Serbia and Bosnia

Serbia and Bosnia

Sixteen students, two Student Life Assistants and Professor Anne Wingenter spent Spring Break in Serbia and Bosnia. 

The trip began in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, a poor city with rich culture and an undying energy. A visit was made to the Nikola Tesla Museum, which houses working replicas of the great Serbian inventor. Tesla is a source of pride to Serbs, not only for his scientific innovations to electricity, but also for his revolutionary social ideas on how to share it. That evening the group dined at Kafana, the oldest tavern in the city and a preserved memory of Ottoman life. Students got their first taste of Rakija - Serbian plum brandy - cabbage salad, grilled meats, and Turkish baklava.

The next morning, after a late night exploring Belgrade's nighttime vibrancy, we awoke for an historic tour of Belgrade, given by the dynamic Jelena Zivkovic, teacher and Belgrade native who was the group's connection to the city.  Students learned about Serbia's precarious position between the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, the fascinating and complex history of the Yugoslav state, its disintegration, and the reality of contemporary Serbian society.  Students then had the afternoon free to explore the city before a group dinner in Skadarlija, Belgrade's bohemian quarter, where traditional dishes were enjoyed to the rhythm of live Serbian music.  After dinner Jelena showed her cosmopolitan side, taking students to the best places to have a drink and a dance.

On Sunday morning the group boarded private mini-buses and embarked on a long but scenic drive through the Balkan Mountains to Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  We arrived and checked into our apartments, amazed.  On one side, our building straddled Baščaršija, the Ottoman quarter, giving us an unrivaled view of Sarajevo's spires and minarets, the sea of red-tiled roofs and green domes that blanket the valley.  On the other side was the Miljacka river and the Latin Bridge, where Austro-Hungarian prince Franz Ferdinand was shot by Bosnian Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princep, sparking World War I.

The group was met by Skender, our guide not only to Sarajevo but to Bosnia, and our intermediary for experiencing the reality of war.  We began with an historic tour of Sarajevo.  We learned of the city's medieval Ottoman origins, its religious diversity (Sarajevo is known as the "Jerusalem of Europe"), the period of Austro-Hungarian rule, the outbreak of WWI, and Sarajevo's role within the Yugoslav state.  Of course, even a tour of Sarajevo's distant history cannot ignore the remnants of the recent 1990s war, and the group was silent as they stood over a "Sarajevo Rose" - a mortar crater filled with red resin to commemorate the person (or people) killed by the blast. 

On Monday we traveled away from Sarajevo's continental climate, its brisk winds and snow-covered mountains, to Herzegovina, Bosnia's Mediterranean side.  First stop was Počitelj, a medieval Ottoman town perched on a steep hill above the stunning Neretva River that served as defense against Venetian and other maritime advancements.  Skender provided some history and students were free to wander around the fortified town.  It was hot and it was spring-like: butterflies and bees enjoyed the budding flowers and we all took off our layers that had protected us in Sarajevo.  We sat in the cool air of a 16th century mosque and listened to Skender as he explained the philosophy of Muslim prayer and the significance of the mosque's structural and artistic features. 

We departed Počitelj and went to Blagaj, where we ate fresh trout while sitting outside, just above the raging waters of Europe's largest karstic spring, where water shoots out of an immense cavern at the base of a high vertical cliff.  Beside the spring sits a 16th century Dervish monastery, or tekija, where, after lunch, students experienced the tranquil coexistence of the natural and the man-made, a fundamental component of the Muslim Sufi tradition.."

After lunch the group continued on to Mostar, another medieval Ottoman town, famous for its bridge--Stari Most--and its importance as a front-line during the 1990s war.  Besieged by Christian Croat forces, Mostar was flattened, its Muslim inhabitants ethnically cleansed.  Students wandered the quiet streets, entranced by the juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness: the beauty of the Adhan, or Muslim call to prayer, floating through the charming town; the ugliness of war.  International money has rebuilt the historic center of Mostar but its outskirts remain the graveyards of skeleton buildings and bullet holes.  The group returned to Sarajevo for a free evening.

On Tuesday morning Skender gave us a tour of "Sarajevo under siege."  For four years, from 1991-1995, Serbian forces surrounded the city in what became the longest military siege of modern history.  Skender, who was 8 at the time, related his own personal anecdotes from the siege: three years spent in a basement, the struggle for food and for water, the loss of family members, the insanity of war.  We drove to the Sarajevo War Tunnel Museum.  During the siege the only break in the Serbian line was the UN-controlled airport, beyond which lay Bosnian territory.  Sarajevo needed a connection to that territory in order to feed its people and continue its resistance.  But the UN would not let them cross.  So, in an example of desperate human collaboration, they built a tunnel, nearly a kilometer long, which ran under the airport.  It is estimated that 20 million tons of food entered Sarajevo through the tunnel during the siege, and more than a million people passed in and out of the city.


After the museum we drove through 'Sniper Alley.'  This strip of land had to be crossed in order to get to the War Tunnel.  But wide streets and open spaces characterized the area, and it was visible from the hills, where Serbian snipers sat.  700 people were killed by sniper fire in just this one strip of land.  We then visited those hills and looked out over the city from the vantage point of the snipers, amidst the rubble of burned out buildings and abandoned military barracks.

After the tour we met with the American Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ambassador Moon, who explained the U.S.’ role in the country before answering the group's questions for more than an hour.  The students had the afternoon free before meeting at the city's oldest mosque at 8:00 pm, after the last prayer, for a meeting with the Imam.  The Imam spoke of inner peace and spiritual strength, the poetry of Rumi and the difficulties faced by religious people under communism.  After an hour of questions we parted ways, him to get some rest before morning prayers, us to dine at a restaurant in the hills, looking down over the lit city below.


On Wednesday the group returned to Belgrade, where we met with U.S. Embassy officials.  They spoke to us about U.S. interests in the region, the nature of contemporary Serbian politics, and the state of the Serbian economy.  We met up with Jelena, had our last group dinner at another traditional Kafana, and enjoyed one more night together in a Belgrade bar.  On Thursday the trip concluded with an optional group lunch and excursion to the Museum of Yugoslav History and the mausoleum of Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito.