A fascinating lesson in the Balkan wars

ZADAR into BOSNIA, 17-10-2018

From Zadar we decide to ride north, heading for a section of the Trans European Trail in Bosnia Herzegovina. A country I remember hearing about when I was a child, it was often on the news but 7 year old me did not really understand what was happening. Other then people were angry at each other and decided to fight with guns and it wasn’t a nice place to go. Names like Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Srebrenica and Kosovo all ring a bell but I was too young to grasp what was going on and what impact it had on the people living there. When we crossed the border from Austria to Slovenia about a week ago we came across a tank that was left on the hill at the border. Only then did I realise that this war played out on the border of the European Union. So close to home yet so far in my mind. Seeing this physical tank standing there as some sort of tribute to the lives that were lost and the borders that were protected really gave me a reality check.

The tank on the Austria/Slovenia border

The tank on the Austria/Slovenia border

So here we are riding the well paved highway in Croatia heading north. We zoom past towns and villages and as we leave the main highway the surrounding transforms into an Italian landscape. Out of nowhere I get transported into Tuscany with its tall, dark Cypress trees lining the streets, the rolling hills and the blazing hot sunshine.

We arrive in Knin, a small village just before the border with Bosnia and we fill up at the local gas station. It’s a quiet place in the sense that nothing much happens here, not so much in the literal sense as cars drive by and the sound of the pumps pumping the petrol is booming. I take out my computer to send one last email before we go off the radar for a few days. Croatia is part of the European Union and therefor we can use our Dutch simcards here without incurring any extra costs. Bosnia however is not and we will go through the country without buying a local sim card so besides the fun of riding trails and being in nature we won’t have internet to complete the experience. Little did I know that the town Knin plays a significant role in the start of the Balkan wars.

As we ride through the town heading north again we see some people sitting in front of their houses drinking tea or coffee. Some of the places are in pretty bad shape. Hanging doors, pieces of plaster falling down and windows broken. As we proceed we see some buildings that are even in worse conditions. They look like they have been abandoned many years ago, as if someone got up and left and never returned. The heavy weeds had taken over and happily occupy the remains of what was once someones living room. I wondered why nobody would rebuild these places or at least demolish what was left to reclaim the space. I assumed it was poverty or lack of interest and we rode on.

Leaving the town behind we head to the border, a sign says it’s only a few kilometres from here and on the map I can see that as soon as we cross the border there are some steep roads leading us up on the mountains. I see them sharply rising in front of me coming out of the hills and reaching for the sky. I’m excited since riding in the mountains on my trusty motorcycle is one of the most fun things to do. Besides that we will even get to ride some gravel roads which will be even more entertaining since it takes skill and concentration to not fall and crash. The adrenaline focus is addicting and it’s a rare thing to experience in a world full of distractions.

However, I don’t think we will be doing any of the gravel stuff today, it’s getting quite late because we set off from Zadar in the beginning of the afternoon and the sun is already wanting to hug the horizon and we haven’t even crossed the border yet. I’m not worried though, I know we can figure this out and we still have 2 hours or so until it get’s dark. We’ve been traveling like this for 2 months now and it’s always worked out.

Just before we cross into Bosnia Herzegovina we stop to take a picture, a new country in the books for Nora.

Just before we cross into Bosnia Herzegovina we stop to take a picture, a new country in the books for Nora.

So we ride to the border and leave the EU by getting our passports checked at the gate of the Croatian border. It’s a quick procedure since leaving is never a problem. We ride through no-mans-land to the Bosnian border and show our passports and insurance to the young lady sitting in the booth. Behind her are two male colleagues watching her do her job. She routinely flips through the passports. Jojo’s passport is empty as he just got a new one before we left. She opens mine and lands on the Iranian visa page. It happens to most people since it is the first page after the plastic leaf that contains my actual information and sometimes people are confused for a second but she smiles and looks at the photo on the visa. It has me with a hijab on it, mandatory if you apply for an Iranian visa. In fluent German she remarks that I am wearing a “kopftuch” which literally translates to headscarf although in German it sound quite derogatory. As if it’s just a piece of cloth that you put over your head. Especially listening to it with Dutch ears it sounds belittling. I answer her with the same fact I just told you, it was obligatory and she smiles and continues scrolling through the pages of my passport. Mine is the opposite of empty, it still contains al the visas and stamps from my previous trip and usually takes people a while to go through them so I start explaining that I traveled overland from Netherlands to Indonesia. She listens while coming across the Pakistani visa but she doesn’t seem to grasp it yet. Whenever I tell people about that trip there is a period of time where I know they do not comprehend yet what I am telling them. Their mind is trying to come up with a more logical explanation of how I got to Indonesia because surely nobody would do such a thing, right? Is that even possible? Isn’t Indonesia an island? I repeat what I just said, that I rode my motorcycle through all those countries that’s why she is seeing all these stamps. Suddenly I see in here eyes that it clicks and she asks “ all the way?” Haha, yes, all those countries I went to. “Well done” and she finds an empty page and stamps me into Bosnia. I smile back and she hand us back the passports. I’m happy to have shown someone else that traveling on a motorcycle as a women is a viable option and that we can do incredible things. I can only hope that she is in the slightest way inspired to chase after her dreams despite of what other people tell her she can and cannot do.

Just across the border, we head into the mountains and need to be careful for….

Just across the border, we head into the mountains and need to be careful for….

We pass a small town when my trip counter hits 9.999km.

We pass a small town when my trip counter hits 9.999km.

Riding through the mountains of Bosnia Herzegovina

Riding through the mountains of Bosnia Herzegovina

We head into the mountains as the sun slowly sets colouring the skies and the trees we ride through. We steadily climb up and ride along the twisting road until we reach a plateau where the road moves through the rolling hills. We try a side trail to a nice camping spot but fail horribly and turn around to keep looking. The amount of daylight is slipping away and we ride slower to try and spot any opportunity for a good camping spot. The low sun makes the shadow long and I can see that we now don’t have that much time left before it is dark. We have to find a spot here no matter what. I see a track on the left side of the road and we decide to give it a go. We follow the trail up and it’s more rocky than I thought. The grooves are filled with all kind sized rocks that make you choose a line and push you forward. Don’t stop is the motto and I keep my hand firm on the throttle. The progress is slow as we climb up the hill and keep looking left and right to find a nice flat spot to sleep tonight but we are still too close to the road where everyone can see us.

After riding through a forest section I see a field with some trees on the other end and it looks pretty flat so I steer off the trail and into the grass. It’s a little bumpy but nothing I can’t handle. In the mirror I see that Jojo is following me and I stand up to be a more comfortable and to have a better view to pick a spot. In between the dried out cow droppings I find a flat, clear piece of grass that I deem perfect for our tent. Since I am the one who usually pitches the tent I have a pretty good eye for that. We stop, turn off the engines and look back at the trail, we can still see it but I don’t think it’s going anywhere so we’ll probably wont be bothered by anyone but best of all is the view that comes in from besides the trees. The mountain peaks with the setting sun gives us a spectacular show in colours that we haven’t seen in a while.

As I pitch the tent I keep looking at the sunset and for half an hour each quick glance after the other it’s like a light show. The colours keep changing and the sharp sunday’s are bouncing of the fluffy clouds, different shapes and colours complete the show and it solidifies the feeling that this is the right spot to stay for tonight. Tired but satisfied I sit down in the comfy chair and stare in the distance. The sun is now gone and behind us the moon is rising, dusk is falling and we can feel the cold air rolling in. It’s definitely not summer anymore, heck it is the middle of October so I’m not surprised.

I put on a sweater and a jacket and debate if I want to make a fire. As I am sitting there contemplating what to do next I hear a rattling sound and a puffing engine. It sounds like someone is climbing the same shitty track we came up on by car and has something in the truck that is not tied properly, but because we are not visible from the main trail we don’t see anything. We just hear the rattling sound getting louder and louder until we spot two headlights protruding the forest. I guess that our two small headlights won’t be so obvious and hope they just keep moving on and don’t see us.

How wrong I was… As soon as they come to our cleared section stop, kill the engine and get out of the car. As they walk towards us I stand behind Jojo and try to see if they are friendly but it’s getting darker and it’s hard to see their faces from this distance so we wait until they get closer. As soon as they are near enough they say hello and smile, I’m relieved and smile back. In broken English the guy in the middle explains that he has a house on top of the hill and that is where they are heading. They offer us Fanta and some fake coca cola but we decline. We tell where we are from and exchange some more smiles. After 5 minutes they leave and walk back to the car. It rattles all the way up the mountain. A surprise visit from the locals completes the first Bosnian impressions.

Now that the darkness is coming in fast I decide that I want to make a fire tonight. It’s a blessing to travel with 2 and to be able to divide the tasks. As Jojo makes us dinner I look around for fire wood. The bushes just behind us are my first target but there is not so much wood to find. The trees are low and the dead branches are still attached to the trunk. I try the next set of shrubs and try to pull some off the dead ones off the tree. I hurt my hand on one of the spikes that are positioned all along the stick. I give up and shine my light around to find something that is easier to take. I keep thinking about bears, I’m not sure if they live here but I remember reading about it on the TET website. I don’t have anything to protect myself with and I’m now far enough that Jojo might not hear me or is too late here to help me. I scare myself by imagining bears jumping out of the bushes and decide that when my hands are full with firewood to return to base and try the other side. Since the trees are taller in this section where the trail is at I feel safer to wonder around and find enough sticks and stumps to keep the fire going for a few hours. I stumble upon a fallen tree in the middle of the clearing and it’s perfectly dry so I drag the tree to our campspot sometimes looking over my shoulder if the imaginary bears are following me or not.

Our campspot for the night

Our campspot for the night

Fire! After the hard work of collecting the wood, there is nothing better than staring at the flames. I might be a pyromaniac, but don’t tell anyone!

Fire! After the hard work of collecting the wood, there is nothing better than staring at the flames. I might be a pyromaniac, but don’t tell anyone!

The bikes are doing great, 10.000km on the clock, what an amazing time we have had so far in Europe. Happy to call this place home.

The bikes are doing great, 10.000km on the clock, what an amazing time we have had so far in Europe. Happy to call this place home.

The rest of the evening is calm and wonderful, we eat our lovely dinner with fire going and the moon lighting our faces. The cold air stings our noses and the smell of the mountain air and the wood fire mix to create the aroma of camping. This is how life should be.

As we traveled through rural Bosnia Herzegovina we see many destroyed houses, especially in the north of the country. The ride is amazing with some of the best views and trails and I am enjoying riding immensely.

Yet I need to learn more about former Yugoslavia and what happened here in the nineties. Jojo actually knows more than me about the situation because it was a lot closer to home for him as an Austrian. Even his best friend is originally Croatian and came to Vienna as a refugee when they were 4. One of the reasons why Croatia is part of the EU and Bosnia Herzegovina is not, is because Croatia was willing to had over the suspects of war crimes to the International Tribunal. Bosnia to this day refuses to do so and is therefor denied applying for membership of the EU.

There are so many more facts I learned about the war but I don’t want to force them on you, I just wanted to end this article with telling you the story of Knin, remember the last town before we crossed the border? In the 1980’s the former republic of Yugoslavia was starting to slowly fall apart and in the beginning of the 90’s the first republics declared their independence including Croatia.

The Croats in the country are mainly Christian but the town of Knin had a large population of Serbs, who are generally muslim. With the WWII fresh in their minds where the Croats treated the Serbs with the same respect as Jews they though they knew what was going to happen if Croatia gained its independence. So they erected roadblock in the area blocking access to one of the Croat towns. Backed by Serbian tanks and the Serbian airforce they attacked the town and the countries soon after fell into war. And that my friends, is the story of how I learned about the beginning of the Balkan war.