Bosnia’s Beachhead – The Neum Corridor: A Not So Croatian Coastline

The morning I left Mostar the sea might as well have been a thousand kilometers away. The only water within view was the emerald flow of the Neretva River beneath the city’s famous 16th century Stari Most (Old Bridge). In Mostar, the Ottoman Empire seemed closer than any ocean. The landscape around the city was rocky and rugged. As the bus made its way out of the city and headed southward, the prospect of the Adriatic’s ebullient waters was still a long way off. The landscape of Herzegovina (the lesser known half of Bosnia and Herzegovina) was as harsh and unforgiving as the history that had set this land and its people on fire not so long ago. There were still visible signs of the Yugoslav Wars, such as the half-ruined house pockmarked with bullet holes that slumped sadly within sight of the highway. The structure was an unforgiving reminder that Bosnia and Herzegovina were still riddled with the residue of modern conflict. Soon though, Croatia was on the horizon in the form of a border crossing.

Running the Border - Highway to Neum

Running the Border – Highway to Neum (Credit: Anto Quahadi)

Stops for passport control at border crossings are still obligatory in the Balkans. While much of Europe has moved toward a world of porous borders, the Balkans are still a region where entry and exit is closely monitored. Only Slovenia has borders where one can whisk through at a hundred kilometers per hour. Unfortunately, this only applies to their borders with Austria and Italy. Meanwhile, Bosnians and Croats, Montenegrins and Macedonians. Serbs and Kosovars wait for permission in the form of a passport stamp to see them through to the other side. I received multiple reminders of the vagaries of borders and passport controls on the bus from Mostar to Dubrovnik. This was where borders had not yet collapsed. On the contrary, they seemed to close in from what seemed like all sides. It was also where I first came across a geographical and geopolitical anomaly, the coast of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bosnia By The Sea – Balkanized Borderland
When I think of Bosnia’s geography, rugged mountain landscapes, rocky canyons and crystalline rivers come to mind. One thing that doesn’t, the Adriatic Sea. In the Balkans, the Adriatic is a Croatian or Montenegrin or Albanian sea. There is an even a sliver of coastline abutting the Adriatic in Slovenia, but the idea of a huge blue body of water lapping up on a Bosnian shoreline seems unimaginable. And yet it exists today. I saw it for myself not long after the bus closed in on the Croatian coastline. Soon we were pulling up to another border crossing, something we had just done less than an hour before. I did not understand why we were having to do another passport check. This made little sense unless Croatia had some kind of internal border to deal with a security risk. Soon I discovered that we were leaving Croatia to enter Bosnia or more appropriately, Bosnia by the sea.

Balkanization - The Neum Corridor

Balkanization – The Neum Corridor (Credit: Tomobe03)

Studying a map of Bosnia closely, one notices that the country’s border begins to dip southwestward until it gets close to the coastline. Almost all of the border never quite dips down to the sea. The long, thin strip abutting the coastline is part of Croatia with the exception of a 20 kilometer section where Bosnia juts forth and touches the Adriatic. This area is known as the Neum Corridor. I figured that the corridor must have been the product of a stitch up following the Yugoslav Wars. Terms such as enclaves, exclaves, corridors and autonomous territories are still alive and well in the former Yugoslavia. Why should the Neum Corridor be any different? My assumption that the corridor was a modern concoction turned out to be completely wrong.

The genesis of the Neum Corridor goes all the way back to the late 17th century. The three entities responsible for it, the Republic of Ragusa (Dubrovnik), the Republic of Venice and Ottoman Empire all no longer exist, but their geo-political maneuverings over three hundred years ago still demarcate one small stretch of shoreline. Back then the Ragusans sided with the Ottomans in their war against the Venetians. Much to the Ragusans displeasure, the Ottomans lost and ended up relinquishing a great deal of their territory in the Balkans. This placed the Ragusans under mortal threat from their great rival. To protect themselves, the Ragusans ceded strips of land both north and south of their republic to the Ottomans. The strip to the north is now called the Neum Corridor and was passed down through the centuries from Ottomans to Habsburgs to Yugoslavs. Today it falls within the boundaries of Bosnia and Herzegovina, much to the chagrin of Croatia.

The Bosnian Coast - Town of Neum

The Bosnian Coast – Town of Neum

Border Control – Entry & Exit Strategies
The major issue with the corridor is that it acts as a barrier to commerce and tourist traffic traveling along Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. As I discovered, passing through the Neum corridor is not exactly easy. Travelers first exit Croatia, then enter and exit Bosnia before reentering Croatia all in the space of 20 kilometers. A stretch of highway that in normal circumstances would take no more than 15 minutes to traverse, can take hours to pass through during the peak tourist season. Prior to Croatia’s accession to the European Union in 2013, passing through the border was a much more relaxed affair. On many occasions, border officials would wave vehicles through without checking passports. That has changed now that Croatia aspires to dismantle border controls with fellow EU members in order to join the Schengen Area of passport free travel. The EU demands stricter control of external borders and Croatia has willingly complied.

Fortunately, I passed through Neum in early October at a time when the busy season was over. Traffic was light and the border guards were indifferent. The entire crossing took only a few minutes. It was more a novelty than a nuisance, one that may not last much longer for those who want to avoid the corridor. The difficulties of travel along this strange Bosnian beachhead are due to be alleviated in the future. Croatia has received funding from the EU to build a bridge across the corridor to avoid this small stretch of Bosnia. The Bosnians are none too happy about the Croatians trying bridge the divide. They vehemently oppose its construction. Bosnia believes the bridge would hinder the development of port facilities at Neum. The situation will undoubtedly linger for years. Whatever the future may hold for this strange stretch of land, the Neum Corridor is sure to make its presence felt. History always manages to get in the way when it comes to Bosnia and the Balkans.