Sarajevo is a lot like a war zone
September 1, 1996, on the way to Sarajevo

The alarm goes off at 4:30am. Jovica is out of the apartment. Hopefully he is picking up my bus ticket. I shower and pack. Rain is pouring down in buckets. Over the course of the day, everyone I meet will swear that it never rains like this in Yugoslavia or in Sarajevo, or in Srpska, and certainly never for another month or two.

Jovica returns with a tired smile just as I finish packing and am ready to shower and head out. He has stayed up all night (well, okay, we only got home around 2am) to make sure that he got down to the bus station (see previous story) and really picked up the ticket he had reserved so that I would really have a seat on the bus.

Even at 6am, the bus station has that crowded, busy look of good bus stations in countries where people use them. The rain is still coming down in buckets. We are bundled up with umbrellas, even, and are still getting wet. There is chaos when the bus pulls up, but I somehow get in the doorway and to my assigned seat. Much to my surprise, the bus is in good repair and comfortable. More to my surprise, the seats are ordered out, and we leave on time.

It is just beginning to be light as we pull out of town. For the first couple of hours we head over the Yugoslav highway in the flatlands towards Zagreb. At some point prior to Croatia, we head south on the road to Sabac ("Sa-batch"), and around 8 we make a rest stop near that town. To the extent that I am awake, the landscape is the now-familiar Serbian hills, with lovely houses, often brick covered with white plaster and topped with a steep, red tile roof. The land is lush and green, with frequent, half-harvested fields in which I see the drying haystacks and still unharvested grain (wheat?). I really, really love this landscape. My major regret is the pointlessness of trying to take pictures through the window in the rain. At the rest stop, things just aren't quite the picture I am looking for, so once again, I defer. So it goes.

A few hours later we pull up at the border between rump Yugoslavia and the alleged republic of Srbska. I say alleged because the Dayton accord, as best I understand it, recognizes no such entity.

My passport and a couple of others are taken and on its return, I find my Yugoslav visa stamped to indicate that I have left the country. Then we cross the Drina and are stopped by Srbska border guards in natty purple camoflage (purple camoflage?). My passport is again taken, and I am led off the bus to the border control station where a particularly porcine-looking guard (part of me wants to giggle, as this person reminds me a lot of Ariel Sharon--self-righteous stupidity is an international facial expression) tells me that I will need a visa, and that it just happens to cost 30DM. Interesting how that happens to be the same sum as the Yugoslav visa. Interesting as to how that seems to be in violation of the usual agreements (a Bosnian visa might be legit, but not one to pass through the Serb-controlled territories, at least, not imho, and not when I can so easily see this person having gladly participated in the atrocities that created this particular state of affairs).

It also feels like a dangerous situation. No one in Belgrade knew anything about such a "transit visa." I am alone. I happen to have a DM 50 note in my back pocket, so I toss it with a sneer onto the table, as if to say: "Okay, we know this is a shakedown. Get it over with."

I am questioned about where I am going (Sarajevo) and what I will do there (I tell them that I am visiting someone connected to the university.) The guard stamps my passport with five or six stamps and gives me a receipt--change even--for my DM 30. I always worry about the people who stamp your passport five times and receipt every dotted "i". These are the really dangerous ones. A shakedown is simple and honest compared to the creating the appearance of legality and an apparent paper trail. I keep my mouth shut, and once the stamping is done, go back to the bus where people seemed relieved to have the final passenger back. They are the smiles that people who have been in small closed rooms with such people while they try to pass scraps of paper off as legitimation after having lost everything and then some. I have nothing on them. I feel stupid at having made everyone on the bus wait because of my border problems.

Perhaps, appropriately, I find my mind dwelling on recent war and the attrocities as we head south of Zvornik along the Drina a ways. The Drina is stunningly beautiful. Wide, with tall (2000-3000 meters, the guidebook says) heavily forested mountains; sometimes the forest is interrupted by meadow or a red house. The mountains come right down to the river, which at this point is probably half a mile wide. A far swim. We pass occasionally through short tunnels that look as though they might have been blasted out of the rocks hundreds of years ago, perhaps even predating the Turks.

This is good land. The people look friendly, and if they are anything like the Serbs I met in Belgrade, that must be so. But this area is now Muslim-rein, and thousands of the Muslims not immediately shot were raped, casually murdered, or starved to death in Serb-controlled death camps. A part of me reflects back to Israel and the saying, "Masada will not fall again." How much better, I ponder, if we had looked at the Holocaust and said, "this will never happen to people again." How much better if it had been worth risking election complications had any Head of State in Europe or the United States chosen to intervene sooner. How much different if we had looked at what was happening with Milsevic (or for that matter, in Rwanda) and intervened early.

And for the people who live here, how does it feel to live in someone's house so acquired? Does everyone believe that they are making the best of a bad bargain and that the same or worse happened to their own family, friends, from one of the opposing sides (and atrocities wereultimately committed on all sides)? How do they rebuild in a way that offers better than ghettoes and further conflict in the future? (Or, I guess, how do Israeli Jew and Palestinian learn to live together, or Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland, or hutu and tutsi ... we've made a proper mess of things. In an age when we can move communications at the speed of light, we should somehow be able to do better.)

When we pull into what turns out to be Pale ("pah-lay", the Srbska capital-as-it-were) I ask the woman in front of me where we are and we begin talking. She speaks very good English and is an architect, now in her 30s, I guess, who has been in Malta for the last four years, and before that, Libya and Belgrade where she attended school. She is now on her way to visit her parents for the first time since the war and is feeling apprehensive. I keep meaning to ask her if she is Croat or Serb or Muslim, and guess that she is most likely Muslim, but I have no idea whether or not the question is loaded, and if so, how much. So we just talk.

Among other things, she describes the house of her grandfather, with the decorated stove/heater in the center of the house, and the separate building where cheeses and butter were made, and the things that made up life in her grandparents day. She is very modern, one of three daughters, all of whom have gone on to professional careers (although one has died, possibly also in Malta, due to disease or accident). She wonders if any of her friends will be left. She knows that most will not.

I ask her about where the bus stops. I have been assuming that it goes to a bus stop in the center of town, but apparently there is no bus station any more, and, in fact, the bus will not leave Serb-controlled territory. At a point somewhat above the center of town most of us get out and walk past the soldier sitting in tank at transit pointIFOR troops to waiting taxis. There are two IFOR tanks lined up alongside the first part of the walkway.

There is lots of traffic to and from the bus, and lots of waiting taxis. We are somewhere in a suburb above Sarajevo, and we can see the city waiting below, but this is as far as this bus is going to take us. Strangely, there is no traffic control, no visa control, nothing. We just walk from the Bosnian-Serb-controlled piece of pavement where the bus is parked, to the walkway where the taxis wait, just a few dozen of the dozens going back and forth on a similar errand.

I have been told that the taxi will share up to four people and cost about DM 5-6 each. As it turns out, I find a driver who wants to take just me. I manage to use the phrasebook to get him to take me to a cheap hotel. He doesn't answer anything I can figure out when I ask him, "koliko koshta" (how much). For no good reason, I take a chance and he takes me down to a hotel (I show him the phrase "where is an inexpensive hotel" in the guide book.) On the way down to the center of town, I notice that there is little new construction (very different from the rest of the former Yugoslavia), and still a lot of buildings that are now shells, or which still have all broken windows. Sarajevo is a lot of like war zone in which people seem to be hanging out and acting as though it is a normal place. It is probably worth thinking about plans B and C (head off for Dubrovnik or Zagreb on the morrow, for instance.

As best as we can communicate, he seems to be telling me that the railway station is also nearby. I am assuming that I can get a train out to Zagreb (false, as it turns out, later). The driver ends up charging me DM 10, which seems expensive, but affordable and fair.

The big shock comes when I walk into the hotel. It is a smallish hotel; it seems conceivable that it is a relatively inexpensive one. It doesn't look like a Hilton or Hotel Intercontinental, so I decide to give it a try.

At reception, they are quite snotty about whether or not they will have a room for me for only a night or two. They want cash only, and the room will be about DM120/night. I am in shock. I can certainly afford it if necessary, for the night or two that I will be here, but it is very much out of the range I want to pay, and it means that I will have to do without something else later. I am told that there are only three hotels in town and this is what they cost. I am also told that they accept cash only.

They do let me try a phone call. I try to call the phone number I have for the Internet Cafe person. I get a fax machine or modem. I try to call "information" to see if there is another number for Morgan Sowden, the owner of the cafe, but the line is busy.

Hmmm. Well, I ask the receptionist if she has heard of something called an "Internet Cafe." I mean, how many can there be? She hasn't heard of it, but one of the guests standing next to me has, and I have only to "go out of the hotel, turn left, and then it will be on a side street to the right." By now it is just a gentle drizzle outside, so I follow directions and actually find the place.

entryway to the Avatar cafe"Avatar Internet Cafe" is inhabited by a couple of tables of locals and dishes out a decent capuccino. There is a lone computer terminal in a corner with a modem and phone and zip drive. The cafe maintains a presence on the Internet as part of the "Sarajevo Center for New Media."

I do manage to snag an American, Tony, who works for Morgan part-time, cranking out web pages at DM10/apiece. He is on leave from college in the US. He came for a summer program in Croatia, and wound up here, having decided to stay until December. He knows enough of the local scene so that I can type of these notes and begin thinking over what I will be able to do while I am here.

Most worrisome at the moment is the local money scene. In brief, there is no plastic. No ATMs. Nobody accepts credit cards, not even banks. Cash and travelers checks are the only media of exchange. Personal checks would conceivably be useful, but it had not occurred to me to bring my checkbook. But for the high hotel fee, this would not be a problem, but I begin to understand what Morgan meant when he said that Sarajevo is currently expensive and this is not a good time to visit. I am still okay, but it also means that as soon as I get to Zagreb, I hit the bank or ATM in a big way.

Morgan is in Croatia until later tonight. It doesn't sound as though there will be a good resolution of the place to stay problem, but the cafe staff are quite happy to have me put my bag behind the counter and hang out until he arrives. We'll see what will be when it is. It sounds as though it will be "back to the hotel," or "sleep on a couple of chairs." But I'll feel better once I have talked the situation out and do whatever is inevitable.

[back] to Land of the endless fish girl
[on] to Sarajevo, continued
[on] to Sarajevo, at the Internet Cafe
[on] to Sarajevo on tour
[on to beyond Sarajevo: Semper in transit

Europe '96 | Ivritype | My WELL pages

Page maintained by Ari Davidow, / Last revised 9/18/96.