Saturday, May 25, 2013

Sarajevo Remembered

We recently endured a water crisis here in Montreal, where tap water was off limits for drinking for a little under two days. It reminded me of pictures I had seen of Sarajevo during the 1990s Balkan War, when people had to dodge bullets to reach the only water source in a certain area of town. Some of them didn’t make it.

Many people claimed to be surprised at the savagery of that war. I wasn’t totally surprised. While I have never visited Sarajevo, I was in Croatia and Serbia in 1989 for a meeting of the Society of American Travel Writers. Both Croatia and Serbia, historical enemies, were then part of Yugoslavia, as was Bosnia, whose capital is Sarajevo.

  Even the flight over, on JAT (called by some Joking about Time,) the national airline, gave us a preview that things might not be that great at our destination. One of our members asked a flight attendant for more ice for a drink, and the woman put her finger in the drink and said “That’s cold enough.”

Generally, though, we were welcomed with fine Balkan hospitality—several places in Serbia young girls dressed in red and white costumes and wearing headresses greeted us with the traditional bread and salt, and we had a good time in both Croatia and Serbia, soon to be at each other’s throats. However, our guides told us that there were many problems  in the country, not least hyper-inflation. We went to change money almost every day, and each time got more local currency for our dollars.

Yugoslavia was one of the relative success stories of the Communist system. It was quite prosperous, independent of Moscow, and had seemed to build a system that worked. Traditional ethnic hatreds were subsumed in the Yugoslav nationality, forged out of resistance to the Germans in World War II. I was impressed with the marble tomb of Josip Broz Tito, long time Communist leader of the country. He was a Croatian who built a country where Serbian influence dominated, but everybody seemed to get along fairly well. Until, with the fall of Communism throughout almost all of Eastern Europe by 1991, they didn’t.

I am grateful I had a chance to see Yugoslavia while it existed. It was a great experiment, but one that eventually failed. I’m not sure the current patchwork of countries that succeeded Yugoslavia is working particularly well, but at least the shooting has stopped.

That is one of the great benefits of travel—it gives you a perspective on history and current events, an idea that there’s more to life than what is found at Walmart or on your smart phone.

And I didn’t even mention the critical part Sarajevo played in World War I. The assassination there in 1914 of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife led Austria to send an ultimatum to  Serbia. Because of the system of alliances that existed at that time, other countries began to mobilize and soon the world was at war.

Incidentally, if you visit the Kaiser Villa ( at Bad Ischl in the Salzkammergut region of Austria, you can see the ultimatum which Franz Joseph sent to Serbia, along with the pillow on which his beautiful wife Elizabeth died after being stabbed by an assassin in Geneva.


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