July 15-19: The Land of Blood and Honey: supposedly the word “Balkan” comes from Turkish “Bal”, honey, and “Kan”, blood. When the Ottoman Turks conquered this land in the 1300’s they found it rich, but hard. We found that still true today.
I knew only a little of the region before we came. I’d learned that Sarajevo was long lauded as the “Jerusalem of Europe”, where for centuries Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox and Jews co-existed in relative harmony, under the tolerant Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires. It grew to be a rich trading hub between east and west.
And so, we hired a driver, Mili for our journey from Split (Croatia) to Mostar in BiH (Bosnia & Herzegovina). He not only made us feel completely comfortable as we crossed the border, he also invited us to his home, where Jean cooked with his wife Maja. Bosnian coffee, burek, and baklava made for a wonderful food adventure with new friends. Look for a CK write-up soon. We found similar warmth checking into our small hotel, where the owner shared refreshments on her patio upon check-in. All in all, a wonderful introduction to BiH; honey indeed.
While in Dubrovnik, Jean and I visited a war photography exhibit that focused on the Balkan wars of the 1990s. The history and trauma is shocking. With the breakup of Yugoslavia, identity politics and religious bigotry led to the worst conflict in Europe since WW2, with atrocities as nauseating as those committed by the Nazis. I encourage you to read Wikipedia pages on Siege of Sarajevo and especially Srebrenica for more.
Mostar, with its UNCESCO architecture and historic old town, is still a very divided city. Catholics and Muslims, initially allied against the Serbs, later fought bitterly against each other before allying again. Decades later, the divide and distrust remain. It is as visible as the bombed-out building shells next to new apartments seen throughout the city. Our guide, a Muslim female, repeatedly received hostile stares as she led us through the Christian side of town to the cathedral on our walking tour. As far as we could see, she was the only Muslim on that side of the river, while Muslims abounded on the other side of town. There is work to be done here to bring unity.
In Sarajevo, mostly Muslim, we found a more hopeful story. The community seemed more integrated and united, as they had fought and suffered together against the 5-year long siege by Serbian snipers and artillery. Our guide, Ahmed, showed us the “Tunnel of Hope” that was the only connection to the outside world. He also shared a home-made gun (pipes welded with springs) that his father used to help defend the city. As we walked the once again vibrant old town, we saw several “Sarajevo Roses” – holes left in the concrete from artillery and filled with red was to mark and remind where large numbers of civilians died during the siege.
And more Honey
We spend our last day in Sarajevo with Dzana, a local guide and new mother of her second son, just 20 days old. She spent three extra hours with us, sharing candid insights on food and culture, introducing friends, and laughing with us (see Jean’s Food Adventure on CK here). As we strolled, we saw citizens from all walks of life crowd the streets together in both the Ottoman (Muslim) and Austro-Hungarian (Christian) parts of Old Town. The people of Sarajevo seem to want to build connections and move forward as a united city.
The next day, we stopped in a coppersmith shop to get out of the rain. Dzana had introduced us to Kenan the day prior. He graciously made Bosnian coffee for us and brought stools for us as we waited for the rain to clear. He did the same for several others in his tiny shop, which was filled with chatter and laughter.
We are so glad we came to the Land of Blood and Honey, and we hope to return soon. We have new friends, gracious with their hospitality. The people here are the magic, as they overcome division and rebuild a once, and again, beautiful city and culture.