Neum, Bosnia and Hercegovina: Today didn’t unfold the way I visualized.
I planned to take a side trip by bus to visit Mostar, a city that dates to the 16th century and one recently made famous during the Bosnian war. I arrived thirty minutes early at the “bus station,” which is just a shelter next to a magazine kiosk alongside the main road. The bus to Neum was thirty minutes late, and by the time the bus arrived, nearly twenty people wanted to get on. The bus was already full; almost everyone was turned away. I expected a melee but the crowded bus left and the abandoned crowd dispersed.
That put a pickle into my plans.
I asked a young Bosnian couple with whom I had been chatting about arranging other transport. That’s very difficult, I was told. There should be another bus in an hour. Maybe. I walked around the very small town of Neum to see if I could hire a car or a taxi. All the tourist agencies were closed. Instead, the police stopped me and asked to see my passport, which I found very curious because no one cared about my passport at the border the day before. The policeman seemed to be looking for my Bosnian entry visa, which I don’t have, and spent a good amount of time examining my many Chinese and Indian visas. After a while the officer finally handed my passport back and just said “OK.” I guess he needed to get back to work to catch a bad guy or something.
I decided to walk back to the small family run hotel where I am staying and see if Martina, the very helpful and friendly receptionist, can help me. She worked the phones and in a few minutes said that her brother Slaven, who also works in the family business, can drive me in the family car.
It wasn’t long before Slaven and I were on the road. He explained it’s quicker to go to Mostar via Croatia, so we backtracked about twenty kilometers which I had cycled the day before, then re-entered Bosnia and Herzegovina at another border station, where they very much cared about seeing my passport.
Slaven is a well-informed 27-year-old and speaks very good English. The best part about today’s excursion was having a captive audience with whom I could frankly talk about the war, what happened, and why. It was a great conversation. Slaven’s perspective helped to connect many of the historical dots I had read about as I try to understand the complex history of the Balkans.
He was six when the war started in 1991. While Neum was largely spared, it was aerial bombed for a three-month period during which his family evacuated to Hvar island in Croatia. He offered the clearest, most logical explanation yet on why the war started. Here’s the elementary version:
After Yugoslavia fragmented post-Tito and Croatia, Bosnia and Slovenia declared independence, landlocked Serbia wanted access to the sea. Orthodox Serbia attacked Catholic Croatia. For two years Muslim Bosnia allied with Catholic Croatia to fight the Orthodox Serbs. Then in 1993 that alliance broke and the Bosnian war became a three-way, two-fronted clusterf— of conflict, Catholics vs. Muslims vs Orthodox Christians. Atrocities were committed on all sides. The Dayton Accords stopped the fighting and created a contrived one country, two governments, three-rotating-presidents system. It’s complicated and artificial, but there’s peace.
“The war sapped our morale,” he continued. “Now when we speak to someone in Bosnia and Hercegovina, we’re always conscious about whether the person is Catholic, Muslim, or Orthodox. It’s uncomfortable.”
As we drove out of the heart of Mostar, Slaven pointed to the ruins of this building, one of many war-struck buildings in Mostar, lingering physical scars of the civil war. “All of Mostar was like that at the of the war,” he explained. “Especially this area.” The car then turned onto the main road in Mostar. “Because this is the dead line,” the invisible dividing line between Catholic and Muslim. “This is where they came face to face and killed each other.” On our way back to Neum, Slaven pointed out many abandoned homes, probably Serb homes, as remnants of the war. I also noticed that the Cyrillic (Serbian) names on many road signs had systematically been blacked out by graffiti in this Catholic part of the country.
The war cost over 100,000 lives (some estimates run as high as 329,000 lives) and displaced more than 2.2 million people. Savage war crimes were committed. And Serbia did not get the sea view it sought.