The following is a selective account of David Snyder and Patty Trott's observations on their travels through Croatia
and Bosnia-Herzegovina in September 2001.
It was a gray, cold and rainy day on Rab, the pleasant Adriatic isle on the Croatian coast. We were with our friends Zoli and
Judit, from Hungary. It seemed to be a good time to venture inland, to the Plitvice Lakes National Park, about 100 kilometers
away. Although the distance seemed short from my American perspective, it would last three hours, and the landscape would
change even more than that distance would seem to allow. The only things that wouldn't change were the limestone and the
language. The limestone of which nearly all of southern Europe consists and the language was Croatian - or Serbian or Bosnian,
which are all the same, only the names change.
It must be explained that the coast of Croatia is an extremely pleasant place to visit. The weather is good (usually), the state of
the economy and the infrastructure are reasonable for this part of the world, the food is quite edible, if not up to the same
standards of Italy. This was the Croatia we had gotten used to. Any thoughts or indication of the recent civil war were virtually
We drove in Zoli's car further south down the heavily indented rocky coast before turning left to ascend the intimidating slopes
of the Velebit Range, the beige colored mountains that rise directly from the seal along this part of the coast. It was a slow but
scenic drive as we ascended the serpentine road up to a high pass. Within a few kilometers we had changed landscapes from a
scrub Mediterranean landscape to one that seemed almost alpine in nature, albeit somewhat drier than the Alps of Austria that I
has passed through last week.
No longer were the houses white stucco with red roofs, the predominant style of the coast, but now more wood was used and
everything seemed less colorful. I felt at this point that I was back in Eastern Europe, and that the relative prosperity of the
coast was really an anomaly in these parts. Our location was truly made clear to us upon reaching the depressing town of
Gospic. The highway took us right through it and it seemed like any other Eastern European town until we reached the center.
Gradually it dawned on us that the chips we had seen in the plaster walls weren't just from lack up upkeep, but were in fact
bullet holes. In the town center probably half the buildings had walls that had been peppered with the violent spray of machine
gun fire, and a few buildings even exhibited the large blasts from tank or rocket shells. It speaks well for the construction of
these brick buildings that while the blast had obliterated the outer layer of plaster, the red brick that lay behind was mostly intact,
creating the appearance that a giant tomato had been hurled against the wall.
The most ominous sign of what had really happened here occurred on the way out of town. Numerous houses showed signs of
obvious attack. They sported bullet holes, shell blasts or were completely gutted by fire. The houses of their neighbors,
however, were often completely untouched. The damage was clearly not made by the shifting of military frontlines back and
forth, which would have obliterated everything, but rather was created by brutal ethnic cleansing. One can only assume that
here it was the houses of the Serbs that were destroyed and the families forced away, while those of the Croats remained intact.
Doubtless the situation occurred in the reverse fashion in other regions of the former Yugoslavia.
I tried to imagine the situation on the ground at the time that the destruction occurred, which would have been 5 or 6 years ago,
but I found it impossible. Were people killed? Or merely threatened? Did they fight back? Judging by the fighting in the city,
they must have. Were there armies here? Or just local who had acquired weapons? These answers will have to remain
unknown to me. I could ask a local, but the answer would most likely not be the entire truth, and even if they were completely
honest, the situation was probably so confusing that they wouldn't have know what was truly going on.
The Plitvice Lakes were like a haven of civilization amidst the half ruined countryside. There seemed to be no war damage here
whatsoever “ probably because there was no one to ethnically cleanse here, and even on a cold day such as this it w as filled
with Croatian tourists enjoying the spectacular setting. For me it was hard to imagine that these people had just experienced a
brutal war, in which they were both the victims and the perpetrators. They must be used to the feeling by now. For me it was
all new. The lakes were a beautiful turquoise color and were set upon several cascading layers of limestone bedrock that
deepened into an impressive canyon the further down the cascades one progressed. The nature here seemed relatively pristine
for Europe and one can walk along the reeds and cliffs on narrow boardwalks while enormous trout swim beneath your feet in
the shallow water.
Because of the limestone there were several caves, lots of little waterfalls and a couple of enormous ones pouring over the cliff
edges. Sinkholes were scattered in the surrounding forest. A this was typical of a karst landscape, which was of interest to me
as a geographer, but probably not so interesting to others.
We enjoyed ourselves there, even thought the moist cold bit right through our clothes. The way back to Rab lead us again
through the landscape of vacant houses, poor villages and more war damage. We discussed the question as to why any of these
people would still want to live in some of these locations. With the exception of some agriculture there seemed to be little in the
way of an economic base here. Zoli did create a tiny ripple in the economy by purchasing a block of smoked cheese at one to
the dozens of roadside stands all selling the exact same things â€“ homemade cheese and honey. Nothing else seemed to be
produced in these mountain valleys.
It felt good to return to Rab and leave the unpleasant thoughts of the war-torn Croatian countryside behind. There were more
days to spend mindlessly at the beach.
The mindlessness didn't last for too much longer, however, for it was time to head down the coast by ferry to Dubrovnik and
then inland to Sarajevo.
As an aside, it was on the ferry to Dubrovnik that we first heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon. We had heard the Croatian news on the bus to Zadar, where we were catching the midnight ferry, but I only made
out the words "Osama bin Laden", "terrorismu" and strangely, "Giuliani“ but I didn't think too much about it. We met some
Australians on the ferry who gave us the horrible news, which at that time was very hard to believe. I hardly slept that night and
in the morning we were able to see some Croatian newspapers that the crew had picked up in Split, but we couldn't read the
text, only look at the pictures. This made us feel quite helpless and confused. Dubrovnik did have some internet cafes, so we
were able to check the news to clear up exactly what had happened. It didn't help our mood at all. We didn't see any video
footage until we reached the home of our friends Marc and Judit Ellingstad in Sarajevo. I confess that we spend half of our time
in Sarajevo in front of the television “ but since we had heard about it everything else became exceedingly difficult to enjoy
anyway. Even Dubrovnik, which is truly one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, became a bummer of a place to hang out.
In any event, we spent a day there and then caught a bus the next morning to Sarajevo.
The Bosnia and Herzegovinian border lay just the east of the Croatian town of Metkovic where we took a 10 minute break.
The border was like any other border I had seen between poorer countries. Trucks lined up, small shops selling food and
changing money, etc. What made this one different was the presence of French and Moroccan troops as part of the UN
mission. Across the border we stopped at a small middle-of-nowhere cafe for 45 minutes. We bought a coffee for Patty and I
asked if they took Croatian Kuna. "Of course," the waitress replied. While this may make some sense because this half of
Bosnia is populated mostly with Croatians, the Croatian Kuna is not fully convertible, whereas the money they use in Bosnia
now it known as the Converitble Mark, which is pegged to the Deutschmark and is, as the name implies, fully convertible.
Perhaps ethnicity trumps convertibility in this place. So much for the economic theory of rational choice.
The first part of our journey seemed uneventful, just mountains and rivers and villages, until we neared the city of Mostar. The
whole countryside around Mostar was torn up, buildings were destroyed, and the city itself seemed to be a depressing mess with
numerous semi-collapsed apartment blocks. Bullet holes were everywhere, naturally. There seemed to have been serious
fighting throughout the broad valley in which Mostar lay. We had not even seen this much destruction in the hinterland of
Croatia. Indeed, we found out that the frontline between the Bosnian Muslims and the Croats had raged across this whole valley
as they fought for control of the city. We never heard much about the struggles between the Bosnian Muslims and the Catholic
Croatians at home, but by the looks of it it seemed every bit as serious as the fighting between those two groups and the Serbs.
It was shortly after passing Mostar that we had a chat with a Bosnian fellow from Sarajevo who was sitting in front of us. He
expressed his deep sympathy for the recent tragic events in the States. He noted that he had lived in Sarajevo for the 3 awful
years of siege and wouldn't wish that sort of destruction upon anyone.
The bus continued through the beautiful mountains with alpine vegetation, some nice lakes and small towns that had obviously
not been too peaceful just a few years ago. Patty made the observations that the cafes were filled with men “ as they had been
in Tunisia two years ago. This indicates on one hand high unemployment “ this was the middle of the working day, after all, and
that we had entered a Muslim region “ otherwise there probably would have been some women present. It's not like the
Bosnian Muslims take their religion very seriously (according to Marc), but it's probably a part of the culture inherited from the
Turks who ruled this region for so many years.
We spent two full days in Sarajevo with Marc, so I'll pass on a few observations. It's clear how easy it was for the Serbs to
keep the city under siege for at least 3 years. Sarajevo is completely surrounded by mountains. The Serbs controlled these
ridges and it would have been very easy to pick out targets from up high. The Serbs never tried to take over the city, they only
wanted to force the citizens to flee so that they could then take it over. They probably didn't have enough manpower for the
house-to-house fighting that would have had to take place, so they just resorted to a form of terrorism.
Probably 90% of the buildings have at least bullet holes in them. Many have the tomato-splotches of shell blasts and quite a few
blocks of flats have entire sections that were gutted. A few buildings were completely collapsed. There was often an interesting
contrast where a colorful brand new ultramodern car dealer or shopping mall had opened up next to a gray, communist-era block
of flats that had been ugly when it was built and was now bombed out to boot.
The Turkish bazaar quarter was intact and looked nice. The local mosques were intact as well. Many had probably been
rebuild courtesy of the Saudis or other Muslim countries. In other parts of the city there were some brand new enormous
mosques that obviously had not been built with local funds. More conservative Muslims, male and female, could also be seen
on the streets here. They were definitely a small minority, but when I was here in 1987 I don't think I saw anybody who
dressed as a traditional Muslim.
Marc's belief is that this is not a functional country. Unemployment is officially 40%, yet no one is begging in the streets,
indicating the presence of huge untaxed black markets, which must be a major problem for the government. Few Bosnians have
any entrepreneurial skills and most are just looking for handouts from international agencies " this according to Marc. The
country itself is split into the Federation of Croats and Muslims who are apparently willing to tolerate each other politically now,
and the Republika Srpska of the Serbs. The border runs just along the edge of Sarajevo, and while they are all in the same
country, people don't make a habit out of crossing from one to the other. Somehow governmental duties are shared along ethnic
lines, but separate militaries are maintained. This situation will be impossible to maintain in the long run and I suspect Bosnia
will have to really split itself into two or more countries.
We drove to Pale one day, the nearby capital of the Republika Srpska. It was a depressing little town that had no life or
vibrancy to it whatsoever. The Serbs refer to it as Serbian Sarajevo, but that's an unjust comparison. The real Sarajevo at least
had people on the streets, traffic, and stores with a wide variety of goods to buy. The selection of goods in a store in Pale which
we visited paled in comparison. It was almost like comparing stores in the good old days of communism to those in the west.
While Pale hoped to encourage tourism with their excellent local ski resort that had been used in the 1984 Olympics, Marc
pointed out that the rock walls along the twisty road to the resort were spray painted with the particular heavy-handed symbol of
Serbian nationalism â€“ somewhat akin to a swastika. This was not something that would encourage the nearby large Muslim
population of Sarajevo to visit their slopes.
On this same trip to Pale, after some effort, we found an obscure fish restaurant “ it had no apparent name “ that Marc had been
to with a couple of French guys. It lay down a tiny one lane dirt road next to a fresh mountain stream. The restaurant raised
their own trout right in the stream and the fish were taken directly from their ponds upon placing your order. And they were
tasty, too. It was a large establishment with various decks and terraces overlooking the small stream. It was a beautiful set up
and we were the only ones there to enjoy it.
On another day, we ventured across the border that lay in Sarajevo proper. While the buildings and other scenery were more or
less the same, one major difference was the sudden appearance of a plethora of bootleg CD shops. Pretty much any kind of
music could be bought here for about $5 per CD, nice color photocopied liner notes, too. There was a nearby UN base and I
can only assume that the soldiers stationed there provided most of the business. These shops were crawling with American and
French GIs looking for good, albeit illegal, bargains to take back home. We jumped right in and did our part to undermine the
American recording industry.
One morning, not too early, the four of us headed out from Marc's home and up the narrow Turkish streets to climb one of the
low mountains that surround the city. It didn't take more than a half an hour to reach the edge of town. The road turn to
crumbled pavement and dirt, narrowed to one lane, and the houses thinned. What houses had lain beyond the edge of town had
been completely destroyed. Some of the buildings had O.K. spray painted on them, indicating that they had been cleared for
booby traps. We were entering the frontline area, the ridges that lay beyond had been Serb controlled. It was from here that
they had shelled Sarajevo for all those years. The road was cut in to the densely vegetated hillside. Marc warned us to walk
away from the uphill side, since heavy rains still occasionally washed mine out of the side of the hill.
All of Sarajevo could be seen from the top of the ridge. It helped that many of the fir trees on top had been blasted apart,
allowing us to see through the otherwise dense forest. The most striking thing about Sarajevo was the size of the cemeteries.
Their acres of white stone markers contrasted sharply with the gray construction of the rest of the city. These graveyards were
present before the war, and were famous for being in the middle of the city, but it was hard to not mentally associate them with
the recent conflict. Just over the ridge, in a pastoral alpine setting lay a little restaurant. We ate a little lunch there, just some
small cevapcici sausages and beer, and went further along the road, which ran just below the ridgeline.
There were a few random cows along the road and not much else. We crossed over the top of the ridge again, and Marc and I
wanted to follow a cow trail that lead back down into town, but Patty and Judit wouldn't have it. They were too scared of
mines and wanted to take another path where people had been. I figured cows would have set off any leftover mines as well as
people, and we didn't see any cow parts lying around, so it must be safe, but the women won and we went back the other way.
In retrospect, they made the right choice, not because it was safer (in my opinion), but because the other path lead back through
the forest and right through the old trenches. It was like something right out of World War I. Collapsing trench walls, decaying
sandbags, and the shell-blasted trees overhead. There was also a small monument to a fallen Bosnian soldier in the midst of all
this. It was eerie and disturbing, too much in the present to be considered merely as unfortunate events of the past.