27-Sep-2007 -- The four remaining points in Bosnia and Herzegovina have been sitting untouched on the confluence maps for some time. Though I may be mistaken, as far as I can tell these are the very last unvisited land points in Europe (though the ‘Russian European’ points are unequivocally European, there are still many difficult ones left and others where it may never be known if they are truly Europe or Asia). Gennadiy Korol and Matvey Piskunov’s September 26th posting of the last confluence in Belarus apparently completed all of the non-Russian European land points outside of the Bosnia points.
These Bosnian points have probably been sitting untouched for a very good reason. Adam Rugala, after abandoning his attempt on 45N 18E, explained the suffering, devastation, limbless begging children and mine warnings, a description which was appended by a coordinator’s note warning that one might want to check the safety situation before proceeding. Those terse words, and the accompanying photo of a machine-gunned house, no doubt, scared everyone off, and thus the points were given little further consideration.
I decided to go to Bosnia just to collect the facts and find out first hand what the situation and the danger was. Then, if the situation permitted, I would pursue the points. Even with this seemingly practical approach I had people begging me not to go or saying I was crazy to attempt it…
The quest for these last points took me on an adventure with pitfalls, challenges, surprises, tense moments and happy discoveries. The four stories are individually unique bumpy rides which incidentally contain interesting insight into the Bosnia of today.
So, suddenly, here I was in Bosnia – not your typical holiday destination. How did I get here? Well I’ll fast forward a bit here. I was basically fortunate enough to get a free ride to Norway to attend a course for my company. Then a free flight to Germany, followed by another free private plane flight to Italy with my sister, Meredith, an honored competitor at a horse show in Arezzo (where she incidentally took away the gold medal with flying colors). The rest was easy: a train, a ferry to Croatia, and then a bus to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. So, quite suddenly, I found myself in a place with a world of a difference in temperament.
Though I came to Bosnia for the fun challenge of confluence conquests, I was not left unaffected by the suffering, cruelty, and dark side of humanity implicit in the tragic stories, bullet holes and bomb craters left by the 1992-95 Bosnian War.
My personal connection to the war was that in 1990 I did a very similar trip with a backpack and a rental car around what was then the Bosnian State in Yugoslavia. I shared very memorable and personal experiences with local friends I made. I agonized upon hearing news reports of murder, torture and devastation. As part of this trip, I attempted unsuccessfully to find those friends. A certain part of me is always in pain about what happened in Bosnia. I can only hope that the fate of my friends was better than that suffered by many others.
Today, the people of Bosnia want to move on with their lives and think about tomorrow, rather than agonize about what cannot be repaired. When Adam said he wanted to leave because he found it too disturbing, perhaps he didn’t give it enough time. If he had endured his initial shock, maybe he would have received an emotional boost from the upbeat Bosnians of today who pride themselves on keeping a positive, forward outlook. It’s remarkable how the parties, festivals, public gatherings and coffee shops of today are vibrant and active, without a sign of past hardships. I also found that most people became irritated by questions or references to the war as if it might intrude on their present disposition. Reflection on the past could only be seen by the throngs of people laying flowers at the startlingly ubiquitous ‘new’ cemeteries.
In the search for confluences, some remnants of the past cannot be ignored-namely that of land mines. My first stop was to do some research on the mine situation at the Bosnia and Herzegovina Mine Action Center (BHMAC) in Sarajevo.
As I described what I needed to find out, the staff there gave me plotter print outs of 4 large, detailed color topo maps. These were to become my most valuable tools as they contained all the details of known mine areas, suspected mine areas, cleared mine areas, and the location of ‘accidents’. ‘Accidents’ are where some poor soul had unknowingly stepped on a mine, likely ending up maimed or dead. A lot of the mine map details were given by the actual generals in the war from the records they kept.
At least 3 out of 4 of the confluences were ‘somewhat’ close to landmine areas, but none were in them. The women issuing the maps tried to give the impression that there should be no danger. I was beginning to feel relieved.
But something bothered me. It was the accidents; they appeared fairly random and almost always in locations where there were no known mines. I enquired.
I was told that many of the victims had been farmers or foresters walking in random places where someone had planted a mine for unfathomable reasons. I began to get edgy. They told me I should be safe if I stick to trails – something even the most amateur confluence hunter knows is difficult to do. Pastured land with short grass was also said to be safe because animals had already ‘tested’ the ground, and where there had been mines – well, those animals are no longer with us.
Because of my barrage of specific questions they brought in a woman who seemed to have authority. She said she was obligated to discourage me from what I was doing, and that she also thought it was just not advisable. She told me that she was the one who had met with the previous confluence hunter a few years before (Adam? Or was there another?), and that she had discouraged him from doing it. Well, was this the final axe to my plans? Everything seemed to be going in the wrong direction now…but then maybe not totally. I left the place with a head full of mixed feelings about what to do.
It was at this point that I started looking at the points individually. Relative to each other, there were 4, ‘northwest’, ‘northeast’, ‘southwest’ and ‘southeast’. I met with the president of a hiking club who said there shouldn’t be any mines in the region of the northwest one, but then again he couldn’t understand why there were proven mines near the northeast one. Photos showed that roads went almost directly to the southeast one, and the map showed roads very close to the northeast one. The northwest one was far from any civilization and would likely involve getting far off trails, and the southwest one was close to the old war frontlines, and required long drives on remote dirt roads and more off trail hiking. I determined that I would just have to treat each one independently and see how possible each point was.
I vowed to only stay on trails. If that could not be possible I decided I would seek advice from locals or specialists in the BHMAC. I took down phone numbers, and imagined coming back taking a bomb detonation crew to the confluence. Was I being totally unrealistic? In any case I felt I couldn’t know anything until I saw the actual situation.
My plan was to visit the confluences in counterclockwise order, in what roughly seemed to me in terms of mine danger, easiest to hardest: 1) ‘southeast’ (on 44N 19E
), 2) ‘northeast’ (on 45N 18E
), 3) ‘northwest’ (on 45N 17E
), and 4) ‘southwest’ (on 44N 17E
After registering my plans with the American Embassy, I got a rental car and headed off into the canyons northeast of Sarajevo. Happy to be off, I, nonetheless, had the uneasy feeling that as determined as I was to stick to my vows, I could be swayed by unforeseen circumstances. At this point I could not possibly figure out what those circumstances might be.
I started off with the point that I felt most confident in for a success, though success was far from certain. My Google Earth photo showed what could possibly be a road leading almost straight up to this one. The point was likely only a few hours out of Sarajevo, but I didn’t break from Sarajevo’s traffic until about 3PM – really, too late to realistically bag the confluence on that day. I was kicking myself for leaving so late, because I only had a little more than a week to attempt points that might take returning to with specialists. These were the last points in Europe: I could only have success if not 1,2 or 3, but ALL 4 were completed!
At around 5PM I began to near the region. There were many picturesque villages of alpine-roofed homes, in this Srpska Respublika region of Bosnia. The area seemed to have been successfully cleansed of anyone but Serbians.
I knew to turn off on a small country road, which I found, and to my pleasure, it was even paved. Local country bumpkins stared at my bright red rental car. There still seemed to be plenty of daylight. Was it actually going to be possible to get to this one today, if at all? Up to this point I caught myself feeling tense and uninterested; as if confluence hunting was just some chore I had to do. But some kind of strange pleasure began to overcome me. Willing or not, I began to be overtaken by what I love about confluence hunting.
Rolling hills, barnyards, patchworks of farms, herds of sheep, haystacks, local village folk – through it all my country road weaved, all the while taking me straight for the confluence. Only fate could tell what fearful trial of dealing with landmines I was going to face. One thing was sure, I going meet my fate with a bang – hopefully not literally.
The road twisted through a final patch of conifer forest, everything agreeing with the Google image. Emerging through the forest I came upon my first obstacle, a closed gate.
The confluence was only 400 meters (1200 ft) away. The point was likely somewhere in the pasture behind the gate. There were houses nearby.
I went back and took another road. This one brought me slightly closer to the point and took me to a small hamlet which I would later find out to be named Džimrije-Devetok. As I entered the clustered community, a man herding sheep ran up to my car. I rolled down the window, and he started talking in Serbian, shaking my hand. He seemed very friendly, but assertive and intent on introducing himself with pride. I spoke to him in English about what I was doing. He was a bit taken aback by that but allowed me to continue into the hamlet.
It was a cluster of about 15 homes with streets of trimmed grass, little gardens with flowers and windmills, and pens of pigs and chickens. The shepherd left me to my own in dealing with the hamlet. I parked my car and followed where my GPS guided me.
This took me down one country lane between homes. An elderly woman came up to me, trying to be helpful. I pointed to my GPS and muttered something in English. The country lane became blocked by a village gate. Though I looked back, worried about intruding, she gave me an affirmative nod to open the gate. I continued down the next lane through houses, all the while following my GPS. I passed by pigs, chickens and dogs. Then I came to a gate to a house.
Two elderly women peered out of the house. They seemed a bit timid but eventually approached the gate. I tried to give them a description in English, pointing to the GPS, and to the pasture behind their house. They warmed up a bit, but didn’t seem to want to let me pass through their yard to get to the pasture.
Finally I motioned about climbing over a low fence to the side. Once they understood, they gave approving looks. All areas on the other side of the fence appeared well treaded upon, but, perhaps unfounded, I was still nervous about stepping on mines. I chose places where the grass seemed relatively more trampled. To get to the confluence I only walked about 100 meters (300 ft) out into the pasture to the side of the house. The villagers gathered by the house and watched curiously as I documented the point.
There it was – number 1 was done! The fourth to last point in Europe. One for four. This was an incredible confidence boost. I had proven that the ‘hold-out’ confluence points could actually be done. Not only was it great fun, but it was in a charming picturesque hamlet filled with happy, elderly people. How more innocuous could you get. I was charged to attack the remaining 3 points. Would they be this easy and fun?
Upon returning from the pasture, the two women from the house were smiling while waiting for me. I’m not sure why, but they were so excited about it, that they were laughing. An elderly gentleman friend had just returned from being out somewhere. The three of them smiled, and shook my hand, and were enthusiastic to talk to me. They told me the name of their village. I took their picture and attempted to explain the confluence project, using some Russian, some of which they seemed to understand – perhaps I gave them some inkling of an idea about confluence hunting, but I’m reaching a bit here. I said goodbye and thank you as they waved. I was thanking them for more than they knew. I drove back to the main road and had a delicious Serbian dinner in a country inn. Tomorrow I would head to on 45N 18E.