Pertandingan Travelog AZAM '13: Bosnia and Herzegovina


The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page. Bosnia and Herzegovina is not a popular tourist destination unlike its neighboring countries; Italy or Greece. This name synonymous with destructions during the 1990s first came to my knowledge eighteen years ago when teacher at school told us to pray for our brothers and sisters there. I was six at that time, a bit too young to understand what an aggression really means. I am pretty sure many of us know or at least heard about the infamous Bosnian genocide, but nobody really seems to care what was it all about and why did it happen. Some of us don’t even know where Bosnia is actually located. When I told my friends that I was going to Bosnia, they thought that it was in Africa, and some even thought that it was close to Afghanistan! To be honest, not so much did I know about Bosnia too, not before I started this very exciting journey.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a country in Southeastern Europe, on the Balkan Peninsular. It consists of two regions; Bosnia the mountainous land in the north and Herzegovina in the south, flat with narrow coastline along Adriatic Sea. Politically, Bosnia and Herzegovina is made up of two entities: Republika Srpska, where majority Bosnian Serbs reside and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina for the Bosniak and Croat nations. To make things more twisted, the chair of Presidency of this enthralling country is shared by three members representing Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats respectively. These political divisions were created by Dayton Agreement which was initially designed to end the war back in 1995. Let’s not get into details to save ourselves from headache.

I entered Bosnia through a land border from Croatia. My first destination was Mostar, the largest and one of the most important cities in Herzegovina region. The nine hours journey of the tortuous road along Dalmatian coast made me feel nauseated. Alhamdulillah the border-crossing procedures went well. I was a little bit paranoid after being detained by police officers in Zagreb Airport earlier. It is always unpleasant to be treated in such way although with head-covered image, being suspiciously looked at is something I already got used to.

Narrated by Muslim that Abu Hurayrah (RA) said: The Messenger of Allah (PBUH) said: “Islam began as something strange and will revert to being strange as it began, so give glad tidings to the strangers.”

Mostar instantaneously won my heart, not only by its natural beauty of the surrounding mountains and the turquoise blue perfection of Neretva River, but it also had no other natural attraction beyond the people themselves. It was in Mostar where I met Ilda and her two friends, Amilla and Amar. I believed I wouldn’t have enjoyed and understood the city better if I had not met them. They were unbelievably friendly and welcoming. Who would have guessed behind their beaming smile they had gone through a terrible past? Each one of them put a personal face on the conflict which we mostly ignored as kids and held at a distance since. Amilla told me how her family had to flee to Pakistan and later lived in Germany as the Serb Forces chased after her father.

It was sunny in Mostar on a winter day. Despite the strong wind I felt the urge to walk around to enjoy this lovely weather, thinking that I would soon have to return to the snowy and dull land of the Tsars. The old town of Mostar had all the beauty you could imagine even though it was captured in a very small area. It was something completely different to enter the cobbled street of old city with all its charm and small houses filled with tourist products. According to Ilda, the Old Town would be livelier in summertime. I noticed a few mosques and minarets with silver dome along the road making this city feeling less European, instead reminded me much of Turkey. For some reason I felt belonged here. Nothing fancy about the mosques but my heart couldn’t be more blossomed when adhan was proudly recited through the loudspeakers calling people to prayer.

Mostar was named after its well-known old bridge, Stari Most which is located in the heart of the Old Town. The bridge held a huge value to Mostar and its people by connecting the two banks of Neretva River. It was first built in 1566, designed by Mimar Hayrudi, an Ottoman Turk architect. In 1993 the original bridge was tragically bombarded until it collapsed into the river by Croatian Defense Council unit following the breakout of hostilities with their Bosnian Muslim neighbors. The death of the Stari Most was heartbreaking. The people in town and the architects of the world cried about the loss of this masterpiece. As the war ended, a monumental project to rebuild the Old Bridge to the original design was initiated in 1999 and mostly completed by spring 2004. This new bridge is now listed as a World Heritage Site and symbolizes peace and harmony.

However the truth is hidden in plain sight. The new bridge was opened but Mostar remained a divided city. I had always thought that Bosniaks and Croats were on the same side during the conflict as Serb Forces attacked both Bosnia and Croatia. But I was wrong. After Bosnian Serb initiated the war, Croat nationalists in Bosnia started to fight for so-called Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia, as a separate political, cultural, economic and territorial whole, on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina. One of the most affected cities was Mostar. I was told that even until today there is an invisible line dividing Muslim (Bosniaks) side and Catholic (Croats) side, where Croats live on the western side of the river and Bosniaks reside on the eastern side. Education from kindergarten to university is strictly segregated and people can’t take a city bus across the old front line from the Bosnian war. Croats and Bosniaks maintain very poor relations and there is a great mistrust and dislike between the two sides. To be honest, if I had not learned all of what I learned from the locals I met, I could have spent weeks in Mostar and never figured out what was going on behind the scenes.

Bullet-ridden and wrecked buildings could still be seen, giving me a glimpse into the past. Strangest of all was that the buildings with the most bullet holes are often in between clean, newly constructed buildings. Amar said funding is the main problem, with the animosity between Bosniaks and Croats making finance even more devastating. Restoration was done in most portion of the town but the remnants of the war were still around as if to be a physical reminder of the turbulent. The sight of these ruins somehow tugged at my heartstrings, pushed me to think out of the box, leaving me with a better understanding of humanity I never had before.

“...Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race to [all that is] good. To Allah is your return all together and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ.” (Surah al-Maidah, 5:48)

On my second day in Mostar, Ilda and her friends took me to visit the rest of the town before I caught a bus to Sarajevo later in the afternoon. Unfortunately all of the museums were closed as winter was obviously out of season for tourism. Afterwards we walked to a Muslim cemetery, where I noticed on the tombs dated from 1993-1995, which I could only assume, was from the recent war. I had goosebumps just by looking at it. Some are headstones for bodies that were never found and are still presumed missing. As the day broke, one mosque after another joined the adhan, the call to prayer became a rolling echo reverberating over the city. Although there are numerous mosques in Mostar, they are only opened for the jemaah prayers and would be closed during the intervals. I intentionally avoided the crowd since the mosque was full of men and there was no curtain separating the praying hall unlike mosques we have back at home.

The hardest part of a friendship is the time to say goodbye. I knew that I would probably make some friends, and would be sorry to say goodbye, but I didn’t know that I would form such strong bonds in such a short time. I felt sad to leave Mostar and my fantastic new friends but I was also excited at the same time wondering whatever adventure awaited me in Sarajevo. The trip from Mostar to Sarajevo was simply breath-taking by the enchanting scenery of Neretva River and its tunnels with gorgeously looking mountains in the background. The journey took about two and a half hour. It was already getting dark when I arrived. The temperature was a lot colder than Mostar and a few traces of snow were visible on the ground. Famous for the horrific siege during the war, Sarajevo appeared to be a rather small ‘big city’ with minimal number of skyscrapers compared to other capital cities I have been to. This is a city that consistently punched above its weight in its ability to attract headlines not so long ago.

That evening I met Medina, an amazing young lady who I have contacted prior to my travel in Bosnia. Medina took me to a restaurant in the Old Town to try the most famous Bosnian specialty, cevapi. It consists of minced beef meatballs in some kind of bread, with raw onions and tomato. The taste and the presentation gave me a reminiscence of kofte in Turkey only that it was a bit oilier and less spicy. It was pretty good and filling as I was close to starving from not eating anything since morning. Food wouldn’t be a problem in Bosnia as according to Medina halal foods are served in most restaurants with reasonable price. I didn’t see much of the town just yet because it was too freezing to stay outside at night. Ah, Sarajevo could wait until morning.

I spent the morning reading a book I found at the guesthouse where I stayed. The book entitled ‘The Battle for Sarajevo’ was written by Kerim Lucarevic, who was actively involved in the defense of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a commandant in the Bosnian Army. The power of a book lies in its ability to turn a solitary act into a shared vision. He wrote the book in a way which made me almost felt like I was there during the crucial days in 1992 when the war begun. His book made me realized of what had really happened in Sarajevo, as only an insider could do.

Sarajevo Old Town is simply the best way to understand the history of Sarajevo throughout ages. I was lucky to have Vedran to show me around because as a Sarajevan he knew a lot about this place he calls home. We started from a small hill where Zuta Tabij or The Yellow Bastion is located. From here you could have the best view of Sarajevo downtown. Although it was cloudy on that day I could still clearly see the minarets stood proudly piercing the skyline of this land despite the horrors they had been facing over the years. According to Vedran, Sarajevo is the city with the most number of mosques in Europe, and that fact was apparent. If you turn around in a 360 degree angle in the centre of Sarajevo, you would probably see at least ten mosques. From a far distance there was a Muslim cemetery which couldn’t help but again to remind me of the bloody period.

Imam Ahmad recorded from Tamim Ad-Dari that he said, "I heard the Messenger of Allah saying, This matter (Islam) will keep spreading as far as the night and day reach, until Allah will not leave a house made of mud or hair, but will make this religion enter it, while bringing might to a mighty person (a Muslim) and humiliation to a disgraced person (who rejects Islam)...”

Islam was first brought to Balkans by the Ottomans in the mid-to-late 15th century before Austria-Hungary gained control of the region in 1908. These two powers which once occupied Bosnia still have their influences in Sarajevo today. Sarajevo Old Town consists of two parts, the Ottoman Turkish quarter and the Austro-Hungarian part. Sarajevo is where Istanbul meets Vienna. These two spectacular different architectures are connected by the busy pedestrians street, Ferhadija. The old Ottoman quarter starts from Bascarsija Square with the famous fountain called Sebilj as its landmark. This area is surrounded with small shops selling souvenirs and coppersmith’s products. As we walked along Ferhadija Street, I could see the blend of mosques and churches indicating the two faiths being practiced by its people, who once lived in harmony. Unlike the Ottoman quarter, Austro-Hungarian part mainly consists of cafés and modern branded stores. Vedran then took me to the Latin Bridge, where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, the event which had sparked the First World War. After the Austro-Hungarian rule collapsed, Bosnia joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes which soon renamed Yugoslavia.

Sebilj in Bascarsija Square
Austro-hungarian architectures along Ferhadija Street

Clock tower showing the current prayer time
A Roman Catholic cathedral in the Old Town 
Shortly after Marshall Tito’s death in 1980, Yugoslavia started to fall apart. Following the Slovenian and Croatian declarations of independence from the Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991, the multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina which was inhabited by Muslim Bosniaks (44%), Orthodox Serbs (31%) and Catholic Croats (17%) passed a referendum for independence in February 1992. It was boycotted by great majority of the Bosnian Serbs as they overwhelmingly favored the idea to stay in Yugoslav Federation. Essentially, the Bosnian war was fought because Serbs and Croats living in Bosnia wanted to annex Bosnian territory for Serbia and Croatia respectively.

In April 1992, the Bosnian Serbs began their siege of Sarajevo. Muslim, Croat, and Serb residents opposed to a Greater Serbia were cut off from food, utilities, and communication. More than 12,000 residents of Sarajevo were killed during the 43 months of siege, the longest of such siege in modern European history. Throughout Bosnia, Bosnian Serb nationalists which were supported by Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) began a program of non-Serb ethnic cleansing in order to create a pure Serbian territory. Entire villages were destroyed and thousands of Bosnians were driven from their homes, held in detention camps, raped, tortured, deported, or killed.

“...And do not approach immoralities - what is apparent of them and what is concealed. And do not kill the soul which Allah has forbidden [to be killed] except by [legal] right. This has He instructed you that you may use reason." (Surah al-An'am, 6:151)

For once I felt like I was lost in time. This morning I was still in the year of 2013, and then from 15th century I travelled to the World War era and by afternoon I got stuck in the early 90’s. You could read thousand of books, but it would never be the same as being told the stories by a direct participant and witnessing the sites in front of your eyes. Vedran was 12 during the Bosnian war and he could still remember a lot of things although at that time he didn’t realize how serious the problem was. As any other 12 years old kid, all he wanted to do was to play around with friends but snipers from surrounding residential towers, who were once their own neighbors, left him and the other children with no choice but to stay at home. According to Vedran, dead bodies on the street were an everyday sight during the conflict.

The Serbs were initially superior due to the vast amount of weapons and resources provided by the JNA, however eventually they lost momentum when Bosniaks and Croats allied themselves against the Republika Srpska in 1994 with the creation of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. NATO started to intervene in 1995 after the brutal massacres in Srebrenica and Markale which killed hundreds of innocent civilians. Dayton Agreement was signed to bring the war to an end. Some old wounds never truly heal, and bleed again at the slightest word.

To date, Bosnia seems to be at peace but deep down inside the heart of its own people they are still haunted by unforgiving memories. It should come as no surprise that they couldn’t agree on much, with the divisions between two entities, not to mention that the Croats demand for a third one. When I told Vedran about my plan to go to Mount Jahorina, he advised me not to do so just because the mountain is located in Republika Srpska and I might be unpleasantly treated for being a Muslim. After parting with Vedran, I went to the Museum of Sarajevo which is located in Bascarsija. The museum was worth seeing with only 3 KM (1.5 euros) for the entrance fee, although the exhibitions to me were mostly a summary of the enthusiastic tour I just had.

I was extremely exhausted and almost missed the meetup I promised Medina that evening. When I reached Markale marketplace she was already there patiently waiting for me even though it was cold outside. We spent the evening by strolling along the Tito Boulevard which broadened from Ferhadija Street beyond the eternal flame. Tito Boulevard leads to Novo Sarajevo, a more modern part of the city where a few shopping malls are located. Most tourists only visit this area to get to the bus and train station or to visit the National Museum and the Historical Museum. The Old Town is connected to Novo Sarajevo by a tram line but one could also easily get there after a healthy of fifteen minutes walking. Although most of the buildings in this area are new, some ‘reminders’ were created as visible mementoes of the war damage. I was most struck by the Monument of Murdered Children. It was depicted as an unfinished sand castle in glass, representing what those children did not live to complete. At first glance it was deceptively pretty to look at until you realized the story behind it. Another scar that left behind was Sarajevo Roses, indelible floral prints that pattern the pavements here and there, marking the spots where a mortar shell fell.

Sarajevo is not only home to some of the best examples of Ottoman architectures but also in cuisine. Besides cevapi, another famous Bosnian specialty is Bosanske pite or Bosnian pie. Pite can be filled with cheese, minced meat or vegetable, often potato and spinach. Pite with minced meat has a special name called burek, which is popular throughout Balkans. Pite is usually served with a couple dollops of sour cream. In Sarajevo I also tried tufahije, an elegant Bosnian dessert made of stewed apple in water with sugar, served with whipped cream on top of it. The best part about eating tufahije is when you get to the middle of the apple, where walnut is stuffed into it. Baklava which originated from Turkey is also considered to be one of delicacies for Bosnia besides the strong Bosnian coffee, which to me is just an identical twin to the Turkish one.

Taking Vedran’s advice into consideration I decided not to go to Jahorina but to Mount Bjelasnica. It is located 30 minutes away from Sarajevo and easily reachable by bus from the city center. This mountain is part of Dinaric Alps that stretches from Sarajevo southwest to Konjic. The beautiful picturesque scenery amazed me. Bjelašnica Mountain hosted the alpine skiing event during the 1984 Winter Olympics. Now it became a popular tourist spot for hikers, snow-surfers and skiers. Despite the developing tourism on this mountain, I could hardly find someone who speaks English. And that was when my decent Russian knowledge came in handy. Slavic people who were the first settlers in the area today dated back from 6th through to the 9th centuries AD, leaving not only physical resemblance but also some influences in the language. The Bosnian language that is spoken today is an assortment of Slavic, Turkish and a number of Germanisms, which have been used since the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” (Surah al-Hujurat, 49:13)

My last day in Bosnia was probably one of the most remarkable moments in this trip. Being away from familiar faces and having to speak a foreign language all the time could somewhat be depressing. But then when I was invited to Elvira’s house where I also met Mirna and Amina to join their halaqa, I was astonished by how similar the atmosphere was. It was the first time we meet and sit together but I could feel the bonding almost immediately. I was humbled by the generosity of these people accepting me in their group surpassing the differences we have. With all the propaganda that is going on against Islam and Muslims these days, to find fellow believers holding strong on to the faith just thrilled me. Seeing how they devotedly spend time and work for Islam made me realized how little was my effort. This very last event just wrapped up my entire eye-opening experience.

Knowledge is not what is memorized. Knowledge is what benefits. It never even crossed my mind that this journey would leave such a profound impact on me. When I planned this travel I didn't know what to expect, but now I am happy to say that my visit exceeded the highest expectation. It was sobering to see the effects of war on a city twenty years later and talk to people who lived through it. Everybody has their own version of narrative makes it almost impossible to understand the complexity of the tension that remains. Every new piece of puzzle that I thought would help me understand confused me further. But one thing I know for certain is that everything happens for a reason. Allahu alaam.

"The servant of Allah will be asked about four things on the Day of Judgment: about his life and what he did with it? And about his knowledge and what he did with it? And about his money where he got it from and where he spent it? And about his body how he used it." (At-Tirmidhi)

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