Communism, War, and CrossFit - Part 4
Part 4: Bosnia
After Hungary we drove to Belgrade, Serbia. Belgrade is a very interesting city. It has been the capital of multiple nation states and is located where the Danube and Sava rivers meet. The city has been the centerpoint of countless battles and there are no buildings in the city older than 100 years (with the exception of some castle ruins). This is because the city has been completely destroyed and rebuilt over 40 times. The most recent destruction came in 1999 when the Serbs were trying to ethnically cleanse their territory of Albanians. NATO responded by bombing any and all strategic Serbian military buildings, positions, bridges, or outposts. The scars from these bombings are hard to ignore. The city does not quite have the feel of other European cities. It does feel brutal, dreary, and honestly, quite sad. But I do think this city will be a hotspot for tourism in about 20 years. We could tell that the city has been investing in infrastructure, and the people were amazing. One of the highlights of this city was a brand new museum that explored the art, humanities, and archeological artifacts from prehistoric Belgrade up until the 1990s. I think this city is on its path to being the next Sarajevo or Zagreb, particularly because of its history and gorgeous landscape.
Unfortunately we were not able to visit any CrossFit gyms in Belgrade, but we were able to experience the culture of the largest Balkan city. Serbia has a ton of history that predates what I am going to explain, and there are many factors that contributed to recent history so it is best that I stick to the facts. The 2 conflicts that we learned about the most were the Bosnian War and the NATO bombings of Belgrade. The Bosnian war, which included the Siege of Sarajevo, lasted over 4 years (1992-1996), and the NATO bombings lasted only a few months in 1999 (I will revisit the siege of Sarajevo later in this post). The Serbs seem to have been the instigators in both of these conflicts. Our view of the Serbs was very negative after learning about these conflicts, but all of the Serbs that we encountered could not have been nicer. The city of Belgrade was visibly scarred and reminders of their past were everywhere. Completely abandoned buildings and houses lined every street that we walked down. Brutalist architecture was unavoidable, and some buildings that had been destroyed in the bombings had simply not been cleaned up or rebuilt. That being said, we could tell that we entered the city during a transitional period. They are investing heavily in cleaning things up, catering to tourists, and building new infrastructure.
After a very educational and surreal experience in Belgrade, we continued on the highway to Bosnia. This was the first time that we had some issues crossing the border. Us being in a German rental car, having American passports, and not being able to speak a Balkan language all contributed to a frustrating encounter, but they eventually let us into the country. Driving through the Bosnian countryside reminded us of driving from Boise to McCall, it was very familiar, but very foreign all at the same time. The first thing that you notice when you drive into Sarajevo is that they are very proud of hosting the olympics in 1984. We could not go one block without seeing the olympic rings! Another very noticeable detail that differentiated this city from other Balkan cities was the amount of mosques. I had never seen a mosque before, or at least I did not know what they looked like before this trip, but now they were literally on every corner. There are over 500 mosques in the city of Sarajevo. We learned that one of the largest divides between Balkan identities are their religions. Bosnians are overwhelmingly Muslim, Serbs are Orthodox, and Croats are Catholic. Even though there is a large distinction between the cultures, Sarajevo makes it a point to let every visitor know that all cultures are welcome in the city. We stood next to the Jewish cemetery while listening to the Muslim call to prayer, all the while surrounded by Catholic and Orthodox churches. It was truly bizarre, but also comforting knowing what freedom means to these people.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina we dropped in to CrossFit Sarajevo. We started the class by rolling out with lacrosse balls, then moved to foam rollers, then transitioned into a general warm up on the track (we were training in the former olympic training center) that included burpees, squats, pistols, and running. We had two metcons during this class. The first was 21-15-9 of clean and jerks, and burpees over the bar. The second metcon was a 16 minute EMOM (every minute on the minute), 1st minute was 16 wall balls, and the 2nd was 8 chest to bar pullups (8 rounds total). Both workouts were insanely difficult. Our coaches were amazing and gave us recommendations for what to do with the rest of our day. We ate the food they suggested and visited the old town, but one of the coolest things we did was take a gondola ride to the old bobsled track from the 1984 olympics.
Similar to Belgrade, it was hard not to notice the impact that the war had on the city. What particularly stood out was the damage from mortars and shrapnel. We took a tour from a local girl called the “War Scars Tour” where we viewed parts of the city that were badly affected by the war. We learned that the Bosnian war started with the breakup of Yugoslavia, a nation state that was created after World War 1. Yugoslavia’s breakup began in 1991, and the largest contributor to the breakup was different ethnic groups seeking their independence (groups that eventually earned their independence and are recognized states today include: Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro). When Bosnia declared their independence, this angered the Serbs that were living in Bosnia. The Bosnian Serbs did not want Bosnia be their own nation. This led to a 4 year conflict where Sarajevo was blockaded, surrounded, hammered daily with mortar shellings, and snipers would fire at anyone out in the open. This conflict killed 15,000 people, 1,500 of them children. Many Serb commanders and leaders were tried and convicted for their war crimes in this conflict. NATO intervened in 1995, which eventually led to the end of the war in Yugoslavia, but not before the Serbs killed 8,000 civilians in an attempted ethnic cleansing in the town of Srebrenica. These Muslim Bosnians were lined up and shot, and buried in mass graves. I highly urge you to read further on this conflict and the atrocities that were committed. We cannot forget our past, and if we do we are doomed to make the same mistakes.
I do not understand how a large group of people can be convinced to commit such heinous acts. Fighting for what you believe in is one thing. But shooting children with a sniper rifle is a completely different thing. Lining people up and shooting them in cold blood is unexplainable. I am very happy that people were held accountable for their actions, but it is still disturbing that this happened so recently. There are multiple genocides still happening today in southeast Asia, the Middle East, and in Africa. The cause for ALL of these genocides? Religious intolerance. It is a group of people who do not like another group of people because of their beliefs. Modern Bosnians have the right idea, no one is judged or persecuted for their beliefs, and all religions are respected and tolerated. In America, some people may take for granted the ideas laid out in the Bill of Rights. Our founding fathers witnessed persecution of people because of their speech and religion, but had the foresight to know that these two things need to be protected above all else. We can all sleep soundly at night knowing that the government is not going to knock down our door and kill us because of what we practice or what we say. The most important takeaway from our trip was this lesson. We do sometimes take our freedoms for granted, but learning about history will educate us on how lucky we really are.