Hungary (11th), Croatia (12th), Bosnia and Herzegovina (13th country on our travels)
We slept soundly in the Tesco car park in Pécs, Hungary for a second night. You could really feel autumn was in the air with the cold start to the day but once the frost cleared, the sky was beautifully blue and it got to around 25 degrees by midday. (It was a real treat to see real blue skies again, not the pale version you generally see in the UK.) The small section of the city that we had previously walked around made us believe that Pécs was a pretty rundown place. All the houses around this part of town had either very high fences resembling fortresses or they had exterior shutters drawn down on the windows facing the street. After our eventful “Odd Job” day the day before, we decided to travel through the city for a bit of look before leaving the area completely. The blurb in the Lonely Planet Guide raved about the place, we initially thought this was a bit over the top as the suburb where we had been staying, bore no resemblance to their description at all, but just in case we missed something worthwhile we agreed to at least walk through the city. We found that we couldn’t park in the McDonalds’ car park for long. They had a security man there who was diligent at moving you along if you weren’t spending money inside, so we just picked one of the residential streets nearby and carried on driving until we found a suitable parking spot.
Walking in the general direction to the centre of the city we began to notice that the houses looked a bit more upmarket, some even had flower gardens. And then we turned a corner and found ourselves in the most beautiful city we had seen in ages. It truly was remarkable, the change. The streets were crowded with the most beautiful old buildings on both sides. Lots of lovely cafes with their patrons keenly watching the people passing by. The whole place was full of history and they had kindly provided many information boards in various languages, explaining the roles these buildings had played in their past. Often between two shop fronts there was a small driveway, leading into a square courtyard surrounded on all sides by houses. So as you walked down the street the shops were in groups of two, then a driveway, then two shops, etc. This created a lovely atmosphere of relaxed living and working together. We ended up walking for hours, just following our noses and came across ancient churches, a Jewish Museum, lots of schools with all the students in very smart uniforms, beautiful leafy parks and the famous Mosque of Pasha Qasim which is half Mosque and half Catholic Church. As a real treat we indulged in a couple of yummy pizzas and swapped our role as tourists to cafe patrons surveying the passersby. It got interesting when we had to retrace our steps to return to our vehicle. We had headed in approximately the correct direction but it took ages to find the right place. We asked several locals if they could locate the photos we had taken on our way into town before we finally found it. That in itself created lots of bemusement as we tried our best to explain our problem, which then turned into amusement as they finally understood that we had lost our own van.
There were so many small vineyards all around this area and small orchards popping up all over as well. The last time we had seen apples and pears growing was in the south of England. Lucerne was another new crop, along with the ubiquitous maize or barley. Well, the maize and barley had been harvested and they were busy resowing the paddocks again. It’s disheartening to see the thick layer of pollution while driving in the countryside. It’s so easy to take our clear air in New Zealand for granted, until you see the pollution levels over here.
When Dennis presents our NZ passports at the border crossings it always causes a bit of a stir, in the positive sense. The Hungarian woman got quite excited about it on one side of the River Drava as did the Croatian policeman on the other side of the bridge. As soon as we were given permission to carry on driving into Croatia, we passed a huge swampy lake with the most beautiful herons and egrets. There would have been around 50 of them. Once more we noticed the big birds in the sky, there were five jets patrolling the skies here instead of the three we had overhead in Hungary. It really feels quite oppressive to have them flying up and down all the day and makes me nervous about what they are looking out for. Maybe I should think positively and consider they are keeping me safe, but from what or from whom?
The villages in Croatia are a lot smaller and much closer together than we’ve seen thus far. Once more we drove down an empty motorway (A5 south) that looked like it had been built last week. We stopped at a massive new truck stop for the night along this road, that was very nicely landscaped, clean and tidy and only had to share it with two other vehicles. We were aware that when we left this motorway we would be required to pay tolls again, but not understanding any of the signs we wondered how much this was going to cost us. We drove about 200kms and in the end it was only 5.75 Euros ($NZ9) We noticed many falcons and kestrels, particularly in the mornings, standing on the fence palings with their wings spread out, presumably drying their feathers. They probably stand 50cm tall, have a wingspan of around 80cm, they look quite majestic.
Sitting up front in the motorhome we get a great view, it’s quite a bit higher than in a standard car. Driving past some farmland, on the outskirts of a small village called Babina Greda which is in Croatia but only around 3-5 kms from the Bosnia and Herzegovina border, we found we could look over the 1.5 metre high soil barrier that had recently been erected. It looked as if the farmer had scrapped the soil off his paddock and piled it deliberately along the front edge, where it bordered the public roadway. It was the other screen which caught our attention and caused us to look more closely at what was happening in this otherwise ordinary farm paddock. Behind the solid barrier several men were carrying something and the white screen shielded them from another small group of men and one woman walking along behind them. I saw what I took to be quite a few open grave sites. The soil had been neatly removed from them, leaving gaping holes running parallel with the soil barrier. We both came to the sudden realisation that this was more than likely an exhumation of several bodies buried here during the time of the War of Independence between Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Serbia. When you see sights like this one happening right in front of us, it gives you quite a jolt. The reality of life for these people living in a war zone just 15 years ago must have been horrendous for them. It also makes us realise that we are now in a vulnerable position, traveling through poor countries where we may be seen as affluent tourists driving around with all sorts of goodies in the motorhome, with no way of communication – they don’t speak English and we have no knowledge of their language either – and we know little of their living circumstances today. We had left behind the happy, friendly people of the other European Union countries we had traveled through and entered into a scary sort of phase of our adventure.
When we stopped at the next border, this time going into Bosnia and Herzegovina, we were a little nervous. The Border Control Officer insisted that we show him the papers for the van. As far as we knew the only official set of papers for the vehicle we were required to carry with us, was the certificate from our insurance provider to say that our insurance was valid for the whole time of our stay there. But it was obvious he wanted something else and the NZ passport didn’t impress him as it had everyone else thus far. He knew few words of English in his repertoire and even though he repeated them often and loudly we were left none the wiser. The steadily increasing length of the queue behind us was upsetting him as well so eventually he got out of his booth and climbed into the back of our van and looked around quickly and thankfully waved us on our way.
No sooner had we driven a few metres into the country when the little lady on the TomTom informed us to be careful to stick to the main road as she didn’t have any information on other roads in this country! But it wasn’t that easy to stick to the main road, we took a wrong turn a few kilometres down the way and the TomTom screen went blank. I was at screaming stage by this time and the further we drove down the road the more nervous we both became. The people were glaring at us, wondering what we thought we were doing? The whole place looked so rundown, the farms were small and the tractors looked to be very small and ancient. It wasn’t too long and Dennis thought better of carrying on and turned back looking for the main highway again. As soon as we corrected our mistake Mrs TomTom came back on stream and we were careful to stay on the correct road from then on. No sooner had we found the main road and we were pulled over by a policeman. Apparently in Bosnia and Herzegovina you are required to have your vehicle’s lights on 24/7. This was the first time in 25,000kms we’ve been stopped by the Police, a testament to Dennis’ careful driving!
Late that afternoon we arrived in Sarajevo and parked over the road from the main Police Station. We walked for a few hours enjoying the city before retiring for the night. We had a large park next to us as well, where a pack of feral dogs lived. They spent a good deal of the day sleeping under the trees or being patted by locals but come nightfall and they fought each other and barked at all the passersby ALL night long. We really loved this city, the people were friendly and happy to talk with us. For lunch we stopped off at a restaurant which only sold one dish! This was the national dish of Bosnia and Herzegovina and is called Ćevapi. It consists of a huge flat bread with a thick layer of tasty cream cheese, sliced raw onions and as many small handmade sausages they could stuff into the pocket. So yummy! Dennis was approached quite brazenly by a young chap at this restaurant and offered an iPhone 4. He declined and was then offered an iPhone 5 as well for 100 euro all up! or “make an offer”.
We had known previously that this city had suffered during the War between the Serbs and Bosnians, as a result of the breakup of communist Yugoslavia. We remembered watching some of the Winter Olympics on TV, held in Sarajevo in 1984. I can remember thinking a few years later “How strange that there is an ethic cleansing type of conflict going on in this modern city, only a few years after they hosted the Olympics.” The War of Independence raged between 1992-95 and was particularly brutal. Most of our knowledge was as a result of watching the TV news in NZ, a safe, secure haven on the other side of the world, as a consequence we hadn’t appreciated the extent of that suffering. During the siege of Sarajevo, 11,541 people lost their lives, including over 1,500 children. I had also read the book “The Cellist of Sarajevo” a few weeks before travelling there. In the book, a local cellist named Smajlović plays every day at 4:00 pm for 22 days, always at the same time and location, to honour 22 people killed by a mortar bomb, while they queued for bread on May 26, 1992. It is a moving story and full of vivid descriptions of life in a city under siege, it wasn’t until months later that I learnt that the account of this daily concert is fictional and Smailović has publicly expressed outrage over the book’s publication. He said, “They steal my name and identity,” and added that he expected an apology and compensation, which I’m not sure he has received. He did become famous for playing his cello in the midst of bombed out buildings in the city though, before he escaped in 1993.
The city sits in a valley surrounded by sizeable hills a bit like Wainuiomata in New Zealand but much bigger. The Serb soldiers hid in these hills and terrorized the inhabitants for three years, shooting civilians as they attempted to cross roads, walking between the tall buildings in the city or anywhere they weren’t protected by makeshift walls they had erected around the perimeter of the city streets. The Serbs encircled Sarajevo with a siege force of 18,000 stationed in the surrounding hills, from which they assaulted the city with weapons that included artillery, mortars, tanks, anti-aircraft guns, heavy machine-guns, rocket launchers, rocket-launched aircraft bombs, and sniper rifles. Even though the rest of the world knew these atrocities were happening little help was given to Bosnia. NATO and UN forces weren’t deployed until 1994. We went to a Museum, giving us all the information about this time. The video and photographic displays were graphic and quite distressing.
Speaking to the younger locals reinforced the images we’d seen in the museum. The younger people were happy to talk about this recent history and we were surprised that although they had clearly been terrorized they were trying hard to put that behind them and learn afresh the concept of living with their enemies in peace within their own city. They were very proud that their city had withstood the siege. The older citizens were more skeptical and wondered how long this so-called peace could last when maybe some of the same people who were the snipers are now back living in the city. Even today as you drive around Sarajevo and the surrounding countryside there is still plenty of evidence of this conflict. Burnt out houses and businesses dot the landscape and it’s easy to understand how people were targeted in particular, due to their ethnicity, rather than a random attack flattening a suburb in a general way. On the pavements the scars caused by mortar shell explosions are filled with red resin and are known as Sarajevo Roses. These are left as memorials all over the central city. There are so many buildings, still occupied, bearing the scars of bullets and larger munitions all over this area that while initially it was shocking to see this damage, after a very short time it became commonplace and we almost overlooked the significance of it. Nowadays, the UN still has a presence in town.
We went for a walking tour of Sarajevo with a woman in her twenties, who’s English was pretty good. She was so proud of her home town and a great tour guide. She remembers her mother taking her out of bed one evening and carrying her onto the balcony of their small flat. They overlooked the large Library building that housed millions of books, as well as many National treasures. It was ablaze and thousands of burning pages were floating around in the air, landing around their home and starting other fires throughout the city. Even though she was only six at the time this has had a lasting impact on her. The Serbs were endeavouring to erase all the cultural and historical records of the Bosnians liberal muslims. Some three million books went up in flames, along with hundreds of original documents from the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian monarchy.
We returned from our Walking Tour around 6p.m. keen to sit down and have a quiet drink before dinner. Wandering up the hill I recognised a couple of my clothes pegs sitting in the gutter – I thought that was strange! A couple of steps further and Dennis let out a yell “We’ve been broken into!” And we had, they had wrenched the bottom half of the stable door leading into the back section of the motorhome to gain entry and ransacked all our belongings looking for anything of value. It was awful, thankfully the damage to the van was not worse. We decided before we got all our fingerprints over everything we should lay a complaint at the Police Station directly over the road. Once entering this large building we did think it looked strange for a Police Station. There was a tiny office off to one side, with the TV blaring and an uniformed Policeman and another guy inside watching a Soccer game. They were not pleased to see us, disturbing their fun and the uniformed guy came out grumpy even before we had opened our mouths. Every time Dennis began a sentence in explanation the policeman stood straight and tall and said over and over, “Nien! Nien! Nien!” He kept this up for five minutes and even though Dennis was getting rather annoyed he did not relent. Eventually we got the message and left, without explaining a thing or hearing anything other than “Nien! Nien! Nien!” Talk about upsetting… After tidying everything up we realised that we had lost quite a bit. “They” had used my heavy-duty cloth shopping bags to carry all the loot away, filling them with two inverters (one to recharge the Computer), a DVD writer, a voice recorder (which had Dennis’ Dad’s voice recorded on it), a video camera, all the spare coins in various currencies, clothing and other bits and pieces. The only way to fix the back door was to screw it shut and not use it all, while Dennis was doing that another uniformed policeman walked past. So Dennis tried to explain to him what had happened but once again he wasn’t interested either. He was more worried about us being aware that at 8a.m. the following morning we were to start putting money into the parking machine or we would receive a fine. His English was pretty good but other than explaining the perplexing problem of feeding the parking machine the following day, he didn’t really want to know about the breakin either. Finally the quiet drink before dinner turned into a stiff one to quieten our nerves! Both of us were quite shaken by this turn of events and determined then and there not to travel to Turkey as we had planned. While driving around wealthier countries (in the UK, Germany, Holland, etc) we always felt like our motorhome was the least attractive and oldest one on the roads but now that we are in Bosnia and Herzegovina our little portable home looks pretty extravagant and now we realised we will likely be a target for further attacks. To get to Istanbul, where we were due to met up with my cousin John, the only way to get there was to travel through Serbia and Bulgaria. These two countries are explicitly excluded in our Travel Insurance, because it’s so dangerous to be there and today’s events have given us reason to reflect as to why they exclude them. The world-wide recession has hit these countries so much harder than our own.
After dinner we decided to find another Police Station, knowing we would need proof of our burglary to claim for our loss. We joined the thousands of younger people who use the main street of Sarajevo to promenade up and down the pavements, strutting their stuff, looking so relaxed but all the while checking out who was looking at whom. We came across three more policemen standing outside the UN offices. One of these men was so helpful, being a UN Policeman he had no connection with the local coppers but he was happy to phone them and explain our circumstances in their language. He apologised four times to us on behalf of the City of Sarajevo that this terrible thing had happened to us on our travels. He told us that the building we thought was the Police Station was in fact a dormitory for policemen in the area. After speaking to the local Police he told us where we were to go first thing in the morning to report our loss and receive the relevant documentation. He also warned us that it was well-known that they would keep us waiting for hours and probably not do what they had promised anyway and gave us his name and email address if we needed further help! Well-warned, we drove to the main Police Station to formally lay our complaint the following day. We did indeed have to wait “until the interpreter” arrived for four hours until we finally realised that this was just a nice way to say “We are not interested and we won’t be doing anything so you may as well leave empty-handed.” Which we did.