Mali Zvornik

Autumn Harvest Beauty

I had a wonderful weekend with our students and teachers at our first annual autumn retreat. We stayed at the Sunny River (Sunčana Reka) Camp in Mali Zvornik. Mali Zvornik, which means “little bell” in English, is a small town located on the Serbia – Bosnia border, about 2 1/2 hours south west of Belgrade. The resort camp is on the Drina River and it was a very peaceful time, with beautiful sunshine and autumn colors all around. The landscape reminded me of the Appalachians, because of the forested hills.

The town is across the river from its sister city in Bosnia, Zvornik. I didn’t realize how close Zvornik was to the infamous Srebrenica, the scene of the biggest massacre of the Yugsolavian Wars of Secession. A lot of horrible and sick events happened in Zvornik also, but they are not as well known as Srebrenica. The town was once 60% Bosniak Muslim, but they were driven out and it is a majority Serbian town today. If the United Nations sponsored commission reports are accurate, so many bad things occured in the area. I only felt peace however, with quiet walks along the river, nice meals with friends and students, and sports on the grounds of the resort.

Serbia is always full of surprises and Mali Zvornik was no exception. The owner of the resort arranged for the local Serbian Orthodox Priest to show us two underground sites. The first was the Holy Cross Church (Crkva Casnog Krsta)  which is a cross-shaped cave that is an ordained church. There is not electricity in the cave, but they hold mass there the last Friday of every month by candlelight. It fits around 100 people. The second site was more impressive. It was a secret, underground city constructed in the 1930’s for King Alexandar I of Yugoslavia. You can see us above in one of the 78 rooms of the 2 kilometer complex. The city was never completed because of World War II and the Communist Era. Today it is just light bulbs and cement walls. We toured a bit of it. Very impressive however, being that large. It would be a great place for a movie. I hope someday that they find the money to renovate the city how they had envisioned it during King Alexandar’s time. With the state of Serbia’s economy, I don’t see this happening for a while. The underground rooms and hallways can fit between 3,000 and 5,000 people. Very cool.

It would be nice if this area of Serbia and Bosnia could receive more tourists. It is a gorgeous, peaceful place for relaxation. I will definitely take my family back to the resort. For all the former areas of conflict, it will be good for them to develop their economies through tourism. There is lots of potential.

A Catholic Pilgrimage

Nadia and Ocean are Seen on Apparition Hill

We had to make a special stop on our way home from the Dalmatian Coast during our fall break. Both Nadia and I were raised in strong Catholic families and both of our mothers would have loved to have visited Medjugorje. Medjugorje is a small town in Bosnia & Herzegovina where 19 years ago, 7 teenagers had visions of the Virgin Mary. The apparitions have not been officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church like Fatima in Portugal or in Lourdes, France. The site is still a huge pilgrimage site and I was surprised at the number of tourists visiting the site on a rainy Tuesday in October. I was also surprised at the devotion of millions of people who truly believe in the apparitions. Many of the tourist there on the day we visited were Italians, which makes sense. It is relatively close and Italy is the home of the Pope.

Oliver and Owen Pose at the Outdoor Mass Complex

It would have been nice to have our mothers with us to visit the site. Sadly, both of them passed away, but we thought of them while we were there and got some holy water from the church for Nadia’s Aunt Silivia. We introduced Owen and Oliver to the concept of a Rosary and explained to them a bit about the Virgin Mary. I am no longer a believer, but I feel it is important that my children understand different religious beliefs because so many people in the world are still strongly religious.

Three of the seven still have visions or revelations and annually announce new messages from Mary. I am quite skeptical myself, as I don’t believe in anything supernatural. I am open to changing this view, but I didn’t feel or sense anything different when I was there. For me, I was happy for the village in regards to the help to the economy that the apparitions have brought, as well as the pilgrims, who come back from Medjugorje feeling refreshed and more spiritual.

I wouldn’t go back again but it was a very interesting stop. We did buy a couple of bottles of wine from the region, which are supposed to be very good.

Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina

The Beautiful River Neretva Winding Through Mostar

We stopped on the back to Belgrade during fall break in the town of Mostar. We wanted to stop for lunch and see the famous Stari Most. I also wanted to see how the reconstruction of the city was going. It suffered great damage during the war of Yugoslav Seccession. First the JNA or Yugoslav Army bombed and occupied the city and later, the Bosnian Croats and Bosniak armies fought a vicious war. There were many building destroyed, including the landmark Ottoman era bridge. The city is still divided today into a Croatian side and a Bosniak side. The Bosnian Serbs in the city were forced out during the war and have not returned.

Many countries have supported a reconstruction of the city. They did a great job with an accurate remaking of the bridge as well as the market area that surrounds it. It is a big tourist attraction and I can see why. The historic market area around the bridge has an exotic feel to it. Nadia found a lot things in the market. Driving out of the city however, I still saw many buildings that have not been repaired and there is a long way to go to get rid of any evidence of the conflict.

Oliver Loved His Islamic Hat

Herzegovina is a rugged, beautiful countryside that reminded me of the basin and range area of Nevada in the USA. The call to prayer and mosques, give it an exotic feel. It is too bad it is still a divided city, even after 15 years since the war. I definitely want to go back and spend a bit more time there as well as explore the national park north of the city between Mostar and Sarajevo. It was a stunning drive going through the deep river canyons. The rivers in Bosnia are a bright green color. It must be from the tannins of the plant life around the rivers or the geology of the rocks that causes the green color.

Ocean with the Bridge in the Background

Sarajevo, Bosnia-Hercegovina

Sarajevo Views – October 18, 2009, originally uploaded by bill kralovec.

I took this photo from a hilltop above Olympic Stadium in the northern suburbs of Sarajevo. The large gray area above the apartment buildings and below the snow is a cemetary of war dead. The siege of Sarajevo lasted over 4 years and over 11,000 people died. What a horrible waste! The cemetary pictured is only one of many.

 The grave to the left is of a seven year old Bosniak. Most of the tombstones had deaths from the time of the siege. One of the horrible characteristics of the war in Bosnia was the heavy involvement of civilians. The fighting in Sarajevo was especially disturbing. There were few traditional front lines or strategic geographic points like a river or mountain top, but mostly building to building and apartment to apartment exchange of fire. I can’t believe so many non-combatants were trapped in the city. It sounded like from what I have read and from what people tell me is most ordinary citizens didn’t think there was going to be such a level of violence.  The photos, videos, and accounts of the war are shocking. It was interesting to look for and experience the effects of war 15 years after it occured. I have visited battle sites before, like the Battle of Carabobo site in Venezuela. They were hundreds of years after the fact and seemed like ancient history. This was fresh.  I wonder if this is what my father felt as he served in the US army of occupation in Germany in the early 1950’s. The devastating effects of WWII must have been all around him, not only in the buildings, but in the people also. Most of the people we talked to in the city were very nice and I didn’t ask much about the war. I thought that it would be too personal, especially questions coming from a tourist.

One of the most fascinating sites was the tunnel museum. This was the “tunnel of hope” that ran underneath the airport into the city. The tunnel was used to get people and supplies in and out of the city. The museum is located out by the airport and a short section of the original tunnel remains. The original house that sat above the entrance is now full of war displays. We watched a video about the war and the role of the tunnel. Owen was most excited about the fact that actor Daniel Craig (James Bond) also visited the tunnel and his picture was on the wall


 I loved the city of Sarajevo. The mosques gave it an exotic touch, the mountains and ski areas around the city are beautiful, and the markets and friendly people make it a very cool place to visit. The older part of the city was crowded and parking was difficult. It will take a long time for the city to shake the effects of the war. The pre-war ethnic mix is now gone, with most Serbs leaving. The city is still great, but with the emotional and physical scars of war in the buildings and people, it is less of a city. 

The Dayton Accords ended the war and it divided the country by the frontlines between the Bosnian Serbs and the Croats/Bosniaks. It is still one country, but divided into “cantons” which in my mind are basically countries. I was interested in how the Republika Srpska (RS) would be.  RS is mountainous and beautiful. I saw one Bosnian flag while seeing in every village, huge Serbian flags without the coat of arms. The Bosnian flag was flying in a park made with EU money. In a few of the towns were new mosques, obviously built with money from the Middle East. The trip made me think about the Serbs of Bosnia. I got the impression that they were the “country cousins” of the Serbs. I suppose it would be like the differences between the New Yorkers or the people of Boston and Texans.

What both Bosnia and the Republika Srpska need are more money. With a better economy, people would have other worries besides ethnic or religous differences. As my friend in Belgrade said, “give them mortgages and bosses, and they will forget to shoot at each other.” He also said that before the war, there were more similarities between Bosnian Serbs and Bosniaks that between people the Bosnians and people in Belgrade. The war and afterwards made people express their differences more. As Barak Obama said, it is harder to find our similarities than our differences.

I hope to return to Bosnia again. I would like to go skiing there, see the Catholic shrine of Madjure (spelling) and the coastal area and highlands of Hercegovina. 

The infamous Holiday Inn of Sarajevo

The Beautiful Countryside of the Republika Srpska