Walking through the woods, foraging for mushrooms, I suddenly freeze. Is it safe to step here?
This is not an idle fear. Parts of Bosnia have yet to be cleared of land mines and while most of the danger areas are known and marked accidents do still happen from time to time. My dubious grasp of the local language amplifies my fears: What exactly did those signs that were fastened to the trees along the road through the forest that I’ve been riding on say?
There is no denying that Bosnia is spectacularly beautiful and sometimes – like when the muezzin’s call to prayer wafts across Prokoško Lake on a sunny afternoon – it is hard to imagine a more peaceful scene. A man, who I had asked for directions hours before down in the valley far below, greets me when I finally make it over the pass and down to the shores of the lake. He invites me into a tiny wooden cottage for coffee and his wife and daughter ply me with burek and cake before I wander to the edge of the lake for a well-earned swim.
In Sarajevo, the intelligent and personable young man leading the group I am part of on a free walking tour of the city casually mentions that he spent his childhood hiding in basements. It seemed a bit like a game at first, he says; but then he makes it quite clear that no child really wants to play a game that lasts the best part of four years – probably not even one where the cumulative privations and losses entailed by its savage nature are less traumatic.
Sarajevo’s museums all contain exhibits illustrating atrocity and war – a haunting photographic record of traces that, despite the best efforts of the perpetrators to efface them, point undeniably to the hideous brutality of the genocidal Srebrenica massacres, the tunnel whereby food and medical supplies were secreted into the besieged city, the graveyards full of the dead, the local brewery which is now more notable for the spring that provided besieged Sarajevo residents with fresh water than for the quality of its beer.
Our guide finishes up what is – given the difficult subject matter – a surprisingly engaging, and even optimistic, tour by asking us to assure our friends and family that Bosnia and Sarajevo are safe now and to encourage them to visit. Bosnia’s best hopes for the future are in tourism, he believes. And it is impossible not to hope that Bosnia’s future is brighter than its past.
On leaving Sarajevo, when, in order to avoid a major highway, I decide to follow a lead provided by an intriguing line marked on my map, I unwittingly embark on another dark tourism foray into the bitter heart of Bosnia. I really don’t think that I have retrospectively conjured up the eerie silence that descended as I turned off the main road and started pedalling along Crna Rijeka (Black River).
The road rose and fell as it traversed the valley. There was no other traffic, no inhabited houses in view, no sounds of life, no matter how faint or distant. At the top of a rise, I was arrested by the sight of a multi-lingual memorial plaque commemorating the lives of a group of twelve UN personnel who perished somewhere nearby in a helicopter crash. In English, German, and Romanian the names are listed under the claim that they died here in the cause of freedom and justice. The melancholy reminder of personal sacrifice and lost lives leaves me pondering on the fragile nature of peace in Bosnia and the elusiveness of freedom and justice.
I finally arrive at the top of the pass late in the afternoon, tired and hungry, hoping for a place to rest while I eat lunch. And certainly there is an open area, some picnic tables and even a fountain of drinking water but the scene is dominated by an ugly billboard. In acid green, yellow and red the sign shouts:
MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE – MINE
I eat and cycle on my way.
My next ‘destination’ in Bosnia is Sutjeska National Park where I want to explore what is said to be one of the two oldest forests in Europe.
It is probably clear by now that I am not a particularly assiduous planner. In Sarajevo, a couple of tourist services offered guided walks in Sutjeska National Park but guided walks are not for me. I decide instead to follow my usual research strategy for an area of interest which is simply to ride to a nearby sizeable town in the hope that I can pick up maps and enough relevant information to set out independently. In this case, the town where I am hoping to gather information is called Foča.
I cycle into Foča in the morning without having entirely shaken the creepy feeling that riding and camping in the war-ravaged Goražde valley had induced in me. But it quickly becomes apparent that there is nothing at all in Foča to uplift the spirit.
The first thing I notice is that unlike that other areas that I have passed through in Bosnia, here the street signs and advertising are exclusively in Cyrillic script. With no obvious centre to the town I ride around at loss for while hoping for some kind of ineffable invitation to arrive from one of the cafes or restaurants. As that hope fades, I stop at an open fronted cafe populated by a group of three or four men nursing beers in the dark interior. I sit in the morning sun at one of the outside tables, order a coffee and then get out my laptop to see if I can locate a tourist service of some kind.
But on typing ‘Foča’ into the search field of my browser the autocomplete function helpfully suggests that what I might be looking for information on is: ‘Foča rape camps’ or ‘Foča massacres’ or ‘Foča war crimes’. I hesitate a moment before plunging into the abyss. When I finally raise my eyes from the computer screen and look around the cafe at the other customers I find that I don’t want to meet their eyes or smile or answer their questions about where I am from or where I am going. I get up to pay for my coffee but one of the men makes a show of paying for it himself and my muttered thanks choke me.
I get on my bike and ride out of town.