I’d just graduated from college at the beginning of the 90’s, so world events were that paradoxical blend of singular crystalline comprehension of theory and principle alongside lazy distracted total ignorance that one brandishes as a superlative when one is in one’s early 20s. I was aware of the civil war in then-Yugoslavia, and through layers of abstraction could make legible the locations and vectors of conflict. But there was exactly no chance of my being responsible enough to learn anything substantive about it.
Assemble bike at the airport and ride along the pleasant bike lanes into the center of town, all of these dots of history on my agenda: The bridge near where Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the ’84 Winter Olympics, the Serb bombing and sniper campaign from the surrounding ridges, the Dayton Accords. All of these Sarajevos as well as the living vibrant city that it is, a day here before setting off.
The ride onto a zig zag northward course begins proper with the cable car trip up to the Olympic site, then the requisite descent on the graffiti bobsled run, then into the countryside. We’ll link spomeniks while harassed by sheets of rain that turn the track into mud and leave us shivering wrapped in grey. Unphotographed moments that have now only retrospexistence, which can sometimes be truer. We wave, we nod and share flickers of empathy under cafe awnings in towns, but being bundled is an isolation and involution that we have trouble escaping and that leaves Bosnia quieter to us than it otherwise might have been.
Thanks to Jack’s decent German, we chat at length to a builder in his front yard. About our age, he explains that he fled Bosnia to live as a refugee in Munich when the war started, always with the intention of returning home. He laments how his town still hasn’t recovered, he gestures at the unfinished buildings alongside what are to our eyes handsomely constructed ones. Says that the country is like that, proud confident newness against a canvass of never-returned-to shells and hulks. He’s jocular pessimism.
Up into elevations, stony steep ascents. It was impossible to tell in advance what sort of rhythm the route would achieve. From satellite imagery I could see that sometimes there was rolling pastureland, sometime remote ridges which in the event would feel like having passed through a portal with stillness and absence on the other side. The landscape seems as if it has forgiven time, but that is less clear from the people.
Late on day two we won’t resist the mountain refuge that we find open, unrolling our quilts and shifting them about to avoid the ceiling drip. That was a night of shivering and little sleep, but with our eyes closed something dreamlike and an embrace to hear the sleet striking the panes, sometimes hard, sometimes just a ticktick tick.
We had read that there remain landmines in the area around Novi Travnik, so stayed on the gravel farm path to the blocks, marvelling at the forms. Descending back down, we are waved over to share rakia and cheer, through the limited ways for us to communicate trading mimes of our journey and he offers shaking head tales of a past with pain but also with humanity and place. The alcohol goes down with a fruity heat, clarity in the bottle, clarity in the kindness.
Reading the names of the plaques, doing the math on the age of those killed in the WWII conflict. Not an abstract thousand name tablet of distant soldiers, but the 41 people killed in this very village. They’re inscribed close, the unity thereby implied is a sliver of an allegation of a broader durable unity against fascism. But it exploded fifty years later, our fragments of this place collecting in the feeling of the collecting that we know everyone here to have.