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Bosnia and Herzegovina: the War-torn Country that Became My Favourite Destination in Europe

Emily Draper is our Patchie Correspondent who has joined our team to write about her experiences travelling the world as a woman. Emily is an accomplished writer who has visited 80 countries.

What do you know about Bosnia & Herzegovina? Before I went there in 2021, I couldn’t have even pointed it out on a map. Perhaps you’re similar!

When I left after a month of extensive travelling, it made a greater impression on me than any other country I have travelled to in Europe. The reason for this may surprise you, and I’ll share that below. But you should know that when we began to work on our ‘Balkans by Rail’ women only trip, our team was unanimous: the trip MUST include a visit to Bosnia.

A Brief History of Bosnia & Herzegovina

I had heard lines about the Bosnian War before I went there but in my admitted ignorance as a Western European, I had no idea of its significance, impact, or even that happened within my lifetime. In case you don’t know much about it either, let me fill you in.

The Bosnian War took place between 1992 and 1995 when the dissolution of Yugoslavia created racial tension in Bosnia & Herzegovina between its Serbian, Croat, and Bosniak (Bosnian Muslims) citizens. To cut a very long and disturbing story short, the Yugoslav and Srbska (Bosnian Serb) armies began an ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Bosniaks in order to gain control of a greater portion of territory in the country.

Today, this is better known as the Bosnian Genocide, a cruel and unthinkable event in which, much like the Holocaust, millions of people were displaced, tortured, raped, and kept in concentration camps. Over 150,000 people are thought to have been killed. Others have simply never been seen again.

When I learned about all of this for the first time on a walking tour in Mostar at the beginning of my trip, I don’t know what shocked me about it more. Was it the fact that I was standing in a country still in the early stages of healing from genocide, or the fact that it’s not even common knowledge?

Beauty Beyond the War

As I walked through Mostar, I was entranced by the allure of its crumbly stone buildings piled on top of each other above a small gorge with rugs, trinkets, and street musicians packed in the lanes between them. But when I looked closer, I noticed bullet holes and bomb-bitten buildings everywhere. Little did I know that these shocking scenes would be just a small window into the bigger picture of a country so recently war-torn.

As I began travelling between cities and countryside, north and south, I was confronted with the sight of ruined buildings and mass graves everywhere I went. Never in my life had I seen the aftermath of conflict in such a raw way. It was clear the country’s war wounds were still fresh.

Even so, they don’t overshadow Bosnia & Herzegovina’s beauty. In fact, I believe (and I know the other Patchies that have travelled there will agree) that this seemingly small and insignificant country offers some of the most breathtaking landscapes in continental Europe. And even though the reminders of war are pervasive, I will always remember the country for its beautiful mountains, gorges, and lakes, not its ugly past — just as its people would like it to be.

The People of Bosnia & Herzegovina

If asked, everyone in Bosnia & Herzegovina would have a story to tell about the war. I spoke to elderly parents who were still waiting for their children to come home, young adults who had been separated from their parents, and there didn’t seem to be a single person who hadn’t seen death. Of course, this was heart-wrenching to hear, but woven within these stories of terror were stories of heroism, loving sacrifice, and an unwavering passion for truth and justice that has brought humanity together time and again. Today, they have figured out a way to live peacefully beside each other. While the north and east belong to the Srbska Republic, the Bosniak-Croat Federation governs the west and centre.

When I was travelling between these areas, I was confronted by intimidating borders which were clearly marked by flags, banners, and iconographic posters as if to say, ‘You’re in our territory now’. Yet, there was free uninterrupted passage. While the country is divided by dotted lines, most people live amongst each other comfortably. Considering Bosnia’s three main ethnicities were at odds just 30 years ago, they have done well to put the past behind them and strive for an inclusive future. In a world that feels so conflicted by diversity and inclusivity, Bosnia & Herzegovina made me feel hopeful that even the biggest cracks can be repaired.

Shattering Perceptions of Europe

From war to beauty, Bosnia & Herzegovina had a habit of surprising me, but what surprised me most of all was the fact I had to keep reminding myself I was in Europe. And not just because of its heavy Ottoman influence. Europe is meant to be a continent portrayed as wealthy, efficient, and well-developed. A continent that has its shit together. Bosnia & Herzegovina is none of these things.

Heading deep into the countryside on potholed roads, I realised just how far this country has to go to join the ranks of the developed world. All the vehicles were decades old. The kids weren’t in school. Families were living in farmhouses with tin roofs. iPhones weren’t a thing. Everyone grew their own vegetables, not because it was cool to be self-sufficient, but because it was imperative. It was as if time stood still here while the rest of Europe moved on.

Finding joy in simplicity

Much of humanity is programmed to think money equals happiness but here it becomes overwhelmingly obvious that this isn’t the case at all. While the people of Bosnia & Herzegovina would like greater wealth and more job opportunities, they know their happiness doesn’t depend on it. It seems like the scarcity they’ve known has made them more humble and they’ve learned to find happiness in the little things instead. Is this what my ancestors meant by “the good old days”?

Whilst I was grateful not to have been dealt such difficult cards from the universe, a part of me was envious of the people of Bosnia & Herzegovina’s ability to find joy. Having spent so much time around them though, I think it may have rubbed off on me a little. I hope so, anyway.

A Rare Travel Opportunity

The best kind of travel opportunities are the ones that open your eyes, widen your vision, and make the world seem a little less blurry. Bosnia & Herzegovina was one of these such opportunities. After spending so much time there, my perception of the continent I have lived on my whole life was turned on its head. Of course, this new image of Europe I developed wasn’t one I wanted, but I am thankful to have seen it. Now, at least, I had a greater understanding of myself and humanity. What a gift that is.

There are still a couple of spots left on the Women Only Balkans by Rail trip. Click here to view more.

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