Scars of War: Confronting History in the Balkans: Croatia, Bosnia, and a Cameo in Montenegro

"Scars of War: Confronting History in the Balkans: Croatia, Bosnia, and a Cameo in Montenegro," with photographs taken by Marcia Jacobson, The Syracuse Post-Standard Sunday STARS Magazine, Nov. 1, 2009, 6-7.

"After living together and intermarrying for centuries, people began to hate their neighbors." (23-year-old female Mostar guide)


At times when you see the walled medieval cities of Croatia and the amazing Adriatic coastal scenery in Croatia and Montenegro or the spectacular mountain scenery in those countries and in Bosnia, you think you are visiting an unspoiled Europe of decades past. But for those with even a moderate historical sensibility, the overriding fact of a trip to the Balkans today is the ethnic wars that began in 1991 and tore apart the old Yugoslavia.

With a second couple, my wife and I bought a private tour to Croatia and Bosnia from Jauntee Tours, a Croatia specialist. Our tour included hotels (breakfasts included), drivers when necessary, and guides as well as many free days. ("We" in what follows refers to my wife and me).

Both countries, but especially Bosnia, were ravaged by the Balkan wars and ethnic friction in the 1990s when the six units—Serbia (including two autonomous provinces, Vojvodina and Kosovo), Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia and Slovenia--that made up the old Yugoslavia Federation broke up after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

We began our trip with four nights in Dubrovnik. The highlight here is the old walled city (Old Town), one of Europe's largest pedestrian areas with wonderful old buildings and churches. Walking the walls of the city is a traditional tourist experience. Because the major industry is tourism, separate admission is charged for quite a few buildings; shops devoted to the tourist trade line the streets of the walled city. For us one important site was the old Jewish ghetto containing in the same building both a small synagogue dating back to 1408-- perhaps the oldest Sephardic synagogue in the world--and the Jewish museum.

Our boutique hotel, the relatively new More with 34 rooms and a very attentive staff, was on the Lapad Peninsula, a fifteen-minute bus ride from Old Town. Our seaside rooms offered breathtaking views of the Adriatic Sea and a private beach on the Adriatic.

While in Dubrovnik, we took an 11 hour round trip to Montenegro, which voted its independence from Serbia in 2006. The scenery on the 2 ½ hour drive to Kotor was stunning, with mountains juxtaposed to a clear blue-green lake. We visited the walled city of Kotor and then the quaint coastal town Budva. Kotor contains beautiful Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches.

Another day we took the 15-minute ferry to Lokrum Island (round trip $8 at 5 Kronor to the dollar; neither Bosnia nor Croatia uses the Euro but Montenegro does). The island has an mélange of beaches, hiking paths, a botanical garden, an old fort, and a lake with seawater called in English "The Dead Sea," as well as a Monastery complex consisting of the remnants of a 12-13th century basilica and a cloister garden.

Our Trip Takes a Serious Turn: Bosnia

Our visit to Bosnia—composed of the Serbian Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where we visited--was more a lesson in Balkan and Bosnian history than traditional sightseeing. Bosnia is still recovering from the 1990s Balkan wars and many buildings and psyches are in disrepair. In terms of documented casualties and war crimes, the Bosnians were the major victims of these wars—and the Serbs the major perpetrators-- although Croatians and Serbs did suffer, too.

Leaving Dubrovnik, we drove three hours to Mostar where we stopped for several hours. Mostar was the site of some of the bloodiest battles of the Bosnian war (1992-95) where Croatians, Bosnians, and Serbs killed one another and destroyed much of a city that had survived for centuries as a paradigm of cultural tolerance.

Old Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia

The Croatians' destruction of the Old Bridge joining the two halves of the town was a divisive blow from which the city is still recovering. This destruction occurred after the Croatians together with the Bosnians had repelled the mostly Serb Yugoslav army. Today tensions remain; a Croatian cross sits provocatively on a high hill on Mostar's west side for the Moslem Bosnians on the east side to see, even as the contending ethnic factions have restored some semblance of civilized behavior and rebuilt--under UNESCO sponsorship--much of the city, including the Old Bridge. A small free museum shows pictures of devastation caused by the terrible ethnic violence in Mostar.

After Mostar, we drove on to Sarajevo, once a cosmopolitan city but now one that attracts a limited number of tourists and very few Americans. We spent four nights in Saravejo at the serviceable Hotel Michele.

A major site is the exact place where Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, the event that triggered World War One. A must see is the beautiful Bey mosque, built under the Ottamans by Adhem Esir Ali in 1530-31 and restored after the 1992-1995 war. The National Museum exhibits the famous 500-year-old Saravejo Haggadah that was hidden during the Holocaust and the Bosnian wars. Also recommended is the beautifully restored Post Office, dating originally to very early twentieth century, and rebuilt after fire during the Balkan wars.

As in Mostar, signs of bombardment and artillery fire are everywhere, with shrapnel and gunshot holes scarring many buildings. One cannot walk in the hill areas of the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics because the area has been mined by Serbian troops shelling the city from above. On the main street is a moving new memorial for 1600 Sarajevo children of the 12000 people reportedly killed in Sarajevo during the 43 months siege of the Bosnian capital. (Even when I returned home, I could not find reliable statistics about the numbers killed and wounded, and no census has been taken since the 1992-95 Bosnian war.) The centerpiece of the memorial is an unfinished sand castle in the shape of a pyramid, signifying young lives cut short.

I spent a good deal of time talking to young people about their hopes and aspirations. I was repeatedly told that students are not taught much in school about the Balkan wars of the 1990s. It is now difficult for Bosnians to travel beyond Montenegro and Croatia because they can't get visas from other European countries; the latter are convinced that the Bosnia visitors will find a way to stay illegally or by marriage. Drugs and alcohol are a problem due to the psychological effects of war. On the city streets in Sarajevo and Mostar, we saw not only war-damaged one-armed and one-legged men but also far more woman than men due to war and emigration.

Bosnia is a poor country with 46 per cent unemployment; when I asked students what their parents do, most answer: "Unemployed." While most people wear inexpensive clothing, young women in western dress and makeup look surprisingly up to date and even chic. This may be, we were told, be a response the dearth of men, but also it is a way that young people, watching western Internet and TV, make common cause with their contemporaries in the European Union, which many Bosnians want to join. Yet we often heard Moslem calls to prayer five times a day, and we did see an Iranian presence there in a centrally located storefront in downtown Sarajevo.

Bosnia has a bizarre Presidency consisting of three members--one Serb, one Croat (representing less than ten per cent of the population) and one Bosniak--with the chairmanship of the three presidencies rotating every eight months. This leads to a dysfunctional government and ensuing lack of government services, including weak support for universities, and that in turn leads to cynicism.

Jewish cemetery, Sarajevo, Bosnia

We visited the two remaining Sarajevo synagogues, the elegant still functioning early twentieth century Ashkenazi one —with a strong Eastern influence on decorations-- and the 16th century Sephardic one used once a year on Rosh Hashanah but with a fine Jewish museum. Once the largest Jewish community in Balkans with at least 10,000 and perhaps 12,000 Jews, the Sarajevo Jewish community was drastically reduced by the Holocaust to less than 2000. During the Serbian siege of Sarajevo, perhaps a thousand Jews—and some non-Jews-- were evacuated by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and now about 700 remain.

A small number of Jews—often after many years—returned. One such returnee, Eli Tauber, who is the unofficial historian of Jewish Sarajevo, took us to see the second oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe after Prague's. In the hills, the cemetery dates back to the 16th century but is in some disrepair because the Serbian military held this site above the main city during the 1992-95 Bosnia war and the Jewish community gave permission for the Bosnian forces to fight back.

Taking a breather from intense political and historical discussion, we visited Vrelo Bosne park via tram where we purchased a pleasurable horse drawn carriage drive of seven kilometers round trip along a tree lined path. Our driver waited a half hour while we looked around at a medley of springs, ponds, pools, and small falls. (The price is negotiable; we paid about $13.50 for two in Bosnia Marka ).

On the whole, we found Sarevejo food unexciting and that certainly included breakfasts at Hotel Michele. But I need mention two exceptions At a restaurant called Kibet in the hills overlooking the city, we not only had wonderful trout and apple strudel but also a stunning view of the sunset against the mountains. And we were guests at an excellent meal at the home of a senior figure in the American embassy.

Return to Croatia

Medieval church doors, Split, Croatia

We drove six scenic hours plus from Sarajevo to Split, a city of 200,000 where we were astonished to see the wonderful Old Town within the walls of the palace constructed by the Roman Emperor Diocletian, dated 305 AD. These walls and the accompanying structures and interior courtyards are among the best preserved Roman palaces in the world. Within the walls is the Cathedral of St. Dominus, the former mausoleum of Diocletian, transformed into a Christian Church in the 7th century and containing memorable wooden door panels dating to the 12th century.

Our well-appointed five star hotel, the Lav Meridian, overlooked the sea and had both indoor and outdoor swimming pools as well as a casino for those whose bent is in that direction.

We used Split as a base for some exploring. Most enjoyable was a visit to Krka national park ($16 dollars per person) with its scenic waterfalls, pleasurable walking paths, and striking views at every turn. Following several glorious hours at Krka, we visited Sibernik where the restored Church of St. James is a highlight of the Old City.

Our final sightseeing destination was the island of Hvar to which we took an hour ferry from Split. We checked into Hotel Amphora, splendidly located on the Adriatic Sea above the charming town of Hvar and renovated as a boutique hotel but with small rooms. We had a beautiful ten-minute walk downtown culminating in the harbor that at night is quietly and mysteriously beautiful.

Sightseeing should include the large city square and its Cathedral of St. Stephen, but the highlights of Hvar are the dramatic unspoiled sea views and pristine, although rocky beaches. During our mid May visit, the hotel was about fifteen percent full, but Hvar becomes hectic in high season. Our last day in Hvar we took a water taxi ($12) to a secluded beach on a small island off Hvar.

The next day we had one of the scenic drives of a lifetime from Split to Dubrovnik; we took a 7:30 ferry from Hvar to Split, and were met by our driver at 8:20 for a wonderful four hour drive back to the hospitable Hotel More where we stayed our last night.

Meals in Croatia

Relatively simple seafood food and pastas are often best. Our hotel breakfasts were excellent, particularly in Dubrovnik. Generally we spent for dinner in the $35-$45 range for two.

In Dubrovnik our best dinner was at the Hotel More's dining room where we had a fine dinner with a great sea view from the hotel's restaurant. Our meal featured mussels buzzara (buzzara implies simmered mussels or other shellfish in a sauce featuring white wine, garlic, and parsley) plus two fine soups, asparagus and lentil, which we shared.

In Split we had an excellent dinner at a restaurant near Diocletian's palace called Sperun—perhaps the best meal of our Bosnia and Croatia travels-- where my wife and I shared two entrees: sea bass and black pasta garnished with a sauce of salted fish. In Hvar, we had equality dinner at Luna with mussels buzzara and decent sole, along with excellent crème carmel.

Be aware that what restaurants call "first quality" fish is often exorbitantly priced.


Most of our trip went well. In most respects Jauntee gave us good value, but they did try to change our arrangements from Split to Dubrovnik. To save themselves money, they wanted to switch us to a ferry, which would have taken from start to finish eight hours, and would not have been anywhere near as pleasant as the breathtakingly beautiful drive was. Furthermore, we had agreed with Jauntee on a Mercedes for transporting the four of us; they didn't provide that on our trip to Montenegro and needed to be reminded by email of our contract.

The recurring theme in my Star articles over the past decade is that travel helps one understand the world better and seeing Bosnia and Croatia in the aftermath of the breakup of Yugoslavia and the ensuing wars emphasized that theme.