Thursday, April 28, 2016

From Sarajevo to Belgrade with love

When my friend visited, we took a day-trip from Sarajevo to Belgrade -- an excellent way to get between cities: stop and see the highlights that lie in between! Our first stop was Višegrad known for the bridge popularized in Ivo Andrić's "Bridge on the Drina," which won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961. As the title indicates, this bridge passes over the Drina river, which forms a large portion of the border between Bosnia and Serbia.

View from the bridge.

View of the bridge.

View of the bridge from the water!

After crossing the border, we headed to Drvengrad, literally "wooden city," the only stop I'd visited during Bridge Year. Serbian filmmaker Emir Kustarica created this ethno-village for a film set, but instead of breaking it down when they wrapped the film, he's preserved it entirely. It now sustains itself with tourism and an annual film festival. This city hasn't changed a bit, which makes sense since it's artificial to begin with.

Then came the stop I was most looking forward to. Šarganska osmica is a piece of a railroad that once ran from Sarajevo to Belgrade. Mountains define much of the topography of Eastern Bosnia and Western Serbia, which forced this train to curl around and bisect various mountains in order to reach its destination. The particular strip that remains looks like the number 8 from above, though it begins and ends at different magnitudes. My friend and I were thrilled by this roughly 40-minute ride on a crickety train. If not for this day-trip, however, I would not have made it. Like much of the untouched beauty in the Balkans, the only way to reach it is by car. The train between the two cities no longer runs, and there are actually worse trains now than there were at the turn of the 20th century according to some Bosnians; there once was a train from Vienna to Sarajevo! During its brief history in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Sarajevo became a modern city with electricity, modern buildings, and an extensive railway system. Some Sarajevans wish their city had benefitted more from this alliance cut short by Gavrilo Princip, who remains a controversial figure.

Next we headed to Tara National Park, which overlooks the Drina. At this point, a thick fog hung over the mountain. We were supposed to go on a short hike to a viewpoint, but our guide suggested we skip it since we could barely see ten feet in front of us let alone the Drina several hundred meters below. But since the fog entranced my friend and me, hike we did through a clouded forest.

After driving most of the way down the mountain, we found a suitable lookout.

Finally we stopped briefly to see this house precariously positioned on a rock in the middle of the Drina.

As much as I love riding trains to get from place to place and watching the countryside go by, this day reaffirmed how much lies between these hubs that most people either don't know about or don't have easy access to. I hope more of these city-to-city day-trips pop up.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

In and around Sarajevo

On a recent excursion with a visiting friend, I spent three days in Bosnia, mostly in and around Sarajevo. People in Serbia tend to be slightly skeptical when you talk about visiting Bosnia because of the recent atrocities committed during the Yugoslav Wars, the most atrocious of which occurred in Bosnia. Most of my Serbian friends have never been to Bosnia unless they visited before the breakup of Yugoslavia. Conversations about Bosnia in Serbia (and vice versa) proved tense and sometimes uncomfortable; my friends appeared unsure how to feel -- some blend of confused, guilty, hurt, and bitter. One of the more baffling elements of Yugoslavia’s fall and the quick rise of mutually exclusive nationalisms is the abundance of mixed marriages from the ‘50s to ’89. Many consider themselves "mixed" with parents or grandparents who were some combination of Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats. How people can within themselves contain multiple nationalisms and still swear alliance to one and vindictive defiance to another is beyond me.

It’s next to impossible to visit Bosnia without remembering the Yugoslav Wars and the siege of Sarajevo. All guided tours of the city and its surroundings at least mention it, and some are wholly based on it. My friend and I did a five-hour "Sarajevo War Tour" that highlighted important sites during the 44-month siege and of Sarajevo’s glory days before the war peaking at the ’84 Winter Olympics.

The National Theatre

Perhaps the most infamous facts about the Balkans is the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. This marks the spot.

Quite an attractive city hall, clearly designed during the Austro-Hungarian Empire but with some Arabesque elements, too.

The view from "Yellow fortress"

Many fields and mountains in Kosovo and Bosnia were never cleared after the Yugoslav Wars.

The start of the "tunnel of hope" -- an underground tunnel that connected the city to the UN-controlled airport. It wasn't used for them to flee, but rather to access food, humanitarian aid, and war supplies during the siege.

Hearing about the siege from those who were besieged was as fascinating as it was elusive. The beautiful hills surrounding Sarajevo betrayed the city as the Serbs used them strategically to lock everyone in for nearly four years. The most confusing part for me is the UN’s involvement. The UN controlled the airport, so member states donated food that was then distributed to Sarajevans so that they wouldn’t starve. While well-intentioned, this neither terminated nor truncated the siege, but instead extended it. The Dayton Peace Accords, which ended the war in Bosnia, divided Bosnia into three regions based on ethnic/religious groups; most went to the Bosnian Muslims, but portions of the country were given to the Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats. Each group has a president who leads the country for eight months every two years. The constitution, according to our guide, was never approved by parliament since the UN appointed “high representative” has ultimate power. If this seems illogical, you're not alone. When a former High Representative, Miroslav Lajcak, stepped down, he said (paraphrased), “I don’t want to be the jockey of a dead horse anymore.” Unfortunately, little seems to have changed.

Although the government conducted a thorough census in 2014, it hasn’t released a census since ’91. Our guide believes the Bosnian Serbs and Croats refuse to do so because revealing the huge Muslim majority would change the currently equal representation the groups share in Parliament. Moving among the three regions is a hassle as well since it requires a passport in addition to an entity citizenship card. Our guide thinks that those living in Republika Srpska require the Bosnian Serb entity identification card in order to get a job, perpetuating segregation.

Ski jump during the '84 Olympics

These vacant Olympic fields are ghostly to begin with, but those frozen gondalas on the center-left were especially creepy.


A hotel built for the '84 Olympics, now in shambles due to the Yugoslav Wars.

An abandoned bobsled track, one of only a handful in the world. While no longer functioning as a track for bobsleds, luge teams from Central and Eastern Europe use it. Last time I was here I caught the Slovakian youth team zooming away.

Wild horses beside the bobsled track! This one got defensive protecting his/her pony.

One way in which this second gap year in Serbia vastly differs from the last is my eagerness to understand the '90s from multiple perspectives. While I knew the Serbian side, I wasn't much exposed to how the war appeared from Bosnia or Croatia. I had heard of Srebrenica, the largest massacre on European soil since WWII, but did not realize its scope. More than 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks, mostly men, killed on a single day, July 11th, 1993, by Serbs. That it happened is an unspeakable tragedy. That relatively few people not connected to the Balkans know about it is also tragic.

In 2012, the 11/07/93 Gallery opened honoring and remembering the fallen. Located in the center of Sarajevo, this poignant museum features heart-wrenching photographs, posters, and documentaries.

The following posters on display explore the grievances Muslim Bosniaks felt then and still feel towards the international community. Many hark back to the '84 Olympics as a moment when the country mattered most in the world. I suppose it's a bit like the cruel ephemerality that usually accompanies fame -- one year you're made to feel all-important, the next completely forgotten.

Instead of listing dates, this calendar counts the number of days besieged.

After the museum, my friend and I returned to this park to watch some chess and reflect on what we'd seen.
Perhaps our favorite spot in Sarajevo, this giant chess set is always in play. Donated by the Swiss government after the war, the tour guide said even in the winter there are crowds. Though I usually think of chess as a two-person sport, these throngs of men proved me very wrong; even when not playing, they don't hesitate to throw in their 2¢.

Thursday, April 14, 2016


A few weeks ago I visited a friend on a Fulbright in Kosovo, one of the most contentious pieces of land in the world. Serbia has yet to recognize Kosovo's independence, and it probably cannot join the EU before it does so. However, I don't see that happening anytime soon based on the uncompromising nature of Serbian/Kosovo nationalism evident from conversations I've had both five years ago and this year.

Some basics:
There are about 2 million people in Kosovo, more than 90% Albanian and ~4% Serbian. Like the rest of the Balkans, high unemployment, organized crime, and political corruption impede its transition to a capitalist democracy. Perhaps even more profound, though, are recent and vivid memories of war and ethnic cleansing, and the bitter, despondent indignation fixed to those openly discussed times.

I mentioned life-course epidemiology a couple of posts ago, and I think there's an ample evidence for it in Kosovo and the Balkan peninsula as a whole. No truth and reconciliation followed the Yugoslavs and Kosovo Wars and it's as if a toxin continue to poisons the thoughts and minds of those living here. Many locals with whom I spoke - those who lived through the wars of the '90s and those born in the aughts - seemed to carry a toxic stress that courses through society.They believe that the rest of Europe perceives Kosovo as second class, which, according to a local, spurs a number of Kosovo Albanians to treat Kosovo Serbs as second class citizens for a fleeting tryst with superiority.

Perhaps I'm just more attune to these issues than I was five years ago, but it certainly feels like tensions are rising throughout the Balkans. When I've asked Serbs, Bosnians, and Kosovars if they could imagine a war breaking out, they've all said "no," but some reached this conclusion reasoning that their weak governments and poor economies couldn't handle it. They don't deny the abounding animus and impulse to fight that still possesses a frightening number.

Many Serbs refer to Kosovo as Serbia's Jerusalem since it contains many of the oldest and most sacred Eastern Orthodox churches. After visiting I've realized how apt this analogy is. First of all, there's the completely unchangeable problem of too much history and too little land. Much like Israel and Palestine, it's impossible to imagine that these two people with radically different conceptions of themselves and of history can fully share a unified state. A few Albanian Kosovars told me that the Battle of Kosovo of 1389 -- when Serbs lost Kosovo to the Turks, later used in during Milosevic's "Field of Kosovo" speech in 1989 at the 600th anniversary of the Battle to galvanize the Serbs to fight for "Greater Serbia" -- never happened. They said bodies were never found and Serbs made it up to dramatize the importance of Kosovo in Serbian history. When I passed this belief onto Serbs, they laughed and piled on stereotypical insults about Kosovo Albanians.

Just a few days ago, a grenade was thrown before Serbian PM Vucic's election rally in Kosovo. This ongoing hostility has no foreseeable resolution that will appease all parties and seems bound to persist indefinitely.

Some photos:
Tito and his wife plastered on an exterior wall of a cafe beside a gas station/rest stop in Southern Serbia. My parents and I did an "escape the room" puzzle-solving, team-building game last fall in Belgrade called "Tito's Secret." The themed game was premised on Tito's philandering, yet the final code spelled out his wife's name. Despite his flaws, people here can't seem to help but praise and pine for him.

The bus from Belgrade to Kosovo featured this design on its side. You'll likely recognize all of most of these statues, but probably not the church to the left of the winding road. That's Sveti Sava, the world's second largest Eastern Orthodox church, located in Belgrade.

Typical Serbian plain with a faint shadow of Kopaonik (where I learned to ski 5 years ago!) in the background.

Sunset on the Nišava river:

Some of Kosovo's natural beauty:

Radac waterfall:

From the top of the waterfall:

Rugova gorge:

Gjakova city center

Patriarchate of Pec: a complex of Serbian Orthodox churches built in the 13th and 14th centuries. Because 
Kosovo Albanians have attempted to desecrate some monasteries in past years, it's under constant KFOR (Kosovo Force, a NATO-led peacekeeping force) protection:

Decani monastery, also guarded by KFOR, is another major Orthodox monastery initially established in the 13th century: 

The only painting, according to my tour guide, of Jesus with a sword:

Inside the monastery:

Inside a mosque, arabesque paintings that depict landscapes from Kosovo:

Kosovo's national library which often makes the cut on lists of the world's ugliest buildings: 

An unfinished Eastern Orthodox church in the middle of Priština besides a university building:

The famous Newborn monument: installed in 2008 to honor Kosovo's independence, each year it is repainted. This year's design features a blue sky with clouds wrapped in barbed wire:

A relatively new memorial dedicated to the Albanian and Serbian women who were sexually assaulted during the Kosovo War, "heroinat" meaning heroine in Albanian:

Statue of Bill Clinton, many Kosovar's favorite American. Nearby there's a women's clothing store named "Hilary."

Germia Park, a national park near Priština:

And a few photos from Niš, third largest city in Serbia where I lived for four months five years ago. A sign reading "Nis, Serbia: birthplace of Constantine the Great" -- the city's main claim to fame -- greets visitors as they enter the city by car.

A hammam (bathhouse) inside the fortress turned into a cafe:

From Niš's fortress looking out to the city:

From the same spot looking into the fortress: