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“Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby! Do ya, do ya, do ya, do ya!” softly played from the taxi’s speakers. “I love this song, can I turn it up a bit?” I asked the cabbie, trying to spur some sort of conversation. “No” he flatly replied. We sat in silence for the remainder of the ride from the airport to my destination; Budva, Montenegro.
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Several times throughout the ride the taxi driver, through broken English, asked about my possessions in the back of the cab and asked to see my passport a couple times.
I was getting weird vibes from him from the start and as we sped through the Montenegrin countryside, I was waiting for him to pull over on a side road where a group of his goons would be waiting to steal all of my possessions and leave me stranded in the middle of the night.
Of course, this was just my paranoia getting the best of me and I arrived in Budva half an hour later after a tense car ride.
I had opted to leave my home in Ukraine amid tensions with Russia at the behest of the American Embassy in Kyiv which had evacuated most of their staff the week before I departed. In early February, the war between Russia and Ukraine was still a few weeks off, unbeknownst to the world.
I chose Budva, Montenegro to hide out in for a month and observe the unfolding conflict between the two Slavic neighbors from afar. Budva is a small seaside holiday town and in the winter off-season it is completely dead.
As a History Buff, Bosnia Had Been on My List
My first weekend in Montenegro I planned a road trip to Sarajevo, Bosnia. As a World War 1 history buff, Sarajevo had always been on my bucket list and I figured it was as good of a time as any to fulfill this dream.
After finding mixed results online while trying to find a good route through the Balkan Mountains and with snow coming in early Saturday morning, I decided just to wing it and I left Budva at 7pm after work that Friday. My plan was to drive all night and arrive sometime around 0100 to beat the snow and make the most of my weekend.
I wound along the scenic coast of Montenegro, albeit cloaked in the blackness of the night sky. After passing through the famous Kotor Bay, I began the steep ascent into the Balkan Mountains.
My little hatchback traversed switchback after switchback as the gravel on the roadside slowly began to be covered in more and more snow as the elevation rose. With very few cars on the road this late at night I was able to drive at my own speed. It seemed like I was the only car on the road except for a few dump trucks returning to nearby lumber yards to pick up another load.
At one point it had been over half an hour without seeing another car, building, or streetlight. This total complete darkness was beautiful, and I switched off my headlights and drove for a few hundred meters in blackness, guided only by the lights of the stars.
I Encountered Border Guards
A couple of hours later I crossed the border of Bosnia. The border guards seemed very happy when I told them I was going to Sarajevo for tourism. The roads were in noticeably worse condition than that of the ones in Montenegro, but I expected that knowing that Bosnia was a poor country that had recently been ravaged by a bloody war with neighboring Serbia in the 90s.
Although the bombs have stopped falling and an official ceasefire was called in 1995 with the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement, the ethnic tension has only subsided a little since then.
Bosnia Is Split into Three Different Regions
Currently, Bosnia is split into three different regions. Bosnia (the central area in the country around Sarajevo, Herzegovina (in the southwest around Mostar), and the controversial Republic of Srpska (eastern region and northwest region near Banja Luka).
In recent months Bosnia’s ethnically Serb president Milorad Dodik has made destabilizing comments about withdrawing ethnic Serbs from the Bosnian military. A comment that was seen as stoking the fire for the Republic of Srpska (majority ethnically Serbian) to seek independence from Bosnia or to join Serbia.
Tensions were running higher than normal when I crossed through the mountains north of the Bosnian town of Trebinje.
I reached a clearing in the trees and in the distance about 50 meters in front of me through the darkness I could vaguely make out a large, armored van with several men standing around it blocking the road ahead. One of them held out a flashlight and signaled for me to pull my car to the side of the road.
They Signaled for Me to Pull My Car Over to the Side of the Road
I was very surprised to see these heavily armed men with balaclavas pulled over their faces armed with AK-47s in the middle of the mountains. I apprehensively pulled my car to the side of the road with images of the movie “Behind Enemy Lines” flashing through my mind.
The masked man said something in what I can only presume was Serbian. For some reason I answered in my rudimentary Russian, asking him if he spoke English, and of course, he didn’t understand. He gathered that I spoke English and with the help of a couple of his fellow militiamen, I understood that he wanted to see my passport. I obliged and he disappeared behind the armored van with my documents.
Meanwhile, militiamen #2 + #3 stood by and searched my vehicle, asking me to open all of the doors and the trunk while they scanned the interior with flashlights. Strangely enough, they didn’t ask to search my backpack which was sitting on the passenger seat and was the only contents of the vehicle.
After a few tense minutes, militiaman #1 handed me my documents back and in a surprisingly cheerful tone “everything is going to be okay Ted.” It took me a second to realize that he had just had my documents and that was how he knew my name and that they weren’t going to be detaining me any longer.
I glanced at the patch on the sleeve of his uniform, a Serbian flag at the top with ‘Militia’ and ‘RSK’ underneath it in Serbian Cyrillic. I thought it strange to see Cyrillic writing since we were in Bosnia but I made a mental note of it and sped off, getting closer and closer to Sarajevo.
There is a Lot to Learn about this Region
Before my trip to the Balkans, I was admittedly pretty ignorant about their recent history and current political situation. Even after seeing repeated signs for Republika Srpska, I was unaware of this semi-autonomous region and even seriously questioned myself and briefly thought that I had taken a wrong turn and somehow ended up in Serbia.
Since I was traveling alone I figured it didn’t matter where I ended up but I just wanted to get to a hotel quickly since it was late and I just wanted to rest. I gunned the engine and made great time the rest of the journey through the mountains. The old Rudyard Kipling line ringing true yet again; “Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne,
“He travels the fastest who travels alone”
Approaching the outskirts of Sarajevo, I once again came upon a roadblock. This time it was 2 policemen in Navy uniforms with no Balaclavas or AKs to be seen! They approached my window and upon seeing my American passport they waved me forward without any further questioning.
The next morning I checked into my hostel and immediately hit the streets to get as much sightseeing in before it got dark.
I made a beeline for the Latin Bridge, where over 100 years earlier a 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip stood and took the fatal shot that would catapult our world into a world war that would end with more than 40 million dead worldwide and its resolution which would set the stage for World War 2 some 20 years later.
It Was Surreal
For me it was personally surreal because when I was about his age, I was in college back in Minnesota, reading a book about his life and the aftermath, never thinking I would one day stand in his exact place. It was a strange juxtaposition for me.
On one hand, I can see Princip as a freedom fighter who committed this murder as a way of trying to free his own people from the tyranny of the Habsburg occupation and had no way of knowing the ripple effect his actions would cause throughout history.
On the other hand, you could make the case that he was a reckless and immature terrorist who was partially responsible for all of the death and destruction that would follow. I have a hard time arguing with either point of view in this situation and I think it’s best for me to leave it to people of the former Yugoslavia to decide.
After some more sightseeing around town and a night out at a local bar, it was time for me to leave Sarajevo. Before I left, I knew there was one last place that I needed to see that I had been putting off; the war crimes museum.
I Went to the War Crimes Museum
I knew it would be a difficult place to visit but also essential to understanding the pain that permeates Bosniak culture to this day. In this museum, I viewed exhibits showing the Bosnian genocide perpetrated by Serbia.
These exhibits included personal testimonies from survivors, remnants of exploded ordinances, and torn and bloody children’s clothing. The most jarring part of it all was the room dedicated to the Srebrenica Massacre.
8372 Bosniak men and boys from the town of Srebrenica were genocidally murdered in July of 1995 by the Serbian armed forces and the Army of Republika Srpska. Again, there were testimonials from survivors, eyewitnesses, and the families of the deceased.
I Made My Way to the Final Room
With tears welling up in my eyes, I made my way to the final room of the museum which was an empty room with walls covered in post-it notes with messages written by visitors to the museum. Remarks like “Never again” or “make peace, not war” were commonplace but I couldn’t seem to find anything profound or fitting to put on the wall.
Later that day in the city of Mostar I saw more firsthand evidence of the recent war. Bombed-out buildings and shrapnel markings are commonplace in parts of town. Despite this, the city has bounced back.
On the Outskirts There Were New Developments
On the outskirts, there were new luxury apartment buildings, supermarkets, restaurants and a football stadium for the local team. This is a testament to the ironclad will of the Bosniak people and their refusal to give up or be kept down.
There is something hauntingly beautiful about the Balkans that needs to be witnessed to be fully understood.
I don’t know if it’s the kelly green mountains, the complex and interesting history, the constant smell of woodsmoke in the air, or the incredibly hospitable people, but there’s just something about this tucked away corner of Europe that keeps me coming back.
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Author Bio: Ted Bechtold is an American traveler and writer based out of Ukraine. He has been traveling the world for nearly 10 years with a focus in mainly Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. He teaches English to IT professionals in Ukraine remotely as a way of funding his travels. His instagram is tedbechtold