One September’s day way back in 2005, I agreed to accompany my then 50-something year old father-in-law-to-be, Danilo, on a drive down from Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana, where I was living at the time, to northern Bosnia. Danilo was interested in purchasing some land down there and wanted to go and check out a few potential spots before committing to anything.
I had been there once before with him and although I hadn’t had a great time, I had returned to Slovenia with a few bargain pairs of jeans and trainers, plus a few boxes of cheap cigarettes, which were always good for making a few tolars (Slovenia’s currency at the time) from people that I played football with.
Not one to say no to a travelling experience, I jumped at the opportunity to return.
It’s a Sunday morning and by 7 o’clock we’re almost ready to leave. It’s just the two of us as my fiancée is unable to join us due to work obligations. With my knowledge of the Slovenian language pretty limited, and his of English practically non-existent we would usually have her act as interpreter, but not today. Today it’s just me, him and the open road, meaning that we will have to find our own way of making ourselves understood.
After taking a few wrong turns in Croatia, we find ourselves driving along a dirt track about 2 miles long. There are rolling hills, trees and greenery on either side of us, and as I look to my right to admire the view, my eyes come upon something that reminds me of the dark, recent history of this area: A sign warning of land mines in the surrounding fields and woods.
I’m a bit taken aback by this. The remainder of our time on the dirt track is spent trying desperately to clear my mind of images of poor peasant women collecting firewood for the family cottage one minute and being blown into pieces in the air the next. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’m also worried somewhat for my own safety. What if we swerved the car to avoid a pothole and ended up going straight off of the road and over a mine? I don’t think my loved ones back home in England would quite know what to say. That kind of death just doesn’t happen in Brighton.
I’m relieved when we reach the end of the track and return to normal roads, and am also very happy to see that the dirt track has brought us directly to the border crossing with Bosnia. I hadn’t trusted Danilo’s assurances that he knew a good short cut. I would in the future.
After a couple of questions from Customs, and a new stamp in my passport, we’re waved on across the frontier. Danilo is in familiar territory now; he’s been here many times over the past few months and has made many friends.
Our first stop is just outside the town of Velika Kladuša in the very northwestern corner of the country. I get out of the car and follow Danilo across the deserted, sandy street to a little bar with a few tables and chairs outside where we are met by a smiling man who, by the warm hug and handshake, I know is a good friend of Danilo’s.
I’m introduced and then we sit down with a few Union beers; the taste of Ljubljana in a remote part of Bosnia. As the men talk, I look around me and realise that the scene looks like every cowboy film I have ever seen; dusty, pavementless, bars and shops that open out right onto the road, and bullet holes on the walls of every building.
The other detail that stands out above all others is the distinct lack of male inhabitants. Since crossing the border until this moment I’ve seen plenty of women going about their daily business, but not one of them has been accompanied by a husband. In fact, by the looks of it, they would have difficulty finding a spouse unless they were willing to go illegal and marry a young boy, because apart from the children and young teenagers there just aren’t any men from which to select a partner. Well, apart from our host for the afternoon.
The man we’re sitting with is Zlatan, a cousin of a friend of Danilo’s. He’s skinny, has no teeth, his veins stick out all over his arms and neck and he has a gormless look on his face. My first impression is that he must be a junky.
“I speak a little English,” he tells me, in a strong accent.
“Really? Where did you learn?” I enquire, hoping to make conversation.
“Ah, here and there. I had to pick it up,” he shrugs.
There is a long silence as he just stares out into the clouds, and then he offers me something that brings home the reality of what the people here have had to go through.
“You know, 14 years ago business was good here. Now, nobody comes. One is dead, one is killed, one is murdered, one has disappeared.” He speaks monotonously, showing no emotion at all. “Look at me. I am 41 but I look 55. War does that.”
After another ten minutes of drinking beer in silence, he perks up a bit.
“Now, I love my life. I love me. I do what I want to, when I want to. I have two women and three daughters, all in Croatia. Here I am a free man. I am free. Now we go to pick mushrooms.”
The three of us get into the car and Zlatan points the way as Danilo drives us out into the sticks. I’m sitting in the back eating a sandwich that was lovingly prepared for me in the morning just before leaving, when Zlatan demonstrates what he means when he talks about freedom and doing what he wants. He leans back and passes me a lit joint.
I decline his offer. Not because I have any dislike for recreational drugs, but because the man has no teeth and the thought of putting something between my lips that has been anywhere near his gums is enough to make me nauseous.
We pull into some woods, park the car and trek up a steep hill through the trees. I get left behind as I struggle through the woods in my flip-flops; hardly ideal footwear for this kind of terrain.
‘What do I know about finding and picking mushrooms?’ I ask myself. Then I remember the land mines sign and freeze in my tracks. I spend the next twenty minutes walking in a circle around a tree, retracing my steps over and over. If I trod there last time and wasn’t blown up, the chances are it’ll be fine this time as well.
I hear Danilo’s voice calling me from somewhere between the trees, and when I finally find him I see that he knows as much about picking mushrooms as I do; his bag is empty as we both look at each other and laugh.
We carefully walk back down to where we parked the car and then wait for Zlatan. He emerges ten minutes later, chuckling loudly, his bag full of huge, white mushrooms.
On the drive back I ask if mines are a big problem in the woods.
“Oh no, no, no. Don’t worry about land mines, they aren’t a problem. They are almost all cleared from this area now.”
I breathe a sigh of relief.
“It’s the bears that you have to look out for.” He smiles.
We get back to his bar and sit down with a couple more beers while Zlatan disappears inside. He returns ten minutes later with a plate of fried mushrooms and hot dog sausages. We feast. Three men, all from different lands and backgrounds, bonding over cold beers and freshly picked food.
After eating, Zlatan tells us he has something he wishes to show us. He leads us behind his building to a patch of plants.
“This is where I grow my skunk.”
He picks some leaves and puts them into his pocket. This is his freedom.
The back of his house is even more bullet-ridden than the front. He notices me looking at it.
“When the Bosnian army were here in the war, they took over my house and my bar and used it as their headquarters. That is why it’s like it is.”
Soon, it is time to move on to our next destination. We bid Zlatan farewell and pull away. Some 20 minutes later we are in a village that I recognise; Ostrožac. This is where we stayed on my previous visit to Bosnia.
We turn off towards the unlit dirt track that leads down to the familiar little farmhouse, passing women picking vegetables from fields, and children kicking footballs around as lazy cows and sheep look on, feigning interest. The middle-aged woman with workman’s hands looks surprised to see us.
She stops working in the field and walks over to the car, a huge smile on her face. She invites us in, and before I know it I’m sitting on her settee drinking yet more Union beer while she brews up some strong Turkish coffee in the corner of the room. I met her the last time I was here. The sister of an employee of Danilo. Her two teenage daughters sit in the corner sending text messages to their boyfriends working in Germany and Austria, waiting for them to come and whisk them away to the ready-made life in the west. Neither are beautiful, yet nor are they ugly. In between sending and receiving messages, they motion with their hands the international sign for: “would you like another beer?”
The experience is strange to me. These people work from dawn til dusk and have virtually nothing to show for it, yet, when a guest comes, albeit an unexpected guest, they welcome him and lavish upon him whatever he desires. I am treated like a returning family member. The love and warmth feels genuine. And all it takes is a few inexpensive presents for the family, like some biscuits or a toy for the child, for these kind-hearted people to well up with tears of happiness. It really opens your eyes to just how lucky you are to live in the world in which you do. At least it does for me.
In this part of the world, it makes no difference who you are; you are made to feel welcome. It’s the culture. It’s something amazing.
In the late afternoon we take the 11 year-old family son to Ostrožac Castle, built in the 1500s by the occupying Ottoman Turks, while the mother and two older daughters prepare the dinner.
Dinner is delicious, hot and filling. Chicken, potatoes, soup, bread, and vegetables; all home-made from the farm. Although it is difficult to eat when you realise that the family of women are just sitting there on the floor around you with nothing, watching you tuck in, waiting for you to demand something more. They wait until we are finished, making sure that should we want some more, there will be enough. They won’t eat until both the guests are full and satisfied. They won’t take care of their own hunger – a hunger built up by almost constant manual work – until they have first taken care of yours.
“Eat, please!” I gesture, but am met with nothing more than a polite smile and shake of the head.
I compare this behaviour to that which I am accustomed to in the English culture, and even in Slovenia. The situation would never arise in either. There’s something so dramatic about it: It’s beautiful, sad and happy all at once.
As with any culture, there is a lot to be learnt from the peasant families of Northern Bosnia.