Saturday, 17 November 2012

Balkania Pt. 16: Under the airport and over the mountains

world-map bosnia


This week’s extract has me visiting Bosnia-Herzegovina’s two most famous cities, Sarajevo and Mostar, and seeing the terrible havoc wrought by war on both. But there is a history before the war as well and as a companion to this article, please check out the story that I wrote on the trip and inspired by the trip, a story of Tito, Kosovo Field and the Prophet Elijah: Black Night, Grey Falcon. Please check it out and comment on what you think of it. Don’t forget my other Bosnia tale either, Dark Swirling Waters.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

My Flickr album of this trip

Index and links to all the parts of Balkania:

Balkania Pt. 1: Sofia to Varna

Balkania Pt. 2: A Drink in Varna

Balkania Pt. 3: Wedding Bells in Varna (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 4: A Trip to Tutrakan: Tales of Devotion and Despair

Balkania Pt. 5: Of Love, Lust and the Nation (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 6: Back to School

Balkania Pt. 7: On a Mission

Balkania Pt. 8: The City of Wisdom?

Balkania Pt. 9: And the Tsar, he chose a heavenly kingdom…

Balkania Pt. 10: The Bridge over the Drina

Balkania Pt. 11: The Death-Drenched Drina

Balkania Pt. 12: Jerusalem of the Balkans

Balkania Pt. 13: A City Under Siege

Balkania Pt. 14: Austrian Influences

Balkania Pt. 15: Along the Bosna Valley

Balkania Pt. 16: Under the Airport and over the Mountains

Balkania Pt. 17: A Day Trip with Miran

Balkania Pt. 18: The City of the Broken Bridge

Balkania Pt. 19: Up the Black Mountain

Balkania Pt. 20: Worth the Bones of a Pomeranian Grenadier…?


Sarajevo (5)

I woke rather late due to staying up past one to finish the Višegrad story that I’d been writing on the train back from Visoko and then in the Morica Han over coffee.[1] I was pleased with the result though; it had been painful to write but worth it and I knew that the story I had written was one of my better efforts.

I had a look around another of Sarajevo’s hans, the Brusa Han, which now houses a museum detailing the history of the city from the earliest times up until 1914 and it dovetailed well with the Historical Museum that I had visited the previous day before I had caught the train to Zenica as that had dealt with Sarajevo during the 20th century including an extremely moving section on the siege.

I took the tram down to Ilidža again but this time did not stick around the sample the thermally-goodness and instead took a taxi onwards to the Tunnel Museum in the village of Butmir near to the airport. This museum, one of the most interesting in Sarajevo, is housed in the bullet-hole ridden house above the entrance to the narrow tunnel that led under the airport and connected Sarajevo with the rest of the Bosnian government-held territory. After watching a video about the tunnel and life in Sarajevo during the siege, we were led down a short section of the tunnel itself. What struck me was how small it was, only a metre across and one and a half metres high and how potentially lethal travelling through it could have been, for alongside were two high-voltage electric cables, a petrol pipe and a telephone cable. If it had ever been hit, anyone in it would have been toast and yet, miraculously, it never was and it remained operational until the very end of the war.

After the trip through the tunnel itself, there were a couple of rooms talking about how the tunnel had saved the city and another full of congratulations from major world figures. Whilst this was all rather interesting, I also found it frustrating, for like everything else that I’d seen on the siege, it focussed on the experience and not the logistics of it all and answered none of my questions as to what had actually happened and why. My questions regarding the tunnel revolved around how the tunnel actually managed to survive. For reasons already explained, I had worked out why the Serbs could not take the city of Sarajevo itself, but the reasons preventing this – street-to-street fighting and a lack of manpower – would not apply in Butmir which is spread out and on a plain. One imagines that it would have been comparatively easy to roll the tanks through the village and thus capture the end of the tunnel and cut the main supply line into Sarajevo, and so the question begs again, why did they not do so? Since the museum was remarkably short on answers, I tried to formulate my own and came up with three possible explanations which are as follows:

1. The Serbs never knew about the tunnel and thus saw no reason in trying the capture Butmir. This I regard as being extremely unlikely since common sense alone would tell them that Sarajevo was being supplied somehow and that the only possible route for a supply tunnel would be under the airport from Butmir.

2. The UN might have forbade them from attacking Butmir, it being part of some ‘safe haven’ or other. Again unlikely, since the Serbs rarely listened to the UN even when they did declare areas to be ‘protected’.

3. The Serbs did try to take Butmir repeatedly, but each time they did, the Bosniaks defended the village like lions and repulsed them. Judging from the state of some of the houses in the village, this seems like the most likely explanation. If it is the truth, then Butmir must surely have been the most important battleground in the entire country, for if it had fallen, then Sarajevo, without its supply line, would surely have fallen also.

Trans Balkan Trip 2011 446

Inside the tunnel

I had now done all that I wanted to do in Sarajevo and I still had half a day to kill before my train onwards to Mostar. I headed over to the southern bank of the Miljacka, an area built up by the Austrians. I popped into another of their great legacies to the Bosnians, the pub underneath the Sarajevsko Brewery. It was cool and dark in there and the beer was excellent with a very bitter taste and not at all watery. I wrote a bit of my Tito story over a couple of pints and then returned to the Bazaar District to buy some cheesy Tito souvenirs and eat a traditional Bosnian meal that was not čevapi, (I had dined at Zeljo’s everyday whilst in Sarajevo). Then, when all was done and it came time to depart, I collected my bags from the hotel and caught the tram to the railway station, onwards to my last stop in Bosnia-Herzegovina, another famous town with another famous bridge: Mostar.

Mostar (1)

I sat at a table in the street, a very pleasant cold beer in front of me, watching a council truck spray down the street after a busy day of people wandering up and down it. My mood was a mixture of gladness tinged with annoyance; glad to be in Mostar but slightly annoyed as to how my journey and arrival had panned out.

I’d read great things about how spectacular the train journey between Sarajevo and Mostar is and I was determined to see it for myself. That’s why I’d booked onto the 18:00 departure from Sarajevo – the only other train left at 07:00 in the morning, no thanks! – which I’d thought would be perfect since it would give me two hours of daylight in which to experience the best part of the journey before rolling into Herzegovina’s capital at a reasonable hour. I had not however, taken into account the awful tardiness of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s national rail system.[2] Mine eventually rolled into Sarajevo some eighty minutes late and as we trundled out of the capital darkness was already beginning to set in. By the time we got to the spectacular section of the line, it was all pitch black and I felt cheated for from the little I could discern, it would be unbelievably scenic during the day with the train clinging high to the mountainside before doubling back on itself in order to descend to the valley floor. One of the most incredible rail journeys in Europe and I saw bugger all.

But they say that every cloud has a silver lining and this one had two. The first was that there being a long time to wait on the station and sod all to see on the train, I spent my time writing and managed to finish my Tito story,[3] whilst the second was that while I was waiting on the platform I fell into conversation with the waitress at the buffet – I was her only customer – who lived in the city but hailed originally from Trebinje, a “very beautiful town” in the far south of the country that once had an extremely mixed population but is nowadays wholly Serbian and wholly within Republika Srpska.[4] She talked about the war and life in Sarajevo in the present-day and I decided to find out the answer to something that had been bugging me for a few days. I showed her my passport where the Serbian border guard had written over the Kosova stamp and asked her what it said. “It says ‘PONIŠTENO’,” she explained, “which means something like ‘does not exist’. They are saying that Kosovo does not exist, that it is not a real place! These people, they are crazy! Of course Kosovo exists, they need to wake up and join the real world!” Strangely though, she said those words with a laugh, finding Serb stubbornness funny. There was no trace of anger in her voice at all.

At Mostar railway station I was met by a man touting for a hostel. His name was Miran and he was asking €10p/n. I told him that I did everything bar dormitories and he replied that that was not a problem so I followed him through the narrow alleyways of the old town to his house, but when I got there I was dismayed to discover that there were only dorm beds left. I felt tricked but more than that I felt tired and hungry. “I’ll get you a single room tomorrow,” Miran offered and so, reluctantly, I agreed and laid down my bag. Then I went out to get some money from a cash machine and some food and beer to fill my stomach.

And that beer turned into four. I’d intended to walk all the way to the famous Old Bridge but in the end I couldn’t be bothered and besides, a view like that is best seen in the daytime, so instead I just installed myself in a street-side bar – where they’d commented favourably on my Stoke City top, all being firm Begović fans in this part of the country – where I sat and supped Sarajevsko, Preminger and Karlovačko.

Next part: Balkania Pt. 17: A Day Trip with Miran


[1] Dark Swirling Waters

[2] To be fair, elsewhere in the Balkans the trains are generally slow, but they are usually punctual, so one can at least plan for the slowness.

[3] Black Night, Grey Falcon

[4] Incidentally, Trebinje is where Asmir Begović, Stoke City’s Bosnian keeper, hails from. Like the waitress, his family too were forced out during the war for being Muslim. I intended to visit it but ran out of time.

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