Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Heading East - deep into a difficult past

Today we left Banja Luka, the capital of Republica Srpska to head east. A young Serbian girl has promised to tell me her impossible story with a young Muslim man - provided I don't disclose her identity and don't say where I'll meet her.

Transport in this part of Bosnia is somewhat sketchy. We thought about taking the bus, but there's only one a day, and it takes ages. Fortunately Renko who normally drives a van delivering dairy products, decided to take the day off. He barely earns 300 euros a month, so with two little kids and an unemployed wife, he offered to take me east - provided I didn't mind his old car.

I didn't mind the cracked front window, the recurring strange noises form the engine, the lack of seat belts, but unfortunately the police did. We had just left town when two police officers pulled over Ranko's rusty old Ford. "You have to get this car checked" they told him. NOW! But we were lucky, Dejan my translator was quick on his feet, and pointed to the German journalist sitting in the car. One little sentence did the trick: "She interviewed Dodik yesterday". And off we were again.

Past beautiful rolling hills, all shiny in the warm autumn light. Actually very much like back home, if it wasn't for the tiny white minarets dotting the landscape and reminding the traveller that Republica Srpska is not all orthodox...

Heading East, also means heading into the heartland of Serbian nationalism, the part of Bosnia which witnessed some of the worst battles and most notorious war crimes of the 1990's. Tuzla, Zvornik, Bratunac, Srebrenica, all resonate with massacres, refugees, and scores of burned homes and villages.

Even the beautiful river Drina, which forms most of the border between Bosnia Herzegovina and Serbia, has been the backdrop of a bloody battle - though this one a bit earlier, Dejan tells me. The Serbs fought the Austrian-Hungarians here at the outbreak of Wold War I.

Now it's all quiet and peaceful here.

We ended the day visiting the Srebrenica Memorial, outside Potocari. About 2000 Bosniaks are buried here. The endless rows of white tomb stones are a stark reminder of the atrocities committed by Bosnian Serbs and their leader General Ratko Mladic. More than 7500 Muslim men and boys were massacred here in July 1995. The majority of the bodies remain unidentified in giant warehouses in Tuzla, awaiting analysis by the International Committee for Missing Persons.

My Serbian driver didn't want to get out of the car, I didn't ask him why.


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