I was curious about the Balkans having read and watched so much about the war when I was growing up and the former Yugoslavia having been such a holiday destination for so many Irish prior to the war. So I applied for a job as a Human Rights Officer with the OSCE and was super excited to be moving there. These are the main highlights of my year spent there, between 2011 and 2012.
First, I would have to tell you that the very complex political system created to help end the 1992-1995 war was paralyzed by disputes between the Muslim, Serb and Croat parties, which left Bosnia without a government from October 2010 to December 2011. Personal relations among Muslims, Serbs and Croats are rare outside of the major cities and most people believe that their interests are better protected only by leaders of their own ethnicity. Power-hungry politicians retain power and grow rich by keeping the fear of what occurred during the most recent war alive. Moderate voices are marginalised. Institutions of democratic governance are weak and a political culture of democracy has yet to be established. Neo-patrimonialism, patronage and corruption have a strong hold on Bosnian politics.
When I arrived in Sarajevo, I found out there was a change of plan and I was going to Trebinje, the Republica Srbska part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. And so I travelled to Eastern Herzegovina, which was to be my home for the next year. Living in Republika Srbska and not the federation made a difference. As I was coming from a Catholic country and living in a Serb (read orthodox) part of the country, I was doomed from the start as the locals saw me as a Croatian sympathiser (Croatia is catholic). Moreover, since I was working for the OSCE as a human rights officer and reporting on the human rights situation in their town, people were suspicious of me and were extremely wary of being seen talking to me. I was a foreigner reporting on them and this led to my isolation from the beginning.
But it wasn’t just that which contributed to the isolation. It was also the location of Trebinje and the poor (to use an euphemism) transportation system. Let me tell you about my first encounter with the town. Leaving Sarajevo, I passed through the Neretva Valley and the outskirts of Mostar towards Trebinje. The landscape was foreboding. Huge mountains surrounded me and they were what I would imagine the moon to look like. Nothing grew on them, it was just rock. There were a couple of small towns after Mostar but then we must have driven for well over an hour without seeing even a house. And there were landmine-warning signs all along the road from Mostar to Trebinje. I tried not to panic but it really seemed like I was going to be in the middle of nowhere surrounded by landmines. When I arrived it was warm and sunny but there did not seem to be much to the town aside from a pleasant square. The town itself is in a valley surrounded by those mountains, which can feel very claustrophobic at times especially if you have lived all your life by the sea.
But Dubrovnik was only 40 km’s away so at least I could escape there at the weekends…. Not so!! Only one bus a day went to Dubrovnik, it left at 10am, took one hour to get there and came back at 13.30. So then my adventures with “rental cars” began. Clearly there were no rental cars companies so what happened is I “rented” a car off a local for the weekend. The rates would vary wildly from week to week as all the locals tried to screw the foreigner for as much as they could get.
And then the petrol station would try to overcharge me too. They had probably screwed me at least 5 times before I got wise to this. But now I could go to Dubrovnik at the weekends!!! I would sit on the beach order nice seafood, read some books and swim in the Adriatic and then on the way home I would stop at a supermarket and buy chicken, lettuce, chickpeas and curry paste and smuggle it across the Bosnian border, all the while praying that they would not find it and confiscate it! And you know what, even though Dubrovnik is spectacularly beautiful, it is just not the same on your own with no one to experience it with.
Well that lasted until mid-June and then suddenly there were no more cars available until October, so the very months I really wanted to go to the coast when it was hot as hell (between 38 and 41 degrees) in Bosnia, I could not. All my colleagues were going to the beach every weekend but not one of them ever offered to bring me even though they knew I had no transport. I really was on my own.
You see, people there are poor, hung up on the past, with not much hope for the future thanks to a 40% unemployment rate and politicians that seemed more interested in furthering their own personal needs than the needs of the very people they were elected to represent. Religion and ethnicity were more or less the same thing. No one was Bosnian; they were Serb, Croat or Bosniak. Serb means Orthodox, Croat meant Catholic and Bosniak meant Muslim. Bosnian Serbs felt Belgrade was their capital and held a Serbian passport, Catholics held Croatian passports and Muslims were the only ones with Bosnian Passports. There were hardly any Croats or Muslims left in Trebinje they had all left during the war. It was a Serb town and no one could relate to or wanted to get to know the Irish girl (earning a good wage for “spying” on them) as they had their own problems and only their people could really understand them.
The thing that surprised me most was people drinking in the mornings. Everywhere you would go you would see men having a shot of rakija (a homemade brandy) with their morning coffee. Outside shops, you would see men at 10am just standing around drinking bottles of beer chatting and as soon as the bottles were finished they would go back in to the shop for another bottle. This was not confined to the unemployed; businessmen and policemen also had their shot of rakija with their coffee, the logic being it got the blood circulating in the morning!!
The people that did speak English (and there were not that many where I lived or if there were they never spoke it with me) made constant references to the TV show ‘Only Fools and Horses’ which I found quite unusual.
Grocery shopping was a nightmare. Aside from all the labels being in Cyrillic, all of the foods I was used to were just not for sale. No chicken, no avocados, no lettuce, no spices apart from salt and pepper. People seemed to live on a diet of meat and potatoes and spinach. For breakfast they ate bread and a tin of tuna, unlike my bowl of rice krispies (not for sale). One time, I went to a local restaurant and was overjoyed to see Caesar Salad on the menu so with glee I ordered it. What arrived was the strangest concoction ever. A pancake with a creamy blob in the middle which consisted of chicken, hard boiled eggs and croutons in some sort of mayonnaise. No lettuce to be seen at all. I survived on bread and cheese and tomatoes and omelettes. But I have to say the tomatoes were the nicest I have ever eaten and the figs and cherries were amazing!
There were no recycling facilities whatsoever and if rubbish was not randomly dumped by the side of the road, it was burned. Of course this often led to bush fires in the summer and a bush fire burned on the outskirts of Trebinje for more than 20 days. But the locals seemed to think the bush fires had advantages as they blew up landmines of which there were many surrounding the town due to its close proximity to the Croatian border.
Rivers were full of plastic bags and bottles. If you bought a packet of cigarettes, you were handed a plastic bag for them, so no wonder most bags ended up littering the countryside. Sometimes you would come across a field and from afar and it would resemble a field of Tibetan prayer flags blowing in the wind but the closer you came you realised it was a field of bits of plastic bags caught on broken glass and barbed wire.
Whenever there was a wedding, you would usually hear lots of gunfire. Cars would also drive through the town waving Serbian flags. What waving a Serbian flag had to do with getting married was beyond me. What machine guns had to do with weddings also defies explanation.
Toilets varied. In the big towns and cities they were of the western variety but in smaller towns and villages they were of the pit in the ground variety. I tended to pass on the pit on the ground toilets and just hold on!!
Sign posts were rare and virtually never told you how many kilometres it was to your destination, just that you were on the right track until of course they abandoned Latin script and were in Cyrillic and then you had no idea in the world where you were going anymore.
And the thunder and lightning was frightening, the whole house would shake and the electricity would go out for a few hours.
Every month I would arrange to meet another colleague who was also based in the middle of nowhere (but nowhere near me) and we would make a six-hour bus journey to Sarajevo to meet up. We would book in to a hotel and basically saunter around Sarajevo amazed at being in a city. We would go to Vapiano’s , Mc Donalds and Mexican and Italian restaurants and have capuccino’s and beers and having no friends in our respective towns, talk a LOT!!! I was so fortunate to have her and treasured our meet ups in Sarajevo. I have so many fond memories of us in the Baghdad Café smoking apple flavoured sheshaa.
One weekend I went snowboarding in Jahorina just outside Sarajevo. It was fun but kind of terrifying as it was the very slopes where they had hosted the winter Olympics in 1984, so a little bit too advanced for me plus it was pretty eerie snowboarding by a load of bombed out hotels as Jahorina had been one of the frontlines during the war.
Starved of company I would sometimes go to Mostar for the weekend and book in to a youth hostel and go on tours with all the backpackers. One weekend, I met a really nice Dutch couple and we watched the World Famous Diving from the reconstructed Bridge in Mostar. The first recorded instance of someone diving off the bridge is from 1664. In 1968 a formal diving competition was inaugurated and held every summer which was what we ended up watching from a bar overlooking the bridge.
I invited the Dutch couple to stay with me in Trebinje. They accepted my invitation, which I was delighted about as now I had company in Trebinje for a few days. They were a bit shocked by Trebinje especially as they had read in the Lonely Planet guide to the Western Balkans that Trebinje was the pearl of Herzegovina and second only to Mostar in terms of beauty which was why they had accepted my invitation to stay with me. They found it beyond boring, unfriendly and were shocked that the post office only had 10 stamps! So the Dutch couple told me about couch surfing and I decided to host people for my own selfish reasons- I needed company. Some really nice people and some strange people came to stay but even the strange ones were a welcome respite from the loneliness.
It was a long and difficult year but I survived it. There were some good times and I learned a lot about myself but one thing I did learn is that people can make a place special and living on your own in a hostile place with no friends is not an experience I would want to go through again. So I did not renew my contract and moved on again ready for the next chapter and whatever that would entail.