At the ripe old age of 25, I took my gap year. After three long years of one fuck up after another, I had decided that 2017 was the year of getting shit done. There were no ski resorts or islands involved – it was just going to be me, and my laptop spending a year in Europe working remotely.
It was of course both glorious and glamourous, but at times wildly overwhelming and yes, lonely. After spending eight months in Western Europe, I was becoming more and more disengaged with every selfie stick (that I had the displeasure of fighting for personal space with).
I’d often thought about how to try to describe Bosnia, since I returned home to the Land Down Under. It wasn’t necessarily the prettiest or the most Instagram worthy – but it affected me the most, even twelve months on.
My Mother’s face glazed over and went slightly pale, when I said I would be based in Bosnia and Herzegovina for six weeks. I was out of visas, and it was cheap. At that point, no further information was required.
“What about the war!?” she panicked.
What about the war? It was twenty years ago, when I was busy riding in wheelbarrows in my yellow gumboots and eating glue, without a care in the world or a fuck to give. I’d done my fair share of research. Wiki Travel, my bread and butter, was yet to fail me. I thought I had a pretty solid idea of what I was signing up for.
Turns out, I did not.
Twenty minutes after crossing the border from Croatia, in my trusty $500 1992 VW Golf sourced in the UK months earlier – my sacred Google Maps stopped working. The paved road stopped, as did the buildings with four solid walls and a roof. The buildings that were still standing upright, were still riddled with bullet holes. The 40% unemployment rate soon became apparent when I saw men and women easily in their eighties, picking fields of vegetables in 38 degree heat. Slowing down, I could see that the “keep” pile had food that was evidently rotting. The faces returning my curious gaze were lined with age, sadness, and were overwhelmingly battle weary. A wave of panic started to set in. I’d landed on what felt like Tatooine.
Warnings about land mines were everywhere, because the government was STILL arguing about who should pay to remove them. The war may have been long over, but it was still a war zone. If you ever had to endure one, I’d imagine twenty years would still only feel like yesterday. But that was the punch line – I could only imagine.
Two hours later, I had arrived in Mostar – home for the next six weeks. A large town, not quite a city. A place that so badly wanted to be cosmopolitan but couldn’t quite shake off the ghosts of the past despite all best efforts. I pondered to myself, if they could see the irony in a brand new Macdonald’s with a drive through – built between a house still broken from grenades with stray dogs living inside it. Two doors up, the shell of an old apartment block known locally in Mostar as “Sniper Tower”. Five doors down, a brand new mall housing Zara and H&M. An entire country of contradictions.
There is an entire generation of young adults – about my age – who don’t know who their fathers are. Up to 50, 000 women were raped by soldiers during the war in literal concentration camps. Many were Muslims, and the concept was a form of ethnic cleansing – to “breed it out” of future generations. 100, 000 people died in under four years. I’d never seen such a concentration of cemeteries – one after another, wherever you looked – in all my life.
The most common question I have been asked, is what were the people like? Well, they’re stern, blunt, but they were strong. Some were still angry. Some were melancholic. Some were tense. Some just wanted to go nightclubbing every day. Most were above all – generous. They know what it is to have to struggle, and thus rush nothing while appreciating everything.
Every day I thought to myself, why didn’t we learn about this in school? Because Australia “wasn’t involved”? To me, this was real, and this was relevant. For literally hundreds of years, this country has fought for independence. So much so, that the chain of events that started World War One, began right here with the assassination of the Crowne Prince of Hungary. I was angry at my own ignorance – no, I was angry at all of our ignorance. I was angry that the same mistakes are still happening now, all around the world.
And so slightly nervous, I eventually found my new abode on the north side of Mostar. The first thing I noticed was that it too was riddled with bullet holes, a spray paint tag titled “Local Street Thugs” on the front door. My personal favourite was an old Fiat with vines growing through the engine, in what was supposed to be my car parking space.
As I was unpacking the trusty Golf, a passing gentleman smoking a pipe stopped his mid-afternoon stroll and pointed to my number plate. He threw his arms up in the air and exclaimed “Great Britain!” before pulling me into a hug and kissing both my cheeks. It became apparent very quickly that this was the full extent of his English, and I didn’t have the heart to correct him.
And that dear friends, is what I had found Bosnia to be all about.
The internet didn’t tell me about the street art that covers each alley, created by a new generation in an effort to channel their graphic history into something positive. A common phrase I found everywhere was “Zajendo u Nevolji” – translating to “Together In Trouble”.
The internet didn’t tell me the tolerance and diversity in this country. Once there were Bosnian Croats, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Muslims. With time, the new age has brought most – not all – together. Many prefer to be referred to as just Bosnians, and not by their ethnicity. My Sunday mornings consist of hearing both Christian church bells and the Islamic call to prayer blaring at the same time. They know firsthand what happens when ethnic tensions escalate. They might not love each other, but they live with each other – in peace.
The internet didn’t tell me the effects of a cultural mash up of an Ottoman Turkish influence mixed with an Austrian-Hungarian empire that ruled consecutively – and the food, art and architecture that followed.
The internet didn’t tell me about the endless mountains, fields and lakes that make you feel as if you were in Switzerland. Nobody told me to drive from the hot, dry desert of Mostar, through the green winding mountains to the capital Sarajevo. I spent an hour fishing with three gents in their 70’s as I stopped by a river on my way to the big city. Cigars were shared, and bonding via broken English was had.
The internet didn’t tell me that my fuel station attendant – whose grasp on English goes as far as “Hello” and “Smoke” – would not let me pay for oil or water, and insisted on giving me an ice cream because it was so hot. In Bosnia, it’s a grave offense to not be hospitable to guests in your home or business.
I am actually thankful that this is yet not common knowledge, and – with the exception of Kravice Waterfalls on the border of Croatia – the tourists have mostly stay away. I knew that I wanted more than Western Europe and had given me so far, and I found it in the Balkans.
Maybe I’ll find myself in Aleppo or Mosul in 20 years’ time. As just another someone stopping in, trying to cram thousands of years of history into a month. So, in the words of many a gypsy before me – Mum, I was fine.
© All text and images by Angela Wallace