Travel Stories

A little history/orientation


When I leave Rome it is literally a beautiful spring day, flowers and flesh appearing fresh and blooming everywhere.  I fly on Croatia Airlines, the late day local run stopping in Split, Zagreb, Sarajevo and Dubrovnik.  The turbulence on the short flight legs is dramatic, complete with the occasional sense of being in an elevator or on a roller coaster in free fall, being lifted it seems out of one's seat as the floor drops away.  People are literally whooping in fear or delight, children crying, the stewardesses apologizing for having to suspend their beverage service in Italian, Serbian, and English.  Each take off, joy ride, and landing lasting 30 – 40 minutes.

In Split everyone must get off the plane and go thru Croatian Customs to enter the country before re-boarding the same flight.  In Zagreb, less than an hour later, we again de-board to again go through Croatian Customs to exit the country.  It's like going from the independent country of New York to the independent country of California with a stop over to discharge and pick up passengers in the independent state of Texas, where everyone must exit the plane and go through Texas customs before re-boarding the same flight to go onto California. 

Besides, a sudden serious snow storm has hit Sarajevo, home of the 1984 Winter Olympics, and the plane literally skids to a stop and then waits for the plows which it follows in as it taxis to the terminal.  This evokes a memory of the only other time I landed by plane in Sarajevo, in 1964, where the airbus I flew on from Belgrade was filled to its maximum standing room capacity, a plane packed like a subway car at rush hour in NYC, where people were literally standing shoulder to shoulder, smoking, carrying burlap sacks of vegetables, a chicken or two, and where the landing was also literally one long skid, kind of like a seaplane, in a muddy cow pasture. 

Naturally there are no cabs at the Sarajevo airport at midnight, the buses have stopped running, and in case I failed to mention it, it is snowing. Hard.  But the Hertz counter is opened and the clerk has a friend who he can call who will drive me to my hotel for a special late night snowstorm rate which I gladly pay.  The most memorable part of that ride, other than the amusement park quality of the sliding and skidding, is when I am able to communicate to the driver in my very broken Serbo-Croatian and with his very marginal English that I am returning to Sarajevo for the first time in over fifty years and when the driver understands what I am saying taps my thigh warmly three of four times and says that I have come back "makes his heart happy".  Me too moj prijatelj. Me too.

By next morning I'm happily at rest in the best Airbnb I have ever been in … and not just because it costs only $168 for a week and has been stocked with beer, wine, rolls, salami, butter, apples, oranges, coffee, tea, but in addition has two rooms, four beds, an amazing view out over the old residential part of the city, 2 TVs, a washer and drier, and a nice shower.  This is not the Sarajevo I remember.  And with that I cannot resist a little socio-political history.

When I was here in '64 Bosnia was part of an artificial geo-political construct known as "Yugoslavia," a merger of Bosnia and Herzegovina with the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes first named "Yugoslavia" after World War I.  Prior to WW I Bosnia had been a feudal landless-peasant society governed and mercilessly exploited for centuries first by the Ottoman Turkish empire starting in the mid1400s and then without so much as a pause to take a free breath by the Austro-Hungarian Empire's ruthless occupiers until the 1920s when the new the new Yugoslavia was formed, feudalism abolished, landowners stripped of their lands, and significant agricultural reforms instituted.

A significant challenge to the success of this new united nation, of course, was that Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, and Bosnians had intensely different ideas about what their new society should look like, how it should be governed, and to which foreign powers it would look to and align with for economic and political assistance, and, as such, attempts to thwart ethno-nationalism failed to placate the competing interests of the parties, particularly the Croats and the Serbs.  Thus by the late 30s Croatians were seeking independent nation status and allied with the fascists in Italy and Germany while the Serbians were generally identified with and looked to side with their ethnic and religious allies in Russia.  Not good for Muslims, other Bosnians, or the 20,000 Bosnian Jews who had descended from a Jewish community in Sarajevo which had become well established after the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492 and which contributed to Sarajevo frequently being referred to as "the Jerusalem of Europe" because of its tolerance of Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and where one square in the city center famously housed a Catholic church, and Eastern Orthodox church, a mosque and a synagogue.

The Catholic Croat fascists, thus emboldened and empowered by their alliance with the invading armies of Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, and Hungry then sought to do to the Bosnian Serbs what had so "successfully" been done to the Jews.  And in this tragic context there arose two resistance movements, one the Cetniks in Serbia, a guerilla force resisting the wide spread ethnic cleansing of Serbs being carried out by the Croatian fascists, the other a communist partisan army led in Bosnia by the Stalin loyalist Josip Broz, aka Tito, who by war's end had consolidated his control over the former Yugoslav territories and instituted under his dictatorship what he saw as visionary egalitarian communism, which, of course, first required the extermination of literally hundreds of thousands of Croats, anti-communists, Muslim intellectuals, and the criminalization of the teaching of Islam and even the wearing of the veil.  

By the 1960s - the only time I was previously in Bosnia – Tito, a dictator in a land long used to the autocratic rule of kings and foreign empires, had actually become a very popular fellow, jobs were plentiful, education and health care were free, roads were being improved, factories were being built, and a pride in multi-ethnic tolerance prevailed.  All of which was deeply felt in the tiny Bosnian village of Lijesnica where I lived and about which I wrote my Master's thesis

I will later, but before returning to Lijesnica, also very briefly and inadequately refer to the absolutely tragic events that unfolded in the early 1990s when nationalist Serbian forces seeking to unite all of the former Yugoslavia under Serbian rule systematically terrorized, assassinated, raped, ethnically cleansed, and otherwise exterminated whole villages of Bosnian Muslims and laid siege to Sarajevo for over 1400 days. But that for later.  For now, I am here, happy, and eager to drink the coffee and eat cevapi.