It has been a few weeks now since I have returned from my latest visit to the Balkans. While there I continued where I left off on my previous visit- talking with anyone who would talk, seeing as much as I could see, and further developing my own ideas about the region.

Most of my visit was spent in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. But I also went on to Mostar, and then to the island of Vis in Croatia. I was in Sarajevo late last year, but I felt a need to return, that I had not accomplished all I needed to do there.  I still feel that way, but after a couple of weeks alone in the city I feel I understand the city, the country, and the region a little better. It would take endless pages to record all my reflections; this post is but a snippet, an encounter or two recorded during that time.

Walking-
Journal entry, 13 April, 2018:
It is evening in Sarajevo; the sun has set, but its faint glow causes the still-wet streets to shimmer. Outside my windows, across the Miljacka River is one of the main east-west routes through the city. The Obala Kulina Bana not only moves cars, trucks, and buses through the city, the Sarajevo tram rails share the road. The tram, or tramvaj, is a natural part of the city, public transport being a necessity in a city of this size.  It is an easy way to get from one end of the city to the other, or to get one stop to the next cafe or market. Sarajevo has not only the tram, but trolley buses, and regular buses- all running very efficiently from my experience.  There are routes covering every neighborhood, and you can get just about anywhere in a very reasonable amount of time, if not by public transport, then by taxis which are everywhere. If you don’t feel like catching public transport, Sarajevo is a very pedestrian-friendly city. I have been walking and walking in every direction, discovering more than I ever imagined, and certainly more than any guidebook can relate.

Obala Kulina Bana, Sarjevo, Bosnia- Gerald Trainor photo

The Obala Kulina Bana and the Miljacka River, on a cold and snowy day in Sarajevo.

Yes, Sarajevo is a pedestrian city, and being so, it is a city where the openness of the people can be felt as you walk down the street. People are out every day, on their way to jobs, to the market, to meet for coffee where they talk and reflect and debate, to… walk and meet other people along the way. I was compelled to walk myself, everywhere, and at all hours of the morning, mid-day, and night, from one end of the city to the other.  What about safety? Sarajevo is a city that feels remarkably safe- not once did I feel uncomfortable anywhere I ended up. In fact, I was surprised time and again at how open and helpful people were.

Bsonian coffee at a cafe called Ministry of Ćejf, Sarajevo BiH. Gerald Trainor photo.

Bosnian coffee sitting outside at the Ministry of Ćejf cafe at Kovači 26, just up from the Sebilj- an absolute must if you visit the city.

Carpets-
On this visit I was introduced to the traditional weavings of Bosnia- the carpets that have long been a part of the culture, but seem curiously missing from guidebooks, from most online posts, from everyday discussions, and even from museums. I had heard nothing about the tradition on either of my previous visits. But this time, after finding the carpet below on the floor of the apartment I rented, I immediately started asking questions.

detail of Bosnian carpet- Sarajevo, BiH- Gerald Trainor photo

Detail from the corner of a 2 by 3 meter “Bosnian” carpet showing traditional patterning. Although I am calling this a Bosnian carpet, it may in fact have been produced in Pirot, a town in southeastern Serbia known for its weaving. Priot is on already on my agenda for my next visit.

Bosnian carpets have a long history, with their roots in Turkish kilims. In Sarajevo, there was the famous Sarajevo Carpet Factory, where rugs were made for over 100 years. Styles changed with the times, but the importance of the carpet did not, at least until very recent times when it seems the “new” has replaced the old. Yes, younger people seem to be turning away from the old styles and trending towards mass-produced, “stylish” rugs from Ikea and the like. At least this was what one person stressed to me.

Another reason for the declining importance of traditional carpets might be the fact that they were an essential part of the dowry, which I assume is no longer important in itself.  Still another factor might be that the important events and entertainments where the carpets were used are no longer centerpieces of life. Carpets were an integral part of both the dowry and  gatherings- they were woven, handed down, or purchased as a sort of investment in wealth. Thus the fact that some very beautiful, 100 year old carpets can be found in almost pristine condition if you look in the right place. You will also find newly woven carpets in a few shops in the Baščaršija. Just ask around for directions if you don’t see them.

Museums-
The bottom line: if you get a chance to visit Sarajevo, do it. The people there will welcome you, not just as a source of income through tourist dollars- which is incredibly important to the city, country, and region, but as a visitor to their city. While there plan to walk; you won’t be sorry no matter where you end up or what you see.  Some highlights for visiting: be sure to visit any or all- if you can handle it- of the war museums. I visited the War Childhood Museum for the first time on this visit, not an easy task, but necessary. There you will find items donated by people who were young during the war, along with their written and video accounts of that time. The war is ever-present and cannot be forgotten. It is a part of everyday life there, with reminders on every street in the city.

Histoey Museum of BiH. Gerald Trainor photo.

The History Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I saw the permanent exhibit on the siege of Sarajevo. In serious disrepair, dark and cold inside, it felt like I might have stepped back into Yugoslavia. Don’t let that stop you from visiting!

Visit the Zetra Olympic Hall, the stadium, and museum and reminisce about the 1984 Olympics. See the National Museum with its fine collection of artifacts from the region’s early history, and the History Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina- be sure to go below the museum to the Caffe Tito Sarajevo for an espresso and a look at their museum-like collection. If it is the right time of year, take in a football match- FC Sarajevo or Željezničar– either one will do. See the ancient fortresses, walk along the Miljacka, and sit for a while drinking coffee in the Baščaršija. And be sure to take the cable car up Mount Trebević. It was damaged during the war and has just reopened after more than 25 years!

Wrapping Up-
For current news from the Balkans, see the Bosnia and Herzegovina page at BalkanInsight.com, for what appears to be some of the most impartial and unbiased reporting I have come across.

My first “report” from Sarajevo and the Balkans can be found here. I have also written book reviews on Beyond NATO: A New Security Architecture for Eastern Europe (The Marshall Papers) and Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz, both of which are pertinent to the region.

For more reading on the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, see Silber and Little’s The Fall of Yugoslavia. It is an excellent place to start. For a more concise version, see The Collapse of Yugoslavia by Alastair Finlan. For guidebooks, I recommend the Bradt Bosnia and Herzegovina guide by Tim Clancy.

 

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(Re-posted from another of my blogs- this post needed to be here as well, to support other posts about the Balkans.)

As a follow-up to my recent post on the Balkan wars of the 1990’s, I felt it was time to add more book reviews for those who might be interested in immersing themselves in the issues facing the Balkans and eastern Europe. With the future in mind, first on the list is a recent (fall, 2017) edition from the Brookings Institution titled Beyond NATO: A New Security Architecture for Eastern Europe (The Marshall Papers) by Michael E. O’Hanlon.

In summary, the book argues the case against NATO expansion and presents the alternative of a “negotiated agreement” between current NATO countries, the non-NATO and non-aligned states that would remain sovereign and neutral, and Russia. The catalyst for this new type of security agreement is Russia, and namely Russia’s fear of NATO and the west uncomfortably approaching, and eventually encroaching upon, its borders. The author does cause the reader to step outside the western view that our intervention in eastern Europe, most notably Bosnia, Kosovo, and Ukraine, even when labeled humanitarian, can be construed as threatening when viewed through Russian eyes.

The premise is that the new security architecture would act as a deterrent to Russian posturing and aggression and its plans for military growth, including nuclear weapons. It is believed that the coalition of neutral states, not overseen directly by NATO or the United States especially, will eventually allow Russia to cease their destabilisation efforts in the region, specifically in Ukraine and Georgia, and allow these and other states such as Armenia and Azerbaijan to develop towards normalcy after being able to turn away from a continuous defensive/offensive posture.

While theoretically possible, the concept relies on Russia’s acceptance of the new structure. Whether or not Russia accepts, and if so, their willingness and ability to remain faithful to the agreement, is a different story. There would be a built-in “range of responses” to different threats against the agreement participants, be that Russia or other nations. These responses could include anything from economic sanctions to expedited NATO membership for threatened agreement participants.

Street art in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Street art in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, October, 2017. Note the artists use of a bullet hole for the left eye, obviously the starting point for the image.

Seasons in Hell: Understanding Bosnia’s War by Ed Vulliamy was published in 1994. At that time the siege of Sarajevo had ended, Serbia and its forces understood that the UN and NATO would actually take decisive action against them, and the concentration camps, mass murder, atrocities, and genocide of the war in Bosnia had been exposed to the world. Vulliamy’s book reports what was known at the time of publication and paints an ugly, demented picture of what was perpetrated on so many innocent people by the Yugoslav army/ the Serbian army, by “paramilitaries”, by criminals and thugs. But he also tells stories of hope, heroism, and bravery, of fighting against all odds, and of how so many of the people of Bosnia endured. Interspersing these stories in a book of this nature is absolutely necessary, lest the sickened reader cast the book aside. If you choose one book to help your understand the war in Bosnia, Vulliamy’s book will painfully, yet clearly meet that goal.

 

 

More Balkan Coffee

10 March 2018

As I prepare to return to Sarajevo in a couple of weeks, I have turned more towards drinking Bosnian coffee. Being a coffee snob as I am, I have very specific tastes.  And one of them is for Turkish-style coffee with a Bosnian twist- officially Bosnian coffee in that country.  Made in a dzezva (one of many alternative spellings I have found), a uniquely-shaped coffee maker, Bosnian coffee has brew and drinking methods all its own.

Bosnian coffee, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

A beautiful dzezva of Bosnian coffee ready to pour and enjoy. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The drinking method is the most important part for me- I have been instructed that it is all about time.  Taking time to grind the beans, to brew the coffee, and to sit, to look around, to talk with others. Unlike here in the US, where for so many people coffee is something you get in a paper cup at a Starbucks drive-through window, in Bosnia, coffee is drunk with others, sitting in a cafe, watching people and life. I do not recall seeing a single laptop or tablet at a cafe there. Only people sitting together, interacting, or in the case of those alone, watching the interactions of others, be they passersby or at the next table. We should take a lesson from them.

 

Former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic has been sentenced to life in prison. Reports state that he was “fighting” till the end, being disruptive, and flew into a tirade before the verdict was read. He was convicted on 10 of the 11 counts against him, more than 20 years after the fact. In an interview on the BBC a survivor of Srebrenica pointed out that it would have been more fitting, more prudent, and certainly more meaningful had the verdict been handed down 10 or 20 years ago. Either way, justice has finally been served.

Read more about the verdict at the Radio Free Europe website. For full information on the trial, see the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia website. If you are unfamiliar with the Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Balkans, the former Yugoslavia and the war they endured there after the fall of the Soviet Union, see my recent post for some background.

My family and I have just returned from another trip to the Balkan countries of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The highlight of the trip was my time in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and especially in the capital of Sarajevo, my first visit there. Truthfully, using the term “highlight” is problematic at least, considering the focus of my visit. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Sarajevo I visited the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide, I rode the tram back and forth down sniper alley, and walked the entire way as well, I visited cemeteries, and towns where the mass killings took place, stood on the hills above Sarajevo where the shells were lobbed on the city, and visited Gallerija 11/07/95, dedicated to those murdered in Srebrenica on that day.

Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo by G. Trainor.

Quote on the wall of the Galerija 11/07/95. It sums up the painful exhibit on the atrocities that took place in Srebrenica quite well.

With that said, Sarajevo is one of the most interesting places I have been in my life, and most of my time in Bosnia and Herzegovina was spent there. A week seemed so very inadequate for developing an understanding of the country now and in the past, the people and cultures, its multiple overlapping and parallel histories, and most important of all, the recent events that are so prominent, were prominently ignored, and are prominently forgotten by most of the world today. It was enough time to be introduced, and to create along list for my next visit.

I have been following events in the Balkans since the late 1980’s, have read extensively about the history of the region, have visited the region before and have family from there. Still, no amount of knowledge can adequately explain the terror that swept the Balkans and the suffering of the people there in the 1990’s, nor answer the questions of why it happened, and most important, why it was allowed to happen. My visit to Sarajevo turned out to be largely about trying to understand just that. I am not sure that I understand it even now. Of course, from a historical perspective, or a psychological perspective, or as a social scientist one can break it down any number of ways, to simple cause and effect, and technically understand what happened.  But from a Human perspective, it just doesn’t make sense.

If the history of the country and region escapes you, here is a summary of just some of those recent events:

  • 04 May 1980- Josip Tito, ruler of the Federation of Yugoslavia dies leaving a power vacuum
  • 1998-1991- collapse and dissolution of Soviet Union, with independence for all former states, (more of less) further adding to unrest in the region
  • 1991- breakup of the Federation of Yugoslavia- on 25 June, 1991 Slovenia and Croatia are first to declare independence from the Federation of Yugoslavia, a move immediately countered by the Serbian controlled Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) beginning the violence that will devastate the region for the next ten years
  • September 1991- United Nations notes that atrocities are being committed
  • 01 March 1992- Bosnia-Hercegovina holds a referendum on independence; fighting begins there within weeks
  • April 1992- war overtakes Bosnia-Hercegovina, lasting until November, 1995
  • late 1992- UN establishes commission to examine situation
  • 25 May, 1993- UN establishes International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY)
  • 11 July 1995- Srebrenica massacre- the UN declared “safe zone” is abandoned by the UN soldiers protecting it, leaving many of  the 20,000 residents at the mercy of the Serbian army.  Some residents are evacuated with the UN, others escape on foot to Bosnian-controlled areas, but some 8,000 are captured and murdered by Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic and his troops. This is the biggest, but one of many such incidents of inaction- of abandonment and murder repeated around the country and region during the 1990’s.
  • 28 August, 1995- the second Markale Market massacre, in which 37 people are killed and 90 wounded, becomes the final straw in the siege of Sarajevo. UN General Sir Rupert Smith- who essentially could no longer tolerate standing by and watching the killing- initiated airstrikes on Bosnian Serb artillery positions around Sarajevo on that very day. This action effectively ended the siege of Sarajevo, which lasted for over 1400 days, and signaled a change in the way the UN, NATO, and the world at large addressed the Homeland War, as it is known in the Balkans.
Austro-Hungarian architecture in Sarajevo- photo by Gerald Trainor

Two Austro-Hungarian style buildings along the River Miljacka-the law school and post office. Both are beautiful examples of the architecture style and both are repaired and represent the new face of the city today.

The city of Sarajevo is beautiful, full of life, vibrant, engaging, and inviting in so many ways. It is considered to be literally where east meets west- with the Ottoman empire to the east, and Rome and Austria to the west. The mix of cultures and history, the food, coffee, sweets, the churches, mosques, minarets, the art and architecture, and of course the people make Sarajevo a city like no other. Seeing it today, walking the streets, visiting its monuments, sitting at its cafes drinking coffee, one might never guess what it looked like 20 years ago after being under siege for over 1400 days.  Seeing images of the city then, and standing in those very places now- something I made it a point to do- was absolutely mind boggling. Revisiting the city through wartime images made the past even more poignant. But still, it was almost unbelievable considering the city as it is today.

Sniper alley highrises in Sarajevo, Zmaja od Bosne Street- photo by Gerald Trainor

Communist-era highrises along “sniper alley”, on Zmaja od Bosne Street, Sarajevo. These buildings were used by snipers during the conflict, ending up without any windows and full of holes from return fire. Many of the repairs, even 20 years later, appear cursory. Holes from small arms, rocket, and tanks rounds are still visible up and down the street and throughout the city.

There are countless resources for learning more about the Balkans, the former Yugoslavia, the Homeland War, and the region today. I cannot say enough about the importance of understanding what happened there- learning about it might just prompt us to pay closer attention the next time that murderous political regimes are preparing their campaigns of genocide and torture.

Clearly the UN faltered in their mission in the former Yugoslavia. Whether or not that would have been different in today’s world, with social media, instant communication, and- I hope- a growing awareness to the world around us, is pure speculation. But from where I sit there are plenty of other possibilities for this to happen again. And to be more to the point, that same has happened again, and is currently happening- just open the newspaper and you will find the same stories of chaos and murder, the same images of destroyed cities and fleeing  refugees reported as a normal, daily event. The question is whether we continue to let it happen, and most importantly, what do we do to stop it. In today’s complex world, with all of our knowledge and power, decisions to act are no less difficult to make than they were in the 1990’s. And with global repercussions to those decisions looming around every corner, taking action to liberate the oppressed puts us everyone more at risk every day, making those decision even more difficult.

anit-UN poster on Sarajevo street- photo by Gerald Trainor

An image taken in downtown Sarajevo- the large poster was displayed in a prominent enough location and states clearly how many in the city felt- and feel- about the UN’s role there. For all its beauty, tensions are still high in the city and the region for countless reasons.

Finally, here are a few links to specific pages on the ICTY website that explain the tribunal, those who were on trial, and to Wikipedia on the fall of the Soviet Union. The final trial, that of Ratko Mladic, was recently completed. The verdict will be released soon at which time the ICTY will be disbanded.

Key figures in the trial

The arrest of the final hunted war criminal, Ratko Mladic

The announcement of Mladic’s verdict scheduled for 22 November, 2017

Dissolution of the Soviet Union, Wikipedia