The surprising beauty of Bosnia Herzegovina

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When I was younger, I remember watching the news about the conflict in Bosnia Herzegovina. Like other “historical” acts from my youth (like the fall of the Berlin Wall), it made me curious to see what had become of the previously war-torn country. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Sarajevo

As we all learned in History class, the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria spurred the start of World War I (and likely the non-Austrian or Bosnian band of the same name). The spot where is says Muzei and has a heart sign is happened (give or take a few feet).

East Meets West

Sarajevo shows the signs of the east meeting the west. The city has been controlled by Romans, Turks and Austria-Hungary. The city is layered with architecture from each of these eras. When you walk downtown, there’s Roman ruins among the bars and restaurants.

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Where Religions Intersect

One thing you will notice as you walk around Sarajevo is that the three major religions are practiced. There are mosques, churches/cathedrals and a Synagogue. It was partly the intersection of religion that caused the conflict in the early 1990s.

The Siege of Sarajevo

The Bosnian war started in 1992 as the former Yugoslavia was broken apart. Croatia and Slovenia declared independence and Bosnia Herzegovina passed a referendum for independence. The country, which is made up of Bosniak Muslims, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs, became a battle ground when the Bosnian Serbs, supported by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, mobilized a militia to fight for territory for the Bosnian Serbs. In order to accomplish this, they began ethnic cleansing aimed at eliminating the Bosniaks.

The Serbs were much more heavily armed than the Bosniaks who had to piece together their own military. For more than three years, Sarajevo and Bosnia Herzegovina were under siege. Normal life didn’t happen. There was no school, no work. Rations for food and a fight to stay alive. More than 100,000 people were killed in the Bosnian war. Most of them Bosniaks.

Sarajevo War Tunnels

The War Tunnels were crafted in 1993 as a way to get food, war supplies, and humanitarian aid into the city of Sarajevo, which had been cut off from civilization by the Serbian forces. The tunnel ran from the Sarajevo airport in Butmir to a nearby suburb.

The building below houses the War Tunnel Museum, which has the tunnel running beneath it. You can see the marks the war took on the building.

Below is a portion of the tunnel that is open to visitors. The Serbs never found out where the tunnel was, and the tunnel was a big part in helping the Bosniaks (and their Croat allies) stay in the war.

Landmines

By the end of the war, there were more than two million landmines in Bosnia Herzegovina. The country continues to find and clear landmines and believes it will be done in 2019.

The Sarajevo Rose

Throughout the city, you will see the symbol of the Sarajevo rose. The roses are explosion points which mark the spots where one or more person was killed during the conflict. There are numerous roses around the city.

The Militia

I took a wonderful tour with Sarajevo Funky Tours that detailed life in Sarajevo while it was under siege. I highly recommend both the tour and the company if you are in town. Our tour guide told us how he was 17 when he started fighting for his country. They didn’t have an organized army that could match up with the Serbs, but they had the will for freedom and some smart people leading the way.

Mostar

Like Sarajevo, Mostar was ravaged in the war. Initially under siege from the Serbian forces, Mostar also had an internal conflict between the Catholic Croats and the Bosniak Serbs. More than 90,000 of the 120,000 Mostar residents fled the city during the war. It was the most damaged city in Bosnia Herzegovina.

You can still see evidence of the bombs and bullets.

Stari Most

The Stari Most (old bridge) is the symbol of Mostar. When it crumbled, it was the last remaining bridge across the river Neretva. It was more than 400 years old and was designed by the Ottomans. It literally and figuratively bridged the divide of the Catholics and Bosniaks – and then it was destroyed. To this day, while they live together, they do not live in harmony.  The bridge was reconstructed in the style it was originally built and reopened in 2004. Nowadays, tourists pay divers to jump off the almost 80-foot-high bridge and look out at the city’s beautiful views.

Beauty of Bosnia Herzegovina

While I knew about the history of Bosnia Herzegovina, I had no clue about the beauty of the country. I took Sarajevo Funky Tour’s Total Herzegovina Tour and was in for a great treat! (Note, this tour also will take you to Dubrovnik or Kotor at the end of the day, so it’s a tour and transfer all in one!)

Jablanica

You can see the spot where a rail bridge over the river was destroyed in WWII (while a train was in the middle of crossing!). The site has a park and monument commemorating the destruction. Tourists also enjoy the area’s lake and natural beauty.

Počitelj

Above the Neretva River, you will find the town of Počitelj with the Hajji Alija Mosque, Clock Tower and Gavrankapetanovic tower.

Kravica Waterfalls

Anyone looking at the picture below is probably thinking that we’re in Croatia… nope, not Croatia. It’s Herzegovina. You can swim in the crystal turquoise waters of the falls, but just know that you’ll have to climb about 17 flights back up after your dip!

Blagaj

Home to dervishes and our beautiful lunchtime view, Blagaj was a great surprise. It’s deep cave and natural spring water were refreshing on a very hot day. We also visited the Dervish House which has hosted worshipers since the 16th century.

Sarajevo Today

Unfortunately, I was really sick when I was in Sarajevo. I had no voice (and no luggage!), so I didn’t get to really experience the city life. I did love the vibe and the energy that it was giving out. The people are lovely, and they welcome Americans (they especially like Bill Clinton for the role he played in the peace process). There are new bars, restaurants and nice hotels. They were even hosting a film festival. Importantly, as a solo traveler, although it is different than many European cities, I felt safe.

Peace and Hope

As I look at Bosnia Herzegovina today, they are still a divided nation. Mostar’s bridge still parts the Catholics and Bosniaks, and while the Serbs didn’t get a recognized country, they received 49% of the land in an area called the Republic of Srbska, which flies its flag instead of the flag of Bosnia Herzegovina. They still have very high unemployment, but there is a lot of energy and a lot of hope. Energy to build something great and hope that someday joining the European Union will give them more opportunity. I wish them nothing but the best.

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