Zerky in Sarajevo

Map of Bosnia

Climbing into the mountains known as the Dinaric Alps, we followed an asphalt road northeast for about ten miles. We had expected no difficulty because our map shows this road to be a major thoroughfare to Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia. At the first village, our road virtually disappeared. Bewildered, we got out our Serbo-Croatian phrase book and tried asking some nearby villagers about the road to Livno which, according to the map, was the next town on our route. Always with a laugh, the villagers would wave us on. What’s so funny about a road to Livno, we wondered? All we could find was a dry streambed. Ever so slowly and carefully, we inched our way ahead, creeping over so many stones and boulders that I had to stop and let the clutch cool down three times. What happened to our highway, we wondered? A flood must have washed it away. Surely it could not have disappeared all the way to Livno, about thirty miles away? An hour later, the road had not yet improved, so we stopped to talk about it because we were making no more progress than we would have on foot. VW buses have high clearances, fortunately, but at the rate we were going it would have taken us days or weeks to reach Sarajevo, assuming we didn’t break an axle or burn up the clutch. The sensible thing to do, we finally decided, was to turn back. But we were having too much fun so we continued on, yard by yard picking our way up and over and in between the rocks, ever higher into the mountains. “These damp barren hills strewn with gray boulders and patches of brush,” JoAnne writes, “are among the most desolate I have ever seen.” Pregnant with meaning, such boulders are the metaphorical building blocks of modern Yugoslavia.

We stopped to look at a small stone monument, the first of many we were to see. Beneath its faded red star your mother could read just enough Serbo-Croatian to understand that it commemorated a band of Partisans who had been killed on this spot by the Nazis. During World War II when Yugoslavia was occupied by the nazis, Marshal Tito and his guerrilla band waged highly effective guerrilla warfare from these Dinaric Alps. Since the Germans could afford neither the time nor the troops to crush Tito’s resistance fighters, Germany adopted a policy of terrorism through blind retribution. Often with the help of sympathetic townspeople, the Partisans would swoop down upon some vulnerable German train, convoy or barracks and blow it up. Then they would quickly disappear back into the mountains, in retaliation for which the Germans would then go into the nearest village, systematically pick out an arbitrary number of its inhabitants, and have them shot. Afterward, many of the able-bodied men and boys who survived such massacres headed up into the mountains to join Tito’s ever-growing guerrilla army. This is how World War II was fought in Yugoslavia, a vicious circle of bloody defiance and blind reprisal in which most of the casualties were civilians. By the time World War II ended, Tito’s Partisans were heroes and Tito was the new leader of Yugoslavia. The mountains we have been driving through are peppered with such monuments.

Still climbing upward, the road began to improve. A wind came up and it turned cold. We crawled along in low gear for two more hours. At the top of the pass, a weather-beaten sign announced that we were leaving Croatia and entering Bosnia-Herzegovina. That sign denoted only a change of province, little did we know that we were entering a whole new world. Asia may begin at the Bosporus geographically, but culturally it begins at Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The most stunning change was in people’s dress. Women’s skirts became billowing pantaloons turned under at the bottoms and drawn up tightly around their calves, as in pictures out of The Arabian Nights. These garments seem to us to be the ultimate in Puritanism; by closing off the bottoms of skirts, any chance of catching a glimpse of a woman’s legs is automatically forestalled. The women we passed along the road drew shawls up over their faces in the manner of a veil. Any doubts as to which culture we were in were soon dispelled when we began to see men wearing the fez.

Passing through our first Bosnian village, we found a central square commanded by a tall minaret. Soon they began popping up all over the place. Towns of any size have several minarets and often a mosque as well. We had read that Bosnia was once under the heel of the Turks, but we had never expected to see so much Turkish influence surviving on down to this day.

In other parts of Yugoslavia—in Macedonia for example—this might be understandable because many of the people there are of Turkish descent. But here in Bosnia-Herzegovina most of the people are Moslems and Slavs, indigenous Europeans. Who ever heard of indigenous European Moslems? I suppose they converted from Christianity after the Turks conquered this southeast corner of Europe, I suppose it was convert or die. People sometimes say the mountain came to Mohammed, but here in Bosnia-Herzegovina a good-sized chunk of the European continent came to Mohammed. Our biggest surprise upon entering Bosnia-Herzegovina was the road. We soon found ourselves zipping along at thirty miles an hour and reached Sarajevo by nightfall.

Sarajevo is by far the most interesting city we have yet seen, a city full of mosques, minarets, country people in Turkish costumes and city people in western coats and ties. Parts of it are very modern. We soon spied a supermarket. They appear to be popular in communist countries. Good capitalists that we are, we rushed on in to replenish our supplies. Waiting for us, we found canned goods, breads, cheeses, sausages, wines and slivovitz. A major part of Yugoslavia is devoted to this fiery plum brandy, the Yugoslavian version of central heating.

You found Tito in that supermarket, too, Zerky. Your mother quickly named him Tito after her favorite bear in the zoo at Bern. I wanted to call him Ferdinand, in honor of the Archduke, but she insisted that “Tito” would be easier for you to say. It was love at first sight. Unfortunately Tarzan doesn’t like Tito at all. When you showed him your new teddy bear, Tarzan grabbed him away from you and tried to shake all his stuffing out! Your mother charged to the rescue, but now you are going to have to start being more careful by keeping Tito away from Tarzan because Tarzan is jealous.
It is raining heavily now. Tomorrow we plan to head on into Montenegro where we will be taking back roads southward toward the coast. It should be sunny there, which will be a relief. Most of the time it has been raining ever since we left the Adriatic Coast.

—Excerpted from Letters to Zerky


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