Oh Bosnia and Herzegovina! What have you done to me? I’ll be asking this for a long time to come.
Our journey through this country stirred up unexpected feelings, some of which I don’t know yet how to name.
Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is a place I long heard about, but never added to my “must visit” list.
My family roots reach into Croatia, and I have, for decades been interested in Balkan history and life. BiH, like its neighbors, is where so many ethnic, religious and cultural identities have been tangled together for centuries. As a observer of the world, I wanted to see what kind of impact such a collision has had, but I didn’t want to physically go there to see it. All these years, the idea of going to BiH never appealed to me the way traveling to Asian and South American countries had.
On a deeper, personal note, I knew one day I probably would have to go to BiH, and this walk was the invitation to do that. As we planned out route, I had a vague hope of clearing intergenerational, nationalistic baggage that I inherited but never wanted.
Since I was young, I heard about Yugoslav people, the differences between the main nationalities and religions, and the bonding of regions under one flag. The things I heard weren’t always good, and some of the comments, filtered through my own 40-odd years of life and travel experience, may have been more fear-based bias than founded in any sort of truth. I thought walking in a place — a place I have resisted visiting for many years– with my heart connected to the earth would heal some of the hurt that wasn’t mine and that I no longer wanted to carry.
But, a strange thing happened. BiH hurt me in ways I couldn’t imagine.
The Good Things That Moved Me
I’ll pause here for a moment to reflect on the very nice things we did experience during our three-week, 450-ish-kilometer walk here. It may soften the words I will write later.
We found ourselves on small roads, often without much traffic, something that always fills me with gratitude. In the distance and sometimes along the road, a dense forest blanketed mountains rolling over each other for as far as we could see in the distance, creating a much-needed sense of serenity. And, the sweet plums and apples we picked or received from villagers kept our stomachs fill and our bodies hydrated.
We hold our candle of respect towards Lucija, Nikola, Trisa, Rajko, Sava, Ibrahim, Fehm,Mirha, Belma, Emina, Ferid, Omen, Saida and the two ladies near Bihac. Their kindness in offering us coffee, shelter from the almost daily black cloud of rain showers, a snack, a meal and their friendship touched us. It is for them that I hope BiH finds a way forward in a way that unites a people still divided by scars of bloodshed and violence.
The Bad Things I Can’t Forget
My woe-is-me feeling followed me into BiH.
The summer heat and humidity, which I suffered in Albania and Montenegro, fed my exhausted, unmotivated mind with more complaints about why we must continue walking when most people are enjoying the beach, eating ice cream and sitting in shady, air conditioned places. I longed to be one of those people.
We walked on, and my desperation grew. I was in no way emotionally prepared to see and feel the chilling destruction of the 1990s war where the primary goal was ethnic cleansing.
For days, we walked near abandoned villages, houses destroyed by grenades, windows and walls shelled by bullets. We wondered when we would see warnings about land mines, and then when we did, we stood shellshocked at the edge of the forest. A short distance later, we froze in our steps when we saw the taped off sections of the tediously slow work of removing mines. We cannot hide our desolation, depression, anger, incomprehensible frustration at the cruelty humans are capable of. I cry at the side of the road, ashamed to be part of this species.
People told us how during and after the war their families were forced to leave their homes, transplanted to other villages that matched their nationality and religion, or compelled to leave the country altogether to seek safety abroad. The profound sadness that comes with the loss of family, friends and the home they always knew and can’t go back to is written on their hearts; we saw their resignation, hopelessness and helplessness in their eyes.
We were not the only ones walking through BiH. Refugees and migrants from Asia and Africa take parallel routes through mountains and forests where bears and wolves roam. They hope to reach Germany where they dream of starting a new life. The weight of their footsteps, a few of which I heard under the protection of darkness while we camped near the road, make mine slower. It’s the same story repeating itself… it’s always the same story of human cruelty that tears the world apart, that tears my heart apart.
The latest wave of migrants has stirred up another wave of fear-based racism, and some days, it was directed our way.
“Are you Syrian?” Lluís is asked several times. Many people have no idea what Syrian refugees look like; they have only seen them on the evening news. But we are the odd ones walking so we must be “one of those people.”
Lluís, whose face could peg him from anywhere around the Mediterranean, is chased away by a gas station attendant when he tried to sit on a bench and wait for me. “Go,” he was told by an ugly face of hate.
One night, about 10:30 p.m. in an area where people describe themselves as Croatian and Catholic in the same breath, four men, with alcohol on their breaths, climbed the stairs to the old school attic we are camping in. They formed a semicircle around our tent, blocking our only exit. They demanded that we get out of the tent and shone flashlights in our faces.
“What are you doing here? How did you get this address?” one of them asked.
We didn’t have time to be afraid, but we know these men could be one step away from attacking us physically. If we had different color skins, we most surely would have been.
Lluís diplomatically explains who we are, where we live, where we are walking from and and towards and why we are sleeping there. He told them that we asked the old woman and the young boy across the street — who happen to be the mother and son of one of these men — for a safe place to camp, and they pointed us to this abandoned school and suggested we would be better off in the attic. In BiH, sensitive to the bias locals have for refugees, we decided at the end of the day to be more open with neighbors about our intentions instead of our usual tactic of discretely hiding in the evening shadows.
“We have to control who comes to our town. We don’t want terrorists here,” says another man, speaking English the way actors do in the foreign films he must often watch. He has the air of being a bully, a king, but lacks the wisdom to realize how unimportant his little town in the middle rural nothingness is.
Lluís continued, his voice calming down the situation and bringing a light of clarity to the mostly dark room. “A policeman came. He took pictures of our passports, asked if we needed help, said we could stay here and gave us this bag of plums.”
We were surprised a few hours earlier when the police car rolled up. Another neighbor who came to check on us must have called the cops. The policeman was polite, professional and doing his job of monitoring the strangers who pass through. What Lluís didn’t mention to our Ku Klux Klan visitors was a comment the policeman made offhandly, “I’ll tell the neighbors you are Christians and won’t be a problem,” an assumption he made because our passports are from countries where Christianity is the main religion.
“The police have no authority to say you can sleep here. If he was so concerned, he should have taken you to his home for the night,” a third man retorts.
Convinced that we will not bring harm to them or their village, the men finally leave. They tell us to sleep well, which we don’t. We hadn’t even considered calling the police and asking for the policeman who already paid us a visit to return. Small-mindedness and racism can’t be fixed with threats or pulling an authoritative card.
Even the smallest things steal my breath and bring on uncontrollable sobbing. I feel my heart sink when I see dozens of trucks whiz by carrying dozens and dozens of just-cut trees. I am overwhelmed at the side of the road watching a bird hit by a car gasp its last breath; I can’t save it, so I place a flower on its chest to celebrate the beauty it brought to the world. Sorrow grabs me when I set free a puppy tied up a plastic bag, left for dead near the road beside a bush, and watch as he steps back into the sunlight.
BiH made me a emotional wreck.
The universe, though, stopped me from falling into total despair.
During my lowest moments, angels disguised as people showed up to help us. We were invited in for coffee and cookies, and walked away with a bag of garden-picked tomatoes and peppers. We were taken in for the night, sheltered from storms and given warm meals. Women came out of their homes to give us a can of sardines and a loaf bread, and wish us luck on our journey.
The wide open spaces I sometimes felt suffocated by become comforting again. I admired the tall pines trees, the silent witnesses to our human ingenuity and madness. I watched a hawk spiral higher and higher into the sky. I wished to soar like this beautiful creature, and asked my own spirit to guide my higher vision.
Every country teaches us something and layers our life with a deeper understanding of who we are. I don’t know yet what Bosnia and Herzegovina’s lessons are for me. It may haunt me forever, or it may release me from the hurt that wasn’t mine but somewhere along my path I took ownership of.
There is nothing left for me to do right now, in this moment. All I can do is turn towards the road in front of me and walk on.