We are now bouncing around in the Balkans and having a great time doing so. Not so long ago, however, this would have been impossible. The closest we have been to being shot by a sniper or bombed since we arrived here was when we waited too long to buy our tram tickets and an onboard monitor tried to charge us a $15 fine. We have felt the troubles here a bit though. In Macedonia, we saw buildings that bore the grime and ugliness that can only come from Communism and corruption. Much of Skopje and all but the tourist area of Ohrid were a big heads up that we were no longer in Greece. Wooden doors hung, barely grasping hinges that must have held them up for 200 years. Some buildings seemed ready to cave in on the businesses that must have gotten a HUGE discount for agreeing to rent spaces below them. In Skopje there was a concrete jungle that left one wondering whether architects there had ever left their mother’s basements. Gray concrete. Blah. It ain’t purty, but it’s functional…Traveling to Belgrade, Serbia we were confronted by even more stark concrete dullness. The dilapidation of the buildings was only furthered here as compared to Skopje and Ohrid. Many buildings appeared to have some beauty under the grime, but pretending it wasn’t there was a bit difficult. So far, no sure signs of war or destruction, however.
That didn’t last long. We arrived in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina to find that war relics were all around us. Stepping out of our bus that led into town, we walked right over our first “Sarajevo Rose”. If you do not know, Sarajevo Rose is a nickname given to the red painted indentions in the sidewalks and streets of Sarajevo that originated from bomb blasts that rocked this city during the mid-1990’s. We stopped, turned, and stared at the “rose” for a few minutes before wandering on towards town. This was almost a surreal experience. A bit like our experience in Phnom Penh, Cambodia when we visited the Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields. Here we are, wandering with our backpacks and Ipods over ground that has been bombed and bled upon by many. Surreal. It is amazing and sad to see the depths to which the human being can fall. Day 2 found us wandering down a lane that was once dubbed “Sniper Alley” as a result of the Serb snipers who picked off people on this street from the surrounding hillsides. What?! Boy, let me tell you. That was a bit scary. A short 15 years ago, walking down this street would have been a literal death sentence for the two of us. That day, it was just an ambling down a busy lane while looking at remnants left over from those perilous times. Bullet and shrapnel scarred buildings stood everywhere. Almost every single building had scars to show that it made it through this disaster of human decree. The buildings that crumbled under this or that bombing were still here and there. Sometimes a shell of a building stood defiantly with no roof or guts. We saw many more “Sarajevo Roses” along our path. We saw monuments standing to take into account the people that had died in a certain building or area. The Holiday Inn with its mustard yellow outside where international journalists were stationed to cover the war still stood along sniper alley. Across the road was a monument with 30-40 names on it. The hostel where we stayed had a poster that summed it up best. It was a street map of Sarajevo that showed the city completely surrounded by various tanks, artillery weapons, snipers, and soldiers. Throughout the map, splatters of red represented the areas being bombed. Moving. Let me tell you.
We continued on to Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Mostar seems to have been bombed out as bad or worse than Sarajevo. We found some pictures from during the war and were aghast at the basic complete destruction of the city. Everywhere that we walked in the city, the scars were still all too visible. Bullet holes and shrapnel gouges in the sides of many buildings. Some completely destroyed still. Pictures of the famous Stari Most (bridge) falling into the river below as a bomb blasted it in 1993. The town was in shambles then and is just coming back now.
After all this doom and gloom, I may as well do something to try and end this on a positive note. Our time in Macedonia was made much more interesting and fun as a result of the kindness and assistance provided by several Peace Corps volunteers. We met Karen, our first Peace Corps volunteer, in Ohrid. We messaged her asking if she had a couch that we could sleep on (www.couchsurfing.com
Our travels in Macedonia continued with our trip to Skopje, the capital, where we met Vince. Vince is also a Peace Corps volunteer. He currently teaches English and has gotten a grant to setup an animal adoption program in the city. The guy is in his mid-20’s and really seems to have his head on straight. So good to meet people like this. Vince took us out to have a traditional Macedonian dinner one night and introduced us to several of his other Peace Corps friends who were no less remarkable. We were given a real taste (yum, all kinds of meat and salad!) of culture, some language lessons, and a great time. This may seem odd, but it seems that sometimes the best way to get an idea of how a culture really functions is to find someone who is also on the outside looking in, but who has been there long enough to get involved with locals. Macedonia turned out to be an amazingly refreshing and interesting place for us. The buildings, though they were sometimes dirty or stark, were being slowly, slowly upgraded and transformed. This will be a real place to be in a short while. Just watch.
I would hate to leave anyone with only a partial, pessimistic view of any place, so let me try to remedy that a bit with regards to Belgrade, Sarajevo, and Mostar. Belgrade seems to be moving into the 21st century after virtually sleeping through the latter half of the 20th century. Things are being cleaned up, statues razed. Buildings are being renovated and rented out or sold. High-end shops and restaurants are appearing. The place is really on the move towards a more positive (and hopefully eye-pleasing) future. Bosnia, man Bosnia has made a lot of progress in the past years since the war. Sarajevo has some of the most beautiful buildings that we have seen anywhere and the ones that were beat down or bombed out during the war are being cleaned up and/or replaced with little shops and cafes or trendy hotels. They even have the first skyscrapers that we have seen in quite a while. Mostar has rebuilt her bridge as of 2004 and continues to clean up and rebuild the many buildings that were destroyed. The scars still show, but now buildings show significant improvement over pictures taken during and just after the war. The region really appears to be looking forward into the future…And the future looks promising.