Getting Away With Murder- A Tomb Without Tito: The House Of Flowers (Travels In Eastern Europe #36)

After the death of Josef Stalin in March of 1953 a few letters were discovered on his desk under a newspaper. One of these was from the leader of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito. The two men had fallen out in the late 1940’s when Tito decided that hardline Stalinism was not for Yugoslavia. This break with the Soviet Union was not without its dangers. Stalin was a man who brooked no opposition. He had shown time and again the ability to have his opponents murdered, even if they were living in far off exile on another continent. The assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico City is the most notable example of Stalin’s ferocious vindictiveness. In the case of Tito, Stalin planned to have him murdered just as he had done to thousands of others, but these attempts were unsuccessful. Even in Stalin’s last days before he suffered what would turn out to be a fatal stroke, he was still ordering attempts on Tito’s life. Why was Stalin so focused on killing Tito several years after the Yugoslav-Soviet split?

Strangely enough, Tito might actually have been one of the few people who actually scared Stalin. After all, Tito was one of the very few men to ever threaten Stalin and get away with it. The letter from Tito found on Stalin’s desk after his death stated quite clearly his intentions. “Stop sending assassins to murder me…if this doesn’t stop I will send a man to Moscow and there’ll be no need to send any more.” That is a remarkable statement. There is little doubt that Tito would have done his very best to carry out such a threat. He was no ordinary dictator. Tito was the very definition of a strongman. Not only did he issue a death threat to one of history’s most blood soaked dictators, but he also held Yugoslavia together for thirty-five years, a feat all the more impressive when one considers how the nation splintered into warring states a decade after he died. Tito was successful where others failed.

Josip Broz Tito

A different kind of dictator – Josip Broz Tito

In Life & Death – A Home For Tito
My visit to Belgrade offered me the opportunity to visit Tito’s tomb known as the House of Flowers (Kuća cveća). He was buried there after dying at the age of 87 while in Slovenia. It was a miracle he lasted as long as he did. The man known to adoring Yugoslavs as Marshal Tito had earned that title the hard way, by leading the partisan cause in World War II against three virulent enemies, the Nazis, fascist Croatian Ustashe and the Royalist Chetniks. At war’s end his Communist Partisans took power and managed to stay there, straddling the divide between East and West, communism and capitalism while playing each side off against the other. Tito emerged as a leader of international renown while spearheading the Non-Aligned Movement. For his efforts he would be revered, both at home and abroad. Following his death, Tito’s funeral drew an inordinately large gathering of international leaders and diplomats, making it quite possibly the largest state funeral in history.

They all came to pay their respects in the hills of Dedinje, an upscale area of Belgrade that Tito would call home in life and death. This was the area I visited on a gloomy March morning. Grey bellies of cloud hovered over the city, spitting random drops of rain. I disembarked at the bus stop closest to the tomb. The only other person who got off at this stop was a lady who looked to be heading home. In the 1980’s lines of people would queue to visit Tito’s tomb. The day I visited, no one else was around. The only people I saw on the property either worked at the ticket booth, mausoleum or museum. The Yugoslav Wars and the resulting disintegration of Yugoslavia had sent visitation plummeting. The tomb was closed for many years and when it reopened, Tito was no longer popular. The memory of the man was intertwined with the failure of Yugoslavia as a state, even if it that failure took place long after he died.

House of Flowers - The tomb of Josip Broz Tito

House of Flowers – The tomb of Josip Broz Tito (Credit: Clay Gilliland)

Reflections – Tito Is Yugoslavia, Yugoslavia Is Tito
An air of indifference hung heavy over the complex where his tomb lays. At one time it housed the Museum of Yugoslav History, displaying over 200,000 items in its collection. All the old exhibits were shelved after Yugoslavia collapsed. This part of the complex was now used as a gallery to display local artwork. The area around the tomb did have exhibitions that were linked to Tito. The most interesting of which was a collection of batons. These were part of a relay that would take place each year leading up to May 25th, Tito’s birthday. The batons were carried on mountaintops, swum across lakes and handled by parachutists jumping out of planes, among other displays of undying devotion to Marshal Tito. Tito was treated with the utmost reverence. In retrospect, these accolades were well deserved. He was the single irreplaceable figure in Yugoslavia. It is no exaggeration to say that without him the country would collapse, because that is precisely what happened.

Statue of Marshal Tito outside the House of Flowers

Statue of Marshal Tito outside the House of Flowers (Credit: Ferran Cornellà)

Visiting the tomb meant I was paying respect to both Tito and the ideal embodiment of Yugoslavia. Here was the final resting place of the man whose persona reflected a nation. I actually found the setting a beautiful place to mourn. Tito’s wish was to be buried here. For a man who was at best a benevolent dictator, at worst an iron fisted demagogue, the House of Flowers gives his legacy a veneer of refinement. The tomb is set in polished marble with lush plants around three sides of it. The setting is peaceful and stately, worthy of an exalted head of state.

It was a worthy place to bury a deeply flawed, but great man. Only later did I discover that Tito is not actually buried in the tomb. His remains lie in a nearby flower garden. Thus visitors pay their respects at a tomb without Tito, to a nation that no longer exists. It is a fitting final commentary on a man who spent his life holding Yugoslavia together and whose death ultimately led to its dissolution.



Balkan Waters – Meeting Point: The Danube & Sava Rivers At Belgrade (Travels In Eastern Europe #35)

My main reason for traveling to Belgrade was to check it off on a list of Eastern European capitals that I wanted to visit. By going to the city I would be able to call myself a traveler rather than a tourist. Allow me to explain. Very few people visiting Eastern Europe go south of Budapest along the Danube. Conversely tens of thousands of tourists ply the river’s waters on exorbitantly expensive cruises through Germany, Austria, southern Slovakia and northern Hungary, but they go no further than Budapest. I have met an overwhelming majority of older Americans who arrive or depart on such cruises from Budapest. I have yet to meet a single American who was following the Danube into Serbia.

I will often ask these people if they have plans to travel further down the river into the Balkans by boat. The answer is always no. I suspect that they believe the Yugoslav Wars have continued unabated since the Cold War ended. I assume that for most of these tourists a boat ride to Belgrade is a risk not worth taking. The Danube might as well end at Budapest rather than the Black Sea. The reality is that the river continues onward, following a course that stimulates little interest among holidaying westerners. Budapest or even Bratislava sounds more appealing than Belgrade. These people have little idea what they are missing out on. For that matter so do I. I have never taken a boat ride on the Danube, but I have stood upon its banks in Belgrade, pondering its place in the city.

The Sava and Danube confluence at dusk

The Sava and Danube confluence at dusk (Credit: Wikipedia)

Two Great Rivers Converge – The View From Kalmegdan
All this comes to mind as I recall looking down upon the waterfront of the Serbian capital from the Belgrade Fortress at Kalmegdan Park. The river was deserted, its surface a glassy smoothness. A few boats were moored along the riverbank, but it was early spring, long before any tourist voyages would embark upon the Danube’s murky waters. The river was wide and full. And how could it not be? The Danube swallows its largest tributary by volume within sight from the heights of Kalmegdan. The Sava River is not considered one of the great rivers of Europe, but it should be. The Sava is a Balkan river through and through. It flows through the capitals of the three primary nations that the former Yugoslavia.

The Sava winds its way through Ljubljana in Slovenia, Zagreb in Croatia and finally debouches into the Danube at Belgrade. The city’s location at the confluence of the Sava with the Danube has ensured Belgrade’s importance in the region’s history. The saying that “geography is destiny” certainly seems apropos in this case, but what looks obvious to the historically minded is often obscured in the present. Only a handful of people come and go along either of these rivers today. I would guess that 99% of people traveling to Belgrade arrive by plane, car or as I did train. The Danube and Sava Rivers in Belgrade today have rendered lonely forces of nature by modern technology. They are crossed by bridge and hardly given a second thought.

Satellite view of the Sava and Danube confluence with Great War Island pinpointed

Satellite view of the Sava and Danube confluence with Great War Island pinpointed (Credit: Duja)

Wedding Of The Waters – Two Rivers Become One
Walking down by the rivers just below Kalmegdan Park was a strange experience. It was incredibly quiet. I felt like I was on the edge of a nature preserve rather than two forces of nature, the Danube and Sava, which wash the banks of this bustling city. Perhaps I had come to the wrong part of the river in Belgrade. My visit was certainly in the wrong season. Early spring was obviously a slow season for river traffic since there was none. It felt as though I had the both rivers all to myself. Only a few scattered stragglers walked close to the banks. I have read that tens of thousands flock to the waterfront during the summer, as opposed to the handful that I saw on my visit. On the opposite side of the Danube, trees lined the banks. No sign of development or humanity was within sight, though behind me stood a city of over a million people. The Danube’s width and breadth was intimidating. There was little doubt that it was swift and powerful. The river might be silent at the moment, but it had the ability to carry away anyone or anything that did not respect a deceptively forceful current. It was hard to imagine the Danube this way judged by its current state, a thick ribbon of dark water slowly surging under a leaden sky. The river seemed totally remote from its surroundings.

Soon I found myself standing opposite of where the Sava and Danube mingled. For both waterways to converge at this point was an incredible act of hydrological travel. By the time it arrives at Belgrade the Danube has traveled over 1,500 kilometers and the Sava nearly a thousand. The waters wed within sight of the aptly named Great War Island. For it was on this piece of land, that one attack after another had been launched against the city. Depending on what source you care to reference, Belgrade has been conquered anywhere from twenty to forty times. Each time it was destroyed and rebuilt in a style that favored its conqueror. Belgrade’s reconstruction was done by the hands of man, while Great War Island had been restored by nature. It looked less like a place to mount an attack on the city and more like somewhere to watch birds. Time and technology had made martial usage of the island obsolete. A staging ground for centuries worth of war, was now peaceful and serene. Contrast and paradox define the stretches of riverfront that can be seen from Kalmegdan Park

Confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers as seen from Kalmegdan Park during 2014 floods

Confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers as seen from Kalmegdan Park during 2014 floods (Credit: Wikipedia)

Rivers Run Wild – Back To Nature
A couple of years after I walked that sleepy waterfront, the Danube and Sava once again became their true selves. In May 2014 deluges further upstream led to massive flooding. One Serbian minister called the inundation of cities, towns and farmland the greatest natural disaster in the nation’s history. The flooding caused an estimated one and a half billion Euros worth of damage in Serbia. Belgrade escaped the worst of the flooding, but the rising waters came frighteningly close to causing a cataclysm. It was a reminder that the rivers were still wild and always will be. They could never really be tamed. I did not see such wildness in the rivers when I visited. The Danube and Sava in Belgrade were a study in serenity the day I walked along their banks, but I sensed that eventually these rivers have to run wild and return to a state of nature.

The Other Side Of An Invisible Barrier – Conversations In Belgrade: Rebellion, Recklessness & A Refugee (Travels In Eastern Europe #34)

The memories of Belgrade that remain with me have nothing to do with the places I visited in the Serbian capital. This is not because the city was unmemorable. Such sites as the confluence of the Sava with the Danube River, the tomb of Yugoslav strongman Josip Broz Tito, Kalmegdan Fortress and St. Sava’s Cathedral were all worth seeing. It was just that the people I met were that much more memorable. Some of them were Serbs, several were not. Belgrade for me became a collection of fascinating personal interactions that I have carried with me ever since that visit.

My personal interactions with Serbs began at a grocery store just down the street from my accommodation. While I was picking up some provisions for the coming days, I noticed that a man stocking the shelves was wearing a Green Bay Packers shirt. I asked him if he spoke English. He replied in the affirmative. This began a conversation about his love of American football, specifically the Packers. He discussed at length the Packers’ past season. Our meeting went on for some time as he helped me find some groceries. I knew American football had been gaining in popularity around the world and Serbia has a reputation as a sports mad place, but a fanatical fan of the National Football League in Belgrade was a surprise. The reach of American culture, including sports, is hard to fathom until it confronts you in the dairy section of a Serbian grocery shop.

The War At Home – Seething With Resistance
My next extended interaction with a Serb came at Kalmegdan Fortress. A gentleman who looked to be in his thirties was working at the ticket selling counter. His English was impeccable. We started out discussing modern history, which brought us to the subject of Serbia’s relatively recent wars. I asked his opinion on the breakup of Yugoslavia. He began to speak with great passion. Serbia had been misunderstood. The Serbs were trying to save the South Slavic peoples from much worse. They had been wrongly cast as the aggressor. What had happened to Serbia was nothing short of a tragedy. It was a great nation that was misunderstood and deserved better. I sensed a fervent streak of unforgiving nationalistic sentiment. Until I was shocked by what he had to say about Slobodan Milosevic, the leader of Serbia during the Yugoslav Wars, who was eventually put on trial for war crimes. I expected a full throated defense of this demagogic nationalist.

Instead when I asked him what he thought of Milosevic, the man launched into an extended commentary of how he spent years protesting the idiocy of this pseudo-dictator who had nearly ruined Serbia. He finished up by saying how sad it was that nationalists in the post-Milsoevic era carried out symbolically foolish actions such as vandalizing a McDonald’s to protest capitalism and foreign intervention in Serbian affairs. After we finished talking he became completely calm and polite. I had scratched just beneath the surface with this Serb and discovered a complex nationalism. There was ferocity, but it was more a symptom of frustration. This was the upshot of losing wars as well as constituent parts of the nation. Yugoslavia was gone, Montenegro was independent and Kosovo was well on its way to statehood. I had the feeling that Serbs, like the one who stood before me, would never accept this situation. Here was a nation that even after being brought to its knees, was still seething with resistance. I found this quality admirable and frightening in unequal measure.

Belgrade - city of protests

Belgrade – city of protests (Credit: Geologicharka )

A Constant Instability – Serbian States Of Mind
My final day in Belgrade I was not due to leave the city until the evening. I spent the afternoon hanging out with the owner of my accommodation. There was another employee on duty, a young college age woman. I first asked the owner what he remembered about the NATO Bombing of Belgrade in 1999. At the time he had been a teenager. “Me and my friends had a blast. We got drunk every night, partying like crazy.” He said nothing about damage to the city or the fear engendered by bombs and missiles descending on his hometown. Instead the bombing sounded like a lark, a reason to binge drink. Maybe this was a coping mechanism or just youthful delinquency. From my few conversations with Serbs I sensed a reckless exuberance, the kind of people who would give the world a middle finger while laughing in the face of fear. An exaggerated assumption on my part perhaps, but there’s was an attitude informed by rebellion.

Earlier in my visit to Belgrade I had walked up on a large crowd involved in a protest outside parliament. Several of the protestors began to shout at me, but not in fury. They seemed to be upset that I had not joined them. I mentioned this to my host who said “those protests happen all the time, but nothing will change. Those people are wasting their time.” That might have been true, but I had a feeling that Serbia was the kind of place always on edge, where instability was a constant. The instability that marked the 1990’s in Serbia was not an anonymous faceless force that had been resigned to the past. Its ramifications were widespread. I found myself face to face with these consequences while talking with a young Serbian woman who was watching the front desk at my accommodation. While making conversation I asked her if she was from Belgrade. No she was not. She had been born in an ethnic Serbian area of Croatia, but as a little girl was forced to flee the war along with her family. As she put it, “The area was no longer safe. We had to leave.” Her family had relatives in Belgrade. This had brought them to the city and they stayed. Going home was impossible even after the fighting ceased.

Nothing Else To Say – An Invisible Barrier
The woman telling me this could have been mistaken for an American college student. She looked and acted perfectly pleasant. It was hard to imagine that as a child she had been a refugee. I knew the stories of inter-ethnic violence during the Yugoslav Wars. Women, even very young women whether Serb, Croatian or Bosniak had been raped by the tens of thousands. Others had managed to escape just in time. This woman had escaped such horrors, but just the idea was horrific. Some things are best not left to the imagination. My conversation with her trailed off, there was an invisible barrier not to be crossed. The Yugoslav Wars were no longer the preserve of journalistic accounts or history books. They were a kind young woman working the front desk, who as a child had escaped death or possibly even worse. That was the legacy of the Yugoslav Wars, there was nothing else to say.

Second Impressions – The Old Versus the New Belgrade: A Stranger Kind Of Trust (Travels In Eastern Europe #33)

It was on the outskirts of Belgrade that I was suddenly struck by a bout of inescapable fear. This sudden fright coincided with the appearance of those looming communist monsters, the concrete apartment blocks that signaled Novi Belgrade (New Belgrade). These architectural atrocities were my first impression of the Serbian capital. Yugoslavia, under the dictatorship of Josip Broz Tito, had supposedly suffered under a much milder and more sensible form of communism than the Soviet Union. That may have been true, but the soulless, mass architecture of that system was the same as what I had already witnessed to a greater or lesser extent ringing the cityscapes of Sofia, Bucharest and Budapest. These high rises were the physical embodiment of a movement from fields to factories, as rural peasants were transformed into an urban proletariat.

Novi Belgarde - Tito's towers

Novi Belgarde – Tito’s towers

Central Planning & No Planning – On The Outskirts
The soul of this soullessness had been forged in the fires of heavy industry. Where the high rises stood was little more than a marshy backwater up until the mid-20th century. Then in 1947 the banks above the Sava River were transformed into a massive construction site, giving rise to what might be termed Tito’s towers. In 1949 the writer Lawrence Durrell, who was posted to Belgrade on a diplomatic assignment, had this to say: “As for Communism…a short visit here is enough to make one decide that Capitalism is worth fighting for. Black as it may be, with all its bloodstains, it is less gloomy and arid and hopeless than this inert and ghastly police state.” Hopeless was an appropriate term for what I felt upon sighting the towering beasts of Brutalism.

The population of Novi Belgrade soared along with the concrete towers, to the point where over 200,000 Serbs now call Novi Belgrade home, many rather would not. I found the sight of the apartment blocks frightening in the extreme, looking like some macabre Lego configuration shrouded in a shadowy grey. From first impressions, Belgrade looked like Bucharest on Stalinist steroids. Adding to my horror was the sight of a large Roma shanty town, that looked as flimsy as the looming towers were solid. Detritus was scattered everywhere, smoke rose from above several of the corrugated concoctions. Trash was strewn in all directions. A third world had sprung up in the shadows of a supposedly brave new world. Central planning and no planning side by side, the contrast could not have been greater. It was a hysterical expression of apocalyptic utopianism.  Belgrade was unlike any place I had ever seen and I was only on its outskirts. A feeling of intense foreboding came over me.

An air of ambition - Belgrade Main railway station

An air of ambition – Belgrade Main railway station (Credit: Dekanski)

An Air Of Ambition – Entering Old Belgrade
Fortunately the Belgrade Main railway station was a fiesta of optimism in comparison to what I had just experienced. The building was one of those late 19th century architectural confections that evoked ambition and an air of royalty. It was built at the same time that Serbia was trying to find its way as an independent nation.  The first passengers to embark on a train from the station were quite appropriately the King and Queen of Serbia. The station had also been a stop on the Orient Express. I felt something magical still lived in this station. I was now entering the older, more traditional Belgrade that had aspired to be accepted as a European capital rather than a Balkan outpost of the Ottomans. There was still a hint of the exotic in the Cyrillic lettering that covered signage. There was no mistaking that I was in the East, but still in Europe, if only the forgotten fringes.  All aesthetics aside the goal was to find my accommodation. The plan was to go there by foot.

From the looks of the taxi drivers loitering outside the station my decision was sound. They were a motley crew of men who looked like they smoked for a living. I ignored their offers of a ride which would have surely turned rapacious in a matter of minutes. I began to walk away from the station, towards the Old Town (Stari Grad). It was not long before I was questioning my self-made directions. The signage in Cyrillic sent me into further confusion. Darkness was slowly beginning to fall upon the city. It was time to ask for help. The only people nearby were a group of high school aged guys smoking and laughing. As a foreigner setting foot in Belgrade for the first time, my choice for help was not exactly a wise one, but I was tired. Plus I felt that strange, magnetic allure of a potential threat.

Into Old Belgrade

Into Old Belgrade (Credit: Wikipedia)

Beyond All Expectation – Everything Is Illuminated
Rather than being repulsed by danger, I was attracted to it. My irrational fear of Serbia was about to be tested. I approached these young Serbs with an exaggerated confidence, trying to project a strong image. I said “excuse me, do you speak English?” I then pointed at my hand drawn directions. These young men instantly stopped their chatter, at first they looked shocked. Then one of them composed himself and said, “Yes.” The rest of the guys looked more at their friend than me. They seemed to revere his confidence in talking to a foreigner. He soon had me pointed in the right direction. I thanked him and smiled at the group. They returned the pleasantry. As I was walking off, I could not help but notice how the guy who helped me was now being lauded by his friends. My first conversation with a Serb in Serbia had gone rather well and why should it not have? My fear of Serbia now seemed rather ridiculous. All it took to banish fear and prejudice was a single experience. Here was one of those priceless gifts of travel, suddenly Belgrade felt inviting.

It was not long before I arrived at the check in for my accommodation. The host, a Serbian man in his 20’s who spoke excellent English, informed me that my room was at an apartment a short walk from where we initially met. I wondered just exactly what the place would look like. There were not many reviews on the Hostel World website for this host when I booked the accommodation, but the few ratings given were top notch. I was nervous though, what if the place was a dive or I was being led into some clever ruse. Trust is essential when traveling in foreign lands, but suspicion is natural. I was always taught not to trust strangers, but this trip had forced me to do just that. There was no other choice but to hope for the best.

We entered a multi-story building through a darkened doorway, this led to a staircase. In a few moments we were at another door. The host turned a key and proceeded to open the door. In a matter of seconds I walked into an immaculate room. There was new furniture, shiny floors and a large flat screen television. My bedroom was spacious, while the bathroom looked fit for a Hilton not a hostel. This was beyond all my expectations. The Serb asked me if I needed anything else, I just smiled and said “this will do.”

Tomb Of The Known – Sirmium: The Roman Empire & Emperors Buried Beneath Serbia (Travels In Eastern Europe #32)

When I think of the Roman Empire my thoughts usually turn to the eternal city of Rome and the splendid ruins found there or the many sites scattered across southern France where the magnificent Pont De Gard aqueduct, arena in Arles and theater in Orange stand as testament to the splendor of Pax Romana. What does not come to mind are the Balkans and the area which is now part of the Serbian nation. That was until I stumbled upon some fascinating information while reading a guidebook on a train trip to Belgrade. This was how I first learned about the city of Sremska Mitrovica.

I read with interest about its prominence in late antiquity. At that time it was known as Sirmium. The city had been one of the pivot points on which the empire turned away from the west and towards the east, while playing a role in one of the seminal events in Roman history, the Crisis of the Third Century. This was a series of unceasing civil wars during a fifty year period beginning in 235 AD. The crisis irreparably weakened the empire. Among the many problems which beset the Roman world during this violent period were several emperors who came from Sirmium and its surroundings. The city bred a martial ethos that dominated the empire during the crisis.

Ruins of Imperial Palace in Sirmium - in Sremska Mitrovica

Ruins of Imperial Palace in Sirmium – in Sremska Mitrovica (Credit: mediaportal vojovodina)

A Very Bad Fate – Chaos Rules Rome
Less than an hour’s drive west of Belgrade, Sremska Mitrovica is located on the left bank of the Sava River. Its situation along the river has made it a prime spot for human habitation over the last seven thousand years. The apex of its development came in the centuries following its conquest and incorporation into Ancient Rome in 14 BC. Sirmium eventually grew to become one of the bigger cities in the empire, with an estimated population of 100,000. Military expeditions by such famous emperors as Trajan and Marcus Aurelius were outfitted from the city. Aurelius also kept a residence there. The city was conveniently located close to the imperial frontiers along the Danube, a region where the Romans were engaged in near constant warfare against barbarian tribes.

By the 3rd century AD, power in the empire was gravitating eastwards with Sirmium at the crossroads of this movement. No fewer than ten Roman emperors were born in the city over a 150 year period beginning in 210 AD. The first five of these emperor’s reigns were short lived, reflecting the perpetual state of crisis which brought and then banished them from power. They were all military men who knew violence intimately. The first of these five emperors was Decius Traian (249 – 251) who along with his son and co-emperor Herennius Etruscus (251) died in a swamp, killed by Goths at the Battle of Abrittus in what is now Bulgaria. Decius became the first, but certainly not the last Roman Emperor to die in combat. Then there was Quintillus (270), who would end up in Italy where he was killed after a few months on the throne.

Scale model of ancient Sirmium

Scale model of ancient Sirmium (Credit: mediaportal vojvodina)

Short Lived – Life & Death At The Top
Two emperors from Sirmium managed to escape a violent death, Hostilian (251) and Claudius II (251). Unfortunately they fell, as thousands of others did, to the Plague of Cyprian, a lethal epidemic that was most likely smallpox. There were also a couple of emperors who were not born in the city, but claimed the imperial throne while there in 260, Ingenuus and Regalianus. The former committed suicide by drowning himself after being defeated in battle, while the latter was murdered by the same people who had put him in power a few months earlier. This was an age of chaos and crisis. It seems that there was something about connections with Sirmium that brought tough soldier emperors to very bad fates. Finally in 284 the crisis ended and Sirmium was well situated to grow once again.

Though Sirmium continued to produce emperors, including Maximianus Herculius (285-310) and Constantius II (337 – 361), the empire had been fundamentally transformed by fifty years of crisis. The economy was in tatters, as trade routes had been irreparably altered. Personal freedom was sacrificed for collective security. The empire was in decline, but Sirmium weathered the changes better than most cities. Sirmium gained exalted status as one of four imperial capitals in the latter part of the third century, at other times the city was a provincial capital and capital of a praetorian prefecture. When the empire turned away from paganism and towards Christianity, the city became an episcopate. It was not until 441 when the Huns arrived that the city fell out of Roman control, yet Barbarian tribes such as the Gepidae made Sirmium the center of their world as well. Only when it was taken in the late 6th century by Avars was ancient Sirmium a thing of the past. Fortunately much of the Roman city was left intact.

The ancient and the modern - Sirmium and Sremska Mitrovica

The ancient and the modern – Sirmium and Sremska Mitrovica (Credit: Wikipedia)

The Great Unseen – Sremska Mitrovica’s Buried Treasures
Fourteen hundred years later much of Sirmium still exists, but cannot be seen. It has been submerged beneath modern day Sremska Mitrovica. It would be one of the world’s premier archeological sites if only what lies beneath the current city could be unearthed. With the exception of such tantalizing remnants as the Emperor’s Palace very little excavation has taken place. During the 1970’s an American team of archeologists proposed that Sremska Mitrovica be relocated to an entirely new area in order for a thorough excavation to take place. This did not sit well with the citizens or the government of Yugoslavia. The proposal went nowhere.  A large scale excavation of Sirmium has yet to take place.

While Roman history enthusiasts may salivate at the thought of an eventual excavation there is little chance of that. The site that most would love to see is a fully intact Roman Hippodrome, the only one left in the world. The problem is that it lies directly beneath the town center. Due to its size, there is no way of excavating the site without altering the existing town center.  Thus, one of the great treasures of antiquity is likely to stay hidden under the sleepy streets of Sremska Mitrovica.

Dancing In The Shadow of Death – Acts Of Reckless Defiance: The Bombing Of Novi Sad (Travels In Eastern Europe #31)

For Americans the 1990’s were largely a decade of prosperity and carefree optimism. The dotcom boom sent the economy soaring, unemployment was low and incomes were rising. Terrorism was still on the periphery and the national mood was optimistic. The country was consumed by the internet, various Clinton administration scandals and the OJ Simpson murder trial saga. By and large the United States was at peace, except for involvement in a handful of military engagements, the most prominent of which was in the former Yugoslavia. As the decade wound down Serbian forces, at the behest of Slobodan Milosevic, interjected themselves into the conflict in Kosovo to ostensibly protect the province’s Serbian population against ethnic Albanian forces. This threatened another round of genocide such as had already occurred earlier in the Yugoslav wars. When Serb forces refused to obey a NATO order to leave Kosovo, the alliance led by the considerable firepower of the United States, conducted a series of military strikes against targets in Serbia. Many of these strikes hit the city of Novi Sad, which I was passing through on the train to Belgrade.

Liberty Bridge in Novi Sad destroyed during NATO air strikes in 1999

Liberty Bridge in Novi Sad destroyed during NATO air strikes in 1999 (Credit: Darko Dozet)

Prime Target – A City In The Crosshairs Of Conflict
My fear of traveling to Serbia had largely subsided after a couple of hours gliding across the Vojvodina region by train. The countryside looked much like that of the Great Hungarian Plain, endless fields of prime agricultural land. It was hard to imagine that an alliance led by my own country had ever dropped bombs on this land, which looked like a snapshot of serenity from the window of a train car. The hard truth was that this had indeed occurred and not that long ago. As the train arrived on the outskirts of Serbia’s second largest city, I was about to pass through what had been a prime target of the bombing.

If there was anywhere in Serbia that I should have worried about negative attitudes towards Americans than Novi Sad would have been that place. The city had suffered grave damage during the NATO bombings of 1999. This was sadly ironic since politically, Novi Sad did not support Milosevic, but instead was ruled at that time by the Democratic Opposition. Nonetheless, its role as the second largest city in the country, situated astride the Danube made it a prime target. Novi Sad was home to three bridges over the Danube, as well as various industrial facilities.

Bombing began on March 24th and would continue for the next two and a half months. In less than four weeks NATO’s missiles and cluster bombs managed to destroy all three of the city’s bridges that crossed the Danube. This would effectively blockade the river for the next four years, causing economic hardship both for Serbia as well as for NATO members upstream. One of the enduring images of the bombing was black smoke pouring into the sky. This resulted from multiple strikes against oil refineries located in the city. The pollutants that were released could be just as dangerous to civilians as any bomb. Breathing in such a large amount of carcinogens in so short a time, led to respiratory problems or worse. It was estimated that over 50,000 tons of refined oil went up in thick, toxic clouds of smoke.  The city’s electrical and water supplies were also knocked out. Novi Sad was on its knees by May.

Black smoke billows up from a refinery struck by the NATO bombing of Novi Sad in 1999

Black smoke billows up from a refinery struck by the NATO bombing of Novi Sad in 1999 (Credit: Darko Dozet)

The Dark Side Of Irony – A Twisted War
This being modern warfare, the strikes were also tinged with a dark irony, both during and after the bombing. By one estimate, the destruction of the oil refineries and other industrial targets actually led to less pollution. The old communist era refineries were so archaic that their destruction actually improved air quality. Another darkly ironic twist took place on the final day of bombing in June. More lives were lost on this day than any other. This was a bizarre coda to the seemingly endless Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s. It then took several years to replace two of the bridges over the Danube, the funding to reconstruct these bridges came from the European Union. Many of these same EU members were also part of NATO, effectively helping pay for the reconstruction of what they had previously destroyed. The bridge, which my train crossed the Danube on, was only temporary. A permanent replacement is still in the planning stages.

The scars of the bombing can be quantified in terms of physical damage, but the human toll is quite another matter. Precision strikes can limit collateral damage, but not entirely avoid it. Innocents were killed and wounded, some unwittingly used as human shields by the government. Others lived through a trauma they would never forget.  The sky looked very different after death and destruction had rained down from above. The NATO airstrikes brought the Milosevic regime to the point of collapse while saving the lives of countless Kosvars, both Albanian and Serb. Meanwhile, Novi Sad paid a heavy price since much of its population opposed the regime. It was unfair, but war is not about fairness. There was no escape for civilians. A sad reminder that one thing remains certain in war, that there will always be losers.

Crater from NATO missile strike between two apartment buildings and elementary school

Crater from NATO missile strike between two apartment buildings and elementary school (Credit: Darko Dozet)

Getting Bombed – Shaking Fists At An Empty Sky
And there will always be madmen and women who take on a different persona, transformed by war. One of the less reported aspects of the bombing concerned teenage Serbs. Rather than huddling in shelters, they spent the days drinking and partying. They hung out close to the Danube. When it was time for another round of bombing the police would usher them away.  It was an act of reckless defiance. Mortal threats did little to dissuade their behavior. There was something both insane and admirable about such conduct. These young Serbs had few defenses other than liquid courage. It was one way to fight back against the injustice of war. This confirmed what I had heard about Serbs, that they are a very tough people, who love to enjoy life. Here was the youth of a nation dancing in the shadow of death while shaking their fists at an empty sky. While black smoke billowed up and hundred foot flames licked the air, many of Novi Sad’s younger citizens threw caution to the infernal wind.  This was perhaps the most appropriate, rather than the safest, response to the grave injustice that fell upon that city by the Danube.

A Momentary Rapture – Subotica, Serbia:  Dreaming Of A Dreadful Curiosity (Travels In Eastern Europe #30)

If the train would have sat at the border crossing in Kelebija for another day, it would have hardly matter to me. I was in a state of euphoria. Just a few minutes earlier my passport had been stamped, I was now free to explore Serbia. I had crossed from suspect terrain, the netherworld of border crossing officialdom, to the land of possibility. For the next couple of hours I would feel as though the entire nation had opened before me. I was suddenly engaged in a wild thought experiment, imagining adventures and discoveries to come. My immediate goal was to arrive in Belgrade before nightfall, but that hardly mattered at the moment. My real point of arrival in Serbia came with clearing the border, now places such as Novi Sad and Nis – cities I was not planning to visit – were well within the realm of possibility. I did not really have the time to visit these places, but that hardly stopped me from dreaming of all the places I was capable of going in my momentary rapture.

Subotica Train Station

Subotica Train Station

Something In The Soil – Hidden Depths
The train made its first stop after border control at Subotica. I loved the town from the moment I first heard its name, which sounded eclectic to my ears. My visit lasted all of five minutes, just enough for the train to pick up passengers heading south to Novi Sad and Belgrade. The shortness of the stop made me long for more. Subotica has a long and very mixed up history, one of those places that is on the perpetual fringes of whatever empire or nation lays claim to it at the time. In the 20th century it was part of Austria-Hungary, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes which became Yugoslavia, then Hungary, followed once again by Yugoslavia and finally Serbia. For much of that time it was given a high degree of autonomy. It must be especially frustrating for its citizens to know that the city lies just outside the European Union, the Hungarian border a mere ten kilometers away. Subotica is a microcosm of the Vojvodina region of Serbia, which is home to 26 distinct ethnic groups.

One of the city’s most famous sons, the writer Danilo Kis, symbolizes its ethnic diversity. His father was Jewish, but magyarized the family’s last name in an attempt to avoid anti-Semitism. His mother hailed from Montenegro. Danilo was baptized as a Serbian Orthodox Christian. This helped him escape the deadly clutches of the Holocaust which consumed his father. He is now revered as one of Serbia’s 20th century literary titans, but his lineage shows that he was a little bit of many things, just like the region he first called home. The city has more Hungarians than Serbs and almost as many Bunjevci as Croats, though the latter two are often considered synonymous with one another. More of its citizens speak Serbian than Hungarian, but Catholics outnumber adherents of the Orthodox faith two to one. Subotica still looks as much to Hungary as it does to Serbia. Its history and culture are defined by the crazy, mixed up mélange of peoples that have called it home for centuries.

Map of Serbia -showing location of Vojvodina region

Map of Serbia -showing location of Vojvodina region

Land Of Deception –  A Multiplicity Of Diversity
Much of Eastern Europe was once like Subotica, with no ethnic group enjoying an outright majority. Two World Wars led the way for ethnic cleansing. Subotica was one of the few places left in Eastern Europe with such rich diversity. Prominent ethnic groups in the region, for instance the Bunjevci, were obscure to outsiders. The Bunjevci had roots in western Herzegovina then moved to Dalmatia and the Lika region of Croatia before arriving in the Vojvodina. Even the most educated and well-traveled Europeans know little about them. To call the Bunjevci obscure might have been an overstatement. Just trying to figure out their path to Vojvodina could make a scholars head spin. And yet they are only one of a multiplicity of groups found scattered across northern Serbia.

It was a pity I did not have time to explore Subotica and the surrounding region, it left me wanting more. Train travel has that effect on me. The pace of this train and multi-minute stops close to city and town centers offered tantalizing glimpses into places that I would otherwise never have known existed. Subotica is part of a long list of provincial cities that I have been allowed to catch fleeting glimpses of. They are soon gone, but never quite forgotten, places worth at least a memory and sometimes much more. The landscape of the Vojvodina, flat and pastoral, radiated outward in all directions as the train sped southward after leaving Subotica. Here was a land of deception. Many kilometers away to the east and west of where the train now traveled, this flatland was draining two of Europe’s great rivers, the Danube and Tisza, which converged in the region. Peering out the train window it was hard to imagine anything other than a mind numbing sameness of land and sky, the complete opposite of the Vojvodina’s diversity.

Vojvodina landscape

The rural landscape of Vojvodina

A Lack Of Courage & Commitment– On The Edge of the Unknown
My Lonely Planet Guide to the Western Balkans had nothing to say about this area outside of its cities. Thus when the train stopped in Vrbas, I had no foreknowledge to frame an understanding of this rather modest sized town (population 23,000). Such places suddenly appear in my travel journeys and fill me with a dreadful curiosity. I find myself asking what would happen if I were to get off the train at these provincial places. Where would I go in a town I knew nothing about? Would I find anyone who could speak English? What would happen to me? I was not likely to ever find out, but the idea was both intriguing and frightening. The same reservations would have informed 99% of Serbia for me, a land I knew little about. I had been elated upon arrival in the country, but now that I was free to travel almost anywhere in the country, a mental barrier kept me on the journey to Belgrade. Every place I passed through was worth a dream, a dream of all the things I could have done, but deep down I lacked the courage to commit myself to the unknown.

Fear Of Serbia – A Journey To The Other Side: Crossing Irrational Borders (Travels In Eastern Europe #29)

I was afraid of Serbia and that made me want to go there. A sense of danger has always held a strange attraction for me. The idea that something awful could happen can actually draw me to certain places. Serbia happened to be one of them. My fear was not really based upon experience, only imagination.  I only ever met a handful of Serbians in my entire life, they were all friendly. My fear stemmed from how I would be received upon entering the country. Though it had been a decade and a half since the United States military dropped bombs on Belgrade, I wondered if there was still some residual anger over American intervention into Balkan affairs.

I left Budapest on a morning train heading south to Serbia with a certain feeling of trepidation. I really did not fear for my personal safety. It was more a fear that I might run into difficulties at the border because I was an American. Of course, I was being irrational. I had already met an American on this trip who had been to Serbia and survived the experience.  He told me there was no problem crossing the border, but did mention the fact that he been detained on the Bosnian border. He was forced to spend the night in a holding cell at a border post after the guards had noticed his prescription bottle of Xanax. It was totally legal, but he thought they were looking for a bribe of some sort. He advised me that if I ever got detained to just keep saying call the American consulate. I kept that in mind as the train slowly made its way along the flat lands of southern Hungary.

Into the unknown - Hungary from the rails

Into the unknown – Hungary from the rails

The Familiar & The Foreign – Pass Through Places
I was nervous, but the tension heightened my awareness on what should have been an otherwise sleepy trip through a provincial hinterland. The train car was only about half full. I found myself studying passengers that were sitting nearby. A Roma couple sat in the aisle opposite me. The woman was young and not unattractive, she was also several months pregnant, judging by her bulging belly. Her male companion, a skinny man with a slender face, looked to be in his early 20’s. He opened up a paper bag, pulled out a huge loaf of bread along with a giant sausage. He then proceeded to devour it within a matter of minutes. This was an impressive feat, to the point that the woman burst out laughing while watching him ravenously finish off this impromptu meal.  After this I spent an inordinate amount of time studying them. They eyed me suspiciously, making comments to one another when looking my way.

I spent much of the trip aimlessly thumbing through my guidebook as the train slowly rattled along through a pastoral landscape. We rolled past towns and villages with the usual range of bizarre Hungarian place names such as Fulopszallas, Kiskoros and Kiskunhalas. The kind of places that are only known to travelers during the time it takes to pass through them. Even by the standards of Eastern European travel these places were remote. And yet in the most remote places something always seems familiar, whether it is people riding bicycles, villagers tending a backyard garden or children playing in the street. At the same time, there are constant reminders of the foreign such as sounds of a foreign tongue being spoken and unintelligible words on signage. This incongruity of the familiar with the foreign was disconcerting, adding to my apprehension.

Crossing Borders – The Way It Used To Be
It was an excruciatingly slow ride to the border. For no apparent reason, the train would halt amid a landscape of pancake flat fields, where black soil stretched in all directions. Nothing would happen for a few minutes then the train would start to slowly move once again. As we neared the border my pulse quickened. The closer we got, the more my heart pounded. I kept thinking that any minute we would be at the border. Anyone who does not think the European Union has transformed border crossings should measure the amount of time it takes to cross the border from one EU member to another as compared with crossing from an EU to a non-EU member. In the latter case, there is no welcome sign that you glide by at eighty kilometers per hour, instead there is a first stop for the exit process, in this case with Hungarian officials. This is usually quick and painless.

Then there is a crossing to the other side, where the way things used to be in Europe still holds true. In the case of Serbia, it meant we halted at border control and waited for officers to enter the train for passport checks. It is ironic that while I waited to enter Serbia, I was already in Serbia. If I was detained and not allowed to enter Serbia, I would be held in Serbia. Understand that? Some would say that border control lies in a geo-political netherworld, a land of ambiguity. That is true enough, but no matter what officialdom says when you arrive at a nation’s point of entry, you are in that nation, subject to its laws whether or not you agree with them.

Stamp of approval

Stamp of approval (Credit: Jon Rawlinson)

Welcome Without A Smile – Crossing Over
Sitting on that train at the extreme northern tip of Serbia, I knew that my immediate future lay in the hands of people I had never met, who spoke a language I could not possibly comprehend, whose culture was foreign to my own. And something told me that there was no place I would rather be. The moment when the compartment door opened and an accented cry of “passport control” echoed forth I felt a rush of adrenaline. The dull thud of boots foretold the border official to come. He was stocky with a hard look on his face, serious and proper. He took my passport, turned it to the page with my photo and essential information. He eyed me for just a moment then flipped through the passport until he found a blank page. He took his stamp and punched it methodically, handed the passport back to me and said, “Welcome To Serbia.” He did it all without the hint of a smile.

A Present Less Perilous – The Danube Defeated: Walking Over Water On The Chain Bridge (Travels In Eastern Europe #28)

An astonishing example of how much the development of European civilization was setback by the fall of the Roman Empire occurred to me while researching the bridging of the Danube River in Budapest. The Romans built wooden bridges to cross the Danube. These would have been located at or near the city of Aquincum which was located where the district of Obuda is today, but from the time when barbarian tribes took Aquincum up until the mid-19th century, the Danube in this area was without a permanent bridge, a span of some 1,400 years.  Then in the 1840’s construction of the Chain Bridge (Szechenyi Lanchid) took place. The importance of its construction can hardly be overstated. The bridge connected Buda and Pest bringing these two small cities that much closer to what was soon to become one of Europe’s great metropolises. It also signaled the onset of the industrial age in Hungary. In the half century after the bridge was completed in 1849, the city’s population exploded. Today the bridge is a symbol of both the city and of the Hungarian nation. As I discovered on my first trip to Budapest a walk across the bridge is deceptively easy, so much so that it made me overlook just what an accomplishment it was to finally bridge the Danube at Budapest.

The Chain Bridge across the Danube in Budapest

The Chain Bridge across the Danube in Budapest (Credit: Milan Nykodym)

Troublesome Passage – Faint Of Heart
The Chain Bridge stretches for exactly 369 meters (1,211 feet). It took me less than five minutes to walk across it. That includes time for stopping to take pictures. The Danube flowed smooth and quiet below the wrought iron and stone structure on that early spring day. That walk across the bridge was nothing more than a leisurely stroll, unlike the way it was before its completion in 1849. Back then getting across the Danube was much more difficult and dangerous. The man that the bridge is named for, Istvan Szechenyi, knew this better than anyone. In 1820, Szechenyi was trying to cross the Danube by ferry while traveling to his father’s funeral. The weather was terrible, causing the river to be so rough that it could not be crossed. For over a week Szechenyi waited, finally on the eighth day he was able to cross. The memory of this troublesome passage stayed with Szechenyi. He would be the major force that would eventually push for the bridge to be constructed.

Prior to the construction of the Chain Bridge, crossing the Danube was a perilous experience. There were three main options depending on the time of year, ferries, a boat/plank bridge or walking across the frozen river in winter. I have tried to imagine what it would have been like if I had to cross from Pest to Buda in the early 19th century. Ferries sound like the most promising option, but I could not imagine placing myself at the mercy of an unlicensed ferry operator to get me across the 500 meter (1,640 feet) wide roiling waters of the untamed Danube. Add in the fact that I likely would not have been able to swim. Even if I could swim, would I really stand the chance of swimming to safety in the event of an accident? Just the thought of this made me shutter with fear. The boat/plank bridge would have been another option. This was a sort of archaic pontoon bridge that consisted of small boats tied together with planks laid over the top of them. This might have been an appealing alternative, but in rough weather it would have been a nightmare both to cross and keep functional. Incredibly, horse drawn carriages were known to have used this to cross. I tried to imagine myself inside a carriage trying to stay upright as it ambled over the bridge, not for the faint of heart.

Connectivity - aerial photograph of Budapest with the Chain Bridge in the lower portion of photo

Connectivity – aerial photograph of Budapest with the Chain Bridge in the lower portion of photo (Credit: Civertan)

On Thin Ice – The Weight Of History
In the winter there was always the option of walking across the ice covered river. This could only take place in the coldest months, meaning December, January and February. I would not have wanted to try this any other time of year, for that matter I found the idea of this option pretty dubious no matter how cold the weather. The slightest thaw would have meant the possibility of crashing through the ice to an almost certain death. I imagined mustering the courage to cross only after watching others do so first. Then again the ice might have become much less stable from the constant foot traffic. In truth, prior to the Chain Bridge there were hardly any good options for getting across the Danube. The river which is now seen as so enchantingly beautiful was for many centuries a menacing obstacle to commerce and connectivity. This is lost on almost everyone who walks across the bridge today. It certainly was lost on me until I stopped to really think about it.

The problem with stopping on the Chain Bridge is that there are so many people walking across it at any one time. It is the main funnel for tourists walking back and forth between the two sides of Budapest. The bridge’s carrying capacity cannot be measured by tonnage, because it also carries the weight of history. Budapest would not have become the city it is today without the vision of Istvan Szechenyi. He was a tireless reformer, who was the main figure in the taming of the Danube to develop river commerce. This was one of many economic development projects that he led. Much of his vision had been informed by visits to Great Britain where he witnessed the benefits of the industrial revolution. He brought back ideas that would help bring Hungary and Budapest into the age of industry.  Along those same lines he commissioned an Englishman, William Tierney Clark, to design the Chain Bridge while Scotsman Adam Clark would oversee the project. It took nearly a decade from inception to completion for the bridge to be built. The bridge narrowly avoided destruction at the hands of the Austrians during the Hungarian revolution in 1849.

Bridging the divide - The Chain Bridge looking towards Buda

Bridging the divide – The Chain Bridge looking towards Buda (Credit: János Ecsedy)

A Beautiful Marriage – Buda & Pest
When the Chain Bridge was finished Buda and Pest was physically and symbolically connected. The opening of the bridge can be marked as the true beginning of their convergence. It was the beginning of a beautiful marriage that continues up to this day. Beautiful and elegant like the bridge that brought the two sides together. So elegant in fact, that when I first walked across the bridge I barely noticed the river flowing beneath it and forgot just how dangerous the Danube used to be.

Exit Wounds – The Paradox Of Peace: Sarajevo’s World War I

It is one of the great ironies of history that Sarajevo, the city where World War I ignited, was untouched by military violence during the war. This is both incredible and understandable. Incredible from the standpoint that Sarajevo was a hotbed of ethnic tension which exploded in the immediate aftermath of the assassination. Violence flared with the targeting of ethnic Serbians and their property, but this was civilian rather than military inspired violence. The shots that Gavrilo Princip fired to murder Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie on June 28, 1914 were among the first and last to echo through the streets of the city during the next four and a half years.

Since the assassination triggered the war, rather than being a part of it, it might even be said that no shots were fired in Sarajevo during the conflict, at least not as part of a skirmish or battle. The lack of military operations in or around Sarajevo during the war is understandable since Bosnia-Herzegovina was on the war’s periphery throughout the conflict. That does not mean Bosnians came through the war unscathed. On the contrary, there was privation and loss felt on a personal level. The citizens of this multi-ethnic city might not have been dodging bullets in the streets. Nonetheless, they were deeply affected by the war.

Sarajevo - Paradox of peace

Sarajevo – Paradox of peace

Mob Mentality – Professions Of Loyalty
One of the strangest parallels regarding Sarajevo and the assassination is that only two people lost their lives in the post-assassination rioting. That is the same as the royal couple murdered by Gavrilo Princip. This is rather remarkable because anti-Serb demonstrations and riots broke out in the hours following the assassination. On that Sunday evening, less than twelve hours after the Archduke was murdered a large crowd assembled outside the Hotel Europa. They began to toss stones at what had been a meeting place for many Bosnian Serb politicians. A handful of troops finally arrived on horseback and dispersed the crowd. The next morning a demonstration was held where Croat and Muslim politicians gave speeches denouncing the assassination and professing loyalty to the empire. The area was festooned with black flags and the Austro-Hungarian anthem was sung. These speeches served to whip up emotion among the crowd.

When the rally ended, many of the participants joined gangs that vandalized Serb-owned businesses and homes. These gangs stoned a Serbian Orthodox Church and the nearby Metropolitan’s residence. They proceeded to ransack a Serbian Orthodox school while continuing to bust windows and pilfer goods from Serb-owned shops. Other belongings from businesses and homes were stolen, flung out into the street or destroyed. Some Sarajevans were seen cheering from the windows of their apartment buildings while the riots were in progress. Then two ethnic Serbs were killed by rioters. Only through the intervention of Imperial troops did the looting finally subside.

Remnants of a Serbian tailors shop strewn on the street in Sarajevo

Remnants of a Serbian tailors shop strewn on the street in Sarajevo

Anything But Normal – The Home Front As A War Front
During the First World War, Bosnia-Herzegovina continued to be under the control of Austria-Hungary. As such its men were pressed into service just like millions of others in the empire. Men in Sarajevo volunteered or were drafted into the Imperial armed forces. They were sent far away from their homes to fight in lands that most knew nothing about. Sarajevans found themselves on either side of the conflict. Many Bosnian Serbs sided with their ethnic brethren in Serbia while others fought for Austria-Hungary. The ethnic mosaic of Sarajevo, like that of Bosnia-Herzegovina led to complicated loyalties. The home front was repeatedly touched by the tragedy of war. By one count, ten percent of all Bosnian men were lost in the war. Many wives in Sarajevo suddenly became widows, fathers and mothers lost sons. The battlefront may have been far off in a geographical sense, but mentally it weighed on the minds of Sarajevans. The closest that Sarajevo ever came to being touched by military operations during the war was in the latter part of 1915. Troops from Montenegro threatened to overrun the city. In response, the authorities evacuated part of the city. When the threat subsided, citizens were allowed to return home. Yet life was anything but normal during the war.

Sarajevans were subject to a war tax, an attempt to help alleviate the increasing cost of the war. Rationing went into effect less than a year into the war and continued throughout. Acquiring life’s basic necessities became increasingly difficult. There was little opportunity to have a say in these strictures. Government as it existed before the war had ceased to exist. Sarajevo was governed by a trustee appointed by Imperial authorities. Rule was by decree rather than representative institutions. Freedom of speech was proscribed. Suspicions of anti-government elements were rife. Politics no longer accommodated the people, only the state. City life was slowly transformed by the war, but the biggest change would come at the end of the conflict. By the autumn of 1918, the worldwide conflagration that had started four years before on a Sarajevo street corner had led to a political transformation in the affairs of all South Slavic peoples.

Destruction outside the Hotel Evropa - the day after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Destruction outside the Hotel Evropa – the day after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

With Or Without You – Sarajevo & The War
On the first day of December 1918, less than a month after the Great War ended, the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was proclaimed by Prince Regent Alexander of Serbia. Eventually this state would come to be called Yugoslavia. It is telling that Bosnians were not mentioned in the first iteration of the state’s name. Bosnia-Herzegovina was absorbed to the point of vanishing by the new polity. Sarajevo’s fortunes declined in unison with the province it had once helped govern. Institutions of government were doled out to the cities that were hubs for the largest ethnic groups, Belgrade for Serbs, Zagreb for Croats and Ljubljana for Slovenes.

The days of Austro-Hungarian largesse in building the city up as its Balkan showpiece were long gone. Austria-Hungary had been swept away by the war. Sarajevo had provided the trigger that started that process. Without the Archduke’s assassination in Sarajevo the First World War might not have happened, but no can know for sure. What is certain is that Sarajevo and the war became inextricably linked, not with military operations, but tied in with an event that led the world to explode.