In the early 1990s the state of Yugoslavia started to disintegrate and a declaration of Bosnia and Herzegovina sovereignty in October 1991 was followed by a referendum for independence in February and March 1992. The turnout in the independence referendum was 63.4 per cent and 99.7 per cent of voters voted for independence. Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence on 3rd March. There was a lot of unhappiness, genocide, ethnic cleansing and war to come but eventually I had an opportunity to visit the country in 2008.
We set off from Podstana in Croatia and the first part of the drive wasn’t as dramatic as the road from Šibenik to Split the day before and shortly we arrived in the busy town of Omiš where there was another opportunity to head inland through the mountains towards the Bosnian border at Imotski but I ignored that and stuck to my original stubborn plan. The views didn’t improve a great deal as we drove through redundant shipyards and derelict industrial areas south of the town but eventually we left these behind and reached a sign declaring that we were now on the Dalmatian Riviera.
I was taking it steady as usual and making frequent stops at laybys with scenic views to admire the scenery and let the line of traffic building up behind me pass by. It was about eleven o’clock and we were about half way to Mostar so as we were making good progress we made more stops whenever a photo opportunity presented itself.
At this part of the coast there is an interesting diplomatic arrangement at the town of Neum which is the only seaside town in Bosnia and occupies about twenty kilometres of coastline that splits Croatia in two and which requires driving through border controls at both ends, which quite frankly is a bit of a pain in the arse for traffic travelling to and from Dubrovnik. The two countries are currently in negotiations about the establishment of a ‘privileged economic zone’ for Bosnian businesses within the port of Ploče to give Bosnia an economic supply line from the sea, though this is hindered by the opposition of Croatian people to the concept of a partial loss of sovereignty. In exchange Croatia would like easier passage through the narrow strip of Bosnian territory near Neum but this is opposed by the Bosnian people. The Croatian solution is simple and they have just begun construction of a three thousand metre long bridge that will cross to the Peljesac peninsular and solve the problem by bypassing Bosnia altogether and not surprisingly the Bosnian Government doesn’t like this.
I mention this because just at the point that I should have been turning left for the border town of Metković the road was closed because of the construction work and we were directed towards a detour that was sign posted Dubrovnik and Mostar. We only had a very basic map so it was difficult to say with any degree of accuracy where this detour would take us but there was no alternative but to follow it along with all of the other bemused drivers. The road conditions had been slowly deteriorating as we drove further south but now things went from bad to worse and this was a road that was completely unsuitable for the volume of traffic that it was now taking or the size of the lorries and the buses who were all competing for inadequate space. We were on full pothole alert now as we negotiated our way around this thirty kilometre diversion that completely destroyed my estimated timings.
Finally the never-ending detour through the mountain passes came to an end and we reached the border crossing and passed into the sovereign state of Bosnia and Herzegovina. When I studied European history at University I was always intrigued by this mouthful of a name because it sounded different and intriguing. And it was! There was a straight road that ran adjacent to the fast flowing Naretva River that was swollen from the melt waters of the snow-capped mountains that we could see in the distance. Surprisingly the road surface was much improved from that in southern Croatia but the condition of the houses and buildings in the villages en route did not. Every village we passed through had evidence of war damage with the scars of machine gun and mortar fire and houses with roofs that had collapsed under a direct hit from a shell. We stopped at the picturesque town of Pocitelj that has a western castle and an eastern mosque and picturesque bars and houses that had clearly been restored. We didn’t stop long because we didn’t have any Bosnian Marks and the street vendors selling fruit were a bit too persistent.
Although we were in Europe this felt like a different place altogether and being predominantly Muslim it felt as though we had crossed into Asia. It was about sixty kilometres to Mostar and when we arrived there it was a total shock. We drove past bombed out and abandoned buildings and parked the car in what looked a precarious spot next to magnificent old buildings that had been completely destroyed during the war of 1992 to 1993. Walking around I was struck that this is what most of Europe must have looked like after the Second-World-War and it was sad and a very sobering experience.
To be continued…