With Marija’s enthusiastic streak for hitch-hiking running through us, we decided to head from Novi Sad to Sarajevo by thumb. Five hitches in, we were only 50km away from our starting point – not good. That’s not even ‘not a good start’, that’s just not good. Luckily, as has occasionally been the case on our trip, we got lucky just when things were looking really crap. We got a lift all the way to Sarajevo, or so we thought. A few hours in, they suggested we take a ‘thirty minute detour’ to Srebrenica. Thirty minutes turned into five hours. Literally. We got so lost at one point that the driver had to genuinely ask the border guard whether we were entering Bosnia or Serbia… Nonetheless, the detour was worth arriving somewhat later than expected.

Before we arrived in Srebrenica, our knowledge about what happened there was severely limited and while that is still the case, we now know a little more. Srebrenica and the area around it is the site of the largest mass murder in Europe since WWII, and one of the UN’s notorious failures. The civilian Muslim community at Srebrenica, fearing ethnic cleansing by Bosnian Serbs, fled their homes and sought refuge at the nearby UN base of Potočari. Having declared a “safe-area” to the besieged Potočari, for some reason still unclear to us, the UN stopped protecting these people, refusing entry to many and kicking others out of the compound. In effect, the UN had helpfully rounded up thousands of Bosnians for the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS). Serb forces were somehow allowed to enter the refugee camps where all of the ‘men’ (some as young as twelve) were separated from the women and children. What followed was the massacre of over 8000 Muslim Bosnian men and boys. They were buried in mass graves which sometimes they had to dig for themselves, and many of which are yet to be discovered. Here is a witness account of the massacre from the Guardian archives – http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/26/ratko-mladic-arrested-srebrenica-massacre

The Memorial and graveyard in Potočari is a hillside covered in thin white headstones. The green markers are for more recently buried bodies. There is an ‘open-plan’ mosque at the entrance, which seems strangely modern and out of place in the countryside. Squares of white marble show thousands of names, and, separated from the rest of the stones is a cross for the only Christian buried at the site. It was quiet, peaceful, difficult to imagine thousands of people clamouring at the entrance to the compound opposite over fifteen years ago.

If you follow the industrial-looking track on the other side of the road in between old factory buildings, you find yourself in what was the UN compound. Once you have found the man with the key, he will let you into a small room to watch a video about the massacre. Some of the most awfully memorable moments are of the women weeping for joy as the UN makes its (in)famous declaration of safety, and of the general who engineered the massacre (Ratko Mladic) openly stating to a television camera that today would be the day that they would take revenge on the Muslims. One woman talks about how she goes to the various graveyards regularly in the hope of finally finding her husband’s name on a marker. A man explains that he was working in the compound and was forced to tell his own family to leave with everyone else – he hasn’t seen them since.

Afterwards you can walk around inside the empty building, past maps of mass graves, communications between Mladic and his subordinates, and personal items belonging to the victims which are accompanied by descriptions of the people – how their wife remembers them, what they were doing when they were last seen…

It wasn’t what we had been expecting from our day when we started hitching towards Bosnia.

From the harrowing experience of Srebrenica we then got lost for several hours to the point where we were no longer appreciating the ‘scenic’ness, but eventually we reached Sarajevo. Throughout our time there it was hard to forget that over 10,500 Sarajevans died and the city was besieged for months on end – a street was even nicknamed ‘Sniper Alley’ as it provided a prime opportunity for distant shooters to pick off civilians trying to cross to safety. From the fortress that gives a superb view over the whole city you can see various graveyards with the same slim white grave markers all around the town. This somehow makes the majesty of the city even grander, particularly as now the churches and mosques stand side-by-side once again. The bustly, beautiful Old Town has been very well restored, and provides the perfect place to relax in the sunshine and enjoy a ‘Bosnian’ (read: Turkish) coffee complete with Turkish delight. Away from the centre, a path stretches alongside the river where locals rollerblade and people come to lead climb the craggy rockfaces.

Unfortunately, we were only able to spend one full day there as we intended to hitch to Prishtine the following day. This turned out to be an abysmal idea, but we’ll come to that later…