Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Minefield

"Stick to the path or you will die. And you'll kill others."

The minefield in the forested hills is dense—about ten mines per square metre. We gingerly follow the leader along the snaking cleared path. I have never seen a more perfect conga line.

Ivan is a veteran of the siege of Sarajevo. A stocky and innocuous-looking father in his forties, he today runs a hostel in a 300-year-old house near the eclectic and lively Ottoman centre with its quaint cafes and wooden-shuttered shops. But he also takes his young guests on tours of the frontlines of the 1992-1995 blockade. He is keen to educate them; most are hardly older than the siege itself.

Earlier, Ivan picked me up at the East Sarajevo bus station, a cheerless place inside a fenced parking lot. He greeted me gruffly and lugged my backpack out of the foyer as I felt sullen eyes follow us out. The bus station is disconnected from the main Sarajevo bus depot by the division of the city between the Bosniak-Croat Federation and the Serb Republic, and it was not until we crossed the administrative line back into the Federation in his rattling Volkswagen that he relaxed.

"I'm not comfortable there," he said. "Those people know me."

Ivan was one of the civilians who armed themselves and established a frontline in the surrounding mountains to protect the city from the Serb Army when it shelled the population. In those days he alternated fighting with collecting wood for his family for the bitterly cold winters.

In these lush, silent mountains once popular with hikers, scores of plastic mines still exist, invisible to metal detectors. Clearing them is expensive and time-consuming. We walk the tightrope behind Ivan through the eerie wooded minefield that separated the two-kilometre-long frontlines. After a hushed few minutes we reach the other side and look back. The Bosniaks and Serbs were barely fifty metres apart.

Ivan had been stunned at how neighbours who spoke the same language suddenly hated each other over religion. He never saw it until the war. Since then the division has been even greater.

"To be a patriot is stupid," he tells us. "They all died in the first few months. I fought for my wife, my child, my sister, my mother. I fought for those who loved me."

He turns to the tour group with an earnest expression. They are his son's age. "If ever there is a problem in your country, just take your passport and leave," he says. "I made a mistake. I didn't think war would actually happen in Bosnia."

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