A sniper’s point of view

Aldina, a girl who worked at Madja’s Guest House, picked me up from Mostar’s bus station as the sun was setting.

“Over there,” she said, pointing out the car window to a towering building with all of it’s windows blown out, “that’s the bank. During the war, Serbian snipers would sit in there and shoot people below.”

Oh my god.

That the building was even still erect was fascinating. It stood like a skeleton with nothing but fragile bones holding the history of the war together.

“It isn’t locked,” she continued. “You can go in there and look around. Just don’t go at night.”

Immediately, my plan was to visit the former bank.

The next morning, I grudgingly put on a pair of socks (hate them) and laced up my knock-off Chucks in preparation for the bank exploration.

Aldina had warned that the floor was essentially carpeted with shards of glass, and I wasn’t taking the risk of having a piece of it planted in my foot, so shoes and socks it was.

As I got ready to go, a tall English guy walked into my room. David. We began chatting and he decided to come along with me to the bank.

There are plenty of entrances to the bank from the ground level. People can walk in the main door, surrounded by pillars that must have been grand 20 years ago but now stand looking like Roman ruins ready to crumble. Or, you can walk in through gaping holes in the side of the building, what used to be floor-to-ceiling majestic glass windows.

We walked through a gaping hole.

The tiling, gone. The carpet, gone. Any hint of character, wallpaper, paint, anything … it’s all gone.

The bank is a shell. Haunted by ghosts of snipers and former workers.

Glass from windows lie scattered everywhere. Pipes and wire dangle from the ceiling. Elevator shafts are missing the doors and elevators. Windows … well, there are none.

The second floor is the most remarkable of the nearly 10-floored skeleton.

On one end, remnants of what used to be offices are visible. Printer cartridges are piled on the floor. Some wooden frames from the walls remain. Desks and chairs are strewn about. And, an entire wing is covered, littered, with documents of all types — books, binders, envelopes containing mail.

Around windows lie spent bullets. Looking out is chilling.

This is the view the snipers had of the city. Of the people who were trying to live their lives without getting fired upon on a regular basis.

To one side if the front lines where buildings still look today as they looked during the war — bombed out, shells of what they had once been. That side contains the old city, the Muslim side. The other sides have clear shots of the Croatian side of the city, the homes, the schools, the parks.

It is eery. It is creepy.

It makes me sick.

After an hour walking through the past, we decided it was time to go and hit the cool waters of the river that cuts through the city of Mostar. Time to see the infamous bridge that was destroyed in 1993, but re-built and is now a major tourist attraction (people jump into the water from its arch).

The next day, David, me and 16 other people, headed on Madja’s famous tour of the region.

Blog Bosnia/Hercegovina Travel

Sarajevo … surrounded

My first evening in Sarajevo, I took AK’s walking tour. An enlightening five-hour walk through the city, learning about it’s history from Ottoman rule to today. There were times where tears filled my eyes as he spoke of the war, the mortars, the Sarajevo roses that fill the holes were people were killed and serve as a memorial to the lives lost. AK, barely out of his teens, told his stories with the words of someone well beyond his years, with soul … with pain … with passion.

The next day, four people I had met from the tour and I decided to continue to explore the history of Sarajevo. We hopped on a tram, and then a bus, to the Tunnel museum.

During the war, Sarajevo was essentially cut off from supplies. Serbs controlled nearly all of the city, sans the airport, which was operated by the UN. On the other side of the runway was freedom. Sarajevo soldiers, in an attempt to get supplies, dug a tunnel under the runway. It was dangerous. The tunnel carried wires to provide energy and often times the narrow and low-ceilinged route was flooded.

The four of us first watched two videos in the museum, one showing soldiers haul supplies and people through the tunnel, and the other a collage of images during the war. Buildings being hit with mortars. The National Library with Sarajevo’s history in books, being burned. A woman shielding her baby in her arms as she ran to escape sniper fire. It all was gruesome. And real.

Then, we walked through the tunnel portion that was open and out into a field of grass outside the home which housed the underground path.

A clear view of the airport. The runway.

I looked around. Everywhere I turned were reminders of the fighting 20 years earlier — homes riddled with bullet holes and schrapnel scars from mortar attacks.

After the tunnel, we went to the History Museum, a building which still also bares the scars from the war. Upstairs there are two exhibits — one of the history of Sarajevo and one that shows the brutality via photos of the war – “Sarajevo Surrounded.”

The images were horrid. Bodies with intestines coming out. Letters and pictures from children depicting their living situations. Everything I saw brought to life the words AK had spoken the night before.

To lighten the day, we decided to go and see “Inception” that evening at a local theater.

A few of us, along with AK, headed to the theater ($4 USD for a Friday night screening) to decompress.

After, we went out to Cheers — yes, there is a Cheers in Sarajevo — where we sipped Sarajevsko and listened to the haunting voice of a local as she sang along to house music.

The next day, I finally worked towards solving my lack of music problem. I hauled it to an Apple store and ordered an iTouch.

“It could take five days to get here,” said the girl at the counter.

Five days in Sarajevo.

I looked outside at the water. At the pockmarked buildings. At the sun shining.

I can do five days here.

“No problem,” I said, smiling.

Then, I walked into the gorgeous Sarajevo afternoon.

Blog Bosnia/Hercegovina

Trains versus buses — which is better? (The List)

A look at train versus bus travel

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Given the fantastic experiences I had on the trains through the Balkans, I decided to write-up a pros/cons list of taking the bus versus taking the train through most of Europe.

Both can be good.

Both can be bad.

Often times — at least in the Balkans — trains are the less expensive option, so when watching the budget, they are the only mode of transport that can work.

So, travel by train or bus? Which is better?

Why opt for a bus?

1. They don’t have to stop at an entrance to a tunnel for 40 minutes so a train going the opposite direction can pass through.

2. Most times (except in the Balkans), you have an assigned seat. That means the person next to you has an assigned seat, too. You don’t have to sit and silently pray to be the lucky couchette that doesn’t fill up. (Every train I have been on has had one couchette, for some reason or other, that has remained blissfully near-empty).

3. There aren’t sliding glass doors where people in the small aisle can glare at you while they think you are sleeping or reading your book.

4. No one can come into your little bus aisle. On trains, people come into your couchette in the middle of the night.

5. There (most of the time) is air-con.

6. There are stops for food and drink.

7. The toilets aren’t from the 1970s. Yes, most buses don’t have the toilets on-board open, but when you stop for #6, you get to use a REAL restroom. Granted, you have to pay, but is a small fee to know you won’t get some rare disease or have to dodge the grime and gross that comes with toilets that are never cleaned on the train.

8. The lights on the buses turn off at night. You don’t have to wait for everyone in a couchette to finish reading, word puzzles, etc. to turn the light off. The bus driver does it for you. And then, if you WANT a light on, you have your own little light you can turn on.

9. If you stop for a long period of time you can get off of the bus, and tell the driver you are doing so. On trains, good luck finding the conductor.

10. You don’t have to lift your heavy bag into the storage compartment above. It won’t fit. Instead, it goes below (sometimes for a small fee), but you are gloriously rid of the extra baggage until you arrive at your destination. (Just keep your valuables on you, not stowed away.)

11. You don’t have to worry about avoiding eye contact. No one is sitting in front of you and facing you. The only thing you can stare at is the scenery out your window, or the back of the person’s head who is sitting on front of you.

12. The guy in the food car can’t blare his loud polka-style music so everyone the next car over can hear. There is no food car on the bus.

13. At stops, you have a selection of food. On the train, you have a choice of a few very overpriced sandwiches, none of which are actually filling or tasty.

14. Unless there is a problem with the bus, every time you stop, or go down a hill, or wind around a mountain, you don’t damage your ear drums with the high-pitched scraping of the brakes.

15. Buses take less time to get to the final destination than trains.

Why travel by train?

1. You can walk around.

2. You can’t watch the conductor and hope the person doesn’t fall asleep. You just have to assume the person won’t.

3. You can use the toilet on board. At your own risk. And wash your face … if you trust the water coming out of the faucet. If there is water coming out of the faucet.

4. You get off of the road and get to see some beautiful and untouched parts of the world.

5. If people speak your language in your couchette, you can have a conversation. Or a party.

6. Trains are cheaper (at least in the Balkans).

7. You don’t have to worry about traffic.

Which do you prefer and why?

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