You take the high road and I’ll take the goat track

It seemed like a very good idea at the time. No, it actu­al­ly was a very good idea and the events labo­ri­ous­ly doc­u­ment­ed here made it even bet­ter than was intend­ed.

If you’d sug­gest­ed to me on Jan­u­ary 1, 2017, that I would per­haps find myself in the Balka­ns – most par­tic­u­lar­ly in Bosnia – in mid-2017, I would have scoffed at you, or at the very least, treat­ed the sug­ges­tion with great and con­sid­ered scep­ti­cism.

And yet, here I was in the first week of June pro­pelling a VW Pas­sat towards the Croa­t­ian-Bosn­ian bor­der with both a Tom­Tom in the car and a Google map on the phone to guide me to Sara­je­vo – and as my only com­pa­ny. (We got to know each oth­er). Google was opti­mistic and showed a poten­tial­ly stun­ning route via the bor­der cross­ing at Kamen­sko and then south of the Buško Bla­to lake towards Sara­je­vo, with some alpine scenery it seemed from the ter­rain map – some 4 hours and 3 min­utes. That worked.

Brigid had a con­fer­ence at a big hotel just south of Split so I dropped her there and turned east towards the Hotel Bris­tol in Sara­je­vo. I was excit­ed. Very much so.

Split and beyond

Before I jumped onto the motor­way near Split and wound up into the mas­sive grey rocky range that dom­i­nates the Dal­ma­t­ian coast, I punched the Sara­je­vo hotel into the Tom­Tom. No luck, so I added the street. Nope. Okay, I put down­town Sara­je­vo (I had no idea how big it is but fig­ured that I could eas­i­ly Google or ask my way to the hotel) and that worked well ­– except the route offered was com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent to the one Google had prof­fered up, tra­vers­ing the rocky hills and head­ing inland near Mostar. I want­ed the lake and the north­ern hill coun­try so I asked for anoth­er option. After think­ing for a moment Tom­Tom (let’s just call him Tom) gave me anoth­er north­ern route which looked much like the one the lady from Google (we will call her Mabel) liked so I clicked go and off we went up the hill with the sol­id blue Adri­at­ic spilling out on a gor­geous ear­ly-sum­mer day behind me.

It seemed so pain­less and so it was until Tom urgent­ly told me to turn right in 500m. In 500 metres there was a road but it was blocked and clear­ly derelict. Tom then revised the time to 6 hours and thir­ty min­utes. Yikes! I had no desire to wan­der lost into an alien city in the dark, espe­cial­ly giv­en that the sea­side sky had start­ed to go shades of threat­en­ing grey as we left the coast. I stabbed the Google map with some urgency and Mabel said next right and 3 hours and 30 min­utes. Much bet­ter, so I veered right off the high­way as instruct­ed. Turn right again I was told so I did, except the road I was instruct­ed to use was more like a very nar­row lane. Pret­ty as can be, but a lane nev­er­the­less with no verge, patchy seal and vast corn filled fields on each side that looked a lit­tle like the ones in the aero­plane chase from Hitchcock’s North By North­west. I half expect­ed a pan­icked Croa­t­ian Cary Grant to run out in front of the car.

Tom made an urgent ‘turn around when you can’ noise, but I decid­ed that he had already marked up sub­stan­tial demer­it points with the non-road so Mabel had the stronger hand and I would fol­low the nar­row lane. It wound on and nar­rowed more, so I turned on the radio for com­fort. I had no idea at all where I was and the radio was now play­ing ‘Sweet Home Alaba­ma’. What’s the worse that could hap­pen I mused to myself? Tom’s screen then went kin­da shaky and the arrow point­ed right – into the fields.

Twen­ty min­utes on Mabel sparked up and told me to turn left at the inter­sec­tion, which I did, and we were back on a big­ger road, rather emp­ty but a decent enough road with prop­er signs and such. One of the signs said Kamen­sko in 20km so Mabel had come though. As I was think­ing that Tom came back to life and told me to fol­low the road. I was, thanks but no thanks, Tom. How­ev­er, two maps are bet­ter than one and I was aware that my pan-Euro­pean Keep­Go Sim card would die in Bosnia, some­thing hope­ful­ly resolved by the fact that Google (not Mabel) had told me there was a) a shop that sold Sim cards across the bor­der, and b) an ATM for Bosnia Marks as Croa­t­ian Kuna are not accept­ed in Bosnia.

The bor­der was easy. I was warned before that some­times the Bosni­ans are prob­lem­at­ic with rental cars from Croa­t­ia but I had no issues and was straight through look­ing for that phone shop and ATM. There was a long shed with signs so I stopped and went in. No shop was evi­dent, nor an ATM, instead there was a row of offices, signs in Bosn­ian, which seemed to sell road ser­vices – truck­ing, that sort of thing. One door looked more hope­ful than the rest, so pushed it ner­vous­ly open: a dozen truck dri­vers all eat­ing some­thing that looked like baked beans on toast stared back at me. I asked the girl behind the counter, “Sim card? ATM?” Closed,” she shook her head. “Gone”. Oh damn. I asked for the toi­let and she said I need­ed to buy some­thing to use it. Water? She said that was free and I need­ed to buy some­thing. I bought a Coke and had to pay with a cou­ple of Euro coins I’d brought along as hope­ful secu­ri­ty. She gave me the key to the loo. I was giv­en a free water too.

Tom had lost all his map detail but still point­ed the way. Mabel had lost her data but still had the map stored offline so off I went. We reached a junc­tion and Tom said go left and 4 hours, Mabel said go right and 2 and a half. Right we went – and the road nar­rowed almost imme­di­ate­ly, but not to wor­ry as it was still pass­able, well con­struct­ed and swung plea­sur­ably around Bosnia’s soft­ly ris­ing hills and looked like it was head­ing in the right direc­tion. Before long I found myself beside the vast Buško Bla­to, a man-made water­way cre­at­ed by Tito’s Yugoslavia for pow­er gen­er­a­tion. As I do when next the sim­i­lar lakes in New Zealand’s South Island, I won­dered some­what pes­simisti­cal­ly how many lives had been destroyed by relo­ca­tion for the greater good here. Still, it was very love­ly and stretched to the blurred far-hori­zon, omi­nous­ly now shroud­ed in grow­ing clouds. The old man on the side of the road, who looked like he’d sur­vived Tito’s trau­ma, said it was filled with Pruss­ian Pike. I have no idea what those are but they seemed to be a long way from home.

I drove on and the road grace­ful­ly moved fur­ther up into the hills. I drove some 100km at a guess and the road dis­ap­peared some­what. There was still a road but it was less dis­tinct­ly sep­a­rat­ed from the sur­round­ing fields. Even­tu­al­ly, the seal ran out, but Mabel was still sound­ing con­fi­dent so I car­ried on. Tom was just bemused by it all and his arrow moved now and then before turn­ing into a seri­ous of con­fused dots. I decid­ed he was soft and Mabel was anoint­ed by me as the nec­es­sary ora­cle. As we climbed I was increas­ing­ly wor­ried that Mabel’s mem­o­ry would expire. Cou­pled with that was the real­i­sa­tion that the bat­tery in my phone was – bru­tal­ly – fucked. It had become steadi­ly less reli­able in Croa­t­ia in recent days but now it was los­ing 1% every few min­utes. I plugged it into the wee-pow­er bank I always car­ried and that slowed the drain, it was now los­ing 1% every 5 min­utes or so. I had a spare phone but I knew the map was not going to work on that.

The upside was that there was just the one road (or some­thing aspir­ing to be a road) and I knew – or hoped – that soon­er or lat­er I’d see a sign that said ‘Sara­je­vo X km”.

Rustic Bosnia

I turned a cor­ner and there it was. Not the sign but amongst all the cows and end­less stone walls was some­thing that looked like a ser­vice cen­tre: gas sta­tion, shop, café and the rest. Sim cards and ATM machines live in places like that. I stopped and parked, then sheep­ish­ly walked in, feel­ing very much like “Mac” Mac­In­tyre from Local Hero. Ther was a short queue so I joined it. I smiled and stood until I was at the front. I think I stood out. “Do you have a Sim card?” I asked in an odd pid­gin patois. The guy with small eyes and an apron looked at me and looked like I’d arrived in a Police Box. A young girl came over and said in far bet­ter Eng­lish than my Bosn­ian, “Can I help?” I explained. There were no ATMs for a very long way I was made to under­stand. They did, how­ev­er, have a Sim card. 5 Marks and they took Visa. Yippee.

I got back in the VW hap­py that I’d achieved one of my short-term aims, and had a Sim card. I opened the pack­et and out fell a card – a very big one. Not the nano my phones need­ed, nor the ear­li­er micro-Sim, but the old style mega-Sim (which was actu­al­ly called a Mini Sim but it wasn’t at all), the sort that had been phased out the best part of a decade back in most places, just not Mandi­no Selo in Bosnia.

Gravel!

I gave up – there was no point in going back so I point­ed the car at the tar seal, grate­ful that there was some again, and head­ed onwards. The seal soon evap­o­rat­ed into dusty grav­el and the road nar­rowed even more as I head­ed high­er and high­er up a steep moun­tain­side. Soon the road was lit­tle wider than the car and I could see dis­tant snow above. The grav­el had become bumpy earth. There was hefty drop to my right with the odd obvi­ous wash-out – and a bus came around the cor­ner. We stopped and looked at each oth­er. My place was on the cliff-side but I quick­ly under­stood that he knew this road and I didn’t so I went as far to the left as I could, two wheels up the side of the slope and I hoped he’d accept that. He seemed to and he accel­er­at­ed towards me, with a cheery smile and wave. He accel­er­at­ed so heav­i­ly in fact, that he went past me down­hill at some prob­a­bly unneed­ed speed and left a hefty brown cloud of damp dust. I thought about a pho­to but that quick­ly passed as I was aware that any of this fine mulch enter­ing the car or the cam­era would be both unpleas­ant and destruc­tive. I sat and pon­dered whether Google should – in cer­tain Balkan coun­tries – offer a nav­i­ga­tion option, much as they do with toll roads, allow­ing one to avoid alpine goat tracks.

Just after the bus

It was stun­ning though, with the lush val­leys spilling out to green rivers and even green­er lakes below, and repeat­ed­ly I stopped the car just to look at it and snap a pho­to or three.

Even­tu­al­ly, the goat track wend­ed its deter­mined way onto a plateau and the seal returned. Mabel sound­ed con­fi­dent and told me I need­ed to turn left in 25km. I would, I hoped, find a bet­ter qual­i­ty path­way to the Bosnia cap­i­tal. Tom seemed to be sulk­ing. The plateau was dot­ted sparse­ly with live­stock, dis­tant farm­hous­es and a cou­ple of desert­ed vil­lages that seemed to be, if I under­stood the signs, ski resorts. There be snow here much of the year I guessed. Just no Sim cards nor ATMs.

The grav­el returned as I left the plateau but we were lev­el now and there were more lakes, some with small moored boats and the odd per­son. A tall young Bosn­ian farmer rode past me on his motor­bike – stand­ing on it – in a bright orange, very skintight jump­suit with a hel­met strapped to the top of his head cov­ered in an equal­ly orange afro. He waved, I waved back gra­cious­ly – he was like­ly won­der­ing where I had come from and I was won­der­ing much the same about him. He was, I sus­pect­ed, the only gay in the vil­lage. Five min­utes lat­er he came back in the oth­er direc­tion, still stand­ing, still wav­ing.

There were ceme­ter­ies at reg­u­lar inter­vals and it didn’t hit me until a lit­tle lat­er what these meant, beyond the nor­mal life attri­tion they usu­al­ly sig­ni­fy. A shop sold me anoth­er bot­tle of water, once again tak­ing a Euro coin (the price had halved), but they too had no Sim card and no ATM – and Mabel’s gas was down to 41% on the phone. I pushed on into the next set of hills, turn­ing left as I was told to do by Mabel. Tom seemed to have some­how worked out where I was and point­ed help­ful­ly along the road I was already using. Cheers mate.

The wind­ing road was bet­ter – much – and there were more ceme­ter­ies so I stopped to look – the graves all had death dates between 1992 and 1996. Oh. There were now mosques as well, all with white mar­ble mark­ers with the same date range. A lone cross looked sad­ly down a mist­ed val­ley and you quick­ly under­stood that the ago­nies of the nineties had entered every vil­lage and home.


Final­ly, after Mabel had firm­ly ordered a few more left and rights I found myself on a large motor­way, most­ly desert­ed, which used long tun­nels to cut through the remain­ing hills until Sarajevo’s val­ley appeared.

The Hotel Bris­tol is the not the only hotel in the city by any means but it may be the clos­est thing you’ll get to a mod­ern hotel with facil­i­ties. Sad­ly, one of those facil­i­ties is not a bar – the own­er is devout­ly Mus­lim and not one, it would appear, who lets fis­cal con­sid­er­a­tions out­weigh his beliefs – and I real­ly need­ed a post goat-track drink (and a Sim card – still – I’d found an ATM on the out­skirts) urgent­ly. So I head­ed out. Sim cards were easy and plen­ti­ful it seemed, and $5 looked like it would give me all the data I need­ed for 3 days.

I decid­ed to hunt for a bar I’d had rec­om­mend­ed – local beers and decent food. Sara­je­vo is both love­ly and quite depress­ing­ly drab depend­ing on which way you turn at an inter­sec­tion. It can be both at the same time too. You wan­der a street sur­round­ed by form­less grey func­tion­al blocks with banks, shut­tered trav­el agen­cies and large appli­ance marts then a cute 1950s era tram rum­bles past and hip stu­dents and laugh­ing Mus­lim fam­i­lies get off and it all feels rather dif­fer­ent for that moment or two until they dis­ap­pear and you are back with the wash­ing machine store for com­pa­ny. It was also rain­ing –  but only just.

trams

Half a mil­lion peo­ple live there, but noth­ing much seems to have been built in the city in recent years and the old archi­tec­ture is less inspir­ing than their north-West­ern Euro­pean neigh­bours. One assumes Bosnia (and Croa­t­ia away from the coast) have not boomed finan­cial­ly any time in the past cen­tu­ry or more. Most­ly the build­ings looked to be com­mu­nist-era func­tion­al­i­ty, but with­out the stern and impos­ing grandeur you find in the for­mer East Berlin or in Prague. The only new build­ings of any note seemed to be an unin­spired office tow­er, a cin­e­ma block and a new mall with all the same chain stores – Zara, H&M, Top Shop, AX – you find in every mall around the world, but no bar (same own­er as the hotel – I think he prob­a­bly mat­ters in Sara­je­vo).

But to the bar: I walked quite a way, it was still rain­ing soft­ly so I bought an umbrel­la. As soon as I bought it, the rain stopped. The bar: I found it and there was a sign on the door “we are allowed hol­i­days too, back in mid-July”. Their Face­book page proud­ly said they were open sev­en days a week.

Thank­ful­ly I had oth­er options. The walk took me past sev­er­al small mosques and church­es – each one with a lawn of slen­der white mar­ble mark­ers. I would see more of those the next day.

You under­stand the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of the city – just how easy it would be to take the lives of  11,000 (includ­ing the 1600 chil­dren who were mur­dered) in just three years. The hills and cliffs on both three sides pro­vide an easy turkey shoot, and so it was that artillery and snipers sat up there and slaugh­tered inno­cents unspeak­able day after day after day, for 1,425 days. The tourist pub­lic­i­ty tells you the city has large­ly been rebuilt and there are few signs of the war. That is opti­mistic and glar­ing non­sense, the scars are still every­where, on almost every build­ing over a cer­tain age – hun­dreds of them – all pock­marked with shell and bul­let scars and burn marks from years of impact. Bed­room and liv­ing room win­dows sur­round­ed by the shrap­nel marks that must have stripped count­less lives away with­out warn­ing. The small ceme­ter­ies are omnipresent and the hills are cov­ered in larg­er fields of white mar­ble mark­ers. You stand in one and you can always see at least two oth­ers in the not-so dis­tant.



And yet, more than that, it feels like a still bro­ken and crip­pled city, des­per­ate­ly want­i­ng not to be so any­more, deal­ing with the sad fact that to much of the plan­et it’s now just a his­tor­i­cal­ly trag­ic place name (if they know it at all) and an increas­ing­ly dis­tant mem­o­ry in a world that deals up tragedy end­less­ly.  And yet, it’s deeply iron­ic that this some­what sleepy and iso­lat­ed town some­how defined both the begin­ning and the end of the 20th Cen­tu­ry – or, if you will, the end of two suc­ces­sive cen­turies. Maybe that makes more sense?

I stood on the spot where Prin­cip took the lives of Franz Fer­di­nand and his wife, and trig­ger events which still take lives. I had to.

The hand­ful of ded­i­cat­ed muse­ums are small but shat­ter­ing, not least because the pub­licly fund­ed ones seem to be a lit­tle bro­ken as the city and the coun­try bat­tle over ongo­ing fund­ing, of which lit­tle seems to have arrived in recent times. Gal­le­ria 11/07/95, the pri­vate­ly owned visu­al and audio muse­um of the Sre­breni­ca mas­sacre was emo­tion­al­ly dis­tress­ing and yet (as much as it can be) respect­ful­ly under­stat­ed, allow­ing the words and the many still and mov­ing pic­tures to speak for them­sleves with­out adding addi­tion­al judge­ment. All the audio was on per­son­al head­sets allow­ing each vis­i­tor their own space to deal with what was pre­sent­ed in the dark­ened rooms.

A cou­ple of kilo­me­tres away, the bat­tered and obvi­ous­ly strug­gling His­tor­i­cal Muse­um of Bosnia and Herze­gov­ina, ded­i­cat­ed to the vic­tims of those lost years in the city, had one of the most mov­ing images – a very young boy in a striped jer­sey stand­ing next to his moth­er. The case next to the pho­to has the same jer­sey with a bloody hole in it. The sniper’s bul­let passed through his moth­er before killing the boy. The small gal­leries are ama­teur­ish­ly but well done and per­haps the bet­ter for that – this was, after all, most­ly gen­er­a­tional neigh­bours killing neigh­bours. The gal­leries were cre­at­ed and are main­tained by vic­tims or rel­a­tives of the vic­tims of this absolute­ly pre­ventable gath­er­ing of sad and hope­less human tragedies. The wall had post-it notes to write on. All I could do was apol­o­gise for hav­ing done noth­ing.

The city seems cor­rect­ly adverse to tragedy tourism, much as Cam­bo­dia is, and as I not­ed ear­li­er this year, Nice has swift­ly decid­ed too. You remem­ber, you mark, and then you move on. There is no sense to be gath­ered from it no mat­ter how you strive to do so. The fields of white mar­ble and the small muse­ums say enough to say it for all time. As the sign in the park out­side the His­tor­i­cal Muse­um sim­ply says:

I left Sara­je­vo and I guess that for me too, it will become a very sad mem­o­ry – hence why I need­ed to write this now – and went to Mostar, stop­ping on the way at the pre­served tun­nel clawed by hand under the run­way at the air­port, which, for three years, pro­vid­ed the des­per­ate and dan­ger­ous life­line for the city to “free” Bosnia.

To get there, you climb a hill. Near the top, you reach an inter­sec­tion. The road to the left has a sign that says “Wel­come to Repub­li­ka Srp­s­ka”, the right takes you to the Sara­je­vo tun­nel. Neigh­bours.

The road to Mostar is sim­ply stun­ning – grand tow­er­ing cliffs and pow­er­ful­ly dra­mat­ic rocky peaks dom­i­nate both sides of a wend­ing riv­er gorge road that goes on for­ev­er, past vil­lages that seem to cling to moun­tain­sides as I guess they have for cen­turies.

I asked both Tom and Mabel to direct me to Mostar and they both came up with the same route and end­ing. It seemed that we had some sort of syn­er­gy so I was hap­py. They seemed to have decid­ed to announce nav­i­ga­tion mark­ers as some sort of duet. This new har­mo­ny was com­pli­cat­ed in the end by nei­ther guide pick­ing up on a new one-way road into the town and that threw the three of us, so I fol­lowed the signs. They showed a road over a bridge, then turn left and go one km or so and I would be next to the more famous bridge, the one I want­ed to see. I would, I decid­ed, wor­ry about park­ing when I got there.

It seemed Mostar had oth­er plans for me – I arrived at the first bridge and there were a few road cones and some signs of work ahead. I could see a grad­er and a dig­ger 100 metres or so on so I slowed as I entered the bridge. “ Bug­ger”, I said to myself, “road works”. Some­thing told me to slow more and I did, stop­ping to work out where I was going. It was then I under­stood the extent of the works direct­ly in front, on the oth­er side of the short cross­ing. There was a hole …

I stepped out of the car and wan­dered for­ward – Jesus, there was a fuck­ing mas­sive hole, some 5 metres at least deep. A dig­ger was down at the bot­tom of it. No bar­ri­ers, no warn­ing, no lights, just a mas­sive hole and one that I was about to dri­ve into.

I backed very care­ful­ly, sweat­ing some­what, off the bridge and parked the car. Anoth­er car went past me onto the bridge and I ran for­ward wav­ing. He stopped even clos­er than I had and I helped him to reverse. Both of us stopped a third car. A police­man turned up and we made nois­es. He explained that I was only able to park there for 1 hour and then wan­dered off dis­in­ter­est­ed in the hole (not his side of the bridge per­haps), so we dragged a piece of ran­dom fenc­ing from the park next door across the road to block the bridge. I won­der how long that was there for?

To be fair, holes aside, Mostar was love­ly and the rebuilt bridge as visu­al­ly dra­mat­ic as I’m sure the old one was. I’m glad they rebuilt it but you are always aware when stand­ing and look­ing at it, that it’s not real. Per­haps it should have been left as a gash on the riv­er (there were argu­ments at the time) but rebuild­ing it seems to mat­ter more as a fuck-you state­ment to the gun­ners.  I had to use the loo so I fol­lowed a sign into a mosque. It was, the young girl told me, 5 marks to go in. I explained I only want­ed to use the loo and she said it was free but I was not allowed to look at any­thing inside. I wan­dered in head down, found the loo and exit­ed in the same non-observ­ing pos­ture.

Sad­ly Mostar had the same sort of shell-shocked build­ings that Sara­je­vo still suf­fered from.

I drove on, and Mabel point­ed right. Tom was say­ing straight. Giv­en Mabel’s scenic bent and the blue skies, I fol­lowed her and soon found myself over­look­ing a Bosn­ian riv­er plain with Croa­t­ia, I sup­posed, in the dis­tance.

The road was fine and there were plen­ti­ful vine­yards and small vil­lages on the high plateau I now found myself on. Tom had lost the plot again and had no idea where I was, but Mabel spoke with con­fi­dence and short­ly I found myself head­ing up the on-ramp of an impres­sive eight-lane motor­way that tra­versed the back of the Dal­ma­t­ian coastal ranges – sweep­ing roads, almost desert­ed, long tun­nels (the longest being some 10 km) and mag­nif­i­cent panora­mas that looked back into Bosnia, only inter­rupt­ed by anoth­er easy immi­gra­tion post that took me across into Croa­t­ia and even­tu­al­ly down to love­ly Split and to Brigid.

Tom and Mabel both announced that I had arrived.

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