So, I’ve skipped roughly three years in my life because those were spent living in London and are neither that interesting nor that memorable. I played football and tennis, had a friend that lived down the road, asked Teddy Sheringham why footballers seem to hate each other, and still had hair.
I started boarding school while we were living in London, aged 10 (or, more specifically, aged 9 and 363 days, or something). After my first year of boarding school, my family moved to Sarajevo in Bosnia & Herzegovina. This was in 1997.
The Bosnian War had started in 1992 and ended in 1995. Sarajevo had been surrounded and under siege for much of the war, with the infamous Sniper’s Alley bringing a different kind of terror to the fall of artillery, rockets, and mortars. My family came to a city two years removed from what still probably felt like a fragile peace.
My father told me that my first trip out to Sarajevo was somewhat an accident. He and my mum had discussed their concerns about exposing their children to the risks and dangers of Bosnia, thinking it best that we spend the Christmas holiday in the UK. Then my dad discovered it would not be possible for him to leave, so they decided to expose us to the risks and dangers. So, Christmas 1997 was my first experience of Sarajevo.
I remember the airport when I arrived, showing signs of the war, the ceiling exposed, black, bullet marks covering the walls. I don’t remember the drive from the airport, which is a shame. The drive certainly would have included Sniper Alley, though I would not have recognised the significance of it then. We arrived at our apartment building, which was attractive, much like the rest of the city, but marked by the impact from small arms fire. It was also somewhat lethal in winter, as long icicles hung from the roof, ready to fall and crush you at any moment. This was not one of the expected risks of Sarajevo. The building was next to the river. Visible from our apartment, downriver, was the site of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Hungary, the spark for World War 1 as anyone who studied history at school will have been told. Bit simplistic, but that’s what you get.
I have this weird memory of the river looking like it was flowing upwards. I don’t know why. Just odd.
Our apartment itself consisted of several large, spacious rooms with high ceilings. My sister and I shared a bedroom. There may have been a large sitting room and separate dining room, but I can’t recall exactly. I spent a lot of time sitting on the floor watching FOX cartoons (Mortal Kombat, for some reason, with some Spiderman thrown in, I think?).
Some constants about life in that apartment: we had running water twice a day, an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening. So, if you visited the apartment you would have seen large barrels for water, one in the toilet. That was vital. When you used the toilet outside water hours, you had to use a plastic jug, fill it with water from the barrel, then chuck it into the toilet to simulate the flushing experience. Sometimes it required a few more attempts, but it worked.
Electricity was also unreliable, with power cuts happening every so often. This meant that we had a special battery for the computer in the event of a power cut, to protect the computer. Very important for my games of Caeser III. Probably useful for my dad as well.
I remember one time, going into my room, when I turned on the light, a bulb shot out from its socket. This light was a small chandelier, with the lights swept out in a circle, pointing at each part of the room. One of the lights was aimed straight at me when I turned it on, but, fortunately, it was not the light that shot off at speed. I’ve always lived life on the edge, clearly.
For those with an eye to politics, there are photos of me doing strip the willow or some other Scottish dance, with the future chief of Staff of David Cameron, Ed Llewellyn. I don’t remember my thoughts on him at the time, though my sister does.
I remember my mother and I went to the Markale market on occasion, which was walking distance from our apartment. I remember two things distinctly: amazing bread, and paint. I don’t know what was special about the bread, I just remember it being shaped sort of like a banana, maybe with a coating of sugar, and it being delicious. The paint you might think is an odd thing to remember. In the market there were numerous potholes that had been filled in with red paint. Was this some money saving expedient? To some extent, perhaps, but it was also a kind of memorial. Each pothole filled with paint was the site of a bomb or mortar that had killed more than one person. The market was a regular target, so these paint marks were scattered all over the market. Life goes on. Indeed, you could see these paint filled potholes throughout the city, not just in the market.
At night, I recall hearing distant bangs: mines or guns, I could not be sure. Mines were a constant source of concern and pretty much the reason I did not spend much time exploring the greener parts of Bosnia. Unfortunately, unlike in the Falkland Islands (which is, admittedly, the international anomaly) Serb forces did not map where they placed the mines. So, no one knows where there are mines until someone “discovers” one. Then, of course, people were left to wonder if that was the only one, or one of many. Areas were not cordoned off, but large signs were placed on the site to inform people that a mine had gone off there and there were likely more.
My mum and I played tennis on a court beside which was one of these landmine signs (just a universal sign for explosion). I hit a ball out of the court into this area of potential mines. My mum and I had assumed the ball was lost and thought little of it, but a kid who had been nearby went into the grass, got the ball and returned it to us. I hope that kid has grown up unscathed by any other “adventures”.
The family went on several trips during our time in Bosnia. We went to a town called Mostar, which required even more reconstruction efforts than Sarajevo, it seemed, as the fighting had been street to street. We went to Mostar in the summer of ’98, I think. I assume this because I remember, after a long drive in an air conditioned car, stepping out of the car and almost being knocked down by the sudden heat. Bosnia is one of those places where the winters are genuinely cold, the summers are gloriously hot.
The Neretva river runs through Mostar and the city is famed for its bridges, after whose guardians (mostari) the city was named. Of course, the war meant many of those bridges were destroyed, so there was a great effort to rebuild them, an effort that perplexed many architects as no one was quite sure how one of the bridges, in particular, was built in the first place. My family was given a tour by the ex-Commandant General of the Royal Marines, Sir Martin Garrod. He was responsible for the reconstruction and general running of Mostar. It was only years after this tour that my dad revealed the very real danger we were in. While walking the streets of Mostar, my sister and I walked side by side with the commandant, while my parents were walking a fair distance behind. Unbeknownst to me and my sister, ahead of us and behind us was the commandant’s security detail. Assassination was a very real possibility. The war was over, but people were still fighting. And he was a target for both sides, potentially.
My mum, my sister, and I also went on a rather harrowing trip to find the tallest waterfall in Europe. Okay, so using harrowing in relation to a trip to a waterfall in a country that had just experienced a rather bloody war is probably a bit much, but the trip was not exactly a breeze. There was, first, the matter of the road, which was narrow, with a sheer drop on the right side as we went up. You could see the cars that had tumbled, metal carcasses at the bottom. This worry about the edge was perhaps exacerbated by the fact that one of the drivers could only see out of one eye. We also got lost, as the route is not exactly marked in any way. So we ended up at some kind of bunker on a hill top where a couple of men were hanging out. These men did give us directions, but some on the trip joked that they could very well have been Serb paramilitaries or something.
Once we reached the site of the waterfall, it was not totally easy to see. I said it was the highest, which is true, but it is not large or powerful. It really is a tall, narrow fall of water, which you could just see from the cliff edge, but a better view was achieved by holding on to a tree and leaning out over the drop. The cliff itself was an overhang and you could feel the erosion under your feet, practically. So, all in all, that day probably did very little for my mum’s blood pressure.
The family also went on a holiday to Trogir and Dubrovnik, in Croatia. These are both lovely, medieval towns, Dubrovnik now famous for being a filming location for Game of Thrones. I’m a tad saddened by how little I remember of this trip, but I think my lack of memories here can be explained by the one thing I do remember. Mosquitoes had a field day with me. My sister, her friend, and I shared a room during this trip. After our first night, we complained about mosquito bites. So we decided to count up the bites we had. Now, my sister and her friend had about 10 bites between then, which is unpleasant enough. I, on the other hand, was basically a mosquito buffer, not quite covered head to toe in bites, but with at least 50 bites on the first night. So, itching was a major pastime of my trip to Trogir.
I should tie all this up, really. Obviously these pieces are just snippets of memory, with Bosnia being problematic because my time there was broken up, so my memories are a little jumbled as well. But Bosnia is one of my favourite locations that I have lived in. It was a fascinating place, a bit of an adventure. It was dangerous and obviously the life I had there would have been much better than most of the locals, and I was not dealing personally with the aftermath of a bloody war. But I am glad to have lived there and I think it is a place I would go back to, which I can’t say for every place I have lived. That includes the next place I lived after Bosnia, the Falkland Islands.