Travel Journals

Ghosts of the Dead, Dreams of the Living

I watched my second full moonrise in Croatia over the old walled city of Dubrovnik last week and realized that I had been in the Balkans more than a month...and that this part of my journey was really ending.

After several weeks visiting Croatian islands and national parks I headed into Bosnia and Herzegovina to visit Mostar and Sarajevo and to see and learn more about the tragedy and losses that have befallen there. The drive through the Bosnian landscape took my breath away with its green rivers, lush forests, and rugged mountains. Despite arriving in Mostar to the obvious devastation of the shelling and destruction that took place there in the 1990s, there were still some beautiful tree-lined streets and lots of young people sitting outside in cafes. The energy felt palpable, as if there is great drive to put life back together again.

I stood on the famous bridge that has since been rebuilt (one of many) after it was destroyed by bombing and then spent time in a war photo exhibit that left tears in my eyes and a clutch at my heart for several days. Outside, vendors hawked their Ottoman-inspired wares: carpets, silver tea sets, evil eyes, copper plates, etc. but I couldn’t engage too much, and after exploring more of the town, including a mosque, I left for Sarajevo.

The Olympics in 1984 was one of the first that I remember well, and less than 10 years later Sarajevo suffered a 4-year siege of bombs and destruction. Concentration camps inflicted unspeakable horrors, the beautiful library was burned along with 2 million books, and the Bosnians were on their way to extinction by Serb forces intent on wiping out an entire group of people while the world stood by and watched.

Two brothers named Mirza and Saed who lived through the siege with their parents and took me on a walking and driving tour around Sarajevo told me about the daily trips for dirty water, the constant bombing, lack of food and electricity, the corruption within the international aid circles, and death which became more commonplace than life.

We walked through the old Ottoman part of the city where each street was originally designated for leather workers, silversmiths, textiles, etc. and then on through the area that took on an Austrian feel and became much more European. I was shown museums, sniper nests, the remaining ancient churches, synagogues and mosques, the hotel where journalists stayed, the tunnel that Bosnian forces dug out in 4 months in sheer desperation to run supplies and ammunition and wounded in and out of the city, and a panoramic view from high above Sarajevo that showed the many, many cemeteries and view over the hills and tenements. Three wars in a hundred years is a lot for any country to withstand.

I’ve talked with both Serbs and Croatians on this journey and heard so many stories about different lives and circumstances. I can only listen and recognize both the pain and the hope for times and places that sustain new ways of thinking and the promise of peace.

After a couple of days I eventually made my way back to Dubrovnik and wrapped up my time there trying to absorb the last month. I’m glad I spent some sea and sun time in the beginning so that I had a bit of cushion to the sadness. Ironically, I walked through a war photo gallery in Dubrovnik and an exhibit by Canadian/Croatian photographer Lana Slezic who spent 2 years in Afghanistan photographing women. There was a photo of young Gulsoma, the girl I met and felt so passionate about helping. Amazing what connections there are in the world!

My heart is full as I enter into month 6 of this journey. I’ve transited through the UK and am relieved to be out of there (all flights were cancelled out of Heathrow after I left due to a suspicious package) and I’m now back on American soil, briefly, for the Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease conference in Washington DC and some emotional recharging with my family.

Perhaps I should try to write a bit more often so that my messages aren’t so chock full; it’s hard to adequately convey so much...

A final thought:

“He who builds a bridge joins two worlds.
He who pulls it down destroys both of them.”

-Husein Basic, When the Lords Houses Were Burning

Love and peace...