Whichever way you look at it, today was going to be a big day. Our reason for being in Bosnia will culminate with a visit to both my grandparents’ villages and the place I was born and spent my first 5 years – Banja Luka. Bear with me, this day might be a while in the telling.
But first we have to get there. We encounter a few issues. After yesterday’s punishing potholed patchwork, we find a great road. Signs say that it’s a joint project between Croatia and the EU. Excellent. It all goes smoothly until…at one turn, there’s no more road, just gravel, mud, trucks, bulldozers and men building the rest of the road. The head guy shakes his head and reluctantly waves us through. We dodge the trucks, bulldozers and mud for a while. Uphill. In a 5 tonne vehicle that has not a hint of 4WD about it. Wild horses couldn’t have persuaded me onto that road, but Fearless takes to all in his stride without a second thought. The trick is, he says, to keep the vehicle in motion. Yeah, right. The “non road” flattens and finishes eventually and it’s back to the bone jarring version we had yesterday. Annoyingly, I didn’t photograph the worst bits. Too busy freaking out. I wish I’d captured the look on the man’s face who first spotted us. He looked as horrified as I was. I guess it would have been his job to pull us out if we got stuck.
Chris has changed our plans overnight, crossing to Bosnia at Jasenovac only 40 km from where we start the day. Incredibly, the paperwork and green card purchase at the border only take minutes and we’re in. I was convinced they’d turn us away to a larger crossing. Or turn us away completely. Another couple who arrived before us were not as lucky, they’re still grumpily waiting as we drive away.
I’m a bit nervous about being here. Bosnia is on a 2nd level terrorism warning for travel and there are still landmines here. General consensus is to keep to paved roads and not go near busy public places or events.
The other challenge I’ve been working on for a while is actually finding both grandparents’ villages. They don’t appear on Google (one does, but incorrectly, down south) and it’s only with the help of a map of train stations from Banja Luka (to them) drawn by my mother, that I locate them at all. My savoir is a mapping website which helpfully lists the nearby railway stations of findings and it’s this, compared to Mum’s map, that seals the deal. Both findings come with specific mapping longitude and latitude which can be plugged into satellite navigation. So far, so good.
I have happy memories of my father’s parents’ farm in Lipovac. I remember going with my cousins to watch the goats (might have been sheep? I’m not sure which) graze on the side of the hill. There was a forest at its base, which they told me had wolves in it – I wasn’t to go there. I was pretty sure they were teasing, but fear kept me out. I remember the barn where cows and goats were put away at night, bulls up one end, cows the other, goats corralled in a section of their own. I remember the chicken coop, under the shade of tree, set upon on the silkiest, finest black soil you could imagine. I remember going for walks to the next farm with my aunts, to get Grandfather some cheese. I remember my Grandfather being unwell, saving a pear for me, bringing it out from under his pillow. I remember bouncing into haystacks which had been careful raised, but never once being told off, I remember walking on the railway tracks, listening to for their telltale “singing” to warn you when a train was coming. I remember fields full of wildflowers, endless joy for a child who lived in the city. There are other things too, told to me, but these are my memories.
Lipovac is the closer of the two villages and Tomtom tells us that we’ve arrived. There’s no sign to confirm we’re in the right place. It doesn’t look like I remember it. It’s very rural yes, but there are many houses and farms here, vs the rural landscape I remember. I can’t tell whether it’s the difference of 50 years, the wrong place, or, well, anything really. From the moment we crossed through to Bosnia, I’ve had no internet coverage. I can’t make a call, Google anything or translate. It’s only now, two days later with a random wifi access, that I can post this.
I do recognise the railway line.
And the haystacks, which have not changed in all this time.
I walk from one end of the village to the other from the point TomTom says it is.
The people are friendly and more than a little curious. Each person I pass wishes me a good day. I take a punt on a boy, and ask him if he speaks English. He does. I ask if he knows my cousin. He doesn’t: his English is good. Frustratingly all I’m left with is the ability to take pictures from one end to the other and around the surrounding hills. My eye keeps being drawn to this place, high on the hill, but it’s probably my memory of watching goats grazing on the side of a hill in relative isolation, that’s making me focus on it.
I see a hummingbird moth, a rare treat, but he zooms away before I can photograph him.
Eventually, I have to give up, I’ve seen and photographed all I can. Short of knocking on doors to converse in a language I don’t understand, I can’t achieve anything else.
Less than a few kilometres away is my maternal grandmother’s village of Valentici. It’s accessible only by an uphill rough gravel road, which does nothing for my sense of calm, given the travel warnings.
Again TomTom says we’ve arrived, but there’s no sign announcing the village. There are only a few houses on top of the hill.
The stream my mother spoke of is there (I can see it on Google, despite no data) but it’s a little way off and there’s no visible access to it. Streams rarely run on the top of a hill. This is even more frustrating. I know that a stream was nearby – I remember crossing a terrifying log “bridge” to get from one side to the other as a child. She spoke of a red rock near a stream. Further on, this was as close as I could come to that.
I’m feeling very helpless with no data and no language.
I’ve waited a long time to come here. My parents never came back. My father died without seeing his homeland again or family he loved. My mother asked me to find a landmark that meant a great deal to her. I can’t find it. I feel I’ve let them both down. I can’t tell if it’s the passing of time, name places altered by the victors of war or just my inability to converse in my native tongue that’s at fault. It’s very frustrating. Again, I take photos of what I can. It will have to do. I can’t help but think that if language wasn’t a barrier, this could be solved in moments.
I eventually concede defeat and Chris directs us to Banja Luka.
I have the beginnings of a tension headache engaging, threatening a long stay.
Our way is paved by endless political posters. There must be an election underway – each of the candidates has spent a horrifying amount on personal publicity with billboards every few metres.
My mother’s notes are again invaluable. Our apartment was near the Banja Luka fortress Castle, in between the old bridge and the new bridge on the river Vrbas. I have the street name and a rough idea of the the house number. I have strong memories of living here, the river and the path down to it. This, I should be able to do.
We’ve programmed the Castle carpark into TomTom, so it’s our first view of the city. I’ve been googling it before our arrival – it’s exactly as pictured.
Luckily, I had the foresight to screen shot the street and bridges’ location. For once, having no data is no impediment.
We park, marvel over the fortress, cross the new bridge, and Chris navigates to our old street, nearby.
The house number isn’t quite right (Mum wasn’t quite sure) but I remember. I know there was a block of flats across from us, a square in between. I remember that the bins were at the base of the square and from our block, we could walk directly down to the river. It’s all still there.
There’s the park I “found” a ginger kitten and ran home with it, deeming him “mine”.
The pigeons that visited our windowsill are here still. The only thing missing is the old bridge, currently in the process of being rebuilt. Its footings are there still.
I know I’m in the right place, even if I’m not sure of the house number in this series of apartment blocks.
The flat are worse for wear 50 years on. It’s not how I pictured it. I thought I would feel a sense of home here, in a thriving metropolis, but to my surprise, I don’t. It leaves me feeling a little displaced as I have felt most of my life. Not quite Australian, not quite Yugoslav. Something in between, at home in neither.
There are lots of places selling chevapchichi and burek. This at least makes me feel at home.
We pick up a couple of burek, although what I really want is chevaps. It’s well after lunch but far too early for dinner. They smell fabulous though. The walk back to the castle is filled with the sounds of call to Muslim prayer. It’s foreign to my ears. I don’t remember it from my childhood, despite memories of an integrated culture where the Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims, women at least, all got on well with each other.
We follow the river Vrbas out from Banja Luka, through the gorge.
It’s a richly green expanse of water, carving its way out of the city through farmland then rock. My mind is racing with all it’s seen and equally, failed to achieve today. My head is pounding.
Again, there’s no place to stop. A few places are marked on various apps, but they’re inaccessible (too steep) or simply not where they’re meant to be. We go a lot further than planned, ending up again by the river in a peaceful corner.
We do manage to startle a herd of sheep, on their way home after the day’s grazing. They catch sight of us over the rise and come to a stop.
It takes all the skill of their shepherd to convince them to walk past.
Sleep eludes me. My mind is full of what was, what could have been, and what might yet come to pass. Family. Equal gifts of love and pain. It’s always been that way in mine.