Diving into Bosnia // A Day in Mostar // A Week in Sarajevo

Walking home one night with twinkling lights of homes further up the mountain valley - shrapnel damage remains everywhere through the city

Aug 26-27: Mostar | Aug 27-Sep1: Sarajevo

Strap in, this one’s long, and I hope worth your while. The TL;DR is: go to Sarajevo, it’s a wonderful place to visit despite what I begin this post with.

“I realize that what happened in Bosnia could happen anywhere in the world, particularly in places that are diverse and have a history of conflict. It only takes bad leadership for a country to go up in flames, for people of different ethnicity, color, or religion to kill each other as if they had nothing in common whatsoever. Having a democratic constitution, laws that secure human rights, police that maintain order, a judicial system, and freedom of speech don’t ultimately guarantee long lasting peace. If greedy or bloodthirsty leaders come to power, it can all go down. It happened to us. It can happen to you.”
― Savo Heleta, Not My Turn to Die: Memoirs of a Broken Childhood in Bosnia

We listened to a story from a grown man, about my age now. He explained of a small obsession he had as a child with jam packets handed out by the French. He would go each time the transporter arrived, but because he was much smaller than all the other boys he could never get one no matter how much he fought.

Then one day, the same thing happened, as it would from time to time, but this time he didn’t push through the crowd. He didn’t even try to get a jam packet. Standing there, one was plopped into his hands. A French soldier found pity on him.

Overcome with joy he immediately started imagining what the jam would taste like, this dream come true. No sooner did he possess the jam than another boy brazenly snatch it up out of his hands. He began to sob. The other boy being much bigger than him, he stood no chance fighting for it. He ran back inside his building and cried all the way through the echoing halls up to the seventh floor.

His mother worried as she could hear her son sobbing on his way in, she worried he was wounded. She tried to console him, but only a jam packet would solve this one. Or some retribution against the other boy.

He began shouting and cursing from the window upon the boy who snatched his jam. His mother ran after him to quiet him down, knowing the neighbors and everyone could hear.

He doesn’t remember what ultimately ended it all, a mortar or some other devastating explosion. To this day he doesn’t buy any jam packets, no matter the small cost. They only serve to remind him of the war.

“It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere.”
― Primo Levi, Auchwitz survivor

It might seem like some far off history lesson. The term concentration camp. Something only associated with Hitler, Nazis, and the Third Reich. It seems only fitting to remind ourselves of these atrocities now with an increase of Neo-Nazi activity back in the States. I’m reflecting a lot on it after Berlin and, now, having toured extensively behind the Iron Curtain, the lands of secret police and too much brutality. But here in Bosnia, in 1995, the massacre at Srebrenica was the most devastating mass killing in Europe since the Holocaust. Some 8,000 people, mostly Bosniak men and boys were murdered, and 20,000 people were removed from the area in ethnic cleansing. That said, modern North Korea and Chechnya show it continues to happen.

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”
― Primo Levi

When I started writing on this blog in 2013, it was at a hidden subdomain meant for friends and family only. I forbid the search engines from indexing the information to make sure the content would not go too public. The furthest it went was Facebook. What came out of me in those twelve posts was unstoppable. It flowed, I loved the research, and I think it came together ok. I wrote all of the content upon return from the two-week adventure. Packing in as much as possible on my commutes and editing into the night.

I’ve since struggled with this new trip of ours and balancing how and when to write, what voice is it, and what purpose is it serving. Am I writing for myself, or for others? Am I aiming to help other travelers, or is it more educational for myself and anyone interested? Or, am I painting broadly and not concerned with any particular color or splatter? I know I’ll continue to struggle with this, especially if I move into subjects unrelated to our travels.

When we first arrived in Italy, it also came easy. I was fresh off a huge life change, in a country I’d never been, and on a new journey that was energizing. As most do, I reverted to the mean. Now, for example, I struggle with creating a post about Berlin. Not because we didn’t do much, not because I didn’t enjoy our time there, but the city didn’t move me. The location didn’t change who I am. Am I asking too much? I have some great pictures, and definitely some places you should check out. But the pen feels scratchy and dry, but I know I’ll get there.

However, I did, back in 2013, feel that Cambodia and Vietnam changed me. Seeing first-hand how Vietnam memorialized the “American War” taught me new vantage points, allowed me to experience a different path to empathy, and a different way to memorialize a war. Or, having someone share their first-hand story of the Khmer Rouge, then to find out that he is sending his son and daughters to university, down the very path that would have them victims in The Killing Fields.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Sarajevo has been one of those times. This city made me feel and understand the former Yugoslavia more than any of the other cities we’ve visited, but aided by all of them. I’ll give you that we skipped parts of the Balkans I really wanted to visit, and I’m not particularly happy about that. However, we’ve made up for it in finding some of the better tour guides to experience this area with and have heard different sides and stories that, when synthesized, yield more color than I think I would have received from reading alone. Where the West Ends was also instrumental in shaping some of this and laying down a base layer for us to feed on and ask better questions of our guides.

We opened with a free walking tour, which has been our go-to strategy since being suggested by a friend, Paul. We met Neno of Sarajevo Walking Tours at the National Theater, along with a rather large crowd. The largest we’ve experienced yet. (disclaimer: it was much worse in Prague, but they split the group into pieces). We saw notable sights and learned a bit of history and local perspective. Neno was seven or so when the 44 month Siege of Sarajevo took place. Neno also let us in on the local economy and the feelings of young people. Bosnia has dim economic prospects. Largely a resource economy that supplies other countries for finished goods. Meaning, much of the value-add is done somewhere else. This point, combined with +40% unemployment, and worse numbers concentrated in the youth.

This leads to a brain drain as well as a general youth drain. Many young people seek out avenues of moving to other countries, specifically west, for better jobs and prospects for building a life. To some, this may seem short sighted. If enough young people stayed (or returned) and started building up a creative economy and injecting a new lifeblood, Bosnia could be changed for the better. Yes, but after getting a lesson in the political system one might continue with the despair.

Before we dive into that, I’ll mention the paid tour we did with Ervin of Toorico Tours.

We met in Pigeon Square with two other couples. One from London, the other a pair of doctors traveling for six months from New Zealand. Lovely people to spend the day with, along with Ervin, who is affable, knowledgeable, humorous and well read. He took great care of us throughout the day and I would highly recommend spending time with him, we did the War Tour which includes many important sights which are photographed and captioned further below. We hopped into a van and got panoramic views of the city from the Yellow Fortress, visited the Jewish Cemetary, Olympic podium and ski jump, Olympic luge, the Tunnel of Hope, and Sniper Alley all while hearing Ervin’s first and second hand accounts.

The political situation is shaped by the Dayton Accords, which took place in Dayton, Ohio only a few hours away from where I grew up. At the Hope Hotel inside Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in November 1995, President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, President Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia signed the peace agreement. The agreement set forth a framework to end the violence and set up a functioning government in Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, this essentially froze the conflict with no clear winner or loser, icing the ethnic conflict that emerged when Yugoslavia began to fall into pieces. This part, the breakup of Yugoslavia, and the subsequent frothing of ethnic and nationalistic violence are worthy of another volume of information I am not qualified to give you. The sound bite is: as the country fractured, Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence. When Bosnia and Herzegovina did the same, the Bosnian Serbs (Orthodox) and Croats (Catholic) felt a debasing coming that would leave the Bosniaks (Muslim) in control. That’s the spark, distilled. Links and recommended reading are below.

Explaining the current structure of government is not possible without mentioning the Yugoslav breakup, subsequent violence, and the Dayton Accords. Because these separate entities and ethnic groups were all given slices of the pie of power in governing Bosnia and Herzegovina. I think is most strikingly exemplified by there being three separate presidents. Also, three post office systems, complete with their own stamps. Both these institutions and several others are split between the Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats, along religious and ethnic lines.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, the country,  is broken into two main pieces: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Republika of Srpska. Each has quite a bit of autonomy, which seems to me like two nearly separate states complete with large signs denoting when entering or leaving the Federation or the Republic with road condition changes to match. You may be driving on one road, and cross this border over and over in only a few miles, and it will be clear you’re crossing due to the road quality changes. These lines might seem imaginary, but some clearly find it very important still.

Then, within the Federation, there are 10 cantons, not unlike the cantons in Switzerland. Each canton has its own administration and another good dose of autonomy. These layers and separate silos of government add up, toss in the fact that state officials often make much more than the average in Bosnia (which would not include other remunerations that cannot or are not counted) and you have a fat and ineffectual government. After each election, more time is spent fighting over who will sit in what seat and for how long than any actual governing. The perspectives we’ve been let in on here make the people running the government sound self-serving and are in a machine that self-perpetuates and profits only those within it.

As a young person, assessing one’s prospects, it’s easy to imagine needing out. It also helps to explain the strong prevalence of a cash economy here. Who wants to pay taxes when 60% of it goes to paying for administration, only 40% carries any action with it and from what I’ve read that action is often corrupt or poorly designed at best. This is a country of 3.5 million, a lot of cities in the U.S. have more people and smaller governments. You may feel like your own government isn’t effective, but trust me when I say western Europe and the United States are light years ahead in effective governing. Count your blessings and participate. One example, in Bosnia, there is an Office of the High Representative, held by a foreign representative, who can sack anyone in government they see as holding peace in contempt. A position, when held by the interested and benevolent, seems like a solid post-war idea in a nonintegrated integration. But, one bad apple while the international community isn’t looking and I fear what difficulties could emerge. The Federation. The Republic. The Office of the High Representative. It’s all sounding quite like Star Wars.

It leads one to ask how these tensions are today. Has there been enough healing and forgiveness to withstand a shift or evolution in government and structure? Do people think there could be violence in the near term future? In talking with Serbs in southern Bosnia and in Serbia, in talking with Bosniaks and agnostics in Sarajevo, and Croats in Croatia, the area seems well set for peace. They all seem to travel frequently throughout the former territory, they have family scattered throughout and across borders, and there are plenty of mixed marriages. But, the same could largely be said for before the war. I started looking for thoughtful reporting both on the fragility/strength of government in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as a deeper dive of the events that made the international community intervene.

I thoroughly recommend this Times piece as it covers the war crimes, aftermath years later, characters that illustrate the then and now, as well as the terrible confusion and finger pointing that persists. Walking around Mostar or Sarajevo you will still see messages of “Never Forget” or “All Gave Some, Some Gave All” and “Remember Srebrenica.” After that, you might wonder what has come of the sentencing of two war criminals. We listened to a video of Ratko Mladić citing the justification or motivation for the cleansing and violence against the Bosniaks on Ottoman oppression.

Pause on that for a moment, and think about when the last major Ottoman oppression against the Serbs might have taken place. The fall of the Ottoman Empire was in 1922, as a starting point. However, when we were in Belgrade being shown around The Church of Saint Sava, it didn’t take long for the gentleman to bring up the Serbs having protected Europe from hundreds of years of Ottoman aggression. All this does for me is embolden: violence begets more violence.

To both back up and further fortify some of the information on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s complicated system of government, The Guardian has a great quick read on it.

If you have other suggestions, please pass them along.

Sarajevo Specifics

Besides the two tours mentioned above, we also spent a couple hours at Sarajevo’s City Hall which was reopened in 2014 after being firebombed by Serb forces during the Siege. Over two million books and magazines went up in flames, destroying some of Sarajevo’s written culture and history. Built during the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Sarajevo, it is a strikingly beautiful building worth walking around and then touring the museum in the basement. We did this upon getting to town, and the exhibits in the museum took us from the city’s founding to modern times.

We stayed in Sarajevo for an extended time, in part to plan further out and do research for Morocco and Portugal. This also allowed us to cook in and save some cash. That didn’t stop us from having the next best meal since that little pasta place in Modena. We’ve eaten at Dveri, which is hidden along one of the old town side streets, twice now. We’ve sampled four dishes and all were top notch and a great relief from the usual ćevapi. Beefsteak in Gorgonzola, Chicken Curry, Gulash, Pesto Ceasar Salad and a side of bread. We’re considering a third visit, but feel guilty we aren’t sampling other places. I also recommend getting a drink at Zlatna Ribica, or Goldfish. It is part hipster, part steampunk, and all funky cafe and bar. Other places that have been recommended that we will try to get to are Barhana, and To Be. Update, we ate at To Be, which was also wonderful. Dveri, however, keeps its podium finish.

We also had the pleasure of attending the Sarajevo Chamber of Music Festival where they annually host the Manhattan String Quartet. This year, a string quartet from Princeton University also played. This was the seventh or eighth year for the event, and it was great to see the locals and Americans mixing it up before and after the event.

To close, I’ll note that we are staying in the home of Ziyah Gafic, a Sarajevo native who has gone on to photograph areas of the world torn apart by war as his home was in his childhood. We have not had the pleasure of meeting Ziyah, but his father is super nice. Our apartment in their home has Ziyah’s work hanging on the walls and his books available to peruse. Stop by his website to see some of his work, and as a TED Fellow you can check out his TED Talk and writings for TED. Also, take the time to visit the Srebrenica Gallery and the War Child Museum, or pick up the book.

We loved Sarajevo. I can’t tell you enough how wonderful it was to come here. Don’t let the heavy history stop you, or make you think this is the only thing on offer here. Sarajevo has a wonderful old town full of shopping that is still frequented by locals. This means it isn’t a bunch of touristy trash, and the prices are not gouging you. The surrounding nature of Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot be beaten either. Go rafting, go hiking, and so much more. The post next week will cover much of the wilderness activities in southern Bosnia and Herzegovnia (otherwise Republika Srpska territory). Also, here is the Blagaj Tekke link from the photos you’ll see below.

Thanks for reading.

Photographs follow, mostly captioned to help tie to the above content, as well as a YouTube video that you really should not pass up watching.

On our way to Sarajevo, we stopped for a night in Mostar, the capital of Herzegovina. Stari Most, or Old Bridge, was reconstructed after Croats shelled the Ottoman bridge during the civil war – Notice the minarets and the large cross looking down from the hill
Mostar was full of ruins – while the city has strong tourism, and is very touristy, war and peace are both very visible
We left Mostar and visited Blagaj Tekke, an old Dervish house
Blagaj Tekke – Looking up on one prayer room
Blagaj Tekke – Shell was adorned for dress code purposes, I should have brought my longyi
Bosnian coffee reminds me of the Serbian coffee I had in Belgrade, and the Turkish coffee I had in London…
Sarajevo City Hall – Plaque as seen before entering the building – Remembering may be important, but words like these do not heal
Sarajevo City Hall – Main Atrium
Sarajevo City Hall – An Istanbul Exhibit was on display while we were there – Turkey continues to donate money to Bosnia for various rebuilding and goodwill purposes
Sarajevo City Hall – Windows casting their light
Sarajevo City Hall – pictures of the Siege, top: Sniper Alley – cars placed to help make for safer passage
Sarajevo has been full of surprises and feelings. Much like what these pigeons experienced one morning.
Inside the Tunnel of Hope that sustained the population of Sarajevo during the 44 month Siege of Sarajevo
Many shells exploded near or on streets and sidewalks, many of which now have the indentations painted red as reminders
Sarajevo Olympic Podium
Shell standing on the Olympic podium of the ’84 winter games
Olympic Bobsled – Graffiti
Olympic Bobsled – Shell thinking you luge uphill 😉
I don’t need to add to this message, except to say there were many messages of peace and hope scattered in the graffiti – that, and f*ck trump more than just once
Hotel Igman – formerly a five star hotel in the mountains for the 84 games was firebombed by Serbs and abandoned
Hotel Igman – elevator bank
Hotel Igman – five floors up looking down the empty elevator shaft
The street corner where Franz Ferdinand was shot
Walking home one night with twinkling lights of homes further up the mountain valley – shrapnel damage remains everywhere through the city
Srebrenica Gallery
The War Child Museum – Each exhibit pulled for your tears and also pride in the human spirit. Notice the logo in the of the museum in the rear, Shell finds it extremely powerful
War Child Museum – Full of both warming and heartbreaking stories
War Child Museum – Full of both warming and heartbreaking stories
Local painter selling his creations in the old market
Manhattan String Quartet, Princeton University String Quartet, and students of the Sarajevo Music Academy performing Beethoven’s Grosse fuga at the Sarajevo Chamber of Music Festival
Restaurant Dveri, our runaway favorite, with a message of pluralism. The kitchen can be seen just behind, it’s tiny
Restaurant Dveri, the second time


By Daniel Hatke

The author was born and raised in Indiana. After graduating from Purdue University he worked in the asset management industry in New York City. He holds an MBA from Columbia Business School with concentrations in finance and entrepreneurship. Currently, he is fueling his curiosities through taking time off for extended travel and experiences in Europe and Asia, as chronicled here.