When I look at a map of the Balkans, I am always struck by how small the area is, and how so many ethnicities, countries, and conflicts might be squeezed into it. Given my fascination, it would be silly not to hop the border into Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) for a day while we were honeymooning in Croatia.
We chose to visit Mostar, and to do so we had to cross three borders in each direction, due to Bosnia’s historically-preserved sea-access surrounding the town of Neum.
We were in Bosnia for just a few kilometers, and the border crossings in and out of the country were no more than glorified toll booths. We rolled through the crossing slowly enough to get a glimpse of the guards sitting in the police booth that straddled the border. On one side sat a Croat, on the other a Bosnian. They looked like brothers. They also seemed to be equally bored.
A few hours later, we were at the “real” border crossing, though it looked like no more than a ramshackle barracks, a chain link fence, a cafe for waylaid travelers, and an obscenely long line of would-be border crossers.
The border crossing was uneventful in that we sat in our stuffy minibus for nearly an hour while our guide, passports in hand, took care of business on the ground. What it entailed, I’m not sure, as my passport carries no evidence of crossing the Croat-Bosnian border once, let alone six times in one day.
But there are some indications — cameras and other digital technologies provided with EU funds — that come July 1, this border will cease to be just a fence between two former Yugoslav brothers, and become a border separating the free and prosperous from the oppressed and desolate.
After Croatia’s EU accession, the lines at this border will grow longer, the fortifications stronger. The irony, of course, is that the border separates two peoples that lived together for centuries, speak essentially the same language, and share many of the same customs. It was manufactured by politicians, elites, and ethnic entrepreneurs. And the normal citizens are those affected.
The difference between BiH and its more prosperous Croatian comrade is evident just a few kilometers from the border. Subsistence agriculture seems to feed the countryside; small, family-owned farms with a cow or two line the roadway. Farmers sit at booths by the road peddling the best of their small crops. Desolate shells of one-room homes whiz by occasionally, and its hard to tell if they deteriorated over time or were casualties of war.
Whatever the reason, there is a palpable struggle across the border, not to catch up, but perhaps to finally recover and simply exist.