That night we had food we’d bought at a Konzum; in Lord Rowland’s words, ‘some breads, some meats, some cheeses’ with a warmth of expression and gesture of which few people except Mike are capable. I woke during the night to the sound of vomiting and in the morning we discovered Mike and Dina were thoroughly sick. It was my turn later in the day. My diary for the next day says: ‘Sleeping and vomiting, one day. Karma.’
It was by great good fortune that we were staying with Pero Radovic and were on our own in the hotel.
The excursion to Montenegro went out the door. But beyond that there was no quick or easy way to get back to Zagreb from where we were.
Because of the mountains travel in the Balkans is not easy. The rented van had to go back anyway. Dina had an exam she had to return for. Mike had to get to the airport to come home. Don had to get back to work.
Then Don got sick. That was a gloomy night. What do you do? Say, okay I know you’re vomiting and feel like death etc, but buck up and drive a few hundred kilometres along a winding road? It’s easy to forget how bad nausea and vomiting are, and for we older persons how long it takes for your body to feel right again after their cessation. And it’s easy to forget how tenuous situations you take for granted might turn out to be.
Don, lying to us Captain Oates-like, said he felt better and off we went.
Entering Bosnia wasn’t pleasant for him. He can speak for himself but I would say he was still sick or at least recovering and that he was tired, it had been full on and his hand hadn’t moved from the tiller — but also he was only going to Sarajevo and through Bosnia for the sake of Australian friends.
We drove up the Neretva Valley beginning at the striking irrigation area around Metkovic, water lying either side of orchard and vegetable beds, and for kilometres. It almost looked like some massive hydroponic garden. The valley was beautiful, increasingly dramatic with gorges and the river running very hard through them, although we couldn’t entice Don into agreeing. I didn’t realise it at the time but we were to some degree following the course of the war.
Mostar was next stop. You’ll know the bridge, Stari Most where the city gets its name, ‘old bridge’ (now renamed the Peace Bridge), destroyed in the war and with the help of international aid now rebuilt mostly using the original stones.
‘On 15 June 1992 the HVO [Croatian militia] achieved a great victory in the Bosnian war with the recapture of the eastern bank of the city of Mostar, which for two months had been under Serb control. But the victory in Mostar was the start of a real crisis. Once the Serbs had been driven out, thousands of Muslim civilians began to pour back into the town. They were followed by many Muslim refugees from other towns in Bosnia which had been overrun by the Serbs. The Croats did not like this change in the ethnic balance’. (Tanner)
The flavour of where we were had changed remarkably already.
We’d moved into somewhere very different. The shapes of things had changed, the look of the people, the street smells. We walked onto the bridge which is a thing of great beauty, but from that vantage point you couldn’t ignore how much else had been destroyed and not rebuilt.
We went back for a cup of coffee to what Don assured us was the Croatian side. I would say nonetheless we had cups of tea and Turkish coffee at a Muslim café.
Sarajevo was 80 kilometres further north. The sides of the valley walls steepened, the hills now became snow-capped and the air thicker and dirtier. Sarajevo suffers from severe temperature inversions. The incidence of destroyed housing increased significantly.
Between 1 April 1992 and 30 November 1995 the Bosnian Serb forces, acting under the direction of Radovan Karadzic, led an attack against Sarajevo which placed the city and its surrounds under blockade and subjected it to consistent bombardment and sniper fire.
Without gas, electricity or running water, the inhabitants ventured outside at great risk to their lives. The only way out of the area was through a tunnel 800 meters long under the airport runway. Approximately 10,000 civilian deaths occurred during this time; 56,000 were wounded.
Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, who in 2010 appeared before the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, serious breaches of the Geneva Conventions and ‘violations of the laws and customs of war’ said publicly: ‘Sarajevo will be a karakazan (a black cauldron) where 300,000 Muslims will die. Europe will be told to go and fuck itself, and not to come back till the job is finished.’
In his opening statements at the trial, Karadzic denied any plans to expel Muslims from Serbia and blamed Western and Muslim States for triggering the Bosnian war. The following day, he denied the occurrence of the crimes for which he is held responsible, including the blockade of Sarajevo and the massacre at Srebrenica which he described as ‘myths’.
War zones don’t necessarily look like they do on TV.
Some buildings looked like a giant had clubbed them on the shoulder, and parts of Sarajevo had been thoroughly trashed.
That’s where you see the whole face of large building taken off, rooms with three walls, exposing every bit of intimacy within. Lord knows what Vukovar looks like.
But there wasn’t so much of that here really. And, of course, after 15 years why would there be? But to some degree this seems to have been a small arms war: automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and mortars.
It was at the market where we stopped on the very first day for a cup of tea ten days earlier that I first noticed these spatters of holes, sometimes in a line sometimes not, across the walls of buildings. There might be a black smudge and things that looked like reverse buckets of mud thrown at walls so that some of the entrails of the building were showing.
Could it ever be polite or appropriate polite to say: Hey Don. See those. Are they bullet holes? The correct answer is probably no. But another answer could be: No. Not regular enough. Mortar shrapnel. Not polite, but it started to fascinate me.
We would drive round a corner and there in the crease of a hill or the bottom of a valley would be a clutch of houses two of which didn’t look quite right and you wouldn’t be exactly sure why.
Almost all of the more contemporary houses we saw in the Balkans were built in an identical way — a concrete frame, poured on site, members in section about 250mm by 250mm, filled in with honeycombed terracotta insulating bricks. These bricks are a great material (and ubiquitous in Europe), easy to lay and to break and form, very effective insulation and an excellent base for rendering which, when painted, looks very classy.
But quite often the builder, who would here very often be the owner and/or his mate/s, gets the windows and doors in and leaves it like that. It’s perfectly liveable. You don’t need the render, or the extra storey or the extra wing (which are still open frames). So the difference between an unfinished house and one that has been hit by a mortar shell is not always straightforward.
The roof often doesn’t get blown off and it is by the smudge around the window holes that you can tell that something untoward has happened. I decided that the houses were often blown out rather than up, becoming unliveable rather than destroyed. Also it was far more common to burn them which had the same physical effect. But then there are these lines of holes, dints really, more than you could possibly count; and the big splashes which might or might not pierce a wall.
Agrokor had found us a hotel in Sarajevo but it wasn’t the one we tried to register at. Didn’t matter; they found us some rooms and after eating nothing all day Don was able to retire.
The Hotel Europe was quite grand, hosting an international conference on terrorism, and the people at breakfast were an extraordinary amalgam of bits and pieces from all over the world, and perhaps beyond. The residents did look just a tiny bit like those of the Inter-Galactic Cafe in Star Wars.
Although the older gentlemen’s stomachs were still a bit restless, with Dina leading the way, we ventured out to find something to eat. On the doorstep was the Muslim market, the old city which was not like ‘old cities’ we had seen elsewhere. It’s low for a start, tent height almost, hundreds of small red-tiled roofs, irregular paving, minarets, hemispherical domes, hijabs, beggars, families of beggars, coffee shops, blocks of jewellers and brimming with vitality.
Sarajevo was an important outpost of the Ottoman empire from the 1500s until 1878, a major market town and port of call for travellers. Saray in fact means ‘rest place’ in Arabic. There are suburbs of grand art deco buildings, there are significant churches, there is a bit of everything. Sarajevo would repay far more protracted attention than we were able to give it — an amazing place.
In the market there were two dozen cevabdzinicas within a few hundred metres and in this welter Dina found Zeljo for us. Zeljo is famous, so famous she needed to take a snap and send it to her friends immediately.
Just baked flat bread straight out of the oven filled with small spicey lamb patties and pickles, presumably a cevab. Don’t ask for anything else; they don’t sell it. But, as often with specialisation, they had perfected the art.
I had spent some time and effort trying to get some Bosnian Marks out of a hole in the wall so we could eat, and I paid the guy the equivalent of ten dollars for feeding the four of us and tried to give him a bit extra we’d enjoyed it so much. But no way; he was disgusted. You don’t tip at McDonald’s either I guess.
In the morning we went searching for the place where the lives of Gavrilo Princip and Archduke Franz Ferdinand intersected.
It didn’t take long; we were staying 50 metres away. It’s a nondescript corner to be the site for the incident which sparked the First World War, but there it was — a narrow if major street running alongside the trickle which is the Miljacka River, crossed by a narrow bridge called the Latin Bridge, then popularly the Princip Bridge and, more latterly, when Gavrilo’s status was changed from hero to terrorist, the Latin Bridge again.
Rebecca is extremely good on what did happen in Sarajevo that day — St Vitus’s Day 1914, the 525th anniversary of the battle of Kosovo and thus, of course, why didn’t you realise it, a holiday. The leader of the plot was ‘a man of undoubted talent but far too picturesque character, Dragutin Dimitriyevitch known as “Apis”, who had for some time been the Head of the Intelligence Bureau of the Serbian General Staff.’
He collected a group of disaffected lads keen to make a name for themselves and fitted them out with bombs, pistols, and prussic acid to take occasioning death if they were caught. (Chabrinovic took his and it didn’t work.)
The commander on the ground was Illic who couldn’t make up his mind whether he wanted to be involved or not and at one point fled to Brod hundreds of kilometres away. As it was he organised things so that he would take no actual part.
Six others were involved, stationed at various points along Obala Kulina Bana, the street running along the embankment of the Miljacka and the path of the procession.
Basic (say bussitch) didn’t throw his bomb and ran for the station; Chubrilovic, who was supposed to finish things with his revolver after Basic’s bomb had exploded, froze; Popovic did nothing either because in his excitement he had chosen to stand next to a policemen; Chabrinovic threw his bomb but it went high and wide, missed everything and exploded down in the water. Princip heard Chabrinovic’s bomb explode and thought it was all over, so when the royal car went past intact he was stunned and went off to have a cup of coffee. Grabej, the last in line, also heard the explosion and fearing capture moved on.
What happened then?
The Serbs had been actively involved in kicking the Turks out of the Balkan Peninsula and had gained independence as a nation allied with Russia after the Russian-Turkish war of 1878. At the same time, the Austro-Hungarian empire, with Germany as built by Bismarck waiting in the background, was actively seeking influence over the same area, annexing Bosnia and Herzogovina in 1908. So a Serb throws a bomb which kills the next in line to the Austrian throne. The Austro-Hungarians send a letter saying, abase yourself Serbs. Let us run over your justice system and your army etc etc. Reply within 24 hours (initially because of clerical error, 23 hours).
Serbs say, hmm gosh sorry, it was bad, wasn’t it. But we can’t do all the things you want. We’re a sovereign nation. Austro-Hungarians say, right. Youse are gone.
Russia has a treaty with Serbia and is only too happy to mobilise its army because it has deep suspicions about what Germany is up to. Germany gratefully considers this an act of war against its own treaty partner. France is allied with Russia and, with the Germans invading Belgium as the shortest route to Paris, finds it difficult not to honour this treaty. Britain has a written ‘moral obligation’ to come to France’s defence and is concerned about potential threats to the scale of its empire. Where Britain goes, so go her colonies. The Turks wanted at least some of the Balkan Peninsula back. Australians were ordered by British idiots to fight the Turks at Gallipoli. We’re all connected.
Four years and 9,721,937 deaths later …
I wanted to stay longer, but we were on the move.
Don had decided on the scenic route home. His Grade 4 teacher had brought him here on an excursion and he wanted to retrace his steps. There was also some famous cheese to be bought on the way — smoked, salty, to be rolled in bread crumbs and fried like saganaki.
We had our moment with the Bosnian police who thought that Don may have been travelling excessively fast. Don talked and smiled and explained he was driving at exactly the same speed as the driver of the truck in front. Why had we been singled out? It may have been the Croatian number plates.
It was dramatic country. We were up among alpine resorts which always look a bit the same in season or out. I missed taking photos of huge karst cliffs, deep deep valleys and new hydro electricity works. My memory in the main is rolling back and forth as the van hurtled round the curves. We stopped for a pizza and it was Myrna’s turn, finally, to be sick.
In the second stanza of this journey we had climbed up onto a high rolling plain and back two hundred years — tiny landholdings, ploughing with horses, old ladies collecting their bundles of sticks, lots of war damage to houses which had never been much to begin with.
We had entered Republika Srpska and here at least it had the look of grinding poverty.
Banja Luka surprised me with it size. It has a quarter of a million people, about the same number as before the war, but the makeup is different.
It was of Banja Luka that Michael McCurry, US State Department spokesperson, said: ‘We have said for some time that we have credible information that ethnic cleansing is taking place there.’ And from that point ‘ethnic cleansing’ entered the world’s vocabulary.
About 6,500 of the 73,000 Croats who lived in Banja Luka prior to the war remain. Nearly all of Banja Luka’s Bosniaks were expelled during the war and all of the city’s 16 mosques were destroyed.
From Banja Luka to Gradiska which figures in so many stories of the war the narrow two-lane road was jam-packed with traffic, houses on either side for much of the way.
We all just wanted to get home to Zagreb at this stage. I was wondering how far we would get before Myrna’s stomach packed up altogether. We couldn’t go any faster and anyway had to get through border control before we crossed the Sava back into Croatia.
This happened, Don regained his grin and composure, the road widened, we got to the freeway, we sizzled along through mechanised, industrialised broad acre farming on carefully graded and irrigated paddocks, and we made it back to the safety of Trnje.
Zagreb trails east-west along the Sava in a shallow, fertile and closely-settled valley. There is much evidence of design in its formation. A map hints at something like a shield with a north-south axis that begins at the Catholic Cathedral (and its more lowly Orthodox counterpart) in the foothills of the larger undulations to the north and is pursued through acres of squares, both cemented and garden, named after heroes of the nation — Jelacic (Dubravko demurs. No hero), Strossmeyer, Tomislav, Radic, with Starcevic slightly asymmetrically placed.
A long row of shops will take you under the station and the rail lines following the contours of the valley to a series of recognisably anonymous buildings, administrative and cultural (the Lisinski Theatre). Cross a six-lane highway, the way to what’s left of Vukovar, and you’re in Trnje.
It contains the Hotel Lisinski, three star, walls of cardboard but clean. It has a blond hostess with some remnants of glamour and not much inclination to provide assistance and a host who is perky and understands his role goes beyond collecting the tariff.
Next door is one of the four café bars in the street. Good service, nice coffee. The female custom here is inclined towards white jeans and heavy makeup, the male clients mostly have sharply-cropped hair, leather or denim jackets and big shoulders. This café bar is full in the mornings, the custom in the others seems tepid. (This may all change in summer. The mornings are sunny but the wind is fresh. I’m not sure where the custom comes from. I can’t tell.)
There is a tobacconist, a grand hole in the wall rather than an emporium, meaning that the two central Zagrebois requirements for life, coffee and smokes, are catered for. There are two tisaks, newspaper/mags kiosks which I never saw patronised, and a lottery shop. The well set up school supplies store is a surprise. I didn’t see any kids. Across the road opposite is a second world shop: cooking utensils, kid’s clothes and cheap things you don’t really need — a 10 kuna (2 dollar) shop.
There is a pizza store which feels no need to advertise itself as such and a ‘market’, a convenience store tucked down in an alley off the street. That’s where I bought the dry biscuits and lemonade required by the invalid and then lay back into one of the Hotel Lisinski’s comfortable beds and watched Croatian television.
A new day: Mike was on his way home departing late in the day. We strolled around the very pleasant inner city of Zagreb. At night we walked up Trnjanska cesta and had another visit to the brisk matrons of the Trnjanska Restoran where we began, again with the sublime lamb.
We were just finishing the padacinka s marmaladan (pancakes with jam, how long had we waited …) when a distinguished-looking Australian gentleman walked into the restoran with a raffish-looking Croat and told us what we knew, a volcano in Iceland had erupted, but they had some additional news as well.
That would be one place to finish, a cliff hanger. No one knows what’s going to happen, or for how long. No one. The whole shebang is closed down. You might be there for good unless you want to swim home. Tenuous. You’re a traveller. You’re on shakey ground.
But there is a better way, more of the flavour of this particular adventure.
I could say that we all spent a day with Don and Mirjana and Katica and Darko at the cottage, and that Don’s beaming smile had returned and that he was at peace with the world, and that Darko had brought an octopus that the boys were going to cook under a bell, and that Katica magicked up some other remarkable dishes while Mirjana sorted out the gardening, and that Don had dug out some of his best wine for us to drink, and that the sun shone, and that we went for walk on a verdant hillside brimming with life, and that we talked about absorbing things with very interesting people who were thoroughly engaged with the world, and that there wasn’t a moment of that day I didn’t enjoy.
Next morning Myrna and I left for Ljubljana on a train completely unaffected by the ash cloud. Mike remained in Zagreb and got home five days later.
 I’d forgotten that the 1984 Winter Olympics were conducted at Sarajevo. Saporro got more votes in the first round but Sarajevo won after Gothenburg was eliminated. The torch was taken by two routes: Dubrobnik — Ljubljana — Zagreb — Sarajevo (the Slovenian, Croatian route), and Dubrobnik — Novi Sad — Belgrade — Sarajevo (the Serbian route). How did Tito manage to keep this place together for so long? I suppose with gambits like this.
 In the first few months of the early Serb incursion into Croatia, 140,000 homes, one-eighth of all the housing stock in Croatia, were destroyed.
 With Russia and satellites in 1878; and with Greece, Montenegro and Bulgaria (an unlikely but contiguous grouping) in 1908.
 Rebecca: Zagreb was not a strange city at all. It has the warm and comfortable appearance of a town that has been well aired. People have been living there in physical, if not political, comfort for a thousand years. … It has the endearing characteristic of remaining a small town when it is in fact quite large.
 Rebecca agrees with Dubravko: [in 1848, the year of revolutions] ‘Yellachitch [she spells names phonetically] and the Croats [army, 50,000 troops] had saved the Austrian empire. They got exactly nothing for this service except the statue that stands in Zagreb market square.… Instead of giving the Croats the autonomy they demanded they now made them subject to the central government. They freed them from Magyarisation [Hungarian domination] to inflict on them the equal brutality of Germanisation. And then, ultimately, they practised on them the supreme treachery. When the Dual Monarchy [‘Austro-’ and ‘Hungarian’] was framed to placate Hungary, the Croats were handed over to the Hungarians as their chattels. I do not know of a nastier act than this in history.’ But such things seem to have happened to the peoples of the western Balkans much more often than seems strictly necessary.
 A tip from Darko. If you want to cook octopus keep it in the fridge, take it out, put it back in etc. The changes in temperature weaken the external membrane and make it more tender.