Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina

September & October 1997

The Sansovino tied up at Split at 7am, and I uncurled myself painfully from the sleeper seat that cost an ill-spent extra $20. I probably would have been more comfortable exposed to the cold wind on the top deck, where a few hour before I stood messily wolfing down Italian bread slathered with cheap Turkish caviar as I watched the lights of Ancona recede into the night.

Split looks like an Italian town, complete with espresso shops. The bars are open in the morning, and the buildings have red-tile roofs. Everywhere are signs "Zimmer frei", "gasthaus", "pansion". New apartment buildings are rising along the Adriatic shore. Behind them is a high ridge of mountains with a long wall of cliffs that blocks the way to the interior.

Here comes a young soldier straight out of Time or Newsweek: sympathetic eyebrows over close-set eyes, blond crew-cut over the male pattern baldness that seems unusually prevalent here.


That's what's spray-painted on an apartment building, next to a beautiful river that floods from a narrow gap between two cliff faces. The man behind me in the bus has terribly bad breath. When he leans forward, it curls like poison tendrils around my headrest. The bus is winding along bus-plunge territory, searching for a path through the cliffs.

Near Ploce it finds its way. Dotted between the rocky hills are blue lakes, far below the road, each one surrounded by a thick, soft cushion. It's pleasing to that part of the mind that searches always for borders and definitions. On closer approach, the cushions turn out to be stands of tall reeds.

Still no signs of warfare, unless you count one overgrown fortress that looks about 400 years old. By Metkovic, just short of the Bosnia-Hercegovina border, the bus is full. The driver pulls over and the conductor collects all the passports. After a while, he returns and calls two people off the bus. An Italian SFOR convoy passes the other way, 18 vehicles including a busload of troops, an ambulance, an a few earth-movers.

Just a few kilometers into B-H it begins, with a collapsed concrete aqueduct leading to what looks like the remains of a military post, with three concrete structures in ruins, pocked by bullet holes. The road is scarred with tank tread marks.

Approaching Mostar. On the right are hundreds of ruined houses, shattered by artillery and scorched by fire. On the left, in a bowl formed by great gray hills, there are a few new houses under construction, a couple of industrial plants, a green football field with sharp white chalklines, and a graveyard.

Imagine the town you grew up in, its shops, homes and schools. Imagine your home, and your school. Now imagine them without windows and roofs, with huge star-shaped blast marks, with piles of rubble inside empty gaping broken-toothed grimaces. Imagine the park on the corner packed with the graves of those who once played there.

A giant has stomped through Mostar and flattened whole swathes of it. Imposing edifices downtown have been reduced to shells. Everywhere are graveyards crowded with wooden markers, most bearing the crescent and star.

Here too are signs saying "pansion" and "birre", but on walls that surround nothing.


Entering Sarajevo, the radio on the bus plays "Don't Worry, Be Happy". But a spray-painted message on the wall reads WELCOME TO HELL.

Sarajevo is not hell anymore. You can tell because there are charming little cafes everywhere, just like any bustling European city. The difference, of course, is that half the building are bombed out wrecks. Even in the old section of the city, where the destruction is less severe, there are star-shaped craters everywhere. It's not like Phnom Penh, which looks as if it's been a mess for many years -- and has. Sarajevo is a beautiful town nestled in a high mountain valley, with ancient buildings, winding cobbled streets and the rest, and then SLAM! it's a mess.

Now the shops have been rebuilt and the windows are full of fashionable clothes. Sarajevans stroll along, looking fully Euro-sophisticated, if a little gaunt. NATO troops and armored vehicles are everywhere, protecting Sarajevo and the Bosnians from the Serbian nationalists, whose putative headquarters is in Pale, just about 15 kilometers over the hill.

Actually, NATO's job now is "stabilization" not protection. Theoretically they have been building up the Bosnian government's forces and equalizing the balance of power. There is an astonishing variety of opinions on this theory. Depending who you ask, the job is either impossible, undesirable, incomplete or already overdone. The bloodbath might be right around the corner, might be prevented only by NATO's presence, might occur despite NATO's presence or certainly won't occur and it's time for the foreign forces to leave.

At the house where I am renting a room, Seza, the owner, keeps in the bureau a heavy, twisted fragment of the rocket grenade that killed her mother-in-law in the kitchen. Just above my pillow, in one pane of the French door next to my bed, is neat round bullet hole.


At the other end of twelve hours on the bus from Sarajevo, Zagreb shows no signs of war. It is a city of churches of conservatories, of stately imperial palaces laid out in squares on the plain, while the old section rises up along with the hills to the north.

I arrived in the morning, and it was, as always, colder than I'm used to. I decided to seek warmth, and walked across town to the central square, and up the hill to the cathedral. As I approached, I gradually realized I was not alone. Other people, a variety of them, were also mounting the hill. By the time I arrived in front of the cathedral, they were streaming in from all directions, marching in school uniforms, hobbling on canes, gliding in black habits. Television crews roamed the plaza, and acolytes handed out programs, which were in Croatian, of course, and unintelligible to me.

Inside, the crowd was thickening minute by minute, and pressing together. People strained their necks trying to see, but I didn't know what we were looking for. I stood near a huge column, boxed in by Croatians of all shapes and sizes. The older men sported an astonishing variety of facial hair: huge, woolly mutton chops, trim, massive handlebars, sharp little van dykes.

Rounded organ notes quieted the hum of voices in the air, and television cameras high on scaffolding above the crowd swung back toward the main door. A series of pointed hats, led by a banner, bobbed up the center aisle. People around started to sing. Finding the same page in the program, I sang along. They're not going to spot me, oh no.

Then a sermon began, or perhaps it was a prayer. I don't know. It droned on and on. Then another song. A gap appeared in the crowd nearby, and a man was carried unconscious out of it to the side door. The sermon continued.

Suddenly a loud buzzing filled my right ear and I slapped at it, feeling the thump as I knocked the insect away. A few seconds later I felt an insistent tap on my shoulder. I turned to see a little man, of about 65 or 70, looking at me with a mixture of curiosity and mischief. He was holding up his hand. Between his forefinger and thumb was an enormous black fly. It struggled but its legs were pinioned. It could not get away. I considered the fly. There was nowhere for it, or me, to go. The pointed hat at the altar continued its sermon. The little man cocked his head, and with his other hand, tore one wing off the fly and let it fall to the floor. I turned away, and didn't look back.

The train station

At midnight I waited on the platform for the train to Venice. There was a bar at the train station, and I had a few kunas left. I had used up others at another bar in town, where I shared roasted chestnuts with a desperately friendly Bosnian, whose business was the manufacture of translucent logo keychains and badges. He showed me dozens of them. They were beautiful, and very unique, I assured him.

He would have fit in well at the train station, which was populated by drunks and prostitutes, who brushed against me as they walked by, and stared lazily at me through puffy teenaged eyes. I wondered if any of them had made it to the installation of the new archbishop that morning.

Five kuna was not enough to get a beer, and none of my friends were helping out. I would have to keep them. One tiny, wobbling wino wanted to know how much Croatian I knew. I told him my bit of Croatian in Bosnia.

"You can use them together," I said, using bits and pieces of English and Italian. "Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian. Sound the same." He jerked and jumped and like a marionette. "No! Not the same! They are not same" His arms almost windmilled and he swayed like a fighter near collapse.

The station was turning freaky on me. I went to the lavatory, and paid a kuna to get in. It was spotless. On the way out, the attendant stopped me and asked if I spoke English. "Here, I have something interesting for you to read." It was a copy of Awake, the Jehovah's Witness magazine.

You can find more travel stories...

photo by DV2 go to top of this page

go to new site entrance

e-mail me your comments