April 20, 2003


By Dave Rupel

For many, a first trip to Europe probably conjures up images of London, Paris, or Rome. When I began planning my first trip to Europe in 1998, I thought the same. That is until I had a conversation with a friend of mine who had been to Berlin. He told me he had been fortunate enough to see the city both before and after the fall of the infamous wall and the reunification of Germany. The changes were startling and drastic as East Berlin soon started to look more and more identical to its Western counterpart.

And then suddenly, it struck me. Maybe travel isn’t simply about seeing historical places. Maybe, travel is about history itself.

I work in Hollywood as a television writer/producer and had been doing research about modern day war. I’d read many books about the 1992-95 war that devastated Bosnia & Herzegovina. (That’s one of the countries that used to be part of Yugoslavia in Eastern Europe.) With stories of mass graves and concentration camps, it sounded as if World War II was repeating itself – something that was hard to fathom in the 1990s.

And that’s when the idea hit me. For my first trip to Europe, I should go to Bosnia. I should go to a place that was at a specific point in its history. A place, that unlike London or Paris, if I didn’t see if for five years, would change drastically.

I started doing research, despite the fact that I never thought I could really make such a trip happen. Even though 2 _ years had passed since the Dayton Accord was signed that ended the war, the US Government still had a “no visitors” policy to Bosnia. Apparently, the truce was considered shaky and there were still thousands of hidden bombs planted around the country. Couple that with the fact that few of the normal everyday services had been re-established and Bosnia was not considered a safe place for Americans.

Still, I wanted to go. I kept going back to my initial thought: this country is at a crucial point in its history. How amazing and informative would it be to see it in person rather than just read it in books?

It turned out to be shockingly easy to set up - a few simple phone calls provided me with the one thing that could gain me entry into Bosnia: a journalist’s badge.

A few more phone calls and I had arranged an interpreter to travel around with me. Next thing I knew, I was on the phone with Air Croatia making arrangements for a flight.

A month later, I landed in Zagreb, Croatia, where my two-week odyssey would begin. I toured around Croatia first (it had been attacked prior to Bosnia), before moving into Bosnia. Over countryside that reminded me much of my home state of Indiana, I visited refugee camps, saw bombed out cities, and even went to the unearthing of a recently discovered mass grave.

For a person who had made his living coming up with fictional stories, seeing this unimaginable, yet very real, evil in front of my own eyes was almost too hard to comprehend.

And yet, every time I wanted to give up, to run away to the nearest spa or western European comfort, I heard the voice of an elderly woman I had met in the refugee camp – Grandma Juliana, is how she introduced herself. This was not the first war she had suffered through – having previously survived World War II. For the second time in her life, she lost everything she owned.

“I don’t care about my house,” she told me. “I don’t care about my things. The only thing I want is for people to know. I want them to know what happened to us.”

So I listened. And I continued on my journey.

There is one image I don’t think I’ll ever forget. At the mass grave, a tent had been set up for people who were missing loved ones. Most of the bodies were too badly decomposed to easily identify, so in the tent, items were displayed in hopes people would recognize something. In a corner, there was a wristwatch, taken off one of the bodies.

The watch was still running.

How horrible that must have been, I thought, for that man’s children to find this. To see something, connected to their long missing father, that was still working. Still alive, in a sense. How that must have haunted them.

To me, that watch was the perfect symbol of the unspeakable cruelty that surrounded this place.

And yet, my trip to Croatia and Bosnia wasn’t all sad times. For every horrifying thing I saw, I met an equally courageous person with an amazing story to tell. Amir, a Sarajevo attorney, who was shot in the chest by a sniper. His fiancée, also an attorney, had to remove his stitches because bombing was too bad to get to a hospital. Two years later, when the war showed no signs of ending, they went ahead with their wedding. In a basement. With what food and liquor they had managed to save. “Life had to go on,” he told me. “Life had to go on – or else they would win.”

After two weeks, I left Bosnia. I didn’t have a tan. I didn’t have souvenirs, or other things that many people associate with vacations.

But I had gained experiences and memories that would change the way I view the world – for the rest of my life.

And isn’t that what travel is all about?

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