By Jody Moylan
One of the unfortunate, unavoidable truths of being a history student is knowing that we’ll never be able to go back and experience those events that we study. Sometimes, however, the big events that define a place happened not so long ago. One such place is Bosnia, where I went to this summer, and where I’d wanted to travel to for some time. At the centre of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, Bosnia and its surrounds formed the distinctive background noise to my teenage years; always there on the radio, or on the television news. Sarajevo, Mostar, Srebrenica, Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic. For my generation, these are famous places, and infamous names.
Dark tourism maybe, but revisiting this landscape of the past was really about trying to understand a conflict I hadn’t fully tuned into at the time. Bosnia isn’t easy to get to, and after a flight to Croatia and a coach trip across, it doesn’t take long to see that this is the place that Europe forgot. Bombed out buildings, not touched in years, are scattered across the countryside. Bad cars ramble up equally bad roads. New houses are still old building sites; functioning but unfinished. If you learn one thing from going places, it’s that you can quickly work out how a country is run by staring out the window of a bus.
The trouble for Bosnia is that when the war ended, that’s all that happened. It is, in a very real sense, frozen in time, back to when the ‘peace’ began with the Dayton Accords of 1995. Undead victims live alongside the perpetrators of atrocity. The man walking down the street might have killed your family. Tensions are still high, and reconciliation between people who were once friends may never be reached. It is a brittle, beautiful and fragmented place. The country has three presidents, representing Bosniak, Serb and Croatian ethnicities, as well as fourteen levels of government. Youth unemployment has peaked at almost sixty percent in the last five years, and nearly a quarter of the population are living either on, or below, the absolute poverty line. There’s no money to do anything, and nothing, really, ever gets done.
The bus stop in Mostar is a short trek from the bridge I wanted to see. The ‘Stari Most’ is one of Bosnia’s great sights, but the bus station is closer to the reality on the ground; a once ambitious project that’s a reminder of better times, but is now just about intact. The Stari Most itself — obliterated by Bosnian Croat forces in 1993 and rebuilt in 2004 — bridges the Neretva river from the Croat side of Mostar to the Muslim quarter. Its reconstruction is testament to the will of so many to overcome historic division, in a country where that division is still sought by some.
After a day in the second city, I made my way north to Sarajevo; one of Europe’s great capitals. On leaving the train station when I arrived, I walked down to a junction I later recognised to be ‘sniper alley’; notorious once for all the people who were killed while crossing it. I was staying close by, with a woman called Vesna Bartholovic. In her small apartment kitchen — in a building that had once been shot to bits — she made me tea and told me about her life. She had worked at the nearby bank during the war; when Sarajevo was under siege from Serbian forces that had surrounded the city. Hers was an important job, as she was in charge of the money coming back from all the people who’d left. She couldn’t miss work. And every day, she had to cross ‘sniper alley’.
For three years, she had to stop in the shade, before moving out into the open and running for her life. Looking back, she told me, “It seems crazy I did it, but in the war, that’s just what you do”. It was moving to meet this normal woman, who had seen all that. The next day, I walked to the Jewish cemetery, up on a hill, to where the snipers stood. Nothing marked the location. It was the same as the day they left. And it was a perfect view. An intersection, where all the city’s people still cross each other’s paths, and where history, that day, seemed not so far away.