Written by Brian
I've obtained a new understanding of "complicated politics" since visiting a region where the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Muslim, and Lutheran faiths have collided. The Romans, Venetians, Ottomans, Habsburgs, and countless other empires or dynasties have controlled this land over the centuries. The mixture and mingling of cultures, languages, and religions gave birth to an incredibly complex system prone to conflict.
In American minds, the Balkans are infamous for two things: Archduke Franz Ferdinand's assassination in Sarajevo which sparked WWI, and the awful wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. I learned the basics of the Balkan "powder keg" in high school history class and witnessed the bleak destruction of that war in the 1990s on television.
On this trip, we've visited Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Serbia. Together with Slovenia, Macedonia, and the semi-recognized Kosovo, these modern nations comprised Yugoslavia.
In the United States, we sincerely appreciate our freedoms. We thank the military service members who have sacrificed to procure and maintain those freedoms. We decry injustices. As a collective people, we genuinely seek to do "the right thing". However, we really don't recognize how good we have it.
One of the blessings of world travel is that you learn firsthand how regular people live in far-off places. Sadly, you can encounter many places where the contrast between our wealth and their poverty is appalling, and that delivers a crucial lesson. Living and human rights conditions are far worse in places like Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Congo, Myanmar, etc., but I believe the Balkans also hold an important lesson for us as a nation.
That lesson is this - our challenges and shortcomings are nowhere near insurmountable.
The city of Mostar is the capital of Herzegovina, a historic region long-paired in nationhood with Bosnia. We visited for three days on a side trip from Croatia. At the bus station, we were met by a handful of children under ten years old begging for spare change. We've met many destitute souls of all ages along our journey, but these kids were the most alarming - grabbing our sleeves and murmuring forlorn, persistent entreaties. It was shocking and saddening. A thirty-minute walk from the bus station brought us to our guesthouse. Apartments Konak is owned by Lejla and her husband (who we didn't get to meet). As young adults, they fled during the early 1990s to Germany, where they met and were married. Lejla and her husband are Bosniak Muslim, and were among the 3,000,000 people displaced during the wars between 1991 and 1999. Tens of thousands of others were raped or slaughtered as different ethnic and religious factions clashed. By far the most numerous and appalling atrocities were committed by the Serbians, who sought to retain control of the nations which had a small ethnically Serb population and declared independence in 1991.
Walking through any street in Mostar, we could put our fingers in the pits in walls caused by indiscriminate shelling and shooting. We saw pinpoints of light seeping through bullet holes in fence gates and doors. We examined trees growing like weeds inside the post-apocalyptic shells of buildings. We walked past at least three graveyards packed full of pure-white marble headstones all dating from 1993-1995. It is a chilling, solemn experience.
The Stari Most (literally old bridge) is a 16th century stone bridge shaped like an Ottoman arch in the center of town. The bridge is perhaps the most famous structure in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the proud symbol of Mostar. In 1995, when the city was largely vacated and the war was in its waning days, the Croats bombed the bridge until it collapsed. It was an act of cultural defamation, intended not just to destroy the fabric of the city, but the cultural pride and history of the Bosniaks.
Following such physical and mental destruction, one might expect Bosnia to linger in tatters for decades. But in the years after the war, many refugees returned, and the new nation along with help from the European Union made recovery a priority.
If countries like Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, and, to some extent, Serbia can make so much progress in the past 15-20 years, the U.S. should be able to solve lingering issues like income inequality, human rights, racism, universal healthcare coverage, prison reform, educational attainment, and equitable public transportation.