Friday, 8 November 2013

On Bosnia, the War and My Reason for Visiting

Sometimes, as a blogger, we get it all wrong. For some reason, I thought that you, my lovely readers, wouldn't want to know about the break up of Yugoslavia and the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 90s. I thought that Emm in London was not the place to talk about war crimes and the atrocities committed during that war, of the genocide in Srebrenica. In any event, I wouldn't have known where to start. Do you start in 1992 when Bosnia-Herzegovina entered the war or with the battle at Kosovo Polje in 1389 or the atrocities at Jasenovac during WWII?

Be Careful - dangerous ruin - Mostar

Be Careful - dangerous ruin - Mostar

For the history of the Balkans is as complex as it is troubled and this was why I wanted to visit Bosnia-Herzegovina in the first place. Before 1991, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo were all one country known as Yugoslavia and a terrible war broke out when the state began to break up and the individual member states began to claim independence. Slobodan Milosevic and other Serbian nationalists adopted an ideal of a Greater Serbia and enacted great aggression against the other countries, especially Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, in their attempt to achieve this state. For their part, Croatian nationalists adopted a similar ideal of a Greater Croatia and pushed into Bosnia-Herzegovina in their attempt to bolster their state. Bosnia-Herzegovina was devastated.

Ruined building, Mostar

Ruined building, Mostar

Those of you who know me well might know that I have written at length about genocide and war crimes. To put it as succinctly as possible, I was beyond horrified following the Rwandan genocide in 1994, having barely noticed the events in the context of the break up of Apartheid and the voting in of our new government in South Africa. For thirteen years those impressions bounced about in my head and I finally began writing about it in 2006. It began with a determination to Never Forget, to learn from the lessons of the past. I then wrote about Rwanda, on my passion and the need to know. About five years ago, I began to study the genocide that occurred in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Srebrenica. I wrote about my need to carry on learning and writing about this, despite the devastating effect it had on me.

And it has been devastating. In 2010, I visited Serbia for the first time. I went to visit my friend Maja who I had met online about a decade before when I was specifically looking for new friends from the former Yugoslavia. Maja is an amazing person, an open-minded individual who acknowledges the atrocities committed by Serbian forces during the war, who acknowledges the genocide. During my visit she took care to explain to me about the NATO bombing of Novi Sad, the bridges that were destroyed and the buildings damaged. She told me how Milosevic had known about the NATO plans but had not taken steps to evacuate buildings and thus minimise casualties. He wanted to polarise the people against NATO and succeeded.

Ruined house, Mostar

Ruined house, Mostar

Maja also showed me nationalist graffiti and xenophobic slogans on people's clothing. She told me how the war is being taught to children in schools, that they are being taught that Serbia were not aggressors and were simply trying to save Catholic Serbians (known to the rest of the world as Croatians).

That trip shocked me to the core. If children weren't being taught what really happened in the 90s then my overwhelming impression was that it could happen again. I don't say this lightly - I was distraught when I returned from Serbia and it took me several weeks to put that aside and reconnect with the amazing time that I actually had there.

The shell of the Old Clock Tower, Mostar

The shell of the Old Clock Tower, Mostar

I planned my trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina with the knowledge that this could happen to me again, that I could feel overwhelmed and that it would ruin my trip. I wanted to visit Bosnia and Herzegovina because of the war, because of its history. I felt that I couldn't share this because I, for example, know how I would feel if people told me they were visiting South Africa because of Apartheid. I'd hope they would see our amazing natural beauty, enjoy our culture and meet our people too.

I wanted to visit Mostar because of the bridge. Stari Most was destroyed by Bosnian Croat forces on 9 November 1993 - 20 years ago tomorrow. This was considered to be such a heinous act that the destruction of the bridge formed part of the war crimes charges brought by the ICTY against Bosnian Croat leaders. It formed part of a pattern of destruction against cultural, religious and historical landmarks across Bosnia; all of the mosques in Mostar were shelled too.

The following 30 second video shows the destruction of the bridge while the longer Mostar will give you much more detail about that period.

Likewise, I wanted to visit Sarajevo because of the war and because of the siege. At 1,425 days, the Siege of Sarajevo was the longest ever siege in modern warfare. It devastated Sarajevo which was once the most multicultural city in the whole of Europe and tens of thousands of Sarajevans were killed and injured during the siege. Many more lived a life filled with hardship, shortages, loss and daily terror.

It was also why I decided not to visit Srebrenica on this trip, because of the genocide. I have no doubt that I will visit Bosnia-Herzegovina again and I will go to Srebrenica to pay my respects but I did not feel ready to confront those horrors on this trip.

The tunnel museum, Sarajevo

The Tunnel Museum, Sarajevo

This is perhaps the post that I should have started with when I began to tell you about Bosnia-Herzegovina but it's certainly not the impression that I want to leave you with. I am not lying when I say that I enjoyed every single moment that I spent in Bosnia-Herzegovina, even the ones that moved me to tears. Bosnia-Herzegovina is incredible, the people, food, language, culture and scenery all make this a country worth visiting.

All of the photos in this post were taken in Bosnia-Herzegovina in May 2013, twenty years after the war began. But for every dilapidated ruin, there was evidence of improvement, rebuilding and regeneration. This is not a country that should be defined by its war.

If you'd like to read more about my writing on war, genocide, human rights and social justice, do visit A Passion to Understand. The blog has been somewhat neglected during my studies but I hope to dedicate some time to it next year.

Have you ever been truly moved by history or events? Have you ever taken a pilgrimage to explore that history?

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© 2008 - Mandy Southgate | Emm in London

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