Republika Bosna i Hercegovina (Bosnia and Hercegovina), shortly BiH.
The name refers to two historical regions with Hercegovina (also Herzegovina) in the South
and Bosnia as the rest of present BiH. The name Hercegovina refers to
the German word "Herzog", which means 'duke'. It refers to
Duke Stjepan Vukčić, ruler of the South around the 15. century.
When talking about Bosnia (from now on used as the short form for Bosnia Hercegovina!), it's necessary
to mention two more place names: Federacija Bosne i Hercegovine (abbr.: FD),
formerly known as the Muslim Croat Federation (not all Bosniaks are Muslims, hence the change), and the
(Republika Srpska, abbr. RS), the Serb dominated area. See below for more details.
Area: rd. 51'129 km² (almost twice as big as Massachusetts).
51% of the area belongs to the Federatian (FD), the rest (49%) belongs to the Republika Srpska (RS).
Warning: Due to the war, there are
minefields left which might cover bigger areas in the countryside and suburbs. If you are not
sure, stick to paved areas. Do not ignore mine related warning signs.
Population: almost exactly 4,000,000* (2004);
around the same as Alabama.
48% Bosnians (also called Bosniaks), 37.1% Serbs, 14.3% Croats, 0.6% others (2000) *
40% Muslems (not all Bosnians are Muslims, hence the gap),
31% Serbian Orthodox, 15% Roman Catholic, 14% others*
Time zone: As in middle Europe: GMT +01 hr, with daylight-saving time
(+1 hour) in summer.
Languages: Serbian. Bosnian. Croatian.
The difference between these languages is not very big - as a matter of fact,
all of the speakers understand each other well. Serbs and therefore most parts of the
Republika Srpska use the Cyrillic alphabet. More about Serbian and the
alphabet see →Serbia and Montenegro.
In the Federation, the Roman alphabet is used. Vowels are read as written
and follow the Italian/Latin pronunciation system (i = ee as in bee etc).
Most consonants are pronounced as in English, but there are some
consonants with diacritical marks:
The most remarkable difference between Bosnian and Serbian/Croatian, formerly known as Serbo-Croatian,
is the relatively high number of words exported from the
→Turkish language, which of course has
- C (c) is always read as the 'ts' in 'tsar'
- Ć (ć) as 'tch' in 'catch'
- Č (č) slightly weaker as 'ć', as 'ch' in 'chip'
- Đ (đ) soft, close to the 'g' in 'rage'
- H (h) as the 'ch' in the Scottish word 'loch' (phonetical symbol: 'X')
- Š (š) as 'sh' in 'ship'
- Ž (ž) Soft, as the 'g' in 'mirage'
For a table with important vocabulary in comparison to other Slavonic languages refer to
→Table of Slavic words.
In general, getting around with English is not a problem, although
a substantial number of Bosniaks rather speak German.
The characteristic triangular shape of the country has been depicted in the
country's flag (made by the EU!). Bosnia-Herzegovina only has a 20 km coastline at
the Adriatic Sea around the small city of Neum. Most of the
country is covered by hills and mountains, with the 2,386 m high Maglić
at the border to Montenegro being the highest mountain of the country. Because of the
topographical conditions, arable land is quite limited and its share comparatively small. Herzegovina,
i.e. the Southern part of the country, is rather mountainous and wild with jagged and steep
mountains and treeless valleys. The green North could be everywhere in Middle Europe. The West,
i.e. the Bosnian part of the Krajina, is characterized by karst forms.
In the North, the long Sava river marks the Northern border to Slavonia,
the Northeastern province of →Croatia.
The Sava finally flows into the Danube at →Belgrade, capital of Serbia.
Almost all rivers of the country, among them the long river Bosna, are tributaries of the
Needless to say that high mountains stand for mountainous climate. This means, that summers in Bosnia are
long and warm, but winters can be freezing cold, with snow even falling in springtime.
Along with neighbouring areas, present-day Bosnia first was settled by Illyrians, to be followed by the Romans.
After the Roman Empire had been divided into East and West in 395 AD, Bosnia, together with
→Croatia, became part of the Western Roman Empire.
On the other hand, present-day →Serbia was swallowed by the
Eastern Roman Empire, soon to be called Byzantium. The border between both Empires in those times as well as
the Serbian-Bosnian border today was marked by the small
Drina river. The first Slavic tribes settled around the 6th century. Bosnia became a part of Serbia,
but only until the year 960. After that, the area was a plaything for several stronger kingdoms. At the end, only one empire
proved to be strong enough. The Turkish occupation started in 1463 and soon included the whole of Bosnia.
Despite several uprisings, the Turkish stayed for more than 400 years.
During the long period of foreign rule, many Bosniaks converted to Islam, and so even today most Bosniaks are Muslims.
Hence, Bosnia emerged as the interface between Islam and Christianity - in the middle of Europe.
After the defeat of the Turks in 1879 (see also →History of Bulgaria),
the Congress of Berlin made Bosnia a part of Habsburg-ruled Austria-Hungary.
Naturally, Bosniaks were not happy about the new foreign rule. As a matter of fact, affinity to the neighbours in the
East remained much higher.
In 1914 the situation escalated, as one of the many archdukes of the Austria-Hungarian monarchy
was assassinated in →Sarajevo by a Bosnian Serb. Austria-Hungary, feeling provoked,
instantly declared war on →Serbia, Russia was ready to help the Serbs and
declared war on Austria, with Germany joining in to back Austria etc. The end of the story is well known.
After World War I and the defeat of Austria-Hungary, Bosnia became a part of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes,
which was renamed Yugoslavia (yugo = Southern) in 1929. Twelve years later, during WW II, Bosnia was
occupied by fascist →Croatia. Soon the partisan movement grew
stronger. Especially in mountainous Bosnia, partisans offered stiff resistance. After the war, Bosnia-Herzegovina
was granted the status of a republic within the newly-founded and communist-led Yugoslavia under the rule of marshal Tito.
Even before 1990, a conflict smouldered below the surface. →Slovenia,
→Croatia and →Macedonia
started to sever with the crumbling Yugoslavia. In Bosnia, Muslims and Croats formed an alliance and declared independence
in 1991. The strong Serbian minority in Bosnia didn't approve of the decision and installed their own
government in Pale, a small town near →Sarajevo.
And so the tragedy started. It was not just a tragedy for Bosnia, but also for the EU and the United Nations.
Both immediately acknowledged Bosnia's independency, which of course was provoking the Bosnian Serbs - without being
asked, they were to be forced into the new country. In March 1992, Bosnians confirmed the wish for independence in a public
decree, boycotted by Bosnian Serbs. Soon after, Bosnian Serb snipers picked off some demonstrators in
→Sarajevo leaving the first civilians dead. One month later, the capital came under siege, and
Serb dominated forces of the JNA (Yugoslav National Army) soon managed to seize around 70 % of Bosnia. Croats and
Bosniaks, still allied, tried to resist but were not really successful. Bosnian Serbs under the rule of psychiatrist
Radovan Karadžić immediately launched ethnic cleansing
operations in the occupied territories. Responses by the EU and UN were limited to wagging a finger at Bosnian Serbs.
A country in ruins: frontline in Mostar
Things got even worse in 1993. At that point, it was not just Serbs against the rest, but also
Croats fighting Bosniaks. Especially the area around →Mostar became the scene
of a bloody showdown between Bosniaks and Croats. In the West around the city of Bihać
a local Bosnian commander called Abdić established his own little province with a private army of about
6,000 troops. The conflict in Bosnia deepened when he started to fight Bosnian regulars as well. The UN slowly took action and
created so called Protected Areas - all of them Muslim enclaves encircled by Bosnian Serbs.
The protected areas included the above-mentioned Bihać, Goražde, Srebenica, Tužla and Žepa.
Unfortunately, the UN forgot to protect the protected areas. Sarajevo was besieged and heavily shelled for more than 3 years.
In July 1995, Bosnian Serbs overran the protected area of Srebenica, killing approximately
6,000 fleeing Bosniaks. At that time, around 400 UN soldiers were present - however, they were not allowed to use
any sort of weapons. Shortly after, another protected area, Žepa, fell.
After a while, the UN was present, having sent in so-called UNPROFOR forces. However, the 'blue helmets' were
not allowed to use firearms and therefore helpless. One day, the Bosnian vice-president was dragged out an armoured
UNPROFOR car by Serbian militia and executed immediately in front of the poor soldiers. Finally it was planned to send in
other international troops in order to protect - not the civilians, but the withdrawal of UNPROFOR forces. More than
30 cease-fire agreements were negotiated - none of them lasted. Instead, all parties used the truce to strengthen their
positions and re-form military units. Many peace initiatives with beautiful names such as Vance-Owen or
Vance-Stoltenberg were put forward. All of them more or less amounted to the same conclusion - Bosnia
needs to be partitioned along ethnic lines. Still, other countries hesitated to intervene for several reasons. The situation
in Bosnia was highly confusing, and the mountainous terrain didn't promise a quick and bloodless operation. Furthermore, there's no
oil in Bosnia. At least the Bosnian Serbs didn't hesitate and chained around 300 UN soldiers and observers to potential
air raid targets, e.g. military obejcts etc. Worldwide, images of concentration camps flickered on TV screens - now in technicolor.
September 1995: Sarajevo's deadly siege had already lasted more than 3½ years, leaving an estimated 16,800 citizens dead.
Four months after the fall of Srebenica, the UN eventually gave permission to launch massive air raids.
Within a few days, NATO forces in their first military combat action in history flew more than 500 attacks against Bosnian Serbs.
Almost at the same time, rapid reaction forces managed to crack and lift the siege of the capital using heavy artillery. This again
forced Bosnian Serb leaders together with Serbia's president Milošević, who of course massively
suppported Bosnian Serbs, to return to the negotiating table.
The quintessence of the Bosnian tragedy is the bitter realization of the fact that such atrocities are not limited to faraway places like
Kongo, but are also possible in the middle of Europe. Another lesson taught was the fact that the UN is not strong enough to
handle a full-scale war. The same helplessness appeared a few years later before the 2nd Iraq war. At the end, the
Dayton Accord was widely accepted. According to this agreement, prewar external borders were confirmed,
but Bosnia was divided into two so-called entities - 51% belong to the
Federation Bosnia-Herzegovina (abbr. FD), commonly known as the Muslim-Croat Federation, 49% are to be
the territory of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, for short Republika Srpska (RS), with the capital being
transfered to Banja Luka. The narrow Posavina-Corridor in the North of Bosnia
connects the Eastern and Western parts of the RS. The situation in Brčko near the corridor proved to be
too complicated, and so the town was granted the status of an "International Town".
At least both parties agreed on a common flag, common currency (with two versions!), common number plates and so on. Traffic
between FD and RS is increasing. The international community is pumping money into the country to rebuild the infrastructure.
More-or-less moderate politicians took over in the RS. International IFOR-forces are in place to
protect the precious peace. However, it will take more than one generation to return to normal life and to normalize relations between all
ethnic groups (see also →Mostar!)
How could all of that happen? What's the postwar life like? Is it possible to
return to normality, anyway? These questions bothered me for quite a while.
To find an answer, or at least fragments of it, I decided to use another Balkan
tour to go to Bosnia. Situation in 2001 was rather stable, but for safety reasons
we only opted for two places in Bosnia. Unfortunately we hadn't had the time
to include a trip to Republika Srpska - thus, the picture is by far not complete.
Not surprisingly, we couldn't answer question #1. We found out a lot about #2.
As for question #3, we found some answers, but the result was far away from
being satisfying, not to say shocking.
Most Europeans, Americans, Canadians and Japanese do not need a visa -
a passport is enough. It goes without saying that the passport must be valid for
at least three more months after arrival. Australians and some other nationalities
still require a visa, so it is recommended to check with the embassy beforehand.
Allegedly it's necessary to register with the local police if not staying in a hotel.
We didn't, and no one asked for related paperwork at the border.
Yugoslavian money has not been valid for a long time. For a certain period
of time, the Deutschmark was in use - as in
→Serbia & Montenegro.
In 1998, the Deutschmark was substituted by the so called
Konvertibilna Marka (KM) (convertible Mark), the exchange rate
was 1:1, and it's still fixed. The plural form is 'Maraka'. One KM is 100 Pfeniga (from the
German word 'Pfennig'). There are two versions of each bill - one has Cyrillic inscriptions
on top and the Roman version below, and vice versa. Even the portrait is different.
Probably printed in a 51:49 parity...
The 'Mark' is alive - at least in Bosnia
There are 10, 20, 50 Pf and KM 1, KM 2 coins. Bills come in KM 0.50 (!), 1, 5, 10, 20, 50 and
100 KM versions. Naturally it can be difficult to use bigger bills in smaller shops and restaurants.
In daily life, KM 1 bills are the most important ones. The exchange rate, formerly tied to the
Deutschmark, is now tied to the Euro. I.e. € 1 = KM 1.95.
There is no lack of ATM's in bigger cities, accepting common
credit cards and Maestro, Cirrus (formerly EC) etc. cash cards. The usual fee per
transaction is € 4. Cash can be exchanged everywhere. In the RS, the New Serbian
Dinar, in other parts the Croatian Kuna is widely accepted at exchange booths. In 2001, the
Deutschmark was accepted everywhere. I presume, nowadays it's the Euro being the most
useful currency besides the KM.
Beware: It's almost impossible to exchange KM outside the country. Hence,
it's a good idea to get rid of all Bosnian money left before leaving the country.
Prices can be compared to those of →Serbia & Montenegro.
Bosnia is considerably cheaper than →Croatia.
However, in some places there's a lack of accommodation alternatives for travellers, i.e.
accommodation can be quite expensive compared to other countries in the Balkans.
Private rooms are around KM 10 for one person. Food is cheap, especially for self-caterers. Transport
is also inexpensive. Prices in →Sarajevo are much higher.
As an active backpacker, moving around a lot and eating out in cheaper restaurants, one should
allow for KM 30 to 50 a day.
By airplane, bus or train. There are several international bus and air connections to
various capitals in Europe. Trains aren't very helpful, since there are only a few
connections. Recently, a quite popular connection had been re-opened. It's a direct train from
→Budapest to →Sarajevo via
→Osijek (Eastern Slavonia) and →Pécs
(Southwest Hungary). There's one train a day, travel time is around 12 (in letters: twelve!) hours.
There's another slow train to the Adriatic Sea, which starts at the Croatian coastal town
Ploče via →Mostar and ends at
→Sarajevo. It's only one or two or so connections a day - at least in 2001.
Service might have been discontinued!! Check beforehand!
Busses are often the one and only option. They go everywhere in Bosnia and
connect cities in the RS with the FD. There are daily busses from
→Sarajevo and →Mostar
to →Dubrovnik in Croatia. Tickets are not sold in advance (at least
not in Dubrovnik). The bus fills up quickly in summer, so it's better to show up early. Countless busses
from destinations in Bosnia and neighbouring countries head for Međugorje
in Hercegovina, which is a famous place of pilgrimage near →Mostar.
There is no bus at all from Sarajevo to Eastern Slavonia
(Northeast Croatia). To go there and to Hungary, it's necessary to go to Tužla first.
The whole trip to →Osijek costs 32.5 KM (€ 16).
Border crossings: There are numerous border crossings to
→Serbia and Montenegro (SCG). Most nationalities
do not require a visa for both countries, so one can travel freely. However,
border examinations can be fierce and take up to several hours when travelling by bus.
All border crossings to Serbia are inside the RS. The border between RS and FD is not
visible and can be crossed without passing any checkpoints.
Food and drinks:
Čevapćići, Burek and Co -
Bosnia offers the typical Balkan diet, heavily influenced by Turkish food.
Which means, that if you love grilled meat, you'll find yourself in paradise. For more information
on Balkan food, see →Serbia & Montenegro and
There are many food stalls around, and not infrequently they are better than restaurants.
Needless to say, variety in bigger cities is much wider. Recently, nice café's and
Italian restaurants etc. have mushroomed.
Bosnia produces drinkable wine. Beer is quite common, too. There's definitely no lack of
fire water - mostly limited to the usual Balkan stuff, such as Rakija (also Loza)
and Šlivovica, distilled from plums or grapes
or whatever the distiller could get his hands on. Very popular with locals.
Official website of the BiH government. Serbo-Croatian and English.
Official website of the government of the Republika Srpska. English version available.
Bosnia's railway company 'ŽBH'. Includes a map of all connections. Site is still poor. Bosnian only.
Private photo collection from Bosnia. Unfortunately without explanations, but the
pictures are beautiful.
Official website of Bosnia's tourist agency.
The German text on 'extreme sports' goes like this:
"In a land, where nature reigns supreme...one cannot be anything else then extreme. If you'd thought that
the war was crazy, then wait until you were at Mt...." (sic). Ouch!
Do you have or do you know a good website on Bosnia? Don't hesitate, let me know!
After checking it, I would love to add it to the link list.
Please note that commercial websites will be declined. For e-mail link see menu on the left.