From white water rafting to a white-knuckle ride for gay equality in the Balkans

Clark Turner continues his guided tour through the Balkans, finding a mix of natural beauty and a growing gay rights movement in the aftermath of war

Monday morning and we are back on the road. We head deep into the mountains. The area is breathtaking.

Peaks reach for the sky, while valleys plummet to oblivion, cradling local villages. The autumnal forest is a patchwork, in full glory with leaves from seasonal golden yellows to rich reds.

We arrive outside the town Konjic and are reaquainted with the Neretva River for a spot of white water rafting. We’re all eager to get going but are treated first to a traditional breakfast of breads, eggs and ajvar, a delicious homemade smoked garlic and red pepper spread.

Kitted up in wetsuits, helmets and water-friendly shoes, we’re off on that drive that I mentioned in my last article.

The unexpected can always be scary, and as we set adrift along the river there’s an air of anxious anticipation married with excitement. But any fears are soon laid to rest.

The mountain and gorge scenery is picture postcard perfect. We dodge rocks, dips and some racy moments in the foam to get back safely. Now officially an adrenaline junkie, I’m addicted, despite being accused of some gay ‘lily dipping’ by Bruce. Remember, ‘deep and broad strokes boys’!

Some 23km and two-and-half hours later we get to shore, dry off and are treated to a buffet lunch of local specialties including meat and cheese versions of burek, or pie. Stuffed to the gills and it’s off to Sarajevo. En route Mustafa drops a second bombshell.

Tomorrow is to be Eid – a major Muslim holiday equivalent to Christmas. Our tour of the city, planned for the following day, could be off. But even more disappointingly, our trip to the town of Srebrenica (one of the highlights of the trip) for the day after is off too.

We’re distraught. The travel company has obviously known about this for months but hasn’t warned us in advance.

We approach the capital and are greeted by modern tower blocks and shopping malls as we enter via the commercial centre before heading to the old town in the eastern side of the city. Our home for the next two night is the Hostel City Centre. Compared to our accommodation in Mostar it’s a palace – modern and spotless – and after ditching our bags we set out to explore.

Sarajevo is not a destination for major sights. It doesn’t have a Eiffel Tower, Brandenburg Gate or Big Ben, but it still has sites of world importance. Take the rather unassuming Princip Bridge for example and it’s connection with Franz Ferdinand. No, not the band. This is river crossing where world history was changed.

While driving through the city streets on the morning Sunday, 28 June 1914, Auchduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro Hungarian Empire and and his wife were shot and killed by Gavrilo Princip, one of a group of assassins. The incident led to a chain of events that eventually triggered the First World War. There’s a small exhibition dedicated to this event, where you can see the assassin’s gun and other paraphernalia but that’s about it for the Museum Sarajevo 1878 – 1918.

Naturally, as a gay traveller, I’ve done my research into the local haunts. But for a city with around 500,000 residents there appears to be no visible bars or clubs after searching extensively online.

But what I do find is that there have been public and open attacks on gay gatherings. The launch of the Sarajevo Queer Festival in 2008 had to be cancelled after being inflamed by the media and hundreds turning out to protest.

Meanwhile in March this year, seven members of the local gay rights organisation, Okvir (meaning ‘the frame’) were attacked in the city centre by a group of young men twice their number.

Over a coffee, organisation member, Azra, tells me that there has just been another attack on the group. On October 11 a press conference was held to launch a digital lives project highlighting the work of gay activists across Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The event was interrupted by a group of young males, issuing the threat, ‘You faggots! This is not a tolerant city, this is city of the normal people, and you are not normal! This is the last time you do something like this, this is the last time we leave in peace, mark my words!’ A report was filed with the police, but there is still little hope of action being taken.

I’m told that today’s situation is a result of the war. During the conflict gender roles were reinforced – men butched up and fought while women became more domesticated.

Azra tells me that nationalism is on the rise and there is a lot of anger on the streets. So if women want to butch up too these days, that’s OK. But woe betide a men being an out-and-out sissie.

Despite these difficulties, Okvir (formed in June 2011) remains committed to its work and as a result of the current climate, the group seems to primarily consist of a small group of lesbians in their early-20s.

In fact, Sarajevo seems to be a very out lesbian city. Butch and punky girls are easy to spot on the street while obviously out gay men seem non-existent.

There’s no doubting that the group’s intentions are well-placed but in some ways their approach seems confused. They organise non-offensive creative writing, drama and poetry classes. Unfortunately these can’t be openly pre-promoted to avoid sabotage by protesters. So events are only reviewed after they have taken place

But Okvir is also is responsible for plastering the city centre in graffiti proclaiming ‘Qeer (sic) revolt’ married with anarchist symbolism. While the graffiti suggests the organisation is a radical operation, in reality that’s not the case. It’s definitely hung up on the politics of gay rights and equality, but still operates rather anonymously.

Azra explains that the digital lives press launch involved the screening of a video featuring a number of gay activists from across the country.

It’s a brave and radical step – a film that could obviously encourage more people to come out. I ask if it will be hosted on YouTube but am told that that would be ‘too dangerous.’

If gay people want to meet their peers, I’m told that there is a gay/straight party in a club every other Friday. And a quick look at Grindr shows me the boyz are actively online, if not publically out.

The next day, our anticipated tour is indeed cancelled, but is salvaged by our hostel receptionist, Azra (a straight girl!).

We explore Bašcaršija, the central market that is the bustling heart of the city. Low roofed wooden huts, created under the Ottoman rule, are crammed with oriental rugs and tourist tat. Disappointingly on one street famed for it’s artisan metal workers, turkish mass produced imports are being passed off as hand crafted.

Nearby, in Sebilj (Pigeon Square) we drink from the Moorish-style fountain to guarantee our return to the city while dodging the birds drawn by the birdseed seller’s cart.

Mosques appear to dominate the city but Azra explains that the Muslim population is estimated at only 40%. However the exact figure won’t be known until the first census results for almost 20 years come out in 2014.

‘It’s a very harmonious city. It wouldn’t be uncommon for a girl to leave her mosque and meet her friend coming from church to go for a coffee,’ she explains. ‘In fact, this is only place in the world where you can hear church bells at the same time as the Muezzin call to prayer from the mosque. You don’t even get that in Jerusalem. It’s my most favourite sound.

‘People tend to focus on the big national and political issues, but what they should be concentrating is dealing with things that impact on daily life – the high level of unemployment and low wages.’

Azra goes on to add that unemployment affects more than half the population and that the average monthly salary is just €350 ($476) a month. In addition, workers in the private sector are frequently not paid on time and with no Statutory Maternity Pay women often lose their jobs.

The tour continues and we’re shown some infamous Sarajevo Roses, concrete scars caused by a mortar shell explosion that killed three or more people during the war time siege, that were later filled with red resin. The roses are so called as the scars create a unique fragmentation pattern that looks almost floral in arrangement. One, by the local market, marks where tragically up to 80 people and 100 were wounded while queueing for water.

Later that day we visit an exhibition on the infamous Srebrenica massacre. Since the visit to the actual town is cancelled, it seems the next best things to do.

The show chronicles how thousands were drawn to the town during the war after the United Nations Security Council declared Srebrenica a ‘safe area’. Outnumbered by Serbian troops, a 400-strong contingent of Dutch peacekeepers were helpless to intervene as Bosnian men and boys were first separated from women and then driven away.

Over the course of 12–13 July 1995 around 8,300 males were massacred. Some were shot and buried in mass graves, others were imprisoned in buildings that were then bombed. Meanwhile women were systematically raped.

Towards the end of the war, the mass graves were dug up and some bodies moved to secondary graves to try and disguise the crime. As a result, almost 20 years later, families continue to grieve as bodies still remain missing and the search for mass graves continues.

Walking into the space we’re faced with walls of photos of just some of the deceased. Confronted with images of young boys, the true tragedy of this event hits home.

There are also interactive archives, a documentary film and recordings of eye-witness reports. Finally, a wall running the length of a corridor lists the names of those known to be killed. It’s upsetting and sobering, but it’s important this event – the biggest mass killing since the Second World War – is never forgotten, nor its like ever allowed to happen again.

by Clark Turner
Source – Gay Star News