Thursday, March 5, 2009

Bosnia and Herzegovina

In an attempt to really glean the most out of my two months in Europe this summer, I have set out to learn as much as I can about the places I am going. This includes reading history books, researching other travel logs, looking at pictures, a lot of pictures, etc. (I'm trying to read one history book about each country before I leave) I really want to be able to understand the most I can about the cultures/places I'll be visiting.

We've decided to go to Bosnia and Herzegovina, as we bus through Eastern Europe. This decision really makes my mother nervous, seriously, like to the point of anger. I can understand too. While I was only 6 when pictures of the Bosnian War reached the Western world, she remembers them vividly. I, therefore, am able to readily accept Bosnia-Herzegovina as a country that has lived in multi-ethnic stability for over a decade, that is transforming its economy and a potential candidate for the EU, it's harder for her. I also feel it has a lot to offer, in terms of both tourist attraction (Sarajevo's rumored to have quite the night-life, and the country houses two UNESCO world heritage sights) and cultural and human understanding/insight, what an amazing experience it would be to visit and learn about this place, especially for someone in my position - a young American woman.

So, I just finished a book entitled Bosnia and Herzegovina A Tradition Betrayed. It was so interesting, there is so much I didn't learn in World History - obviously how can one class in high school even begin to scrape that subject. Just as a small summary of what I learned this week, here is some of the history of Bosnia-Herzegovina:

For starters Bosnia-Herzegovina is located on the Balkan peninsula of South Eastern Europe. It is home to three ethnic constituents: Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims mainly), Serbs, and Croats; with Bosniaks being the most numerous, then Serbs, then Croats. Religious demographics: Muslim 45%, Serb Orthodox 36%, Roman Catholic 15%, others 4% (thanks Wiki). Bosnia was under the rule of the Ottoman empire, hence the large Muslim population, from the 1400s until the end of the nineteenth century, when Austria-Hungary took over until the end of World War I. For all this time Bosnia-Herzegovina had existed as a multiethnic state, everyone co-existing mostly in peace, with some exceptions. I think it is important to note, ethnic and religious zealots were not an issue in Bosnia until recent history (a common misconception and hence the title of the book, A Tradition Betrayed), everyone lived together in ethnic peace.

So a lot more important historical events happen which I will breeze through, Austria-Hungry were on the losing side of WWI (which was sparked in Sarajevo, fyi, with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand) so Yugoslavia is formed, and nationalism becomes a factor (Croat nationalism, Serb nationalism, Bosnian nationalism). Yugoslavia fought the Axis-powers during WWII but were invaded and occupied by the Nazis in 1941. Once again during this time, Tito organized a mulitethnic resistance group and eventually succeeded in expelling the Axis and other genocidal ethnic-cleansing, bull-crap groups like the Utasha in Croatia, who had pretty much exterminated Jewish groups and nearly 200,000 Serbs during the War. The atrocities of WWII were terrible all over Europe, and it was definitely hard to read about. So Tito lead a Socialist Yugoslavia until his death in 1980, which began the twilight era of Yugoslavia, which would collapse after about a decade.

The Bosnia War is what I really wanted to talk about, as it is relatively recent, many of us remember something of it, and it is an important event in Bosnia and Herzegovina history and modern culture. The war was an international armed conflict that took place between March 1992 and November 1995. It is hard to define it as either a civil was or an international war. It showed the world, specifically the West, horrific images which hadn't been seen since WWII. The war resulted from the instability of the whole Yugoslavia area and resulted in an Independent Bosnia-Herzegovina state. Sensing the downfall of Yugoslavia, which had already began, neighboring Presidents of Serbia and Croatia made a deal to split the land of Bosnia-Herzegovina between themselves. Obviously there were many political reasons from many sides (Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Germany, etc) for a war and each fueled it, and the Bosnian citizens paid. Once Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, the Serbs attacked, with the Yugoslavian People's Army, parts of the country, and Croatia soon attacked hoping to secure other parts of the country. Bosnian Muslims fought for Bosnia - along with citizens who hoped for the multiethinical Bosnia of history. Serbians targeted non-Serb Bosnians, Croats non-Croats, Bosniaks non-Bosniaks. Ethnic-cleansing was practiced on all sides of the conflict, Serbians being the worst perpetrators.

This is an exert from the book I just finished, I was shocked, saddened, how terrible. But I wanted to put it up, as I feel it's important to know about these horrors and do something if we can.

The methodology of ethnic cleansing is terror practiced openly, calculated to drive from their homes those longtime inhabitants belonging to the "wrong" ethnic group...Along with ethnic cleansing operations in the cities and countryside of Bosnia, the perpetrators of ethnic exclusivism used a variety of other terror tactics to impose their will on members of other ethnic groups and sow the seed of hatred to prevent multiethnic reconciliation. Women of all ages were raped. While some rapes were commited by out of control troops, many rapes were deliberate, systematically encouraged by commanders to demean conquered people and to reward soldiers for acts of brutality. Prison camps were established; inmates were starved, beaten, or killed, giving Western television audiences images of emaciated prisoners not seen from Europe since WWII. Despite International steps to convene, no outside power did more than issue warnings to stop the atrocities while they were taking place.

-Bosnia and Herzegovina A Tradition Betrayed

NATO became involved in 1994, and Croatia backed out of the war, leaving only Serbia and Bosnia. After Serbians committed several massacres, NATO responded with open air-strikes against Bosnian Serbs. At this point, the Presidents of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia met in the US and ended the War with a peace treaty, which has held to this day. Nearly 100,000 Bosnians died in this war and 200,000 were displaced, a tragedy no doubt still reflected in the culture. But there is also so much hope and optimism now, and the country is recovering. I thought it was very important to now this history before travel; the historical relationship between the three main ethnic constituents as well as modern relations and politics.

Okay, but really tourism is on the rise, and Bosnia-Herzegovina is now one of the safest countries in Eastern Europe to travel to. People are said to be very welcoming and hospitable. And remember it was home to the Olympics in 84. This is Lonely Planet's description of the country:

Imagine a backpacker wish list.
Old stuff: Sarajevo's cobbled lanes are stuffed with ancient shops, mosques and churches in the old Bascarsija bazaar. Mostar's iconic, slender bridge spans the green Neretva River; young men plun ge off it for money.
Places to party: enough bars - trendy or grungy - live music venues, groovy nightclubs and pubs that you'll wonder when you'll sleep.
Accommodation and transport: cheap hostels and private, plus an extensive bus network.
Scenery and thrills: pristine forested mountains crossed by gorges with emerald rivers ready.
A welcome: visitors find a country with such vitality that it's infectious, that shakes their hand warmly and suggests they stay longer than planned.

Alright, there are unexploded land mines in the country, partly the reason they're not an EU candidate yet, but don't be a stupid tourist and you'll be fine. Stay out of roped of areas in the mountains or war-torn buildings and don't wander in the wilderness in places the locals won't go, stay with a guide if in the countryside. I think traveling to this country would be a very rewarding experience and I am excited. Okay, that's all for today's history lesson. Check out these pictures of the country (all from Wikipedia), and tell me you don't want to go.

Up next...Albania.


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