28 Dec 9: A tale of two countries (Bosnia)
Kostajnica, Bosnia to Podgorica, Montenegro (20 – 28 Sep)
Total miles cycled: 1,118 (1,800km)
Thigh status: Mini-Zeppalin
The best thing about camping is the joy you feel when you don’t have to do it. My first night in Bosnia is spent in a cheap motel, under a firm roof and some powerful leopard skin linen, and I awake fully refreshed. By 9am, I am en route to Prijedor, 65km away along the river.
I feel the country become gradually poorer as I ride. Houses often comprise just half-finished jumbles of brick, their windows a cluster of black, sunken eye-sockets. Farmers in flat caps pass me on horse and cart, while decrepit Ford Fiestas hoot greetings as they thunder by and veer cheerily into oncoming traffic.
It’s lunchtime by the time I pull up in Prijedor, the third largest municipality in the Republika Srpska (Serb Republic). This covers the northern and eastern regions of Bosnia and is predominantly Serb Orthodox, I learn, with a minority of Bosniak Muslims and Croat Catholics. The rest of the country falls under the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, comprising a majority of Bosniaks with a minority of Croats and Serbs.
Prijedor seems fairly nondescript as I nose briefly through the centre. However, the city reflects some of the country’s most troubling hangovers from the past. Around 5,200 Bosniaks and Croats were killed or went missing here in a mass genocide perpetrated by the Bosnian Serb army in 1992, while thousands more suffered in hellish concentration camps.
Today the city is sunny and peaceful, but I’m told that ethnic clashes have been on the rise since the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre in July. I don’t hang around long to investigate, however, as I need to find a camping spot and it’s already growing dark. I berate myself for again leaving my search so late. It would take an adolescent chimp less time to learn from its mistakes than me, I muse as I frantically scan the roadside in the dimming light. And it could probably cycle faster too.
Eventually I spot what seems to be a derelict church set back from the road, and I wheel in for a look. Despite a prowling rabid mutt clearly on its third line of coke, it’s not bad at all. So just half an hour later, I’m snuggled deep inside my sleeping bag supping a nightcap of Kutjevo Grasevina 2013, a highly drinkable Croatian white (and then another — an abandoned churchyard at night is no place for abstinence).
For the second time in three days, I awake what seems like minutes later to the deafening roar of a tractor. It’s 6.15am and I stumble bleary-eyed into the daylight to find a couple of builders staring at my tent in bewilderment. I brace myself for an unpleasant exchange. What happens to trespassers in Bosnia, I wonder? Should I make a mad dash for it across the fields? Before I have time to collect myself, however, they have administered their punishment, harsher and more potent than I could have possibly imagined: a large mug of home-brewed rakija that dissolves the oesophagus and pickles the innards like a shot of sulphuric acid.
By 8am I am on the road, feeling indomitable. The sun is shining and the tight knot of anxiety curdling in my gut that I’ve become accustomed to each morning has evaporated. Early morning alcoholism, I think – where have you been all my life? I vow only to be completely sober from now on if the situation truly demands it.
It’s a short, pleasant ride to Banja Luka and I arrive by late morning. The city is the de facto capital of Republica Srpska, with large green spaces, wide boulevards and a bloody history etched deep into its masonry. Dominating the central square is the impressive Serbian Orthodox Church of Christ the Saviour (pictured), recently rebuilt after being destroyed by Croatian fascist forces in 1941. Over 2,300 Serbs were subsequently massacred and the rest sent to concentration camps.
During the Bosnian War – the conflict resulting from the country’s declaration of independence from Yugoslavia in 1992 – the tables were turned. Serbs expelled nearly all Bosniaks and Croats, and razed all 16 mosques to the ground. Viewing such conflicts objectively, which repeat and repeat and repeat, can we ever truly claim to be anything more than tribal beasts?
In a park beside the citadel, I stumble across a Bosnian army recruitment drive. I try out a few of their machine guns and feel a frightening surge of bloodthirsty zeal course through my veins. Humans, in all our hubris and godly aspirations, should never hold the trigger between life and death, I think to myself as I eye up a couple of howling infants in my sight-lines. It’s far too tempting to act on it.
On my way home, I bump into one of the officers, who voices his view of his country. ‘We have lots of problems,’ he tells me. ‘But your democracy is 1,000 years old. Ours is 20 years old. We just need time.’
Following a night at the ambitiously titled ‘Smile Hostel’, I set off for Zelenkovac Ecological Movement, an ecolodge-meets-art-gallery-meets-jazz-festival recommended by friends and bummel mentors Max and Emily. The ride is stunningly beautiful from start to finish, first along a river – where I take a brief detour to see the lovely Krupa Falls (pictured) – then up up up into the lush, forested hills where the air is electric and permeates the soul.
Zelenkovac proves every bit as odd and enchanting as I’d hoped. The main log cabin is a Brothers Grimm masterpiece, lovingly built up over the past 30 years by owner Borislav Jankovic. Inside is a cosy bar/gallery containing an eclectic range of Jankovic’s paintings, and surrounding the lodge are a handful of charming wooden huts for guests. As I warm myself by the fire, I am chatted up by S, a Serb who manages the place with a French couple. They all arrived several years ago and never left, he tells me over a rakija. It’s run as an NGO with grants mainly from the US, while the Bosnian government gives just enough for an occasional opportunistic photo op.
Serbs are very warm-hearted people who feel, says S. They talk to each other in bars and buy rounds for strangers. Here, when a bell is rung, everyone in the room gets a drink. What are relations like between Serbs and Bosniaks these days, I ask? ‘We are brothers,’ he says. ‘We have shared so much.’ But you were at war so recently, I say. ‘Everyone is at war sometimes,’ he replies. ‘Even the English and Scottish.’ Yes, I think. And look how that’s going.
The most important thing to him is family, S says. Next comes his country. But not the politicians, he stresses, or the policemen who have regularly beaten and arrested him since the 1990s. In his view, Serbia killed its last good president in 2003: Zoran Đinđić, the man responsible for extraditing Slobodan Milošević to the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia in 2001.
We get onto women’s rights. He is not a feminist, he says, grimacing. He’s a ‘modern Serb’. He cooks, but refuses to wash up. ‘You think a woman can cut wood? That’s man’s work. The woman is better at other things [mimics cleaning and decorating].’
I obviously disagree, but I do partially understand the logic. In a world where manual labour dominates, it makes some sense for the man to toil outdoors while the woman pulls her weight at home. Though how hard can chopping wood be? I’m fairly sure I’d choose it over a life of domestic drudgery, given the choice. And there’s the rub, of course. Women are rarely given the choice.
Like everyone else in the Balkans, S is a smoker. As we talk, he puffs his way through an enormous box of dirt-cheap bootleg cigarettes. The warning on the packet seems to encapsulate the precarious, petty fault lines of the country perfectly: to maintain ethnic neutrality, it is written in all three national languages, Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian — despite the fact the first two are identical to the letter (see pic).
In the morning, while the men are out banging their chests and wafting their testosterone around the woodpiles, I leave for Jajce. It’s another dazzling, delicious ride and I feel thoroughly revitalised by the time I arrive. It’s just as well, as I discover that the town has an intimidating 24 ‘historic monuments’ on the tourist trail. This seems a little greedy to me. Why not focus your attentions on one or two good meaty monuments, leaving scope for a restorative snifter at the end?
Usefully, however, the merit of several attractions has already been quantified for me by experts, saving me the bother. The 22m Pliva Waterfall (pictured) is ‘one of the 12 most beautiful in the world’, I am informed, whereas the medieval fortress (also pictured) displays some of the ‘most impressive views in Bosnia’. The catacombs and underground church are rather good too, but by this time I’m exhausted and decide to leave the final 19 sights for another occasion.
After a fitful night in the freezing cold campsite, listening to stray dogs howling and mauling each other to death outside my tent, I hit the road for a hefty 110km marathon to Visoko. The ride is spectacular, but involves a tough climb up a truly gargantuan hill and takes me the best part of seven hours. I am enjoying a brief rest face down on the roadside to celebrate my arrival when, as if by magic, a couple in a van pull up and ask whether I’d like a ride to Sarajevo. Why yes I would, I say! And we churn up the final 20km in minutes.
In Sarajevo, I stay with a German woman, F, who is investigating how women in the region reconcile being Muslim with being European for her PhD. ‘The interesting thing,’ she tells me, ‘is that there really isn’t any tension at all.’ A brief tour around the city, where the vast majority are Muslim, seems living proof of this hypothesis. Here, hijabs and high heels live in easy harmony, with most women dressed in modern Western attire.
Severe problems lurk beneath the surface, however. Homeless people beg on every street corner, symptomatic of the deep dysfunction at the heart of government. Corruption is rife, unemployment disastrous (27%, according to the IMF) and the economy on the verge of collapse. Everything comes at a price. ‘Bribery is completely normalised,’ says Z, a local academic. ‘People pay for university degrees and surgical procedures. To get off parking fines. To have babies.’ She adds: ‘The big malls you see here are not a sign of prosperity, they’re a sign of political deals. Nobody wants them.’
What about the looming Avaz Twist Tower, a glistening 176m phallus built in 2008 to house Dveni Avaz, Bosnia’s largest newspaper? Do people want that? Some, depending on which side of the political and ethnic divide they’re on, says B, a former editor-turned-translator. Avaz is owned by Fahrudin Radončić, who leads the second largest party in the Federation. According to an indictment by prosecutors in Kosovo, Radončić and drug trafficker Naser Kelmendi were responsible for commissioning the murder of mafia don Ramiz ‘Ćelo’ Delalić to prevent him undermining their business interests. Radončić has stressed that he himself was not indicted, but only named in the indictment as a member of a criminal organisation, which he firmly denies.
‘Politics and the media are both drawn along ethnic lines, and almost all of it is dirty,’ says B. Boundaries were far more fluid before the war, he believes. ‘People were more tolerant then. Now the country has no identity, so people search for it in their ethnicity and religion.’
The Bosnian political system was created by the 1995 Dayton Agreement that brought an end to the war. It’s a viciously complex arrangement, involving multiple layers of bureaucracy and autonomy, which nobody I meet seems entirely to understand. What people do agree on, however, is that it’s in desperate need of reform — starting with the abolition of the three separate presidencies for each ethnic group, which only serves to institutionalise sectarian divides.
According to E, a British investigative journalist, the threat of Bosnian Serb secession is very real. ‘And that would be a disaster. It would imply that the land you win through war crimes can be rightfully yours.’
I leave the next day for Podgorica, Montenegro. I have agreed to cut short my Bosnian trip to meet my boyfriend there for a holiday, so cycle 11km out of town to catch the bus. Only minibuses are making the winding, treacherous journey, it transpires, but after some persuasion the driver agrees to squeeze a dismembered Maud into the tiny boot. To celebrate, I spend my final Bosnian marks on a bar of Milka and packet of chocolate hobnobs.
Ten minutes later, the driver comes to ask for another four marks for the bike. Ah, I say apologetically. I’m afraid I’ve eaten it. I try to offer him my remaining three hobnobs, but confectionery clearly isn’t accepted as official currency on Bosnian buses. Just as I’m debating the horror of having to disembark, an old woman reaches into her purse and pays on my behalf. It’s not a small amount for her, I know, and I feel deeply touched. I give her a hug and thank her profusely. She smiles, touches her hand to her heart and says ‘Muslim’.
The next few hours are spent on an exhilarating romp through the magnificent Tara River Canyon, the deepest canyon in Europe. Jam-packed inside the sweaty bus, we recklessly rattle and swoop beside stomach-churning drops with no security barrier and often no proper road. To my surprise, however, I reach Podgorica intact and on time, and manage to cycle the final 10km to the airport before my boyfriend arrives. Success, I think exultantly! And due in no small part to my kind Muslim friend. So thank you again, lovely lady, wherever you may be. I hope life brings you all that you deserve.