Bosnia and Herzegovina: a diamond in the rough

After spending twenty-eight horrible hours on the bus, I arrived in Tuzla, the largest city in the north of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Tuzla is an industrial city that is famous for its extensive salt deposits. You can actually see parts of the city center have sunk because of the salt extractions. In addition, Europe’s only salt lake can be found in the central park of Tuzla.

At eleven in the morning I got off at the bus station and was lost. I did not know where to go. I managed to explain to two ladies that I was looking for Hotel Bristol and they told me I should walk along the river. The sun was burning in the sky as I carried my bags downtown. This way I had the opportunity to take a first glance at Tuzla.

Although the city has a population of 120,000 people, it comes across as a middle-sized town. Only a handful of buildings have more than two stories. The houses are built in typical Eastern Bloc fashion: lackluster square housing blocks covered with grey plaster. Cars come in two flavors. Affluent businessmen drive in the latest Audi or Mercedes model. Ordinary people have to settle for dirty, dented, rust-spotted vehicles that are past due for their periodic inspection.

It has been twelve years since the war that tore apart Yugoslavia ended. It has had a lasting impact on the country of Bosnia and its people. Many of the passengers on the bus were refugees who fled to the Netherlands. Fortunately, a few of them had learned Dutch and were able to give me a couple of tips for staying in Bosnia. David, a thirty-two-year-old refugee who married a Dutch woman, told me to avoid faucets after heavy rainfall, as the drinking water becomes darker of color from the precipitation. He also insisted that Bosnia and Herzegovina is a safe place to stay, perhaps even safer than the Netherlands.

As we approached Tuzla, an old woman on the bus pointed toward six giant cooling towers. She explained that they were part of a thermo electric power plant. The plant had positive and negative effects on the region. On the one hand, it was Tuzla’s main employer. On the other hand, it polluted the air considerably. The roof tiles of many houses were blackened from the soot that floated around in the atmosphere.

I found my way to the hotel, asking mostly young people for directions. Because they are more geared toward Western Europe, their English is better than the average Bosnian. The one-hour walk and the little sleep I had on the bus had worn me out, so I decided to take a rest. I woke up three hours later and went outside to do some reconnaissance. To my great surprise, a modern superstore was built right around the corner of the hotel. Apparently, Bosnia is not as backward as I expected it to be.

The remainder of my two-day stay in Tuzla was rather uneventful. I was glad to get on the bus to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The bus drove for four hours through mountainous, forested areas that typify the inland of Bosnia. The country is famous for its many brooks and creeks that flow from its high peaks.

The houses in the countryside bear the marks of the war. While the major cities are largely rebuilt, dilapidated houses adorn the rural landscape, complete with bullet holes from the gunfights twelve years ago. The new houses that are built are often not finished. I later learned that most people simply do not have the financial resources to complete the build.

While the condition of homes leaves something to be desired, religious buildings are always in impeccable state. Sixty percent of the Bosnian population are Muslim. No matter how small the town, a minaret of a mosque pointing toward the sky can always be found.

The minute I entered Sarajevo, I knew this was a vibrant city. People crowded the sidewalks, cars and trams drove down the street, and shops were abundant. I walked to the youth hostel where a rather peculiar man was waiting for my arrival. Instead of showing me to my room, he proceeded to give me a lengthy lecture on the city’s history and main attractions. When he was finally finished, he explained that my room was not here, but a ten-minute walk away. Thankfully, he offered to drive me there in his old white Renault, an offer which I gladly accepted. The car puffed and creaked and barely made it up the hill.

Sarajevo is fixed in my mind as a city where intense hostility took place. I cannot begin to fathom how citizens must have felt in war time. Every person walking on the main street, nicknamed “sniper alley”, would be fired upon by sharpshooters in the surrounding hills. Attacks could occur at any moment of the day. Like the mortar bomb that exploded in the main market square killing 68 and wounding 200 people in 1994. Today, the market is as lively as ever, but somehow you get the feeling the fighting could erupt again spontaneously.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is home to three main population groups: Bosnian Croats, Bosnian Serbs, and Bosniaks. Religion is the main divider between these groups. Bosnian Croats predominantly adhere to Catholicism, Bosnian Serbs to the Eastern Orthodox Church, and Bosniaks to the Islam, which was introduced to this region by the Ottomans who ruled over Bosnia for four centuries. If it were not for the Muslim population, the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina would most likely have been divided long ago between Croatia and Serbia, the two neighboring countries.

National unity is a difficult topic. That is why it was hopeful to see so many supporters cheering on the national soccer team in their quest to qualify for the 2008 European Championships. They beat international minnows Malta 1-0 that evening. Perhaps international success in sport can be the binding factor this country so desperately needs.

I spent many hours walking through the narrow streets of Old Town Sarajevo, built by the Ottomans. Adjacent to it is the younger Austro-Hungarian quarter. Architecturally, Sarajevo is a miniature amalgamation of Istanbul and Vienna. The Bosnian capital possesses a vast diversity of cultures; it is a place where Eastern Europe meets the West. It is the only city in the world where a mosque, Catholic church, Orthodox church, and synagogue grace the same square. It has many historical sites, such as the Latin bridge from where Gavrilo Princip shot Franz Ferdinand, the event that ignited the First World War.

For a city and country so rich in culture and natural beauty, it is odd that tourism has not developed in Sarajevo and Bosnia like in Croatia. Tourists are a rare phenomenon for waiters. The shocked and uncomfortable look on the waiter’s face as I ordered in English was priceless. Every cup of coffee I got was put on the table in a grumpy manner. Service with a smile simply does not exist.

Being in Bosnia for a week was an unforgettable experience. It is quite possible that I have never met more hospitable people in my life. The outlook for the future is not so bright, however. Politically, the country is a mess. Until the authorities are able to structure political processes, foreign companies will not invest in the country, which means the unemployment rate will continue to hover at around 40 percent. Much work will have to be done before Bosnia and Herzegovina can even be considered as a candidate for joining the European Union.

As I took a taxi to the bus station, I drove through downtown Sarajevo with a lump in my throat. It cannot take long before the kindness of the Bosnian people and the immense beauty of the country will be discovered by the rest of the world.

For me, all that remained now were another twenty-eight horrible hours back on the bus to the Netherlands. But that did not matter. The bus ride was definitely worth the time.