Bosnia – The Federation and Republika Srpska – 2017

When many people think of Bosnia, they think of the awful civil war from the 1990s. My friends, Bosnia is no longer full of civil strife. It is a really beautiful and cheap destination to visit in the Balkans in southeastern Europe and I hope this article outlining the things that I saw in Bosnia changes your mind about visiting.  Bosnia is made up of two distinct entities: the Republika Srpska (primarily Serb ethnic makeup) and the Federation (primarily Muslim and Croat ethnic makeup). Both are extremely interesting to visit. One difference between the two is that the writing on the road signs in the Republika Srpska (which is a separate country on the Travelers Century Club list) is in Cyrlic script and in the Federation is in Latin script. Another thing to be aware of is that taxi drivers in the Federation may be unwilling to drive you to the Republika Srpska, and vice versa, due to various regulations.

I visited Bosnia in March 2017, for a work trip. We flew into Sarajevo, which is a small, easy to navigate airport. Outside Terminal B is a taxi stand where you can grab a taxi to your destination.  It is 1.90 KM to start; 1.20 KM per kilometer; and 12,00 KM for an hour’s wait somewhere. After your ride, the taxi driver is obliged to issue an invoice at your request. The price may be negotiated but may not exceed the price per taximeter. There are taxis all over Sarajevo and they are easy to grab. If you are wanting to do a longer trip outside the city, talk to the people wherever you are staying and they will likely secure a driver for you at a really reasonable rate.  

Sarajevo is ringed by mountains, creating a bowl in which the city sits.

On Mt. Trebevic, near the 1984 Bobsled Track,
overlooking Sarajevo

We stayed in a bed and breakfast, the Ada Hotel, on the north side of Old Town (Baščaršija), which was about a 20 KM taxi ride from the airport. (Abdesthana 8, Sarajevo 71000). This is a basic, clean small hotel that serves an excellent breakfast and the ladies who run it are amazingly friendly. The location is perfect – a 5 minute walk to the Baščaršija where there are many restaurants and bars to choose from.

Old Town (Baščaršija) is a great place to explore.  Many of these buildings have been owned by the same family for generations and survived the bombings of the Sarajevo seige in the 1990s.  There are lots of shops, restaurants, bars, and places to explore. There is also the large historical clock tower situated next to the Gazi Husrev-Beg mosque and shows the lunar time for daily prayers ‘

Despite one of the major religions being Muslim, Sarajevo is not a dry city.  In fact it has its own brewery, the Sarajevo Brewery (Sarajevska Pivara) founded on May 24th, 1864, and historians consider it the oldest industrial plant in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is the only European brewery whose production was uninterrupted during the Ottoman Empire and during the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, and also did not cease production during the civil war from 1992 to 1995.  You can visit the Sarajevo Brewery museum (Mon-Sat 10:00-18:00, Sunday 12:00-16:00; 3 KM).  I recommend that you enjoy one of their tasty beverages at the attached HS Pivnica Restaurant because the food was fantastic. 

You can visit the Yellow Fortress (Žuta Tabija), which is a great vantage point to see the city. In 1878, the silence of the yellow fortress guns marked the end of resistance and the beginning of the Austro-Hungarian occupation of the city. Although the Austro-Hungarian army continued to use the yellow bastion, Muslims were still permitted to shoot the cannon during Ramadan as a sign of the end of the feasting. This practice was banned while Bosnia was part of Yugoslavia (1945-1992) but was restored in 1992 and lasts until today.  Leading up the hill to the Fortress is the Alifakovac Cemetery, a Muslim cemetery. We explored the cemetery and climbed up to the Fortress and watched the sunset.  It was really a beautiful location. 

During the Siege of Sarajevo (1992-1996), the Serb forces occupied the mountaintops around Sarajevo, trapping the Sarajevo inhabits (mainly Muslims and Croats) within the city.  For approximately four years, the Serb Army shelled the city and did not allow the inhabitants to leave.  Many of the buildings still have war scars.  Even the sidewalks and roads show the scars from the mortar bombs.  As a reminder, the Sarajevo inhabitants have filled in many of the divets in the cement with red rosen, creating a “Sarajevo Rose”.

Because it was impossible to get supplies into the city, the Muslim forces dug a tunnel (March – June 1993) between the city center and Bosnian-Muslim-held territory on the other side of the airport.  The tunnel allowed food, war supplies, and humanitarian aid to come into the city, and allowing people to get out.  Portions of the Tunnel still exist, and there is a Museum – the Tunnel of Hope (Sarajevski tunel) also known as Tunnel of Rescue (Tunel spasa) – at the beginning of it. (Tuneli 1, Sarajevo 71000; Apr-Oct 09:00-17:00; Nov-March 09:00-16:00; 10 KM, cash only).  Not only does the Museum give a good overview of life during the siege, but you are also able to go into and walk through a small portion of the tunnel.  Note – you can still see bullet holes in many of the buildings in Sarajevo and throughout the country.  You can see evidence of this in the museum building below. 

The Holiday Inn in Sarajevo was built for the 1984 Olympics.  However, during the siege, it was the hotel for foreign correspondents and journalists, and was situated on “Sniper Alley,” one of the most dangerous positions in the city. Sniper Alley was the main boulevard in Sarajevo, which during the Bosnian War was lined with snipers’ posts, and became infamous as a dangerous place for civilians to traverse.  One such snipers post are these two tall buildings show in the picture below, which faces directly up the Alley.

You can even see the Latin Bridge (Latinska ćuprija), where Gavrilo Princip and six others assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife as they were attempting to turn onto the Bridge, sparking World War I. The Sarajevo Museum 1878-1918 is located across the road (Obala Kulina bana) from the northern end of the Latin Bridge over the Miljacka river right in the centre of Old Sarajevo. (Summer (4/15-9/15: Mon-Fri 10:00-18:00 and Sat 10:00 to 15:00; Winter 9/15-4/15: Mon-Fri 10:00-16:00 and Sat 10:00 to 15:00; 4 KM). Due to my work schedule, I was able to see the Bridge and the assassinated site, but I wasn’t able to go into the museum. 

One day as I was walking back to our hotel after work, I came across this beautiful little memorial to all of the children killed in the siege in Veliki Park.  A little ways down on the corner of Marshal Tito street and the main Sarajevo pedestrian street, Ferhadijais is the Eternal Flame, a memorial to the military and civilian victims of World War II.

We also walked by the Sarajevo City Hall (Vijećnica) (the yellow and red striped building), which was finished in 1894 during the Austro-Hungarian rule.  It was hit by heavy artillery bombardment in August 1992, and the City Hall and the attached Library burned. It was finally repaired in 2014. We did not go inside because it was closed, but there may be exhibits inside to see. 

If you are interested in learning more about the Srebrenica genocide in July 1995, but can’t make it to Srebrenica itself, I found the Galerija 11/7/95 Museum to be quite good. (Trg fra Grge Martica 2/III, Sarajevo; Daily 10:00-18:00; Free Admission).  

There are many things to see in Sarajevo that I just didn’t have time to do because of other obligations. Because I had gathered research on a few other sites to see, I have included it here.  I haven’t visited these sites and only gathered information based on what is offered online.  First, there are many religious buildings from all three primary religions – Catholic churches, Muslim mosques, and Serb Orthodox churches – both old and new. Many of them appear to allow you to enter and look around.

There is the Museum Of Crimes Against Humanity And Genocide 1992-1995, founded in July 2016 by victims who survived the war. This Museum was created as an initiative to sustain the memory of all the victims of the war that lasted from 1992- 1995. (Saliha Hadzihuseinovica Muvekita 11 | First floor, Sarajevo; Sat-Sun 09:00-18:00; Admission price unknown).

Also, there is the National Museum of Bosnia-Hercegovina (Zemaljski Muzej Bosne i Hercegovine), which has cultural and scientific artifacts covering a wide range of areas including archeology, art history, ethnology, geography, history, and natural history. The Sarajevo Haggadah, an illuminated manuscript and the oldest Sephardic Jewish document in the world issued in Barcelona around 1350, containing the traditional Jewish Haggadah, is held at the museum. (Zmaja od Bosne 3; 71000 Sarajevo; Tu-Fr 10:00-19:00; Sa-Su 10:00-14:00; 8KM).

There are also things to see outside of Sarajevo.  If you remember, the Winter Olympics were held in Sarajevo in 1984.  Despite all of the conflict, the venue of the opening ceremonies, the Olympic Torch, and the bobsled/luge track are still standing today. 

Many people remember the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995. Srebrenica is a small village about seven miles (11 km) from Bratunac, which is on the Drina River (the Border with Serbia) in Eastern Bosnia.  It is about an 80 mile (133 km) drive from Sarajevo through a very beautiful, mountainous region.  We had hired a driver to take us there, but the roads seemed well maintained (albeit somewhat narrow), and I would have had no issues renting a car and driving myself.  There is not much information online about how to visit Srebrenica or what really is available to see. Which is why I wanted to provide some of this information. If you aren’t interested (because, yes, it is a bit morbid), skip down to the information on Mostar and Medjugorje below. 

Srebrenica is located within a valley between two mountains.  In July 1995, tens of thousands of Bosnian-Muslim civilians were clustered in this town and the surrounding areas, allegedly in a safe area protected by the United Nations.  On July 6, 1995, the Bosnian-Serb forces took up positions on the mountaintops and began shelling the city. We visited Srebrenica, which was small enough to walk from one edge of town to the other.  We explored for a bit and then stopped at a coffee shop for a bit. 

After a few days of shelling, approximately 35,000 women, children, and elderly walked about 4 miles (7 km) to the tiny village of Potocari, where the United Nations had its outpost.  There, they were terrorized, raped, and beaten, until finally the Bosnian-Serb military ethnically cleansed them by forcing them to get on buses and transported them to Kladanj, a Bosnian-Muslim-controlled area. 

The military-age men within Srebrenica (about 10,000), however, had to walk in a single-file line through the mountains trails approximately 70 miles to attempt to reach the city of Tuzla, in Bosnian-Muslim-controlled territory.  Many of the areas in the surrounding mountains had been mined, so the men were forced to follow known paths through the mountains, necessitating the single-file line. Note – when you visit Bosnia today, many of these mines have never been removed.  So stick to roadways and designated paths and don’t bushwhack through the countryside.  Less than 2,000 men made it to Tuzla.  Over 8,000 men and boys were captured and executed by the Bosnian-Serb forces. Many of their bodies have been recovered and reburied in a cemetery/memorial honoring their memories.  You can visit the cemetery, which is located directly across the street from the United Nations compound in Potocari. 

If you go back to Bratunac, you can see the Drina River, which is the border with Serbia.

As you head out of Bratunac, on your way back to Sarajevo, on your left (or on your right as you head toward Bratunac), you may see this abandoned warehouse. It’s the Kravica warehouse, where 800 Bosnian-Muslim men were executed.

I didn’t make it up to the Zvornik area, where many of the executions happened.  None of the execution sites are marked, as this event and the United Nations’ response to it is still an extremely sore subject among Bosnian Serbs and they do not want to talk about it. 

On our way back to Sarajevo, our driver, who got a kick out of us, had us stop for dinner at the Restoran Dalija at the America Motel in Kladanj.  This was really a great place to eat and the staff were so nice to us.   

No trip to Bosnia would be complete without visiting Mostar. It is about 77 miles (129 KM) from Sarajevo and the drive is absolutely beautiful. A good share of the drive is long a river that affords breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains.  We went in March when it was brown and grey from the winter weather. I can only imagine how pretty this is in the springtime when everything is in bloom. I believe there is both train service (approximately 2 hours, departs twice per day, 11.90 KM, find tickets here) and bus service (about 2.5-3 hours, several companies here, here, and one with an English website here, 10 KM) from Sarajevo to Mostar.  However, the roads are well-maintained and one can easily rent a car in Sarajevo and make the 2-hour drive yourself. 

Once you get into Mostar, there are plenty of pay parking lots, just like in the United States.  Mostar was beautiful to walk around in.  There are lots of restaurants, cafes, and gift shops.  The famous Bridge in Mostar is a must-do.  Be careful walking up and down the bridge, as it is made of marble, steep, and slippery.  There are usually professional bridge-jumpers on the bridge. Despite their antics, pretending that they are almost ready to jump off, most of them only jump if someone pays them.  

Finally, we went to Medjugorje, where, since 1981, it has become a popular site of Catholic pilgrimage due to Our Lady of Međugorje, an alleged series of apparitions of the Virgin Mary to six local children that are still happening to this day.  Since 2019, pilgrimages to Medjugorje have been authorized by the Vatican.

*The pictures in this post are likely taking by my good friend, M.B., who accompanied me on this trip.