Since we had no prior plans of traveling through Southeastern Europe, we’ve had a number of moments where we look at each other say, “Never in my life did I expect to see this.”
Of all the amazing and surprising things we’ve seen, perhaps no other place has earned that sentiment more than Republic of Srpska: Never in my life did I expect to see Republic of Srpska . . . twice.
We’ve had two very different experiences of Republic of Srpska. The first was on our drive to Mostar where we encountered a dusty, barren, inhospitable landscape of boulders, roadside trash, goats, the occasional landmine warning and isolated Orthodox churches. “This place is terrible,” Molly uttered, “Let’s try to never come back here.”
But a month later we planned a roadtrip to Serbia, following the Drina river through the northeastern part of Republic of Srpska. There we found some of the most stunning landscape we’d ever seen. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the Balkans it’s that things change often and they do so quickly.
Republic of Srpska is a political entity that exists within the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnia and Herzegovina has a complicated set-up. First, the country is called Bosnia and Herzegovina because geographically its the combination of two different historical regions that were more formally and culturally united in the 20th century as part of Yugoslavia. The name is normally shorted to BiH.
For several centuries the areas encompassing BiH have been mostly Muslim, inhabited by people who identify as Bosniak. But during the Yugoslavian time period there were migrations of Serbs (and Croats from the south as well) into BiH. When Yugoslavia fell apart in 1990 and BiH declared independence there was actually a significant Serb population within its borders. During BiH’s attempt to establish their own country, war broke out between the Serb settlers (sponsored by the Serbian Army) and the Bosniaks. During the war both Serb and Croat armies engaged in acts of ethnic cleansing by removing or, in some cases, killing local Muslims in order to claim more land. Croatia and Serbia even initiated talks about how to completely divide up Bosnia between the two countries.
If not for NATOs attack on the Serbian Army in 1995 there’d probably be no Bosnia and Herzegovina. But the bombing raids drove the Serbs to a peace agreement called the Dayton Accords, which set up the country we now know as Bosnia and Herzegovina. But the Dayton Accords, in an effort for immediate peace without forced ethnic migrations, created a complicated country: BiH would be one country consisting of two political entities, The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republic of Srpska. While BiH controls the border and the military almost every other aspect of government is completely separate, even the mail system. The lines of the Republic of Srpska were drawn a bit hastily but mostly resembled the population’s existence at the start of the war.
Traveling between these two sides of the same country is more dramatic than most border crossings. Cyrillic text and Serbia flags will stand right across the street from a mosque and along the Drina River the towns actually rotate between Serb and Bosniak, between churches and mosques.
On our second drive to Republic of Srpska Molly and I realized that while we’d met quite a few Bosniaks, Montenegrins and Croats, we’d never met someone who identified as being a Serb from Republic of Srpska. We were quite interested to try and talk to a few people to hear their feelings and accounts of this new and strange country. But, when we arrived at the Hotel Bavaria in Foca, our hostess was German and had moved to the area to set up a hotel with her husband. “The rafting on the Drina will be a big business” she told me. And a look around town at the all the river rafting signs showed us that, for now, even Republic of Srpska has moved on from the past. I kept thinking about Sava, our first landlord in Montenegro, who told me: “Capitalism solves all border disputes.”