Wednesday, 05 September 2012 08:02

Bosnian summer – A European travel journal Pt. 1

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"Travelling Europe" is what many students name as their favourite summer activity. But where is Europe? Geographically a broad approach still seems possible; politically and as a question of identity, borders are reached far quicker. This summer I tried to find Europe outside the EU setting. I travelled to Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country that has always been a passage for European nations, that has seen some of the most brutal crimes of the 20th century only twenty years ago and that is still struggling to reconnect the former warring parties. I wanted to see the process of reconciliation and the rapprochement towards the rest of "Europe" as it is carried out by our generation. Here is my quest for a European identity in a country that hardly knows its own:

Part 1: Beautiful and Damned – Mostar and the Herzegovina

The very first thing I notice about Bosnia and Herzegovina is that it is strikingly beautiful. Crossing the south western border from Croatia by bus, I am half expecting to see the same grey and slightly shabby buildings you still find in some Ex-Soviet countries. But the houses here are newly built, and with the rocky, richly green mountains behind them, you could picture being somewhere in Austria or Slovenia. Between the cliffs runs the bluish-dark green Neretva river; here rather shallow with sandbanks of white gravel. Behind the houses, vineyards climb up the hillsides. Open market stands offer fresh fruit at the sides of the streets.

But the image changes dramatically when the bus reaches the first town, Čapljina. The old multiple dwellings still show holes from shell fire. Colours are completely missing, the houses scream for renovation. Later I find out that the concentration camp Dretelj was in this area. The war has left its scars.


From here on, the war won't let go of me anymore. I made a resolution not to write about it and only investigate the future of this region. But I have to give it up before even unpacking my suitcase. Reaching Mostar, my landlady picks me up at the station and immediately starts talking about the fighting in the area, pointing out ruins and front lines on our way to the hostel. A war tour with her son is scheduled for the next morning. War tourism is what everybody expects me to do.

Bosnia and Herzegovina's economy never actually recovered from the war: today the unemployment rate is higher than 40 percent and the economy suffers from a lack of investment and too much bureaucracy and corruption. I try to order Mostarsko beer from a restaurant's menu - the waiter shakes his head with a sad smile because the brewery went bankrupt a few months ago.

"Mostar had five factories before the war, now there are none left," tells me Nino, our tour guide, who was six when the war started. Everybody here is an expert on the war, everybody has a personal story to tell and thus, with more and more tourists coming, they live off the war. But when I ask Nino why the war happened in the first place he shrugs and says with his slight stutter: "I don't know. Before the war we had everything: jobs, health care, free education. I guess the Serbs attacked."

This is just one of the explanations I hear. The most common one is this: when Bosnia and Herzegovina declared its independence in 1992, Yugoslavian forces refused to leave the country. Fighting began between Bosnian Serbs who wanted to stay part of Yugoslavia, on the one side, and Bosnian Croats and Muslims on the other side. At some point Croatia wanted a share of the pie as well and western Bosnian Croats turned against their former Muslim allies. Ethnic cleansings, detention centres, mass rapes and expulsion were the consequences.

Photo: Julia Schulte
A ruin in Mostar, one of many scars the war left.

This is the story you can precisely retrace in Mostar: before the war, its population consisted of three groups: Bosnian Serbs/Orthodox, Bosnian Croatians/Catholics and Bosniaks/Bosnian Muslims, and was completely mixed. Croats and Bosniaks defended their city at first against the Serbian forces. Then the Croats turned against the Bosniaks. Neighbours started shooting each other.

Today 90 percent of the Muslim population lives on the East Side of the river and 90 percent of the Catholics live on the West Side. "My father fought in the war." says Nino. "He had Croatian friends before, but now they rarely say 'Hi' to each other." I ask him about his own identity - he considers himself Muslim, though his mum is a Bosnian Croat.


I am disappointed. I came here to study reconciliation, renewal and European identity. But it seems impossible even to find a Bosnian identity with everybody strictly clinging to one of the three constituent ethnic groups. All I am shown are ruins in nearly every street, parks turned into graveyards and former sniper hide-outs where the floor is still covered with bullet casings.

Photo: Julia Schulte
The cultural youth centre OKC Abrašević in Mostar. 

There are only few places in this city where it is possible for people to meet without having to define their ethnicity. One is the OKC Abrašević, a youth cultural centre on the west side that organises exhibitions, concerts, cultural events and even has its own media section. On Friday night "The Beat Fleet" a popular band from Split, plays an open-air concert. They have been very successful in the region for more than 15 years, creating their own style called Ping Pong; a combination of hip hop, rap, rock, funk, soul and reggae. The courtyard is crowded with people – "from both sides of the river," as I learn later on. You could picture meeting them in Barcelona or Hamburg too; no one wears the gaudy clothes you sometimes find in Ex-Soviet states. This is former Yugoslavia, which never was as heavily shielded from the West as the Soviet Union, where Tito's socialism allowed everybody to travel to Western and Eastern countries freely and no one was condemned to define his or her identity over and over again.

I meet Tina, the coordinator of Abrašević. She is a 32 year old woman with brown, shoulder-length hair, who smokes all the time. When I ask for her ethnicity she simply says: "I consider myself Yugoslavian. People believe they have to choose nowadays, but I don't want to deny any of my backgrounds." She has been involved in the cultural centre from the very beginning, starting right after the war, when politicians didn't care about youth issues. But open-minded young people wanted to re-establish cultural events in their city regardless of each other's background. Abrašević has been a workers' cultural society since 1926 and after many campaigns, petitions and struggles with politicians, the old owners gave the area to the new OKC Abrašević.

When talking about the political situation, Tina starts a lot of her sentences with "it really annoys me..." and sometimes has to laugh when a situation is just too bad. "The same people who started and fought the war signed the peace agreements and are still in politics today," she tells me.

Most parties represent only one group and have a nationalist approach. "A whole new generation grew up during the war and was indoctrinated with separation. Within ten years you can destroy a society," is Tina's sad conclusion. She has strong social aspirations, would like to take a Scandinavian constitution as a model and have her country invest in ecological agriculture and renewable energies. But all she sees is corruption that prevents the economy from recovering and authorities that don't really do their job - sometimes hindered by bribes. "People are demoralised," she tells me. "Many cannot wait to join the EU, because they think wealth and stability will just come with it. I don't believe it. I like the idea of Europe but in the EU, bureaucracy will eventually kill humanity."

Returning to "my" side after the meeting, I cross the beautiful white Old Bridge. Mostar's landmark was built by the Ottomans, destroyed during the war, rebuilt with Turkish aid and is nowadays a World Heritage Site. It is a fulltime job for young Bosniaks to jump down the 20m into the Neretva river for tourists' amusement. But the reconstruction of the bridge, with old stones retrieved from the river and new stones imported from Turkey, has failed so far to reconnect both sides whose people are equally proud to call themselves Mostari – guardians of the bridge.

The author will discuss questions of European identity with other young Europeans and with Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulić at Europe@Debate on September 13. You will be able to follow the debate via live stream here. The event is organised in cooperation with Körber FoundationEurozine – Europe's leading cultural magazine and Europa neuer Ideen e.V.

Last modified on Wednesday, 05 September 2012 13:58

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