What made you want to lead this tour to Bosnia and Herzegovina?
Ever since I first went to Former Yugoslavia (FY) in 1992, I have been fascinated by the region – its history, the culture, the politics and the seemingly never-ending need for one or other of the peoples or factions to seize the advantage over the others. I saw much of this at first hand as the commander of the first British brigade which was sent out to operate with the United Nations (UN) in Bosnia i Hercegovina and, subsequently, I was involved in the NATO operation to re-establish peace and freedom of movement there and, later still, I worked for the UN in Kosovo, one of 2 semi-autonomous provinces of FY. So, I was pretty much immersed in the region for about 12 years and came to understand, in part, what makes the people tick and what drives them forward. It is a harsh land, full of beauty and contrasts – rugged, precipitous and rocky mountains, alpine pastures, glorious forests, towering waterfalls and fast flowing rivers, an architectural range reflecting both southern Europe and ancient Turkey and a people who can demonstrate charm and kindness in equal measure with suspicion and fear of the unknown. It is a fascinating part of the world and it was extraordinary that, in 1992, as we looked around for background information to help us understand what it was that we were about to do, there was a dearth of anything to read and it was as though we in the West had locked that door as Gavrilo Princip, the 19 year old Bosnian Serb student, pulled the trigger and assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Now there is no end of good reading material and, the more one looks into the subject, the more one wants to discover much more still. Consider this: in the last thousand years of Continental European history, the shape of first tribal and then national boundaries in FY must have changed scores of times as warring factions, under the banner of religion or differing cultures or just plain greed, took control of neighboring lands and states. In all this time, the British Isles only saw 2 major changes – the merging of Scotland and England and Wales and the changes in relation to Ireland. Our lives, here in the British Isles, cannot be compared with the almost constant hell that the peoples of the Balkan peninsular have experienced in the lat millennium. If I can begin to make sense of what this region is like, then this tour will achieve its aim – to help to unravel the mystery of this strange and beautiful land, a place just 3 hours from London.
What is it you are most looking forward to on this tour?
I want to share my fascination of FY with people who are interested and to try to explain to them the sheer complication of running a country that has experienced, as we never have, so much dramatic change in its history. It is a region of one people, the South Slavs, with 3 religions, not one of which has been a comfortable bed-fellow with another. Government and control of the people over the centuries has been a mixture of sophistication, cajoling and harsh cruelty. The influence of Islam for over 600 years, both as landlord and neighbor, has had, depending upon ones involvement, a beneficial and a devastating effect. The geography of the land – vast mountain ranges and poor communications – lends fear and suspicion to the people which leads to aggression and mayhem in turn. And, never forget, it is, to the north and east anyway, the land of myth and black tales of Dracula, Vlad the Impaler and fairies! If, between us, we can explore this extraordinary region, and come back with a few answers, then that will bring me a huge amount of satisfaction.
What do you think the major highlights are going to be?
Sarajevo, the crossroad between east and west, is a truly amazing city, not only because of its extraordinary history and mix of architecture, ranging in style between Habsburg and Ottoman, but also because of its place in recent history as the survivor of one of the cruellest and most devastating sieges in living memory, a siege which lasted for 3 years and one in which thousands of innocent people died but where the will to survive and win was never extinguished. We shall visit Mostar, in the heart of Hercegovina and site of the fabulous Ottoman bridge, rebuilt after the needless destruction of the original in 1993. This city is built in the shadow of some of the toughest terrain in the country and its people reflect that harsh environment. The bridge over the River Drina, the link between Orthodox and Catholic Christianity is another magnificent legacy of Ottoman engineering, a 15th C masterpiece which established the open road between Sarajevo and Constantinople and there we shall also meet Muki Tutić and Nihad Glusćić, men from Gorazde who, aged 23 and 14 respectively at the time, will tell us about the part they played in driving off the Bosnian Serb aggressors in 1993. All that aside, it will be a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the food, again a mixture of east and west, to try the local wines and to bask in the fresh air of the high Dnaric Alps.