Saturday, July 20, 2013

Banana Republika Srpska

After 28 days on the Adriatic, we climbed the mountain south of Dubrovnik and turned inland, beginning a new phase in our journey.

We didn't set out to do a tour of major battle zones of the Yugoslav civil war -- it just sort of happened.  But when we added Mostar and Bosnia to the itinerary, we knew we were visiting a place that had seen heavy fighting and a country with a lot of unhealed wounds.

Our first indication that we were entering a different world did not take long.   We decided to take an indirect -- but purportedly more scenic -- route from Dubrovnik to Mostar.   This also had the advantage of reducing three border crossings to one (since, for reasons too obscure even for this blog to explore, the main road passes through Croatia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Bosnia again).   This matters, because former Yugoslav borders are not the trivial sign-and-maybe-a-wave crossings now common in the rest of Europe.   No, you get both an exit and an entry control every time, with careful scrutiny of passports and all our German-language car documents that we can't understand.  So the back road it was.

The back road would take us through the Republika Srpska, which is at least one vowel short of being an actual country, although in many ways it behaves like a very depressing one.   You may recall from your '90s newspaper reading, or TV watching, or whatever you did before the iPad, that when Bosnia-i-Herzegovina (or BiH, as the car license plates would have it) seceded from the Yugoslav federation, the Serbs in Bosnia wanted nothing to do with the new state.  They decided to secede themselves, declaring their own Republika Srpska in much of the territory of BiH.  Aided by their compatriots in Serbia and Montenegro, the only remaining fragments of Yugoslavia, the Bosnian Serbs proceeded to ethnically cleanse their Bosniak (Muslim) and Croat (Catholic) neighbors, .  

The international community had no idea what to do about the war in Bosnia, but just about everyone agreed that partitioning the place on ethnic lines would only encourage more war and ethnic cleansing there and everywhere else around the globe.  So Republika Srpska was never well received.   Yet when the war was finally settled by U.S. mediation in 1995, the compromise that did it left BiH divided into numerous cantons (a term wishfully adopted from placid Switzerland), which were in turn attached to one of two sub-national entities: a Bosniak-Croat "Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina" and the-much maligned Republika Srpska.   Neither is allowed to call itself a nation state, or to maintain internal borders or checkpoints, but otherwise all of the administrative apparatus of the country (such as it is) seems to be in the hands of one side or the other.

Which brings us to the border of Republika Srpska.   Thinking (as always) of our devoted readers,we thought that entering the territory of BiH merited a photo of the sign marking the border, as well as of the much larger sign announcing the quasi-sovereignty of Republika Srpska.

Bad idea.   RS border guards immediately swarmed our car, shabbily dressed, but with faces as stern as if it were 1962 at Checkpoint Charlie.  "You may not take photograph!   You must pay penalty!" a skinny young guard shouted at me through the driver's side window, while an older, plumper one stomped around with our passports.

Later, with some time to reflect on the incident, it was clear how ludicrous the idea was that you couldn't take a photo of an international border.  One could have pulled out a cell phone and started talking about speed-dialing the late Richard Holbrooke.   One might have gotten cheeky about whether Republika Srpska was a real country and if so  At the time, however, the threat of serious delay and harassment could not be dismissed.   Lisa offered to delete the offending photo from her iPhone, and the older guard on the passenger side became sufficiently interested in watching the process that he undercut his younger colleague's continued demands for monetary penalties on the driver's side.  Ultimately, we were allowed to drive on, and were spared the indignity of having to fund further extortion.

Later, we read that the RS's police are notorious for demanding bribes from tourists on the slightest pretext.   (Note to self: next time, try reading the guidebook before you enter the country.)  In any event, it was another example of the Republika Srpska's genius for winning friends and influencing people.

The countryside we explored for the next few hours, though dramatic, felt a bit bleak and empty after the Dalmatian Coast.  How much of that can be attributed to the lack of sparkling blue Adriatic water and how much to the bullet holes that peppered local buildings can be debated. 

In any event, the rest of the journey passed uneventfully, at least if you disregard the potentially lethal use of the passing lane by local drivers.   Still, it with some relief that we crossed over into Bosniak-Croat territory and approached Mostar.  

Not that it was all peaches and cream there, either.


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