The day after arriving to Dubrovnik, my wife and I were up at 6:15 (Sunday, July 13) to leave on a two-day excursion to Bosnia and Herzegovina which included three cities: Sarajevo, Mostar and Stolac.  The excursion was one of several planned events for the Yale summer session students studying in Dubrovnik.  Having myself never been to any of the cities I was very excited to tour them, especially with Yale history professor, Ivo Banac, as our guide.  Our first stop by way of bus was Sarajevo which is about 450 Km.

I suppose a border crossing should be fairly uneventful, but ours lasted about 35 minutes.  Mind you, we were entering Bosnia and Herzegovina at Trebinje which is located in the Republika Srpska entity of Bosnia where feelings of hatred still run deep between the three main ethnic groups.  I can only image what it must have been like during the conflict.  Still, we’re 15 students (Yale students at that which was all explained on a document given to the patrol guard), plus Professor Banac, my wife and myself, but the show of authority in this case was a bit absurd.  A couple of the more memorable moments was when the check-point guard asked Prof. Banac if Yale was located in Dubrovnik or Zagreb and when a guard inquired which student (to be nameless) left a 10 Euro bill in his passport, perhaps indicating a bribe.

After checking each under-carriage compartment and verifying that the fire extinguisher had not expired, we were off…  Well almost.  The bus driver neglected to take the passenger list from the guard and remembered about five minutes after leaving the post.  The list is important, because it accounted for everyone on the bus and the exact same number of people needed to be accounted for on our return.  After finding a “safe” place to turn around on the jagged hill-side we retrieved the document and were finally headed for Sarajevo.

According to our calculations, the trip should have taken about four hours, but because of our unexpected delay and and inexperienced driver (he was literally asking us for directions), we arrived in just over six hours.  Our first order of business was to check into the Hotel Bosnia.  I must tell you that the interior must have looked exactly the same during the 1984 Winter Olympics.  Despite it’s convenience to the city, there were several complaints, including cockroaches, broken window blinds, and non-functional shower fixtures.  To be honest, however, these are the things that make a trip memorable.

Our next order of business was lunch at Asdz restaurant which was about a 15 minute walk from our hotel.  The meal consisted of traditional Bosnian dishes and, of course, Turkish coffee with dessert.  After gorging ourselves on Bosnian cuisine, we walked to the International Forum Bosnia where we where hosted graciously by Rusmir Mahmutćehajić for a brief presentation about his organization and the current status of Bosnia in regards to human right violations today.

We were then off to see the city, first stopping to see the location where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated which triggered the beginning of WWI.  After passing through the old market place (Baščaršija) we came upon one of the most famous mosques in Bosnia called the Gazi-Husrev Begova Mosque built in the 16th century, which was ravaged during the war but has fortunately been reconstructed.  Wounds of the war were still present on building walls, although somewhat camouflaged with the new construction.

The day ended with dinner on a hill-side restaurant looking over the city called Sedem Suma (Seven Forests) where we were served lamb from the spit, burek, ustipci and kajmak.  What’s more, the owner even serenaded the group while accompanied by a two-man band (guitar and accordion).  Dean “B” couldn’t help herself but to sing along with the Bosnian folk songs.  A nice way to end the day.

Monday, began with breakfast in the Hotel Bosnia lounge and then off for a quick errand to buy some souvenirs before the bus departed at 9:30 for Mostar.  Of course it was not before 10:00 that we actually left the city due to a gas stop and getting directions.  The ride to Mostar was fairly melancholic with most catching up on sleep.

Upon reaching Mostar, the recent war was very obvious just driving through the city.  The number of buildings still in ruins (at least on the Eastern side, or Bosnian Muslim side) was tremendous.  A good example is the Cultural Center that still stands vacant with broken windows and mortal shell remnants.  Even in front of one of the Franciscan Church bell tower(a bit outrageous in an of itself) wall where the bus parked was evidence of the mortar fire.  These ruined building really struck a chord and I think really gave me (an probably the rest of the group) a true sense of destruction that occurred here.

The main attraction in Mostar is, of course, Stari Most or Old Bridge, which we made a beeline for upon parking.  The walk was about a half mile to the bridge and was quite a magnificent sight.  The other impression left on me was the craftsmanship of the bridge reconstruction.  It was even more evident after watching a video of the actual destruction of the bridge at the Old Bridge Museum.  Mind you, it took several days for the total collapse of the Stari Most.  What’s more, the reconstruction was done using the same method as the original bridge, i.e., no concrete.  The blocks are held together with clasps and spikes; amazing!  In case anyone is wondering, about ten percent of the original stones were used in the reconstruction.  One silver lining of the bridge destruction, was the discovery of the first wooden bridge remains built in Medieval times that had been lost in history.  The archeological dig of the original bridge footings can be seen by touring the Old Bridge Museum.

The last leg of the trip was to the town of Stolac which has come to be known as one of the more successful towns in terms of resettlement of displaced refugees.  Touted by the Croats as an “ethnically cleansed” town during the war, the high resurgence of Bosnian Muslims after the war has been overwhelming in claiming back their property.  It has not been an easy process, however, as discrimination, segregation, torment and cultural symbolism is still very prevalent.  One example is how the Muslim elementary school children are required to enter the school building through the back door, while the Croat children enter through the front door. Another is how flag poles sporting the Croatian flag have been erected atop Muslim grave sites and how large stone crosses look over the city on a mountain top as a sign of Croatian dominance in which local Croat political officials and Catholic Church officials hide behind the Catholic religion as a way to preserve the symbol’s existence.

These atrocities are being addressed by the Youth Forum Stolac Organization which is headed by Narim Dizdar.  The 80 member, multi-ethnic human rights group has been responsible for calling-out such wrong-doings and bringing attention to the international community.  Hats off to Mr. Dizdar and his fight for justice in the area.

After getting some background of Stolac and the Youth Forum Stolac from Narim Dizdar at a local restaurant, our first stop in the town consisted of a tour of the reconstructed Čaršija Mosque which as been painstakingly rebuilt to its original form.  This was done in order to not only keep with tradition, but also not to provoke the oppressors in any way, i.e., even to their advantage.  The last stop of the day was to visit Rusmir Mahmutćehajić’s house that has also be reconstructed and now serves as a museum to show a tratitional Bosnian Muslim house.

All-in-all it was a short, fast trip with a lot to take in, but I was very glad that I had the opportunity to see such places that I probably would never visited on my own.  With a country steeped in so much history it was even more meaningful to have a renowned Yale history professor tour us, but what’s more, we should never forget the most recent war that ravaged the region and the human right violations that occurred.  Luckily there are human right groups that continue fighting injustices that still prevail; food for thought.

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