungarians in the 19th Century and the last part of the city was built by the Communists after WW II. We started off on our tour by walking through the Turkish section built during the 16th Century.  Many of the old Turkish buildings were destroyed during the Communist Era which is too bad.  But many little shops were still there in the market and we managed to shop a little. There are 204 Mosques in Sarajevo!! Next we walked to the exact spot where the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferndinand and his wife Sophia were assassinated. This act was the start of WW I. A young Serb assassinated them with one bullet. The bridge going over the river at this spot is named after the Serbian boy who assassinated the Archduke. Many people think of this boy as a hero because they did not like being under the Austrian/Hungarian Rule.

There are many graveyards at the top of streets going up the mountain.  These are from the 16th Century during the Ottoman Era. The Turks made a rule that every big street should have a graveyard at the top of it. Why? Because they believed in life after death and when people saw the graveyard it reminded them of life after death. The leaders believed this would make the people behave themselves during this life.  Houses built during the 16th Century went up the sides of the mountain and they looked down on the city.  There was a rule that a house could not be built if it blocked their neighbours view.  So all the houses are staggered so the view is not blocked. They also believed that the living area should be separate from the trading area.  So the markets are in the city and the houses were on the hills. There used to be 1,200 little shops in the market.  Each craft had it’s own street.  There was gold street, leather street etc. Today it is much smaller as many shops were closed during the Communist Era; however, it was still lots of fun. There are many  coffee houses and restaurants in the market. The coffee is very strong, Turkish coffee.  We toured down Copper Street, which is still the same way as it was in the 16th Century. Everything is made from hand and the craft is passed down from father to son.

One large building had shops and restaurants on the bottom and rooms on the top floor.  This was a free hotel for travelers during the Ottoman period.  A traveler could stay at these spots for three days for free.  Horses were kept on the bottom and they slept in the rooms upstairs. They would eat and sleep for free for three days! (Reminds me of Vegas they fly people in to for free so they will gamble).  Sarajevo was a trading spot and many travelers came here to trade.  This hotel was sponsored by the rich Muslim families. Another free building in Sarajevo was washroom facility, the public toilets were built in 1500’s (holes in the floor) and open to everyone. Next we visited the largest active Mosque in Europe built during the 16th Century. There is a very interesting clock tower where the clock keeps time by the sun.  At dusk it reads 12:00! Not really sure how useful this is but it was interesting.

There was an Orthodox Church built in Sarajevo during the Ottoman period.  The Turks gave a piece of leather to the Christians and said they could build their church as big as the leather piece.  So the Christians cut the leather into one thin strip and used the string of leather to set the size of the church.  Then the Turks said the Church could only be so high so the Christians made the Church higher by digging the foundation down into the ground.  They then made a small door so when a person enters into the Church you have to bow down.  When the Turkish leader came to check out the Church he refused to duck down saying he only bows to Allah so he left without entering the Church. That was a good thing because the Turks never found out how big and high the Orthodox Church was on the inside. 

There is a huge white fortress on the top of one of the mountains looking down on Sarajevo.  They call it the white fortress because it was made with white stone and egg whites were used in the grouting which holds the stones together. This fortress was the military base built during the 19th Century by the Austrian/Hungarians.  It also held the Yugoslavian army. Today the fortress is empty but our guide has heard rumors that a hotel is going in there. The city hall of Sarajevo was built by the Austrian/Hungarians during the 19th Century but in the Turkish style.  The architect went to Morocco to study their architecture.  He worked very hard on the building and when the outside of the building was finished he went inside and discovered that is was very dark and gloomy because the windows did not let in enough light.  He was so depressed that he killed himself.  The city had to hire another architect to finish the building.  The new architect fixed the lighting problem by installing a glass roof to let in the light.  This building is under reconstruction today as it was destroyed during the last war.

Sarajevo is completely surrounded by hills. During the war from 1991 – 1995 it was under a siege by  the Serbs who were in the mountains.  Most of Sarajevo was destroyed. There was no house or building in Sarajevo that did not have some damage by this war. No windows were left and it took one year to replace just the windows. The hotel we stayed at was built during the 19th Century and was completely destroyed during the recent war between Bosnia and the Serbs. The hotel has been rebuilt recently and it is important to the city because it was where all the Officials stayed during the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. In several places on the streets of Sarajevo are pieces of red clay in the pavement called the roses of death.  This indicates a spot where someone was killed in the street during the war. There are many of these roses of death embedded in the streets. 

Our guide discussed her personal experience in Sarajevo during the siege and war by the Serbs against her city.  She was 9 years old and playing outside when the sky turned red by  bombs being dropped nearby.  Her mother ran out of their house to get her and bring her down stairs into their basement.  Their house was on of the few houses on the street with a basement.  Her parents started sealing up the windows with sand bags.  And the neighbours started coming over to their house to take cover in the basement as well.  She said she remembers feeling excited like there was a party with all their friends coming to their house.  But then it wasn’t so good because there were 40 people in their basement and they stayed there for four years, in just 3 rooms!  She said one room was half full of black coal which they had used for heating the house and all the children had to sleep in the coal room which was dirty and full of coal dust.  Electricity was cut off. Food and water was dangerous to get.  People moved around at night.  They ate old bread and had to queue up for water and they collected rain water. One of her neighbours staying in their basement let her two boys outside to go get water and they were both killed by a bomb.

She said at first everyone thought the war would be over any day, but it kept going on.  So eventually they started a school for the children in another basement. The children would run from basement to basement to get to school.  One day a bomb went off near the school and the teacher immediately dove under his desk and then called the children to come and join him under the desk.  The children thought this was very funny. Sometimes they would come to school and there would be a red rose on the desk of her friend because they did not make it that day. But they kept going because what else could you do? She went outside one day  to get some fresh air and a bullet just missed her and hit the building right beside where she was standing. She was really scared and ran back into the house. Then it happened a second time and then she got sick and could no longer walk.  She would stand up and her legs would give out and not be able to support her.  Her parents took her to a hospital and a doctor who said she needed an operation or she would die.  So they managed to smuggle her out of Sarajevo through an underground tunnel and she went to live with an aunt who was in Turkey.  The aunt took her to a Turkish doctor who said there was nothing wrong with her except stress. That she needed rest. So her aunt kept her in Turkey until the end of the war.  This beautiful young lady in now fine and walks with a slight limp.

Russ asked our guide how the Bosnian people feel about the United Nations.  She said at best they were disappointed with the “non-actions” of the UN during the war. They feel bitter that the UN did not do anything to help them during the war. Especially since the Serbs had all the weapons as they were the Yugoslavian Army and all the others did not have weapons.  They had to purchase their weapons on the black market and from other countries to defend themselves. After all they were not the attackers!!  Plus they feel that the UN was pro Serbian. 

One of the buildings we viewed has the law offices, the court and the prison.  The big joke is that a person can spend his whole life there starting off as a lawyer, then working up to a judge then getting corrupted and eventually going to prison. Today unemployment is very high due to all of the damage and all the money spent rebuilding. Our guide says it is between 40 – 60% unemployment. Average pension is 150 dollars per month. Young people do not buy houses here. Young people do not move out they stay with their parents until they get married and many live with the husband’s family. Many people work on the black market so they have no benefits.

Another spot we visited was the tunnel of Sarajevo.  This was the same tunnel that our guide used to sneak out of Sarajevo during the war when she was sick.  The tunnel was dug in 1993 under the airport to an area outside the city, called the free area. The amazing thing was that the tunnel was started at each end and miraculously met together in the middle.  It took 4 months to build and was 800 meters long and 5 meters deep. Food was brought into the city, as well as weapons, medicines and fuel.  Sick and old people plus soldiers were smuggled out of the city.  I was really moved by the bravery of these people.  One family gave up their house so the tunnel could be dug under their cellar.  The mother would stand at the entrance and give out precious water to the sick people who were carried out of the tunnel.  All these people risked their lives to help others.  It was amazing to see this!! Today this house is a museum with photos and a film on the use of the tunnel during the war. Of course the Serb snipers found out about the tunnel and would shoot people entering and exiting the tunnel.  So trenches were built for people to run along and avoid the bullets when exiting the tunnel.  Many people died but this tunnel actually saved the city of Sarajevo.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010 – Mostar to Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina

Tuesday, August 31st, we met our guide for a tour of Mostar’s city center. We stopped outside of the Franciscan Monastery which was destroyed during the war with the Serbs. It was partially reconstructed but they ran out of money to complete the restoration.  

What we soon found out in Mostar was the horror of the war between Bosnia and The Serbs during 1992 to 1995. From the Bosnian point of view, The Serbs attacked Bosnia during this period and it resulted in the deaths of over 200,000 people, more than half a million were wounded and more than one million refugees fled the country. 28,000 people are still missing. Among the cities, towns and settlements destroyed during that period, the city of Mostar had the most terrible fate. 70% of Mostar sustained heavy damage. A total of 2,357 buildings were demolished. Factories were also destroyed during this war, food production plants (including wine production), an aluminum plant, the “Soko” aircraft plant, cotton and tobacco plants were all destroyed. The hydro-electric power plants dam and telecommunication structures were also destroyed. Needless to say the economy is not good at the moment as there are very  few jobs. The damage to Mostar is estimated to be $400 million US!! No wonder this city looked sketchy as we drove to our hotel last night. We found out later in the day what a beautiful city this really is and no one wanted to leave.

Money from all around the world has been donated to Bosnian cities to help restore what was damaged during the war of the early 1990’s. The Croatian government donated money to Mostar to rebuild it’s Roman Catholic Church. There is a tower in the city which is 172 meters high. And the old town looks just like it use to with cobbled streets and the old stone buildings. The Herzegovina section of this area is in the south and the city of Mostar is the unofficial capital of Herzegovina. The Neretva River runs through the centre of Mostar and 7 bridges connect the two sides of the city together. The Old Bridge (Stari Most) in Mostar’s City Centre is the highest and most important bridge in Mostar.  It was first constructed in the 16th Century from limestone found in the area. It is 29 meters long, 4 meters wide and 20 meters high. The Muslim bazaars were formed on both sides of this bridge. The bridge is a single arch over the blue/green river with two towers, one on each side. The towers are flat on the side facing the bridge and round on the other half (Semi-circles). The guards in the towers were called Mostari’s and that is how the city of Mostar got it’s name. If the two towers were put together they would be one round shape. Pieces of stone were put together by using iron clamps through the stone and pouring lead inside the holes to sealed the clamp shut. It was a beautiful bridge and many artists have painted this famous bridge. The men of Mostar have a custom of diving off the highest point of the bridge (20 meters high) to prove their strength and bravery.  This custom is still done today (for a small fee). 

The Old Bridge was destroyed on November 9, 1993 and it’s destruction symbolized the war tragedy of Bosnia. It’s reconstruction became a symbol of the restoration of the Bosnian multi-ethic society. In collaboration with organizations and countries from around the world, the Old Bridge was reconstructed using the same techniques of building as the original bridge was built and using many of the original stones.  Work began in 1998 and the bridge was completed in July 2004! This Bridge of Mostar is now known as the “The Old Bridge in Mostar-Monument of Peace”! It represents a symbol of the connection of people from different religions and nationalities. Since the reconstruction tensions are decreasing between these people (at least the younger people).

Originally Mostar was settled in 1452 and it was in the crossroads between the east and the west for people traveling by land. The first people to arrive were the Turkish people and they stayed here for 400 years. During that time many mosques, Turkish baths and Turkish homes were built in the city. Many of the Turkish influences are still here today with their customs, food, etc. In 1878 the Austrian/Hungarians occupied the area. They brought with them a modern world with new architecture, schools, universities and electricity. After WWI Bosnia became part of Yugoslavia (Southern Slavs) and in the 1940’s Tito was the dictator of Yugoslavia.  Our guide liked Tito’s era and said every thing was functioning well under Tito’s leadership. But my understanding that life under Tito’s leadership was restricted as they could not mention their religion as religion was discouraged. They were not Bosnian or Croatian or Serbian they were Yugoslavian.  So their freedom of speech was strangled but the people had jobs and could support their families. Tito died in 1980 and then everything started to fall apart. In 1992 a war started when the Serbs attacked Bosnia & Herzegovina because the Croats and Bosnians wanted independence and the Serbs did not.  Serbia (ex-Yugoslavia) helped the Serbs of Bosnia fight the Muslims and Roman Catholics. Today, the West part of Mostar is the modern area of the city where new buildings are being built like a convention centre and it is the future of Mostar.

The aluminum plant is now operating but previously 9,000 people were employed and today 600 people are employed. Before the war the three cultures lived happily together.  They were all part of Yugoslavia and many marriages were between a Muslim and Catholic or an Orthodox and Catholic.  But today because of the recent war there is tension between the different cultures and many of these marriages broke up. The younger people are now mixing but parents and grandparents have trouble with the mixing of the cultures especially with the Serbs.

The temperature of Mostar is mediterranean with very hot summers and cool winters.  Snow is very rare and the temperature usually never goes below 10 degrees C. Roofs on the houses are made of stone because the stone helps to keep the house cool during the hot summers.  The streets are paved with round stones. It is said that the reason for the roundness was because the women have to look down to walk so they would not trip on the rounded stones in their high heels and this was good because they could not make eye contact with the men which was seen as disrespectful or sinful by the Turkish men. Any homeowner that had these round stones in front of their houses meant they were rich. 

Our guide discussed her experience during the war.  She was 6 years old and remembers a school being started in a shelter with no light and there was very little food in the city. Their house was bombed and damaged but they survived. Her father left every day to go fight and she lost a cousin but she said her family was lucky. People walked around the city during the night because during the day they could get shot by a sniper in the hills surrounding the city. Food was dropped from airplanes and trucks distributed food to the people.  Also food was sold on the black market. Many people would pick grass to supplement their food for survival. It appeared to us that the Croatians and Bosnians get along but they both had difficulty forgetting and forgiving what the Serbians did to them. However, the more people you ask about the reason for the war, the more different stories you hear. It was a very complicated war and the reasons vary depending on which culture you belonged to.

Another interesting place we had the privilege to visit was a Turkish home.  The kitchen was a separate building from the main house, in case of a fire.  Opposite the kitchen was another building for the toilet which previously was just a hole in the ground.

The house was built just off the main street to give security to the family and their whole yard was surrounded by high walls.  The walls gave the courtyard shade during the hot summers and protected the homeowners from the wind.  They would sit out in the courtyard and drink coffee with their friends. The last and most important reason for the high walls was to protect the women from any men’s view. 

The second floor and the inside of the home was made of intricate carved wood. The family lived in the upper floor. The Turkish men had several wives and that was allowed as long as he treated them all equally. The woman did not leave their home very often so they would weave carpets on big looms to keep busy.

There was a Turkish custom of drinking coffee and there was usually a pot of coffee on a large pot with hot embers in the bottom. There was also another pot of coffee on top of another pot which was cold.  When visitors come they were always offered coffee. If a visitor received a cup of cold coffee that was a signal that he was not welcome and he was to drink the coffee quickly and leave.  If the coffee was hot the visitor was welcomed to stay for as long as he wanted.

We were also shown the clothes that were worn.  Large baggy pants, long sleeved shirts and women needed scarfs over their head if they went outside.  Actually the pants are coming back in style for the women but not quite as baggy. Men wore felt hats with a thread of fringe hanging down the side from the top (like the Mason’s hats).  Married men wore the fringe down the left side of the hat but when they saw a pretty woman they flipped the fringe to the right side of the hat to pretend they were single. (Ladies they never change).

Unfortunately we had to leave Mostar today and our beautiful hotel with singing birds in cages around the grounds, beautiful flowers and very friendly staff. This is definitely a place to return to. Off to Sarajevo!!

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