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There’s Only One Way out of Banja Luka

This week Serbia arrested Goran Hadzic, the last Serbian fugitive on the Hague’s wanted listed. It’s expected that the rounding up of the last of these suspected war criminals will clear the way for Serbia’s application to join the EU. Although the war ended long ago, only now, it seems, is that chapter of Serbian history drawing to a close.

Across the border from Serbia lies the Republika Srpska, a largely Serbian state within the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina. While the Balkans are slowly recovering from the bloodshed of the 90s, the Republika Srpska remains in a strange position, neither a part of Serbia nor entirely a part of Bosnia.

When I visited Bosnia the blue berets of international peacekeeping were still a conspicuous if idle presence on the street. They fed the pigeons in Sarajevo and photographed the beautifully reconstructed bridge in Mostar. With nothing to do, they’d become the butt of many a good herpes joke. Still, they were deemed a necessary presence; the region was still too tense, and without the bored peacekeepers, it was impossible to predict what might happen.

I was attracted to the Republika Srpska by a few sparse inches of information in a very outdated Europe on a Shoestring guide. Banja Luka, the main city in the region, was talked about in the usual vague way – there is a river, there is a church, there is a castle – that suggests that whoever wrote or edited the guide hadn’t bothered to investigate the city for themselves.

Arriving at the train station in Banja Luka, I was stunned to find all the signs written in Cyrillic. I hadn’t been prepared for that. There was a small ‘information’ office at the station. Inside was a woman leaning on an empty desk, starring at a crackling TV. I asked if she had a map. She said no. I asked if there was a bank or ATM. She said no. I asked if she knew what the exchange rate from Euros to Convertible Marks was. She said no. As I slunk out of the office a guy walking past beamed at me, gave me thumbs up and said “Banka Luka… OK!”. At that point I was inclined to disagree.

After a few hours of walking I found an ATM, and then a taxi, and then a tourist office, and then my Couchsurfing host. Not many visitors stopped off in Banja Luka, she explained; although tourism was booming in Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and the rest of Bosnia, the Republika Srpska had a reputation for being full of hard-liners and war criminals and not much else.

The Serbs were pretty much the villains of the 90s. During a war in which everyone was fighting dirty, it was the Serbs who emerged with the worst reputation, a reputation which lingered and is only now being consigned to the past.

The people I met in Banja Luka were still struggling beneath the weight of global condemnation. A taxi driver explained to me that he was recruited into the army when he was 17. People were scared and their leaders rabidly nationalistic; in such a climate there was no need for conscription; everyone joined whether they wanted to or not. Once the war ended all the he’d wanted to do was emigrate to another country, to start a normal life. He’d been trying without success for years; no one from the armed forces was being granted a visa.

Later I met a soldier turned journalist turned watermelon vendor. Multilingual and eloquent but stuck selling fruit at a roadside stall, he’d give up on any idea of actual escape, and now sought solace only in Led Zeppelin. There were a lot of young heavy metal bands in Banja Luka, he said. The ones I saw were pretty terrible, but very passionate. They sought catharsis. Everyone did.

Through my host I also met some kids my own age, who had grown up during the war, and remembered it with childlike simplicity. Things were easier during the war, they said. There were always absences, both of people and of things, but everyone knew what they had to do. There was no uncertainty, only perseverance and a kind of grim hope. Since the war ended though, all hope and certainty had gone. They were amazed by how flippantly I could skip about the world. Money and visas were hard to come by for them. Dead end jobs, drinking cheap booze down by the river and going to metal concerts was about all they had.

While Serbia is moving on and may finally be regaining acceptance by the global community, there are plenty of Serbs and other groups still languishing under the weight of the past. The arrest of Hadzic may represent a window of hope, but still the kids of Banja Luka must be scratching their heads and wondering why the easiest way to get a ticket west is to be extradited as a war criminal.

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Phil Johnson

Phil Johnson is an editor at Road Junky and more of his work can be read atHe keeps a his blog. You can also enjoy his bountiful wit via Twitter.