Oh sweet torture it is to know that you have a holiday booked just twelve days hence and yet there is no let up in the days beforehand. There is a distance to walk and walk it you must, because to stay still does not make progress and without progress there will be no journey at all.
So it felt when I left Sarajevo, newly embarked on the Via Dinarica Green trail, which promised to be a lower level route than the White mountain trail I’d left behind. I’d slept an entire day in Sarajevo, exhausted from the mountains. This wasn’t a sustainable route for me, plus it went west towards Mostar and lasted only 126 miles before crossing the border with Croatia. I chose the Green route as a way to meander further through Bosnia, first taking a direction north east and then winding my way on a curving route north west through the centre of the country, eventually to leave it in the far north west at Bihac, 410 miles on.
It is impossible to visit Sarajevo and ignore the bullet holes. They spatter buildings like thrown paint. Newer buildings have the traces wiped away and it’s a stark contrast to come upon a residential tower block, of the many that this city consists of, and realise that every building took fire, every building. The hills are in view at every intersection, in every gap between buildings, the hills from where this city was besieged. As people wait to cross the road by the post office, I think of the video footage I’ve seen, of people trying to cross the city for water or food while under the constant threat of snipers, peering around corners as they plucked up the courage to cross the open spaces, old women shuffle trotting across the road as quickly as their hips would let them. There are blast marks of mortars on the pavements, becoming slowly blurred by the repeated pass of feet.
That evening I found a hunting lodge. I’d climbed up out of the city, past the cemeteries which forest the north eastern hillside with thousands of white gravestones, and further beyond the ends of the suburbs and into the beginnings of forest. I couldn’t stay there, it was only open on weekends, said the old owner in a creaky voice, as he made me a mug of sweet fruit tea. He had a few friends come in and join him, pensioners all, with the cameraderie of old friends. One of them groaned in pain as he got up, holding his knee which made an unexpected grating noise. I knocked on the table to show that I understood it was fake. Yes, he said, and mimed a machine gun to show me how he’d lost it.
I’d told a girl I met in Sarajevo how shocking it was to see the traces of the siege. “When new buildings are put up, they get grafittied to say where are the bullet holes” she replied. Which wasn’t an answer to my upset, (which rightly doesn’t need answering) but showed me something about my naivety of the effect of a beseiged experience. Bullet holes can be mended, missing legs cannot, and Sarajevo remains a visible scar of the war history that all these people hold within them.
Listless I felt, as I left Sarajevo, stopping in the final cafe before I turned upwards into stone steps that climbed between the closely packed houses of the suburbs, red tiles and cats prowling.
I obsessively checked my route on my phone, working out how many miles left before I reached the road near Zenica, where I could walk down into the town and reach the apartment I’d already booked to start on Sunday, twelve days hence. It was 140 miles away. Twelve days, with a rest day in there somewhere. Almost 13 miles a day, perfectly doable.
Yet somehow it never was. I consistently struggled for the entire time. The walking was never smooth and unruffled. Storm clouds glowered, mud held me, tarmac ached and hills were an endless clamber.
People were the bright points in my forested gloom, people and the forest itself which is an endless source of beauty. The sudden rustle of wind in beech leaves, the moss patches, the unfurling mushrooms, the trees in their stately silence.
There were sunny days and there were looming clouds. Autumn is the time of cloud inversions and there are plenty of opportunities in Bosnia, the country of constant slopes. The day after I left Sarajevo, after I’d climbed into the mountains surrounding the city, I turned back to a sea of white covering the valleys, at a full three points of the compass. That’s Sarajevo under there, I thought, they’re looking at the sky and thinking what a grey day it is, as I continued away, sweating my way along a dirt track, squinting in the sunshine.
That day forecast storms, rain and thunder in the late afternoon. If I could make it to Olovo I could get into a hotel. Most of the day was a pleasant walk in forests and on gentle hills, just the final five miles brought me alongside a busy road, the main route between Sarajevo and Tuzla. I was tired and clouds were gathering behind me. I received a boost from a group of men sitting outside a wooden shack at the side of the road. I’d stopped for a coffee just half a mile earlier, in a bland unfriendly restaurant, where people turned to stare at me as I walked in. This was different, they called to me, gestured me over, asked me questions. I sat and relaxed for a while, smiled at their jokes, politely fended away the inevitable coupling off with the single guy of the group. Eventually came the question – Where’s your money come from? It’s been coming since Serbia and it’s not rude when you consider that most people are not far away from hand to mouth living and cannot conceive of how I could take two years away from the struggle of real life to travel and enjoy myself. I don’t have the language to tell them about Patreon, about how I put writing on the internet for a small group of people and they give me money to see it, to support me. I’m ashamed of that anyway, in front of these people who struggle on low wages, on veteran’s pensions. A normal basic wage in Bosnia, for a cafe or a supermarket worker is 250 pounds a month, the average wage is 375. I’m ashamed of my privilege, my riches. Despite the fact that I have earnt below below annual minimum wage for the last decade, that I own no property, vehicles, furniture or white goods, I still have more opportunity than them, my homelife is still filled with more luxury. I talk about the other half of my income, how I worked in a bakery, lived in a van and saved every possible penny to make this journey real. It’s the relatable story I feel more comfortable telling, and it’s easier to explain in a second language than seemingly magic money from the internet.
The Pepsi they gave me fired me up for the last few miles down into the town, a place where two rivers meet, surrounded by high hills. The thunder chased me, fine flecks of rain becoming a steady patter and I arrived in Olovo soaking wet to find that there was not a single hotel bed available. I sat in a petrol station cafe as darkness fell and, in desperation, paid a huge amount for an Airbnb bed. This was one of only two towns on my route and I’d decided to take a hotel in each, hopefully meaning I could walk every day and avoid a day off.
The next day I was slow, again, a long meal of two coffees, čevapi (fingers of grilled mince served with bread and raw onion), cabbage salad and icecream then a huge climb up a steep hill immediately afterwards. There was a storm forecast again and I wondered, as I walked along the flat ridge, whether I should camp early before the long descent to the road, where there’d be fewer flat places to shelter. Here presented a barn, it was locked but had an overhanging top storey, wide enough to fit a tent under. It was only 3.30pm but as I sat there, thunder rumbled in the distance and I watched the faraway hills become invisible in a gauze of white rain. A storm was coming and it was the right decision to stop. A vehicle pulled up, on the grassy track outside the fence. Of course a person would come, to this isolated barn, this particular field.
I said hello, embarrassed to be caught there but the man didn’t care at all.
‘Sestra moya!’ he exclaimed, when he saw my plans to camp in the rain, ‘my sister!’ and I knew I was safe with him.
We sat for a while under the barn roof as he called the sheep over from the far side of the field. Thunder came more loudly and rain began to fall. He said he had a house in the village that he didn’t sleep in, that I could stay there if I liked, that he’d go back to his home in the town.
At first I declined, ever uncertain of interactions with solo men, not wanting to retrace my steps, thinking the tent would be fine anyway. But as the rain came more heavily still, as the thunder crashed more loudly, I accepted. It started to hail as I was packing my stuff away, Sabit still calling for his sheep who weren’t listening to him any more, thumb sized pieces of ice were falling from the sky. The rain and hail became a torrent and we were soaked through as we ran for the jeep. The tracks were rushing streams now, the sheep ran and clustered under bushes, the hail assaulted the roof as the vehicle swayed along the rough track. Thunder right above us and we waited in the house for an hour, marvelling at the endless rain. “Opresno vreme” said Sabit, “dangerous time”. We talked, to pass the time, about his wife and children, how they’d fled to safety in Germany when war broke out, how he’d stayed to fight. His house was damaged, he’d rebuilt it himself. The frontier was not far from here, he said. Were there Serbs in this village? I asked. Yes, it was a mixed village, now only Muslims, he said. There were three Serb houses near this one. And where are they now? Republica Srpska he said, indistinctly. They were gone, really that’s all he knew. Multi ethnic villages made mono, all over the country. Now his daughter remains abroad, his son works in Sarajevo and his wife goes regularly to Germany for work, three months there and three months here. It’s how people survive. He showed me pictures of his granddaughter, growing up in France, obviously a favourite. The neighbours popped in, gawking nervously, and we drank coffee, made in a džezva with the grounds left in, making for a fine mud at the bottom of each small cup that I’ve learnt to be careful of gulping. Sugar lumps for us to dip into the coffee and bite. I would leave the key with them the next day.
It was a phenomenally lucky meeting, to get me out of that colossal storm, the hail could well have ripped my tent apart. The next day it was as if nothing had happened, the rushing brown water that covered the roads had disappeared. Only a cloud inversion, that I descended into as I walked down to the valley bottom again, wisps reaching out to me as if I walked into a witches cauldron.
One storm remnant was wet earth though, and I realised that my summer sandals were no longer viable footwear as I squelched through the forest, following earthen tracks that had been turned to filthy trenches by the pass of heavy machinery as it dragged felled trunks down to within reach of lorries. Horses were used here too, in the steeper places and I peered in at the stables I found, deep in the forest, marvelling at the broad shanks and shoulders.
Bosnia is more than 40% forest and logging operations are a constant companion here, huge lorries shaking their way delicately along thin tracks as I shrink to the bushes, saluting the driver to make sure he sees me. Trees with decades of thickness are removed daily and I wonder how sustainable the operations are.
The forests are where the mines are most likely to be; the open lands are the safe places, where tractors have pressed, where grass has been cut, where cows have grazed and laid down to chew the cud in the 24 years since enemies dug bundles of death into the ground. It’s undisturbed ground, where trees grow thick and men could creep to ambush positions, that still contain aggression. I see signs hanging in the trees, skull and crossbones on a red background. In some places I see tape to screen off specific small areas, right next to the marks of tyres where the vehicles tread and the forestry men come to cut – the men of the mine laying generation and their sons, some of whom would have fought and some would have fled, but those here now live in the remains of the mess that was made of their country.
The Green trail is a mixture of back roads and forestry tracks, it takes anything but a straight line, curving in repeated semicircles to follow mountain ridges. They’re mountains in that they’re high – between 1000 and 1300m, but they’re hills in all but name, gentle rumps of land, forested and inhabited. Maybe it’s only my Welsh sensibility that wants to call them mountains, coming from a country so small that it celebrates every peak.
I saw bear prints in the mud, as I squelched through the forest. I thought I heard wolves one night, awaking to beautiful howls that echoed to the stars. Someone told me there weren’t wolves in the area though, and the cows bore that one out – left to roam overnight sometimes, or caught in an enclosure by a single length of wire. Very different to the high, thick fences of sharp wooden palings that I’d seen in Montenegro.
One day the path failed me, I lost it in the forest, not seeing the way the side track turned away and when I came back after my two mile detour I looked at the churned mud and decided to go around by road. The path led parallel to the road for the rest of the day and I was sick of fighting uncertainty, needed a few hours of faster tarmac to feel like I was making progress. It meant that I got a second breakfast, after unwittingly enticing a young horse away from his grass verge at the front of his house, turning round to see him pacing after me. I took him back, calling out to the house to bring them down to the road. Turns out the horse owner, a gentle man with white hair and kind eyes, was on his way to the neighbours for breakfast and he invited me along. My ordinary first breakfast of oats, seeds, dried coconut and raisins in water was surpassed by polenta fried with bacon, a platter of meat and cheese, fresh tomatoes, roasted peppers, yoghurt, milk, bread, coffee and blackcurrant juice. These neighbours were home from Austria, the place they’d gone to as refugees 27 years ago and where they now worked and waited for their pensions, for the time when they could come home permanently and with security. The husband was born in this house, he said, Bosnia is their heart’s home.
For length of it I’ve split this blog into two. I also feel nervous about defining in public a country I have only just started to understand.
The second half will be posted on my Patreon account. I follow the pattern of two public blogs and then one for patrons only.