“This is the bridge where the war started,” said Mustafa as we crossed over the sparkling Miljacka River that divides the Bosnian city of Sarajevo.
I had walked over this bridge before, just to admire the view, but had not realised its significance: on the afternoon of 6 April 1992, this is where snipers mowed down two young women as they joined a peace march. Multi-ethnic strife disintegrated into full-blown war as Serbs laid siege to Sarajevo and began killing Muslims and Croats as they tried to carve out a Serb Republic.
It was just one more marker in a picturesque city engraved with such dark memories. And on this day, it was the starting point of my journey with a man, who like most Bosnians, has spent the two decades since the war reconstructing his peace.
Mustafa, my guide, was only 17 when the Bosnian War began, but he still defended his Sarajevo neighbourhood when Serbian forces began shelling his apartment building. A Bosniak, or Bosnian Muslim, he fought alongside the Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs of Sarajevo against Serbian nationalists who wanted to take over all these lands to create a Greater Serbia.
With his blue eyes, close-cropped hair and Balkan good looks, he could be his own action hero. He studied to be a dentist after the war, but the cost of setting up his practice was prohibitive. Instead, he became a tour guide who makes his living sharing the stories of war and the places of peace that his exquisite country has to offer.
During the war, American Tim Clancy and Dutchman Thierry Joubert got to know each other in working together in the refugee centers. The two of them were equally inspired by the stunning landscapes of Bosnia’s Dinaric Alps. On a trip to the highland village of Lukomir in 1998, three years after the war had ended, Joubert began to think about starting a tourism organization in the mountains and highland villages; Clancy, it turned out, had been thinking along the same lines.
“To put it into perspective, nobody looked at Bosnia in those days as a tourism destination at all,” recalls Joubert. “Most of the World Bank-type funders were looking at it as a site for heavy industry. But we were saying Bosnia has more in terms of tourism than people realize.”
The other challenge, Joubert said, was to somehow help stem the flow of people leaving the rural areas for better opportunities, and to provide an alternative vision that would keep tat least some of them on the land and connected with their traditional culture. Most villagers made their living through subsistence farming and sheep herding. A steady stream of tourists would provide another way to supplement their income.
“The Bosnian population was like, ‘What? Why would we want to go there?’” Tourism or daytrips never existed before the war, he explained; most of the tourism was in the winter because of the Olympics, or there were mountaineering clubs that were limited in scope, and mass buses taking people to the Catholic pilgrimage site of Medjugorje.