It’s the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday. Since the weekend was going to be quiet, I planned a day trip across the border to Bosnia, a welcome distraction to try and soothe my melancholy in being away from my family during the holidays. I knew it would be difficult to be absent from our traditions in preparing the Thanksgiving food, arranging our Christmas card photo shoot (usually met with eye rolls or groans in matching outfits) and running in the Turkey Trot, but it was more challenging than I anticipated. The loneliness really seeped into my little Croatian apartment as I was cooking a box of Hamburger Helper (a sweet treat from my husband in a care package that arrived a few days earlier) and turned on Netflix (only to have an error message flash across the screen that the Internet was not working). It was too quiet and I did not like it. I longed for being with my family, hugging, laughing and being in the same house together. But I reminded myself that growing up as an only child, I’m used to being independent and going solo. I learned from a very young age how to entertain myself, as I was unaccompanied most of the time. I think one of the reasons a sorority in college was so appealing to me was the thought of having over 100 “sisters” to turn to, ask for help and hang out. So balancing time between being alone and being with a group of family and friends is the best.
Where in the World?
“Why not go to Italy or Greece?” my friend asked as we were talking on WhatsApp (this is one of the must haves for communicating abroad – it’s free and offers video and text to stay connected). “Well, I’m right there – it’s only 3 hours away from Croatia and when I am going to get another chance to go to Bosnia?” I responded. “Sounds like you, getting outside of the box. It wouldn’t be my first choice, but have fun anyway and be safe!” she said.
I met the driver at Restorn Bruschetta, a popular meeting place because it is an easy pick up on Zadar’s main one-way street. He introduced himself and in the next breath asked if I had “papers.” Yes, I did bring my passport and now carry a bonus card — yesterday I finally got my Biometric Residency Permit at the Police Administration Office (a Croatian ID that I applied for when I landed here in September). He opened the door and we started driving out of town. He was a native from Zadar and told me we would have to be extra careful crossing the border at night because “The Syrians are constantly scrambling across the mountains into Bosnia, headed toward Croatia, Greece and their main destination – Germany.” He said he has seen a heavier police presence at night, but “all they do is turn them around and tell them to go back; they don’t really make a difference.” And he said their company fields multiple e-mails per day from European IP addresses and fake European phone numbers, asking us to pick them up and drive them across the border, sometimes offering us up to 10 times the normal price of transportation.
We have not even gotten to Bosnia yet, and I have more butterflies in my stomach than before. Maybe I should have gone to Italy instead? I remained calm and appreciated the car ride, as buses were my only means of transportation besides walking. It was quiet and I watched the mountain range as we sped along the highway. It reminded me of taking long car rides with our daughter Madison who always asks to “go for a ride,” listening to music, reflecting and enjoying the journey to a new destination.
Is this Part of the Tour?
Online pictures of the Old Bridge, Stari Most, was one of the reasons I wanted visit Mostar, but my guide, Emir, opened a dialogue that was completely unexpected. Emir introduced himself as Communist Muslim, “But not the kind where my girlfriend has to dress like a Ninja. I am a communist Muslim. I believe differently. I am more open minded with the Quran.” Hmm, this was going to be an interesting private tour.
He launched into the history of Stalin and Tito, grappling for power. “Stalin was jealous of Tito and tried to assassinate him multiple times. You should go to the House of Flowers in Belgrade (the resting place of Josip Tito, the President of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia for over 30 years) and see Tito’s letter to Stalin because he tells him to stop sending his assassins, as he will only send one to Russia to do the job. Stalin later died of natural causes, but Tito would have killed him and probably should have.” Emir is referring to the Tito-Stalin Split, or Yugolav-Soviet Split, the conflict between two leaders.
The conversation turns toward his opposition toward Croatians. His disdain is palpable and uncomfortable at times. We pass a shop in the bazaar that is selling Nazi swastikas and I am shocked. I turn to look at him and he pulls me aside and says, “You see, those symbols, patches and pins are for the Croatian tourists who come here and want it to buy it. The Croatian Nazis are everywhere. And let me tell you how to find them – ask them if they liked Tito. If they said they didn’t like Tito, then they are Croatian Nazis.” I am growing increasingly uneasy. I have told Emir I am teaching in Croatia and my positive experience in Zadar. My sentiment seems to irritate him.
He goes on to tell me “The truth is everywhere, but the Croatians won’t tell it. They will tell you their version of the truth. They walk around with walnuts in their pockets (he is referring to corruption). If you want to know the truth, listen to me and watch the BBC documentary, The Death of Yugoslavia, complete with six episodes. Do not watch the forged versions.”
We stop again on the side of the street and he puts his hand on my shoulder pointing to street graffiti showing a heart with Tito’s name scrawled inside, “We all loved Tito. We still think about our ‘Tito Time.’ I remember in 1980 when my father called me, crying and said, ‘When Tito died, Yugoslavia died.’ We still have a picture of him in our kitchen. Everyone does. Tito was a mass murder, I mean, he killed like 500,000 people, but none of them were in Yugoslavia. They were all outsiders. He took care of us. He invited us to practice any religion we wanted and if you did, you were in a specific category. If you didn’t practice any religion, you were communist, and you were in a different category, a better category because you were paid 30% more, and you a chance to be promoted. Tito believed in the power of the people. For example, no outside business was allowed, no exports. So Tito decided that if you grew your business to more than 5 staff members, then you would automatically give your business away to the government. But you know, that was fair because we thrived on the local, small business model. It worked well. There was never a teacher’s strike when Tito was our leader because everyone was paid the same and paid fairly. He even gave us presents for holidays – everyone got a gift. And he wanted us to relax too after we worked – he set up apartments by the sea for us to go out and enjoy with our families. What do we have now? Democracy (he grimaces). And no one wins here. People are leaving our country because they can’t find jobs. They can’t compete here because they don’t want to.” It’s a struggle between collective memory and the motivation to move forward, visible everywhere in town, a living narrative of resistance during war.
He takes me to the bright yellow Austrian-Hungarian High School building and points to two multiple wings, segregated with all of the “bad religions” on one side, the Orthodox and Muslims, and the Catholics on the other side. “They hated us. They hated what we believed in. They still do.” Again, he refers to clashes between Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats, the ethnically rooted war from 1992-1995.
Juxtaposed to the heavy weight in conversation and symbolic reminders of war throughout our tour, Mostar is a small and beautiful city. The original bridge was built by the Ottomans in 1566, but destroyed during the war. Now there is a replica of the bridge, constructed in 2004. Emir offered several viewpoints of the bridge as we walked back into the Old Town and crossed the Neretva River. He explained that during the summer months you can watch the famous bridge jump — a scary tradition among locals, men who regularly make the daring leap from Stari Most into the waters below as a rite of passage. Some tourists will be approached to pay to watch a “jumper”fly off of the bridge and resurface below. But today was too chilly for the bridge jumpers and crowds were thin. Emir has jumped off the bridge, but he reiterated how dangerous it is because of the strong current and hidden caves below the water that can suck you in and under. “My uncle’s son was an Olympic swimmer here in Yugoslavia. He was an amazing athlete and one year he jumped off the bridge and didn’t come up. His body was never found.”
The Old Town on the eastern bank of Mostar has a large bazaar selling traditional Bosnian items. Most of the items were copper plates, cups and coffee pots, but they also had some cushions and handmade clothes. It is situated along a quaint cobbled pedestrian street, the Kujundžiluk, and has managed to retain its Ottoman look over centuries. Lined with traditional stone and Ottoman houses, there are local craft stores, inns and restaurants. If you’re looking for souvenirs from Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, this is the area to get it.
Mostar is a picturesque town from above and well worth making your way down to the water’s edge. From the west end of Stari Most there’s a long staircase which ends on the rocky banks of the Neretva River. The water is clear and offers a different perspective of the Old Town of Mostar.
One of the most prominent buildings is the towering bank just off the Spanish Square (named after the brigade of Spanish who fought for peace) is the Sniper Tower. This former glass windowed bank was once a snipers’ nest for Croatian soldiers during the conflict. It’s an eerie spot, now a skeleton of a building with the inside full of broken glass and debris; both inside and out have become a canvas for street art.
Walking through Mostar there is still so much evidence of the recent wars and battles that were fought here only twenty or so years ago. To think that these battles were fought in our lifetime is sobering. Emir tells me he was about five years old when the war raged on. He still has nightmares about it, but not about the bombings, he has a fear of not having food. “I was always hungry. My stomach was out to here – bloated with air. Even now, I can’t go to sleep at night without eating most of what is in my refrigerator. I don’t want to ever be that hungry again.” He paused. “But you know, the Americans helped us. Bill Clinton helped us. Hillary Clinton helped us. She held up a picture of one of our Bosnian woman who was raped and threw it in front of your congress. After that, your American soldiers started sending food in big boxes. Chicken that was made of dust, but it tasted so good because it had been so long.”
He pauses and says, “Don’t get me wrong. I like Americans. But make no mistake, George Bush Senior started our war in Yugoslavia. He wanted to break apart our strength and was in on it with Khrushchev. I think it was their idea. We didn’t want any war. But we got one.”
The Siege of Mostar was fought during the Bosnian War between 1992 and 1995, after Bosnia & Herzegovnia declared its independence from Yugoslavia. Air strikes destroyed many of the important buildings and structures around Mostar, including Stari Most, the Old Bridge. Emir mentions the bridge multiple times, “They took out our jewel, our bridge. And it was then that we rose up to fight them as hard as we could. They could not take our bridge and our pride away from us.” He pointed to both mountain tops and the valley in between. “They were over there and we were over here. We are walking on ground zero now. It was chaos. It was blood.” He told me about Gabela and Heliodrom concentration camps run by the Croatian Community of Herzeg-Bosnia and Croatian Defense Council. “My uncle was a survivor of those concentration camps. He was beaten and tortured. And now lives in Brooklyn.”
We continued walking for a few hours, stopping at a Catholic Cathedral and Ottoman-style mosques along the way. The main religion in Bosnia is Islam, followed by Christian Orthodox, and Catholic. Islam came from the Ottoman occupation, which lasted around 400 years.
At the end of the tour, I made a comment about the garbage overflowing in dumpsters throughout the city. Emir said the people of Mostar decided to stop having their garbage picked up over three months ago. “The politicians want to build a garbage dump right next to the river, because it is cheap land. But we can’t have a dump in that location. I mean, I swim in that river, my dog drinks from that river. The river flows through our town. So we are all protesting by not having our garbage picked up and it is causing quite a problem. For example, see this? (he points to debris that has fallen off the side of a building) These clay tiles fell off the roof the other day because of the earthquake (Albania had a 6.4 magnitude earthquake last week, quickly followed by Bosnia with an earthquake registering 4.1 magnitude). The people are not cleaning that mess up. And the best part is that a politician’s parking spot is there, so he can no longer park, but he has to look at the rubble that fell off the roof, the garbage sitting directly on his place. And that is hopefully what will move action forward.”
When I got back into the car, I reluctantly told my driver about some of what the guide had shared. He wholeheartedly agreed with the sentiments regarding Tito, “our hero,” but quickly disagreed with being hungry during the war and particularly the thought of complaining about it. “That’s all in his head. He needs to forget that shit. We didn’t have time to be hungry. We were just trying to keep our heads on and not blown off.” And he went on to tell me his father died in the war in 1993. He was quiet for awhile and said, “My mother held everything together like mothers do. And I have an 18 month old daughter and I will be her father, protecting me like my father never could.”
As we crossed the border, we were stopped and the border patrol officer pointed to me in the backseat and started speaking quickly. I held my breath. The driver spoke just as quickly and was waving my passport in front of the steering wheel, laughing and pointing to me. I wondered what was happening, but kept quiet. After ten long minutes of this, we moved forward and the driver handed me my passport. “What was that all about?” I asked. “Oh, she saw your food in the plastic bag sitting next to you in the back.” I had purchased a to-go bag of cevapčiči and baklava based on Emir’s local restaurant recommendation. He continued, “The border patrol office was telling me told me that bringing food from Bosnia to Croatia is forbidden. But don’t worry, I told her there was no food in the bag, but it was in your stomach!”
Blessed Virgin Mary
Before we crossed the border to return to Zadar, the driver suggests stopping at Saint James Church in Medjugorje (meaning “between mountains”). The church was built in 1892 and located in a village in Herzegovina, close to the Croatian border. Saint James Church has been the site of apparitions of the Virgin Mary since 1981 and become a popular pilgrimage site. We pulled up when mass was taking place and it was a very simple, unassuming service, not a next-generation televangelist type of church with glitzy proselytizing. Although the driver points to the souvenir shops crowded with statues of Mary, and tells me how people spend their religious vacation here with “consumeristic Christianity,” waiting to see Mary. He said, “They have seen her on the mountaintop. People have spoken to her recently.” Despite the T-shirts and keychains that surround the church, the church itself is quiet and simple in design. Visiting this church, like many others in the area, provides liturgy and tradition in a sacred space with respite and reorientation. I am thankful I can carry some of our church traditions across the globe and this makes me feel more at home, less like an outsider and more like I belong.
My mother’s maiden name was Mary Therese Bulfin and in this particular church I feel serenity and light as I kneel in front of a statue of the Blessed Mother, Our Lady of Medjugorje. I thank God and my guardian angel, my mother Mary, for protecting and guiding me on this journey to Bosnia today. Amen!
Hiking in Paklenica National Park
It’s no secret that I like to hike. I love being outdoors in the elements and breathing deeply. Paklenica is one of eight national parks in Croatia. I asked Ellie and Leonarda if they wanted to take a hike on Saturday during Thanksgiving weekend and they said yes! We were planning to take two cars with our small Fulbright group including Tiana and Josh, Lindsay, Ellie, Leonarda, her son and myself. Paklenica is in Starigrad, about an hour away from Zadar, on the southern slopes of the Velebit Mountain.
Two main activities are hiking and climbing, but there is also an option to ride a bike on specific trails in the park.
More than 30% of visitors at the national park are climbers, as there are over 400 marked climbing trails with the shortest climbing routes situated in Klanci, the narrowest part of the Velika Paklenica canyon.
It was a beautiful weather day with the sun shining and bright blue skies. Unfortunately Ellie and our Fulbright friends could not make the trip due to transportation snafus, but Leonarda and her 11-year old son Marko picked me up at 9:00 a.m. and we headed toward the mountains.
We started on a 3 hour trail leading up to Anića Kuk, one of the most famous climbing sites in the world, its north-west face a 400-metre wall of limestone and Europe’s answer to Yosemite’s El Capitan. There is a variety of botany as well. The park has 79 endemic species and is regarded as a world-class location for wild flowers. In fact there were signs posted not to pick the flowers out of respect for the area. We also stopped to read several signs about park animals including deer, boar, wolves, bats, bears, snakes and lynx.
The map also showed some ominous pink blotches nearby: minefields. During the Balkan wars of independence in 1991-95, Serbian forces pushed up to this ridge, hoping to establish a permanent grip on Croatian territory. By the time they were defeated, some 20,000 people had died, the park was closed for years and the Croatian economy was in ruins. For the Mountain Association the challenge has been to rebuild footpaths away from those danger areas.
The rocks jetted out beneath us, making walking a little slippery and tricky at times, but it was a gorgeous hike. We saw donkeys coming down the mountain on their way to carry supplies from the town below. The bells around their necks gently rang as they cautiously found footing on the rocky paths.
When we reached a small bridge, we saw a mountain house and stopped to eat budola and cheese sandwiches Leonarda prepared. I brought pink lady apples and granola bars for us to munch on. And the mountain house host (or forest ranger?) brought us a bowl of warm fritule, a special Croatian dessert, small deep fried donuts with powdered sugar – perfect to warm us up and continue hiking.
We finished a total of 18 miles hiking and Leonarda invited me for dinner. It was very late and she insisted I eat soup she had prepared that morning. It was a lovely invitation and her son Marko was very excited to show me his collection of currency from countries all over the world. His arrangement of bills and coins was really impressive, an authentic study in numismatics. I gave him a $5 US bill to add to his collection and he gave me a $5,000 former Yugoslavian bill along with an elaborate “Croatian cheat sheet” he designed, translating Croatian numbers into English language. I really enjoyed spending time with Marko and Leonarda. Marko is a very intellectual and mature young man, knowing a mass amount about history, politics and religion well beyond his years in sixth grade.