The trailer jolted forward followed by a chorus of cheers as it struggled to take its heavy load of friends up a winding gravel track towards the castle. The rowdy party, myself included, were on our way to re-paint a memorial to Tito, the former President of Yugoslovia. A tradition every year on May day.
After the second World War, Tito led a one-party dictatorship in Yugoslavia until his death in 1980. Bosnia along with Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Montenegro, enjoyed economic advancement and industrialisation under his rule. Generally, he was supported by the West in part due to his rejection of the Soviet Union and successful leadership.
Many Bosnians are fond of Tito. On our return to Kulen Vakuf, the trailer clunked through the streets parading a Yugoslavian flag with pride and humour. A speaker blasting traditional music into the cool air of an otherwise quiet evening, was interrupted regularly by appreciative car horns. Musa turned to me, a smile spread across his face; “The nationalists will hate this”, he grinned.
The general feeling was of togetherness and fun. It was not politically driven despite the nature of the task. Perhaps it was a nod towards Bosnia’s current government which struggles with corruption and complicated bureaucracy, but mostly it was a celebration of past times. Ado, my host and friend, spoke fondly of life in Yugoslavia; ‘Things were better in Yugoslavia. Before the war, we had everything’.
The skin of the landscape pitted with bomb craters and the huge number of abandoned buildings are reminders of the brutal war fought in Bosnia 1992-1995. In fact, Bosnia was the location of the last genocide in Europe, when over 8000 muslims were slaughtered in Srebrenica. The war was fought by three different groups. Bosnian-Serbs, Bosnian-Croats, and Bosnian-Muslims. Ado told me painfully how his family was lined up to be shot, before a Serbian soldier decided he would spare women and children. Another soldier thought differently. On his way home from school one day, he was targeted by a sniper who narrowly avoided striking his ribs. He was eight years old.
Bosnia today has its scars openly visible. Divisions still run deep, but the overall feeling is of unity and prospect. Its stunning scenery, wilder and more untouched than Western Europe, could welcome many tourists, but Bosnia lacks the funds and infrastructure to attract large numbers. Although not yet a member of The European Union, the country receives support from them for some projects. However, this isn’t enough. With an average wage around €370 per month and unemployment as high as 40%, the country needs investment.
Many young Bosnians see their country as a lost cause. “They often search for jobs elsewhere in Europe, especially Germany”, Jasminka tells me over a beer in Bihac, her hometown, “those who stay behind often drink”, gesturing to the many people in the bar. She moved to Switzerland last year and Ado, too, plans to leave for Freiburg soon. Despite owning land with great potential directly on the river, the financial pull of Europe is far stronger. Known as being hard workers, they are often welcomed enthusiastically by Germany.
My final day in Kulen Vakuf was spent relaxing by the river and talking with Ado’s mum on the terrace of their restaurant. The call to prayer from the mosque rang out familiarly across the village, a legacy from Bosnia’s history with the Ottoman Empire. I watched as around ten families walked by, fathers carrying toddlers on their shoulders and young children weighed down with rucksacks and sleeping bags. They looked exhausted. “Refugees” sighed Ado. Sharing its border with Croatia means Bosnia is the doorstep to the EU for many who have fled Syria. A painful reminder of the consequences of war and divisions in a country still stitching the wounds of its own violent past.
My time in Bosnia has been slow and full of learning. Staying longer in one place has enabled me to learn so much about a culture, people, and history that was previously unknown to me. Although I have barely scratched at the surface, I felt I had made a home by the time I left Kulen Vakuf. I recognised and waved at every single person I saw working in their gardens as I left the village for the last time. One day, I hope to return.