Crossroads: Adventure and The Past in Bosnia and Herzegovina
“This area you must avoid,” Lorenc says, pointing to the valley way below Lukomir where we are headed. “The bridge was destoyed so you cannot cross the river. And there are landmines around the trail.”
Seeing me express an interest, they switch to English. “This area you must avoid,” Lorenc says, pointing to the valley way below Lukomir where we are headed. “The bridge was destoyed so you cannot cross the river. And there are landmines around the trail.” The Czech guide nods but seems curiously nonchalant. Lorenc and I speak about it later and we both agree, we hope he took Lornec’s warnings seriously. It would be wrong to think of BiH as a place infested with landmines at every turn. But they are present. Mountains, and the trails leading through the undulating countryside, were military targets, tactically important to each of the myriad sides in the conflict in 1992-1995. The JNA usually marked the placement of mines as a would be expected of a professional army. Other factions did not. So many areas of countryside are still being cleared. Most are marked out with signs and fencelines. Some are not. All trekking benefits from local knowledge but, in BiH, it is essential.
The saddest thing is the wider perception of the country. I am a British Citizen. I was born in a British Dependent Territory but I have lived in the UK since 1976. My father is a Krajina Serb. We have spirited discussions on the conflict. I spent two years studying the conflict as part of my postgraduate study in international criminal law and the law of war. I know the history and I know the place. Yet, until a representative of Green Visions contacted me whilst I was making plans for the summer, it had not crossed my mind to travel there to hike. National Geographic made BiH one of its Best Adventure Destinations for 2012, yet it remains almost unknown. Few tourists can be seen on the trails who are not Croat, Slovenian, Serb or Bosniak. Yet it has so much to offer. Eastern Orthodox missionaries arrived around the 8th or 9th Century. Franciscans came shortly thereafter. Then the Ottomans arrived and introduced Islam. Finally, the Austro-Hungarians came and introduced their own brand of Victorian sensibility and practicality. The region has long been a crossroads for religion and commerce. The most compelling explanation for what happened in the 90’s. Sarajevo and Mostar, for example, still bear the scars of conflict. Yet Bosnia and Herzegovina has always been a crossroads – a meeting place for cultures, religions and travellers. When those differences are throw into that melting pot, the resulting broth tastes great to some and not so great to others. Variety is the spice of life.
When we trek down to Lukomir, the highest semi-nomadic Bosniak village in Bosnia at 1496m, we are greeted with smiles and a heart-warming welcome. As well as some Uštipci, a kind of fried donut dough which is delicious and warm enough to have just come out of the oven. We talk to the villagers about what life is like and they tell us things have changed a great deal recently. They need more support from the government, they say. There are many who live in the mountains in villages like Lukomir. During the conflict, they fled but eventually returned to ruined homes and land which needed to be re-worked to make it arable. Former ‘enemies’ now try to support each other. Many tour companies would rather pay Bosniak families for supplies – vegetables, cheeses and the like – than go to supermarkets. Co-operation between the various factions in the conflict now sit next to each other in bars and openly discuss what occurred. As Sulieman, a friend of Lorenc’s put it – he watched a Croat soldier attempt to rape his sister. Another Croat soldier pulled him off and beat him for it. “How can I say I hate all Croats, that all Croats are bad,” he asks, “when I have seen that? All people are different.” It is impossible to draw lines between people and place them in this camp or that. Serbs fought alongside Bosniaks and Croats in Sarajevo, only to be vilified by their families after the conflict for doing so. One of Lornec’s friends trekked through Montenegro after the conflict. They met some guys in a bar and began talking about Sarajevo. Both were in Sarajevo at the time of the conflict, they discovered. Both were on the same street, the confrontation line. Both were fighting. Both knew, exactly, the location of a small shop with a blue front. One was sure it was on the left. The other, equally sure it was on the right. They realised they had been facing each other. Shooting at each other. For months. After a few drinks, to them it no longer mattered. It was time to move on and prevent the hate from destroying yet more lives.
As Sulieman, a friend of Lorenc’s put it – he watched a Croat soldier attempt to rape his sister. Another Croat soldier pulled him off and beat him for it. “How can I say I hate all Croats, that all Croats are bad,” he asks, “when I have seen that? All people are different.”
The storm drifts in; the danger is nonchalant and random. At one point it is directly over us. Lightning scorches the earth less than 30m away, the crash of thunder and blinding white searing light utterly simultaneous.
Fog shrouds us and steals from us the rewards of the ascent. The wind direction has changed and the hollow rumble of thunder chills our hearts. Now we know it needs to be a swift descent. But we are caught. The storm comes in quicker than we could have anticipated and we find a depression away from the ridge. Lightning crashes ten seconds before thunder. The anger is close. We sit on our packs, feet together and heads stooped. Then the hail comes. The storm drifts in; the danger is nonchalant and random. At one point it is directly over us. Lightning scorches the earth less than 30m away, the crash of thunder and blinding white searing light utterly simultaneous. I stare at two small, yellow flowers. I think of both my sons. I wonder, almost absurdly idly, whether I will see them again. Or whether something I can do nothing about will tear me away from them. An ephemeral break allows us to put on something warmer as hypothermia begins to draw a chill finger across our bodies. I am shivering hard. As the second wave of severe weather beats us, I grow more cold. Without an insulation layer, I would likely have been in serious trouble. Thank god for coreloft, because it’s raining and I’m still ok.
I was fortunate to have been guided by a superb, learned and unfailingly balanced guide called Lorenc Konaj from Green Visions in Sarajevo. He gave me more time, frankness and displayed more integrity, when discussing the difficult subject of the war in 1992-1995, than I could possibly have expected. My thanks to him, and to Thierry Joubert for the chance to experience this wonderful country. Also, thanks to USAID and the Adventure Travel Association for funding and arranging the trip.