Saturday, 24 November 2012

Balkania Pt. 17: A day trip with Miran

world-map bosnia

Greetings!

I take a trip out in this edition to a number of places in Herzegovina, one of them being one of the most visited pilgrimage sites on earth, Međugorje.

Which is apt since as well as posting Balkania extracts up weekly for your environment, I’ve also been writing a guide to sacred Staffordshire, my holy land which I shall be posting on this site at a later date. It’s finished now and so if anyone wishes to learn a little about Sts. Chad, Wystan, Rufin, Wulfad, Werburgh, Editha and Modwen, just drop me a line.

There’ll be no Balkania update next week by the way, since I’m off on my travels again, nowhere exotic, but instead a trip around South Wales which I’m looking forward to, checking out the holy site of St. David’s and the cities of Cardiff and Swansea. Don’t worry though, I’ll keep you posted!

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

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Balkania Pt. 3: Wedding Bells in Varna (unpublished)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Balkania Pt. 5: Of Love, Lust and the Nation (unpublished)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…?

Central-Balkans-Map

Excurison: Blagaj, Počitelj, Kravica Waterfalls and Međugorje

Mostar was distinctly more touristy than anywhere else that I’d been to on the trip. After leaving Varna I’d not come across a single tourist until I hit Sarajevo and those that had been there were dissipated in amongst the vast numbers of locals. In Mostar though, they were far more noticeable and I knew that this was only a foretaste of what I would encounter later on in Dubrovnik.

Not that being touristy is necessarily a bad thing mind, for with tourists can come some distinct advantages and one of them I utilised that day. When researching the trip, I’d wanted to visit Blagaj, Počitelj and possibly Međugorje as well whilst in Mostar, but doing them on public transport would be virtually impossible in a single day. However, when Miran offered an excursion in his car for €10 I snapped it up straightaway for it covered all three and also took in the Kravica Waterfalls, a famous local beauty spot as well.

On the excursion I was joined by two English girls – Sally and Alice – who were training to be doctors, an American named Ryan who was a mathematician and our host himself. Miran was a chatterbox. He liked the sound of his own voice which may account for why he chose a career which involves talking at people all day. That said, he knew his stuff, although it was presented in a typically Balkan way, which is to say, it was the truth, refracted through a particular set of lenses. Miran’s lenses were a Bosniak lens but also a Herzegovinian lens as well, and the narrative of recent Bosnian history that he treated us to differed considerably from those which I’d heard in Višegrad and Sarajevo.

Herzgovina is the forgotten sister of Bosnia-Herzegovina. So often the name of the country is shortened to ‘Bosnia’ whilst her citizens are all ‘Bosnians’. That is perhaps only natural; ancient Herzegovina is but a small slice of the whole country, approximately a quarter of the land area and, as with Bosnia, is divided today between the Federation and Republika Srpska, and regarding the Federation section, that itself is split between two Croat cantons and one ethnically-mixed canton.[1] Even its unofficial capital Mostar is split down the middle with the eastern bank of the Neretva River being predominantly Bosniak and the western bank, Croat. All this notwithstanding, it still maintains its own ambience distinct from Central Bosnia which I’d left the previous evening. The Dinaric Alps that my train snaked its way up and over divides the two regions geographically and whilst the interior had been lush and green, here in Herzegovina it was a dry, arid and classically Mediterranean landscape.

Miran started off his monologue by talking about Tito. It was a Bosniak Tito that he described, a Tito who had done wonders in developing the country, under whom everyone lived in harmony. There was no mention of state coercion or of lack of freedoms, no talk of oppression of one nation or favouritism of another. Indeed, the only criticism of the old dictator that was proffered was rather mild indeed; that he could not afford all the things he built. It was not the Tito that a Serb, Croat or Slovene would describe although it was probably quite similar to the Tito talked about in the coffee houses of Kosova.

Then he moved onto the war and here the story differed radically from the Serb versus Bosniak narrative that I’d encountered from both sides earlier on in my trip. The Serbs were mentioned, but only briefly, at the start. Instead Miran’s ire was focussed far more on the Croats. “We were fighting the Serbs – and doing well against them – and the Tudjmann [the Croatian leader] had this secret meeting with Milošević where they made a pact. We didn’t know about any of this of course and so what happened? One night, at midnight, all the Croats, men that had been fighting in the trenches alongside us, all withdrew to their bank of the river. The next day they attacked us and do you know what; it was the Serbs who started supplying us with weapons!”

In his narrative, which continued on and off for the entire trip, whilst there was no love lost for the Serbs, it was the Croats who were the real bad guys. The Serbs were enemies, yes, but they were more distant and less immediately threatening. The Croats on the other hand were turncoats, traitors – if he’d been Christian I’m sure he’d have said Judases – who had swapped sides and then pounded his beloved city with shells, killing friends and family. “Do you remember the shelling of Dubrovnik?” he asked rhetorically. “Well, when they saw the Serbs shelling the old city of Dubrovnik, NATO decided to help the Croats who were saying that they didn’t have the resources to fight the Serbs yet all the while they were actually diverting troops away from Dubrovnik to attack us here in Mostar.” The message to us all could not have been clearer: one should never trust a Croat.

Our first stop on the Tour de Herzegovina was the tekiya (tekke) at Blagaj. I’ve already discussed one Balkan tekke at great length, that being the shrine of Demir Baba in Bulgaria, and this place was in the same mould. Built around 1520, it was home to a Sufi order, that strain of liberal, mystical Islam that has flourished in the Balkans for centuries. Ever since I first saw a photograph of it, I’d wanted to visit the Blagaj tekke for it is in an incredibly picturesque location at the foot of a two hundred metre high cliff at the very place where the River Buna emerges from the rock. However, when we got there it was all a tad disappointing for the tekke was closed for renovations and so all we could do was stand and look at it.

Trans Balkan Trip 2011 457

The tekke at Blagaj[2]

After Blagaj we travelled on to Počitelj, a stunningly-beautiful Ottoman Era town with a mosque, ancient houses clustered around a twisting main street and capped by a fine ruined fortress with a large tower that reminded me somewhat of a grain silo. We climbed up to that tower from which there were some fantastic views over the town and valley beyond and then retired to a café for a Bosanka coffee before descending to the main road to meet up with Miran and continue onwards.

IMG_2260

Počitelj[3]

Our next stop was at the Kravica Waterfalls which, at a hundred metres across and twenty-five metres high, are the largest and most spectacular in all of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Unfortunately, they are also the most popular with the locals and there was a crowd of day trippers lounging on the rocks, quaffing beers at the bar and swimming in the waters. Although generally a seeker of human rather than natural wonders whilst on my travels, I had to admit that the falls were really quite spectacular and so, like my travelling companions, I stripped to swim in the waters beneath them which were crystal clear but also invigoratingly chilly!

STH70357

Kravica Waterfalls

The final stop on our tour was Međugorje, a small village that is not renowned for its beauty at all but is immensely important in another way. In 1981 six local teenagers were playing on a hillside near to the village when they say a beautiful lady appeared to them and announced herself to the Blessed Virgin Mary Queen of Peace. Following this initial apparition, they claim to have continued to receive messages from her and the village of Međugorje has steadily grown to become the third largest pilgrimage site in Europe with more than thirty million having journeyed there to pay homage to Our Lady. Despite all of this though, the Roman Catholic Church has never officially recognised and authenticated the apparitions and indeed successive diocesan bishops of Mostar have repeatedly ruled out the claims of those whom say that the Virgin appeared to the children as ‘groundless’. Nonetheless, despite a lack of Vatican support, the pilgrims keep coming and so one must asked, what is it that draws Catholics from around the globe to this small Herzegovinian village in such huge numbers?

Approaching Međugorje, Miran’s commentary was none too enthusiastic. “The girls that say that Maryam appeared to them, they all live in large houses now with swimming pools and everyone in the town drives a Mercedes,” he informed us, leaving us to form our own opinions on the supposed piety of such obvious charlatans. But of course, Međugorje is Catholic and Catholic in Bosnia-Herzegovina means Croat and so one would not really expect him to be all that positive concerning the Međugorje phenomenon since it means that the vast majority of the tourists to Herzegovina stay in the village of, and empty all their valuable tourist euros into the pockets of those who he sees as the aggressors in the recent conflict, with the pilgrims being either ignorant of, or not bothered by the fact that just over a decade before the pious shopkeepers of Međugorje were picking off civilians in Mostar with their sniper’s rifles.

And I must admit that my first impressions of the place were far from positive. The huge parish church of St. James had two large flags draped down the front of its two bell towers; those of the Vatican and Croatia. Now, I am no opponent of flying a national flag from a church – in Anglican churches it is almost de rigeur – but this was different. We were in Bosnia-Herzegovina, not Croatia and so it should have been a Bosnian flag draped there, not a Croatian one. Of course, I understood why the Croat banner was proudly on display, Međugorje is in a fervently nationalistic Croat canton of Bosnia-Herzegovina that fought to free itself from the country and join Croatia instead during the war. That war however, was concluded in 1995 with a peace deal that gave the area considerable autonomy, albeit within Bosnia-Herzegovina and since then all efforts have been directed towards including all peoples within that multi-ethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina and creating a peaceful and harmonious future for the region. Now whilst one may argue that the Dayton Accords did not leave us with an ideal solution, what one cannot disagree with is that such a blatant display of separatism is hardly conducive to peace and goodwill between men. Anywhere it would have been distasteful; on the front of the most-visited church in all Bosnia-Herzegovina, a church made famous by an apparition during which Our Lady is said to have declared, “Peace, peace and only peace… peace must reign between God and man and between people,”[4] it is a disgrace.

Beyond the church too, it was all none too inspiring. The Međugorje of 2011 is a collection of newly-built hotels, shops and houses, its main street lined with emporiums selling rosary beads, statues and sunglasses whilst advertising cheap phone calls to Ireland and cheap rooms in German. It was ugly, brash, modern commercialism at its worst and it reminded me of those awful resorts on the Algarve and Costas save that the centre of attention was a church rather than a beach.

All of this was of particular interest to me since I regularly go on pilgrimages. I try to manage one a year and yet here I was at one of the major pilgrimage sites in Europe and I was feeling nothing. I knew the main reason for that of course; to do a pilgrimage properly, one has to prepare oneself mentally, to immerse oneself in the Divine, to focus all thoughts towards the Holy. I had not done anything like this and was visiting as a tourist, not a pilgrim and so it was only natural that I wasn’t as affected as I had been on my real pilgrimages. Nonetheless, I did wonder how easy it would be to feel God’s presence in such a place with its boom town architecture and avalanche of religious commercialism. In an attempt to find out, I entered the cavernous and bland church of St. James to pray and there, knelt in one of the pews I got an inkling. The whole church was buzzing with people and yet nothing was organised and there were no services on. Instead people were there as individuals, bringing their own thoughts, prayers, hopes and woes before the Blessed Virgin in a personal and low-key fashion. I saw an old man with a pilgrim’s staff make his way slowly up to the altar which he then knelt before in heartfelt prayer and in him I saw the entire history of Christian pilgrimage, from the earliest saints, to the mediæval penitent, to the walkers on the road to Santiago to myself, but a year before, knelt similarly before the altar in the Holy House at Walsingham.[5] Yes, I could see it now, Međugorje does have something. I however, was not tapping into it.

Later, upon my return to the UK, I sought the opinions of two devout Roman Catholics on the Međugorje phenomenon. Martyn McGettigan, a traditionalist Catholic and drinking companion of mine on a Friday evening, was not impressed. For him, the fact that the Vatican had not endorsed it was enough. Roman Catholicism is a faith based on accepting authority and Međugorje has no authority. Furthermore, despite it being the subject of a commission of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2010 who are currently investigating the apparitions, Martyn doubts very much that it will ever be declared as authentic, for the local bishops have repeatedly declared the claims to be “groundless” and according to Martyn, Our Lady would never disobey a bishop and indeed during previous apparitions she actually stopped appearing temporarily when the bishop was against it. “Our Lady is the perfect model of Christian obedience to God,” he explained to me. “The so-called apparitions at Međugorje are not.” In addition to all of this, he also has doubts about the content of many of the so-called messages from Our Lady since he feels that they ‘contradict the infallible Magisterium of the Church, and various dogmas.’ “At Međugorje she supposedly tells them things like ‘all religions are valid’ and other such heretical rubbish.[6] Our Lady would never say such things so to anyone who thinks about it, these sightings are obviously fake! After all, the children who saw Our Lady at Lourdes, Fatima and other places all became nuns or priests, whereas the children at Međugorje are now all living in big houses and making a lot of money from the whole thing. I ask you, does that sound genuine to you?”

Fr. Tony Rigby on the other hand, the Roman Catholic chaplain at the gaol where I work, takes a different tack. He’s a big fan of Međugorje which he has visited several times and he says that he likes it because there he can experience English Catholicism like it used to be and like it should be. “There’s a parish church that is always open for prayer, never locked, and it always has people inside making their devotions. What’s more, attending Mass is central to the whole Međugorje experience and that is something that I firmly agree with; it should be central for all Catholics.” But what about the lack of official Vatican recognition of the apparitions? “Well, I believe that that will come with time; there is a commission working on it at the moment, but even so, rather than asking whether this or that apparition is genuine or hot, we should instead be asking whether there is good in it or not; after all, that is what God means – it is where the word came from – and when I go to Međugorje I see much good there, much healing, prayer, devotion and pure faith. And besides, do you know what; they say that Pope John Paul II was extremely supportive of Međugorje in private and that during his 1997 he deliberately had his driver pass through the village without stopping since he wanted to pray there but could not do so officially.” Next, I spoke to Tony of my personal reservations about the place and he was much in agreement: “Yes, I agree with you that the commercialism is not nice, but when you’re on a pilgrimage such things do not matter, you just block them out and concentrate on what’s important. And regarding the flag, I am fully with you on that one. There is a place for the Vatican flag of course, the church is Catholic and the Catholic Church has its headquarters and spiritual heart in the Vatican, but the Croatian nationalism is bad and has no place on such a building. A Bosnian flag, ok, but not a Croatian one.” And as for Martyn’s claims regarding contradictory messages? “I don’t know that any of the messages actually contradict those revealed in the past, but I will admit that a few do differ in emphasis at times. However, you have to remember that all of Our Lady’s messages and all of her apparitions are for a particular place at a particular time. The needs and priorities of the world change with time and, let’s be honest here, if people had listened to her calls for peace and respect for other faiths back when she made them in the 1980s, then the terrible events of the 1990s would never have happened.”[7]

Trans Balkan Trip 2011 465

Praying at the parish church of St. James, Međugorje

Next part: Balkania Pt. 18: The City of the Broken Bridge



[1] As part of the Dayton Agreement, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina was split up into ten cantons which are largely autonomous. Most of these cantons are dominated by one particular ethnic group although some are ‘ethnically mixed’ with special protections for each ethnic group within the canton. In Herzegovina, West Herzegovina and Canton 10 are Bosnian Croat whilst Herzegovina-Neretva is ethnically mixed. All my Herzegovinian travels were in the Herzegovina-Neretva Canton.

[2] Thanks to Sally Nevin for the photo

[3] Thanks to Sally Nevin for the photo

[4] Međugorje: History, Prayers, Messages, Map, p.76

[5] See ‘Walsingham Pilgrimage 2009’

[6] The message that he is referring to here was received in October 1981 in which the Blessed Virgin allegedly said: “Members of all faiths are equal before God. God rules over each faith just like a sovereign over his kingdom. In the world, all religions are not the same because all people have not complied with the commandments of God. They reject and disparage them.” It can be read to imply that all religions are equal and the only thing that matters is how much members of any given religion follow that religion. This is clearly against Catholic teaching.

[7] Interview with Fr. Tony Rigby, HMP Dovegate, 13/06/2011

Saturday, 17 November 2012

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

world-map bosnia

Greetings!

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

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…?

Central-Balkans-Map

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.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Balkania Pt. 15: Along the Bosna Valley

world-map bosnia

Greetings!

This week I travel out along the valley that is the very heart of Bosnia, from its new capital to the ancient seat of power: Travnik. On the way I find a football club made of steel, a Nobel prize winner’s diary and a huge pyramid built by aliens… maybe.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

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…?

Central-Balkans-Map

Travnik

I took a trip out to Travnik, some fifty kilometres or so away from Sarajevo. The train, which had come all the way from Ploće in Croatia and was going all the way to Budapest, was already over an hour late when it arrived and then it seemed in no rush to load up, run around and depart and I dreaded to think how tardy it would be when it eventually rolled into the Hungarian capital.

The journey there, along the Bosna Valley which slices through the heart of the country, was both pleasant and interesting. Pleasant because I shared the compartment with a rather delectable young blonde and interesting since we travelled through smart towns, alongside good highways and passed at one point a huge power station. Doing so I mused upon how much Tito’s communists had done for the country which, prior to World War II had been, by all accounts, a very backward place indeed. As with Bulgaria, the Yugoslavs had been largely uneducated, rural peasants and yet by the 1980s they were both articulate and educated and the country that they lived in was developed. Like with the Bulgarians, where the Yugoslav communists had failed was in the field of economic growth yet even here they surpassed their neighbours and, largely due to their Non-Aligned stance, they were on the brink of EU membership before the war began. Massacres, sieges, concentration camps and bloody battles make good press and fill column inches in the newspapers, but if the real truth be told, the greatest Yugoslavian story of the 20th century is not its bloody disintegration but instead its construction and the almost unimaginable progress made during the first two or three decades under communism. As we rattled along another story began to form in my mind, a strange mixture of two of the themes which had been running through my mind throughout the trip. In my story it is not Prince Lazar who is visited by the grey falcon but instead a young Josip Bronz Tito and unlike the Serb leader, Tito chooses an earthly kingdom instead of a heavenly one. True to his promise, Elijah grants him that kingdom, but immediately prior to his death he appears again as a flacon and prophesises the bloody destruction of Tito’s beloved kingdom, wages for making the wrong choice. At his moment of defeat however, instead of asking for repentence, submitting to the will of the fiery old prophet, Tito merely laughs at him and declares that he still chose rightly, that his legacy will endure, delaring:

‘You can only peddle doom and destruction but I peddle something else! So what if they fought, if they now fly a dozen flags, do you think that means that you have won? Not at all old man, for the truth is quite the opposite! Their bombs cannot destroy all the roads and bridges that I built, they shall remain. New countries shall arise from the ashes of the old, but they shall still all be the product of my rule. You see old man, you cannot undo education, you cannot undo knowledge, you cannot undo progress! The Muslims shall not put on their veils again, nor the Orthodox don black; the Chetniks may have won this battle, but their war is lost; the king shall not return and their old ways shall die as surely as the evil fascism of the Ustaše shall fade also. My weapons are schools, roads, industry, freedom and they have defeated your world of superstition already!’[1]

But as the train rumbled along, the question remained, was I right or was Tito’s legacy as miserable as that of Prince Lazar?

I alighted at Zenica, Bosnia’s steel city and one of the industrial powerhouses behind Tito’s great leap forwards, and caught a bus onwards to Travnik. The countryside that we passed through was different from that I had seen before in that it was clearly a Catholic area with little churches at the heart of every community. However, none of these were very old – all 20th century in fact – which begged the question as to what had happened to all the old ones. I hoped that they hadn’t suffered the same fate as Višegrad’s mosques, although I doubted it since Travnik was nowhere near the fighting and the Catholics Croats and Muslim Bosniaks were – for part of the war at least – on the same side.

I’d decided to visit Travnik for two reasons. Firstly, it is reckoned to be decidedly pretty and full of historical interest, and secondly because it is another town that received Ivo Andrić’s attentions, this time in his novel The Days of the Consuls which I’d bought in Sarajevo and was now well stuck into. This novel centred around the arrival of foreign consuls into Bosnia in the early years of the 19th century when the Ottoman Empire was beginning to weaken. What fascinated Andrić was how foreign influence, after centuries of solid Turkish dominance, affected the common people, the very mixed population of Bosnia, where each religious group looked towards a particular Great Power for protection and influence.

‘The local Turks were anxious and they alluded sullenly to the possibility of the consuls’ coming. Mistrustful of everything that came from abroad and ill-disposed in advance to any innovation, the Turks still secretly hoped that these were only ominous rumours, a sign of the inauspicious circumstances, that the consuls might not come…The Catholics, who were in the majority, dreamed of an influential Austrian consul who would bring them the help and protection of the powerful Catholic Emperor in Vienna. The Orthodox, who were few in number and had been continuously persecuted over the last few years because of the uprising in Serbia, did not expect much from either an Austrian or a French consul. But they took the news as a good sign, proof that Turkish power was waning and that favourable times of upheaval and salvation were on their way. And they added immediately, of course, that “there could be nothing without a Russian consul”.’[2]

Perhaps because no one had a special allegiance to them – but probably more due to the fact that their consul left detailed diaries – and because their fortunes rose and fell more dramatically than those of the others, Andrić chose the French consul as the book’s central character who paints a portrait of all whom he means, young and old, rich and poor.

I got off the bus at the small bus station at the northern end of the town and wandered through the heart of Travnik. A sleepy little town of less than thirty thousand, it is hard to believe that Travnik was once the political and administrative centre of Bosnia – the Ottoman governors moved there after Prince Eugene of Savoy razed Sarajevo to the ground as the town was conveniently in the very centre of the country – since the atmosphere today is so laid-back that you’d imagine that you’d struggle to get a planning application passed there, let alone anything more important. I liked it though; there were some fine Ottoman Era structures including some tombs and the fine 16th century Coloured Mosque with floral murals on its exterior and a bezistan (market) underneath, and a 19th century Catholic church with a memorial to Andrić – he was of Croat parentage and baptised as a Catholic – in the churchyard.

At the southern end of town, on the banks of the Lašva River, I came across large numbers of young girls in Islamic headscarves. Had I therefore found at last where all the religious Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina live? I thought that perhaps I had, but then walking further down the street, I realised that I probably hadn’t. At the end of the street was the Elči Ibrahim Madrassah, one of Bosnia’s most famous religious school and the headscarves were just part of the uniform.

Near to the madrassah was a spring of cold water named Plava Voda and after cooling myself with its crystal waters, I then attempted the steep climb up through the twisting narrow streets of the old town to the fine fortress where Monsieur Jean Daville, the French Consul in the novel, used to ride up to regularly for his audiences with the Ottoman governors.

As ruins go, those of Travnik’s fortress were not world-class but they weren’t bad either with one fully-restored tower and several other notable features including a room with an excellent photography exhibition inside. Best of all though were the views from the top up and down the Lašva Valley and over the little down that nestles along the bottom of it. With its many minarets and traditional houses, it presented a classic and timeless Balkan scene that reminded me strongly of Gjirokastro, albeit not on such a grand scale as the Albanian city.

travnik panorama

Travnik from the fortress

On my way back to the centre I stopped off for a coffee in a delightful little place. Three or four tables were set outside a house with a crystal clear stream running down between them. I ordered a Bosnanka, (he had no other type), and the traditional glass of water that comes with the coffee came straight from the stream. It was ice-cold and delicious!

Back in the centre, there was one place that I had to visit considering the theme my Bosnia-Herzegovina trip was taking and that was Ivo Andrić’s birthplace. This is a small house preserved as a museum and I went in and politely glanced round the exhibits of past editions of his novels, old photos, manuscripts, his writing desk and the other usual paraphernalia associated with famous authors which are, without doubt, very important to preserve but alas, also rather boring for the casual visitor, particular if that visitor does not really understand the language.

Thankfully though every so often those who run museums decide to employ somebody who is actually suited to, nay, made for the job and there in the Andrić House Museum was one such gentleman. Unfortunately, I never asked his name, but the long-haired young gentleman who watched over the exhibits had a real passion for Andrić. He told me how Andrić had himself been a consul and thus been able to get into the minds of his characters far more, and that he had extensively researched both The Bridge over the Drina and The Days of the Consuls respectively in addition to knowing both Travnik and Višegrad intimately.

Since I was in the middle of The Days of the Consuls, I decided to ask him something that I had been wondering about: why none of the Turkish governors in Travnik seemed to last very long? “No, they didn’t; Travnik was the capital of Bosnia for a hundred and fifty years and during that period there were seventy-seven viziers. It was seen as a punishment, a banishment to the back of beyond…”

I told the curator of how I’d just come from Višegrad, how I’d really liked the place but then had been shocked to discover what had happened there in 1992. “It was terrible,” he said, “I know; some of my cousins were thrown off that bridge. What they did there was inhuman.” With talk turning to the present-day I asked him what he thought Andrić would have thought about the war and the current situation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. “He would not have liked it, that is for sure. Ivo Andrić was a fervent Yugoslav, he wanted us together, not divided. He was born in Bosnia but a Catholic although he wasn’t religious at all. However, he also lived in Serbia for long periods and identified with them a lot – he knew Gavril Princip actually – and so what happened in the 1990s and how Bosnia is today, well, it would have broken his heart.”

Trans Balkan Trip 2011 418

Ivo Andrić’s birthplace, Travnik

Walking back to the bus station, I saw evidence of Travnik old and new. There, in the centre of the town, was the house in which the French Consul, Monsieur Jean Daville, star of Andrić’s novel, had once lived, now a restaurant. Across the road from it though, was a reminder of the author’s own time and beliefs: a monument to a communist partisan that had been defaced by nationalists. And walking down the road was a Dutch peacekeeper, the present-day descendent of Daville, a Western European come to help the Bosnian’s govern themselves. His presence interested me; Travnik appears untouched by the war, but like with everywhere in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the town was transformed by the conflict. In 1971 the population was 44% Bosniak, 40.5% Croat and 13.5% Serb. Nowadays, it is 86% Bosniak and there are no Serbs left. It is not unlikely that some of those who fled from the hell of Višegard found sanctuary in Andrić’s other town. And ironically, the city that appears so rich in Turkish history had never been a majority Muslim city before the 1990s.

Zenica

If Travnik is one of Bosnia’s most beautiful cities, then Zenica where I had a couple of hours to wait until my train arrived, must be one of its ugliest. The fourth-largest city in the country, it is famous – or infamous – for its steelworks, industries and football club NK Čelik whose supporters are said to be the most passionate and intimidating in the whole of Bosnia.

All good reasons for a son of Stoke-on-Trent to feel at home.

I took a walking tour of the city to kill the time. The grand square outside the railway station was flanked by grey concrete buildings that shouted out ‘Communism!’ in all its drab glory and indeed, this was a theme which continued for the entirely of my explorations; everywhere that I went was grey and mundane and very 1960s, the monotony only broken by red spray graffiti on many of the walls extolling the virtues of NK Čelik – The Iron Football team. That said though, I rather liked it all; I’ve always had a soft spot for socialist concrete provincialism and after reading Silverland in which Dervla Murphy treks from one drab concrete industrial city to the next, (I half-expected to meet her walking along the road, pulling her travel bag behind her), I was in the mood.

celik graffiti

‘Samo Čelik!’ – ‘Only Čelik!’ with the chimneys of Zenica’s steel mills in the background

I walked away from the station and past NK Čelik’s stadium – Bilino Polje – which holds eighteen thousand, (huge by Balkan standards), and is unique in Bosnia-Herzegovina in having no running track so that the fans are closer to the action,[3] (the norm in Britain and Germany but rare elsewhere on the continent).

From there I continued on till I came across a pretty little Catholic church which was open so I popped inside to pray and got chatting with the churchwarden who told me that before the war there had been around sixteen thousand Catholics in Zenica but now there were less than eight thousand. “Where have the others gone?” I asked and with a sad face he indicated that they were all asleep. Before coming to Travnik I had not encountered anything of Bosnia’s Catholic flavour beyond the cathedral, but now I was beginning to realise that they too have a tale to tell. I was reminded once again that in a war there are no winners, everyone loses.

I headed into Zenica’s old town which bore slight traces of its Ottoman past but was still largely tatty and modern. The most interesting building I came across was the old synagogue, now a museum (closed) and the first glimpse of Bosnia’s Jewish heritage that I’d chanced upon, (indeed, the first synagogue since Varna), but the most useful building was a grey tower block with a large digital clock on the side which told me just how long I had left before my train was due.

But it was walking back to the railway station along the banks of the Bosna River that I came across Zenica’s crowning glory, a monolith which I later learnt is called the Lamela. In a city full of grey apartment blocks, it would take something quite special to stand out against the crowd, but the Lamela is just that. Easily the tallest building in the city, some twenty-eight storeys high, it is a huge, hideous, vaguely pyramid-shaped monstrosity built to house the industrial proletariat that looked as if it had jumped straight out of the pages of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was stupendously horrible, but in its ugliness there was also a charm, the charm of a society that once dreamt of a brighter future, the charm of a society that built castles in the air for its workers, the charm of a beautiful dream which, like the Lamela and indeed the whole of Zenica, hadn’t quite worked out as expected.

Trans Balkan Trip 2011 435

The Lamela

I walked back to the railway station glad that I’d taken the time to wander around this little slice of grey in the Bosna Valley. It was the complete communist city in all its rundown glory and I loved it. Indeed, the only thing missing was Dervla and her bag, but I didn’t even mind that. After all, the local ladies were far more enchanting to look at.

Visoko

Visoko is one of the most important cultural and historical sites in all of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was the main political centre of the mediæval Bosnian state and much remains to remind of past glories, not least of all the remains of the old fortress. None of those reasons however, were why I wanted to see the place.

In April 2005 one Semir Osmanagić, a famous Bosnian archaeologist, visited Visoko and noticed that the large hill behind the town resembled a Mayan pyramid in shape. This caused him to surmise that it might in fact be a pyramid of some unknown lost civilisation from ancient times and fired with enthusiasm, he began excavations which, according to him, revealed his hunch to be correct. He found passageways, ancient steps and a whole lot more and announced his discovery to be one of the most significant finds of the millennium, (not that big a boast I suppose, being as it was only five years old at the time…). Unfortunately for old Semir though, most other archaeologists were less than convinced and some even actively opposed to his efforts, saying that his digging around to find something that isn’t there was actually destroying valuable historical remains that do exist for real.

Now I am no archaeologist but in my youth I read all the books of Erich von Daniken and became convinced that in ancient times our planet was visited by spacemen who taught the Mayans, Ancient Egyptians and others most of what they knew. I believed all this partly because von Daniken’s arguments were convincing, partly because I wanted to but primarily because my favourite TV programme was a cartoon called The Mysterious Cities of Gold in which three kids wandered around South and Central America searching for El Dorado and coming across relics from an ancient advanced civilisation called Heva which could harness nuclear power and solar energy but which eventually destroyed itself because of a little too much of the former. These relics included a huge solar-powered ship and a gigantic flying golden condor that ferried the kids from Peru to Mexico. Nowadays, age has taught me to be a tad more sceptical of such things but the fact remains that, genuine or otherwise, one wants to believe in an enormous lost pyramid and so anything that could potentially be one, would be pretty cool to see.

I had not reckoned though, on the Bosnian National Railways. The train from Zenica was both late and horrendous – one coach was so vandalised and pungent with the smell of urine that no one could sit in it – and it stopped everywhere and anywhere so that by the time we arrived in Visoko, it was going dark and there was little over half an hour till my train onwards to Sarajevo was due in. Nonetheless, I did alight and walk down the lane to look at the pyramid/hill from afar. And my verdict? Well… it is rather pyramid-like but then it still looked far more like a big hill than anything else. I hope I’m wrong, but I’m sorry to say that, in my opinion, like flying golden condors and ancient solar-powered ships, Bosnian pyramids are alas, more a product of the imagination than any ancient civilisations.

Trans Balkan Trip 2011 442

Bloody big pyramid or bloody big hill? You decide.

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

 


Sunday, 4 November 2012

Balkania Pt. 14: Austrian Influences

 

world-map bosnia

Greetings!

Still in Sarajevo, this week I travel out to the suburbs and then to the site where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. On the eve of Remembrance Sunday, it serves of a reminder of just how pointless and tragic war can be, and in Sarajevo such reminders come from wars far more recent than that of 1914-18. Lest we forget.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

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…?

Central-Balkans-Map

 

Ilidža

Ilidža, the end of the tramline, is a suburb of the capital these days although it was once a separate village entirely, built by the Austrians as a place to relax after a hard day’s work governing the Bosnians. It still is however, a place of pleasure, its thermal waters, which attracted both the Austrians and the Romans, providing the impetus for many a day tripper from the city but these days the tone is much more proletarian and when I alighted from my carriage I was assailed by a collection of shabby snack joints, bars and tat-laden shops. It was like a Bosnian Blackpool or Bognor.

Walking through the commercialism and over the river – the guidebook talked about a Roman bridge but the only ones I found all dated from the 1960s – the park was pleasant with shady trees, fountains and various hotels named after parts of the Austrian Empire. However, whilst it was all pleasant, it was also extremely Mitteleuropean and it didn’t really fit in with the rest of the country that surrounded it. It was clear that the Austrians had built the place as some sort of attempt at forgetting that they were in the backward and barbaric Balkans by creating a faux Hungarian spa. All in all, that didn’t sit quite right with me and what’s more, I wasn’t the first:

“‘But here is Ilidzhe, here is our marvellous Ilidzhe!” He leaped in one second from well-buttered reverie to shaking indignation. “Ilidzhe, our Potemkin village! They built it to show the foreign visitors how well they had imposed civilization on our barbarism, just as Potemkin built villages on the steppes to impress the foreign ambassadors with Russian prosperity, hollow villages that were built the day before and were pulled down the day after. Come, look at their civilization, at our barbarity!”… “I find this grotesquely unpleasing,” I said. “I did not bring you here to please you,” said Constantine, “when I take you to see things that were left by the Turks and Austrians it is not to please you, it is so that you shall understand.”… These people [the Austrians]… had come to Sarajevo, the town of a hundred mosques, to teach and not to learn.’[1]

Constantine and West were right, Ilidža doesn’t sit right because it is not Bosnian. If I’d come across the place in Slovakia say, then it would have been all good for that is where it was designed for, but here in the land of Ottoman mosques and Orthodox monasteries it didn’t quite fit in and was like a slightly discordant note in an otherwise beautiful symphony. And it was discordant because, as West said, it betrayed a mentality of railroading over the local norms and culture since that was clearly inferior in the eyes of the new governors. I realised too why I had also found the Mass at Sarajevo Cathedral so dissatisfying; it wasn’t that the church had been Catholic, more that it had been alien, an Austrian brushstroke smeared across a Balkan masterpiece.

Sadly, foreigners have held such attitudes about the Balkans ever since the advent of modernity. Andrew Hammond, in his introduction to the fascinating anthology of Balkan travel writing over four centuries, Through Another Europe states ‘Before the twentieth century, a sense of superiority was the most common response to the peoples and cultures of the region’[2] and that sadly, ‘The disparagement of South East Europe has persisted and actually reaches a climax in our own, supposedly more tolerant age.’[3]Sadly, I can only agree. I vividly remember reading Robert Carver’s travelogue on 1996 Albania, The Accursed Mountains and discovering a country so wild and lawless that it seemed more akin to the Congo than Croatia. I later learnt that it was all a gross exaggeration and when I gave one of my students the book to read, he was so offended that he promptly sent off a letter of protest to the publishing house. “Albania was bad in 1996,” he said, “I know that because I was there, but believe me, it was never that bad!” I only hope that I do not inadvertently carry on this sad tradition with my own musings.[4]

Despite its alien roots, the Bosnians have made Ilidža their own and the crowds enjoying the park were obviously less bothered about Austrian imperialism than I was. What’s more, I perked up too when I saw the official coach of the Bosnian National Football Team parked outside the main hotel, (I was hoping to catch a glimpse of Asmir Begovic, the aforementioned Stoke City keeper), but all the players were firmly ensconced within the luxury confines of the hotel itself, and so instead I took myself to the thermal spa – I am a long-time aficionado of such establishments; a sojourn in Japan does that to a man – where I booked in for a relaxing hour or two. This place however, a bland communist era hotel, proved disappointing; there was only an indoor pool and the water was tepid, not warm and so thoroughly unimpressed by Austria’s addition to Sarajevo’s leisure scene, I quickly took the tram back to the Stari Grad.

 

Sarajevo (4)

I dined again at Zeljo’s and then headed out to the railway station, a gloriously grand Titoist edifice near to the Holiday Inn, to organise tickets for my forthcoming trips out of the capital. That done I then returned to the centre and had a look at a site that I’d been meaning to investigate every since studying A-level European History under Mr. Cooper at Sixth Form.

On the 28th June, 1914, whilst on a visit to the city, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austro-Hungary, was shot dead just in front of the Latin Bridge by one Gavril Princip, a young Serbian nationalist. By itself, this was not such a remarkable event; people were regularly taking pot shots at members of the ruling families of Europe’s Great Powers during the early years of the twentieth century and often they were successful. This shooting however, mattered far more than all the others for it turned out to be the catalyst that sparked off World War I, the largest and bloodiest conflict that the world had even seen then, a conflict that claimed the lives of around forty million, resulted in a communist revolution in Russia, the collapse and dismemberment of the Russian Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and German empires, (including the incorporation of Bosnia into the new Kingdom of Yugoslavia), and creating a German Republic so humiliated and victimised that one young colonel named Adolf Hitler found cause and support to start an even bloodier and costlier war just over twenty years later in which he attempted to wipe out an entire race. In terms of world history, one can safely say that there are few spots on earth as important as this one.

The thing is, World War I was probably the most ridiculous war in history. It was ridiculous in its scale and in the suffering that it caused, but more than that, it was ridiculous in cause. It pitted countries with no deep-seated animosity against each other in a titanic duel to the death. And it was all so avoidable.

It was all a product of the Alliance System, a system ironically set up by the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in the 1870s. In those days Europe was where it was at and in Europe there were five Great Powers that mattered: Germany, France, Britain, Russia and Austro-Hungary. Obviously a whizz with Maths, Bismarck made a simple deduction: On your own you’re always vulnerable; potentially four-to-one, and thus one should therefore seek allies. And since there are only five powers, then so long as one has at least two allies, then everything is well, no one attacks the other and the Balance of Power is maintained. All his life he worked hard to maintain that status quo and as a result, Germany prospered. After his death though, it all went wrong.

What the simple Five Power Alliance System strategy did not take into account of however, were other alliances that the Great Powers might have with lesser nations. Bismarck once said that the Balkans were not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier but in the end they proved to cost far more than that. The reason was simple: in 1914 Germany found herself with only one ally, Austro-Hungary, whilst France and Russia sat in an opposing camp. Britain, in time-honoured fashion, had decided to keep out of European affairs, preferring to concentrate on ruling the rest of the world instead. Anyhow, on the 28th June, 1914, the aforementioned Gavril Princip, a member of the Serbian nationalist group ‘The Black Hand’, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Enraged, Austro-Hungary blamed Serbia. The Serbian government protested their innocence, stating that Princip was acting independently, but the Austrians, who rather fancied taking Serbia anyway, blamed the Serbians regardless and threatened to declare war. Unfortunately for them though, the Serbs, as Orthodox, were under the protection of Russia who promptly told Austro-Hungary that if they declared war on Serbia, then Russia would declare war on them. And here is where the Alliance System went awry, for Austro-Hungary went ahead and declared war on Serbia anyway and thus Russia then declared war on Austro-Hungary but because they were allied with the Austrians, then Germany declared war on Russia and because they were allied with the Russians, then France declared war on Germany. Thus Europe steeled itself for an almighty bun fight with only Britain uninvolved. But to win the war, the Germans knew that they had to knock out France quickly, (as they had done in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War), whilst the Russians were still mustering their troops from all over their vast and backward empire, before then turning their attentions to Moscow. But to knock out France quickly, they had to march through neutral Belgium which was had an alliance with Britain. And thus the moment that Belgian neutrality was violated, Britain too became involved and Germany faced Bismarck’s worst nightmare: a war of the five Great Powers, with Germany having only one ally. It was, in short, the classic mountain made out of the classic molehill.

In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon West dedicates two whole chapters, some sixty-four pages, to describing every detail of Franz Ferdinand’s last day in Sarajevo, attempting to demonstrate beyond any doubt that the Archduke’s assassination was not only avoidable, but indeed that it was only possible due to an astonishing degree of incompetence from the Austrians detailed to protect the Archduke, and indeed she even goes to far as infer that certain elements in the Austrian establishment may have even wanted his death. She does all this with a certain degree of anger and exasperation which might surprise us as we tend to look at the events in a far more detached manner. But we forget, West was writing in the 1930s, less than twenty years after the slaughter had stopped and of a generation that was deeply scarred by the war. And too she was acutely aware that another war with Germany was looming on the horizon, a war in many ways caused by the nature of the end of the First World War. To someone in such a time and position, anger and exasperation that it could all have been prevented is indeed entirely understandable.

I however, am further removed. I only ever knew one man who fought in the conflict[5] and he died years ago. Therefore I could look at the events with a degree of detachment and even humour. I stood on the spot where it all happened and took some rather silly photos re-enacting that fateful day before then retiring to the small park over the Latin bridge for a coffee.

Trans Balkan Trip 2011 388 Trans Balkan Trip 2011 387

Re-enacting the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand: Princip takes aim… fire! Oh no! A passer-by realises that Europe has been plunged into war!

Arriving in the hotel late after time in the internet café writing and researching my Višegrad story, I fell into conversation with a young man named Igor who turned out to be the youth coach of the Republika Srpska tennis team. I’d seen a lot of kids hanging around the hotel that morning wearing tracksuits with ‘REPUBLIKA SRPSKA’ emblazoned all over the back and remembered thinking that Sarajevo was not really the place for such attire, but chatting to Igor it all became clear.

“Bosnia-Herzegovina is one country,” he explained, “but we have two tennis federations. I am involved with the Republika Srpska one and we choose players and train as one federation but then we come here and play players from the Muslim-Croat Federation and the best players get picked for the national team.”

“So you never compete as Republika Srpska then?”

“Occasionally we do, in Serbia, Montenegro or perhaps Macedonia. But usually we are Bosnia-Herzegovina.”

“But isn’t it hard for you to come here? I mean, I saw all your kids with Republika Srpska on the back of their tracksuits and I thought it was a bit strange, that it might make some of the locals angry…?”

“There have been moments it is true, but generally it is ok. They are kids after all and we have come to play tennis, not to start a war. I have more trouble with their parents, phoning all the time, worrying if they’re ok, if they’ve eaten enough or have enough clean clothes.”

“So in the national team who usually does better, Republika Srpska or the Federation?”

“This is tennis and we are Serbs. I need say no more than that.”

Igor’s reply may have sounded a little arrogant, but that arrogance was justified for the recent rise of Serbian tennis is a tale of some note. The tiny nation of just over seven million has, since the end of the Kosovo Conflict, produced players like Ana Ivanović (one French Open, former World Number One), Jelena Janković (former World Number One, one Wimbledon Mixed Doubles title), Jenko Tipsarević (current World Number Nine, World Doubles Number One and seven Doubles Open titles) and, most of all, Novak Đoković, the current World Number One with one Wimbledon title, one US Open and three Australian Open triumphs to his name – the last one won only the day before I wrote this! – and 2011 was unofficially named the Đoković Year. Oh yes, and in 2010 Serbia won the Davis Cup as well. So, Igor did have a right to be a tad arrogant, or at least proud, of the achievements of Serbian tennis although one must add that all those glories belong to Serbia itself. As of yet Republika Srpksa – and indeed Bosnia-Herzegovina as a whole – hasn’t produced anyone very special.

All this reminded me strongly of a passage in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon when West is visiting a British-owned mine in Kosova and a Serbian professional tennis player comes to play the local British ex-pats.[6] Naturally, the Serb wins, he is a pro after all, but the fact that he is willing to spend time sparring with British amateurs demonstrates just how much the balance of power in the world of tennis has changed. Back then Britain won Wimbledon and the Serbs occasionally competed. Nowadays they win it and we merely host the damn thing.

We moved on to talk about Igor’s personal career. He told me that he’d had a brilliant youth career and had later turned pro. He recalled playing in the Bosnian Davis Cup team when he’d got to travel to such exotic destinations as Mauritius, Riga and Antalya, as well as competing once in the Australian Open. But when I asked him what was the hardest thing in tennis, his reply was not what I’d expected:

“It is turning pro after being a youth player. As a youth player your expenses are all paid yet as a pro you have to fund everything yourself and outside of that magical top thousand that is almost impossible, particularly when you’re from a poor country like Bosnia. That is why I gave it up in the end and that is why most players give up. Here in the Balkans we don’t have the Lawn Tennis Association to look after us you see.”[7]

Next part: Balkania Pt. 15: Along the Bosna Valley

 

Technorati Tags: travel,blog,matt pointon,bosnia herzegovina,sarajevo,bosniaks,muslim,christianity,islam,austria,austro-hungary,world war one,great war,archduke franz ferdinand,gavril princip,ilidza,balance of power,tennis,igor racic,novac djokovic,republika srpska,dayton accords,black lamb grey falcon,rebecca west


[1] Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, p. 386-90

[2] Through Another Europe, p.xi

[3] Through Another Europe, p.xiii

[4] Although in defence of many of the modern travel writers who have turned their attentions to the Balkans, during the 1990s it was extremely difficult to be positive about the former Yugoslavia and Albania.

[5] A former neighbour. He volunteered as an (underage) lad in 1914 and spent four years in the hell of the trenches, rising to the rank of sergeant. For the rest of his life he suffered from the sounds of explosions going off inside his head and he only got compensation when he was past ninety.

[6] Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, p.946

[7] The man I met was Igor Racić who peaked at #904 in the world.

Black Night, Grey Falcon

[2] The Days of the Consuls, p.28

[3] Bradt Bosnia-Herzegovina, p.193