Monocolumn

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18 November 2014

This weekend I read that Europe’s new foreign-policy chief has pledged to make Bosnia and Herzegovina a priority. Up for discussion as she met with ministers yesterday: moving the war-wounded state closer to EU membership. It’s not a task for those wanting instant gratification. The peace agreement that ended the war in 1995 entrenched so-called “ethnic” politics and brought in a tripartite presidency and unwieldy governance structure obstructive to progress. Corruption is common, impunity striking and youth unemployment around 60 per cent.

Reading Federica Mogherini’s ambitions, I thought back to my own trip to Bosnia this summer. It was a visit where I received regular kindness from strangers, ate better food than at any London farmers’ market, saw landscapes to compete with the Hebrides and enjoyed taxi conversations that made me sad to return to “European” London. But it was also a time for reflection.

As my train moved south from Zagreb to Sarajevo, it stopped at a village. A girl in a neon T-shirt and studded jeans looked into my cabin. In American-English she asked where I was going. She replied that she’d never been to Sarajevo, adding that this was her first time back to Bosnia since the war. We looked roughly the same age; as I was a child making sense of Bosnia’s war via BBC’s Newsround, I guess she’d been a refugee. Heading home now, I watched her disembark.

Next, a man sat opposite me. Lifting his shirt he showed me a centipede-shaped scar snaking up his spine. Wincing, he asked for €10, telling me he was poor and had to see a doctor in the next city. I believed he was poor, but didn’t believe his injury was recent. He was one of many who spoke of the unemployment crisis squeezing Bosnia. One asked me how much money people in England earned. I said the usual cowardly something about how people earn more but living costs more, too. But we both knew our worlds were miles apart: I didn’t need a visa to visit his country; I can expect to be paid monthly and on time' and I don’t expect my friends to have lost family to conflict. Things in Bosnia one can’t take for granted.

The train pushed on. I saw bags shredded through treetops, metres above the water line. They’d been there since flooding hit Bosnia earlier this year. I saw men fishing in rushing water, unfazed to be framed by plastic. After whispers of a landslide, the train pushed on past sunken ground, flattened crops and lush greenery. A man shook his head; if the bad weather continued he didn’t know what Bosnia would do. As we pulled into Sarajevo he bemoaned the corruption, criminals and "thieves" plaguing his country. It was a trio of words I heard repeatedly this summer.

I read in the Wall Street Journal that Ms Mogherini plans to travel to Bosnia soon. I’d recommend she takes the train.

Alice Bloch is a producer for Monocle 24.

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