The Frontier: Bosnian Krajina

We came up to the Krajina trying to get out into the wilderness, lured by stories of river rafting and ancient castles.  We found the edge of Bosnia, where the country long ago mixed and bled into the world outside.
A frontier is both one thing and another.  The very meaning of the word suggests two sides, where something comes up against the unknown, or the other.  The Bosanska Krajina - or "Bosnian Frontier" - is a place where war has always been close at hand, where the people are quiet and tough, where minarets rise beside cornfields and river trout jump at flies.  This is the most beautiful and wild corner of Bosnia and Herzegovina, pushed up into the sickle of Croatia and overflowing with rivers and pretty towns.
In Banja Luka, government buildings still fly the Serbian war flag. In the northern plains and forests, Muslim farmers and loggers make up the vast majority. In 1992, the Bosanska Krajina was swept over by fighting. A quick and ugly front sprang up between towns and ruined any chance for camaraderie in the future.  The combatants - Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks - have mostly withdrawn to their own corners, creating homogenous enclaves where once there were ethnic mixes. Wounds are licked.  Life goes on.
An old name for the Krajina was the "Ljuta Krajina," or the "angry frontier."  It's been at the heart of almost every conflict fought in this part of the world: the fault line between Roman Dalmatia and the invading slavs, the grating edge between Austro-Hungaria and the Ottomans, the headquarters of the Yugoslav partisans during WWII, the bloody site of Serb concentration camps during the conflict of the nineties. War is ingrained in the landscape.
On the other hand, the area is also very peaceful, even bucolic.  Farmland abuts pine forests, there are countless woodland springs and the soft, low mountains have a sentimental resemblance to old-europe or New England.  If the people are reserved, they're also determined and hard working. Towns like Bihac, Jajce and Cazin fill up in the evening with men in from the fields and woods. Tan, broad shouldered youths drink beer in workboots and jeans, a scene that would be familiar in Oklahoma or the Hungarian Puszta.  Tractors rumble through the streets, lamb grills on roadside spits, the food is a hearty mix of grilled meats and potatoes - with some river fish mixed in.
In the dyer valleys between rivers, the land is more yellow hued and open.  To the north of Bosanki Petrovac, we drove through a long expanse of fields.  There were a few houses, but mostly they lay in ruins, shelled during the war.  Much of the land was fallow.  Shepherds huts and carts had replaced the old farms, perched high on the valleysides.  In the intense light of noon, they were like faraway glimpses of the past.  Flocks of sheep moved as one thing, spreading and contracting on the grass.  It was an empty place, where the driving was fast and straight and there were few other cars.
Several thousand Bosniaks were imprisoned, tortured and raped at the Serbian Omarska concentration camp, near the town of Prijedor.  One of the most publicized and awful outrages of the Bosnian war, Omarska was officially referred to as an "investigation center" by the Serbs who had taken control of the region - in truth, between four and five thousand people were shot, beaten or starved to death at the camp before it was shut down.  Mass graves have only partly been exhumed, the Mittal Steel company resumed operations at the town mine after the war and hasn't allowed much investigation.
Cazin, not far away from Omarska, up at the very point of the frontier, came to life in the evenings after the daily Ramazan fasting.  We ate dinner at Papillon restaurant, which served proudly national food.  A man popped in and out of the kitchen with plates and bags of cevapi. Only one other man ate in the restaurant, but there were plenty of other people waiting to bring food home.  We have stopped trying, in this land, to reconcile normalcy with horror.
This was once one of the most ethnically and religiously mixed regions of Yugoslavia, with Catholic Croats, Muslim Bosniaks and Orthodox Serbs living together somewhat peaceably.  When this was the end-point of the Ottoman Empire, the government encouraged Muslim farmers and Bosniak families to move here and create a kind of buffer against the Hungarian and Austrian lands beyond.  Later, in the 18th century, Serb herders and mercenaries came to graze sheep and fight against the northern neighbors.  The boundary changed often, allegiances broke generally along religious lines, the Krajina's culture changed much less than its boundaries.
Joseph Broz Tito, the daring young Partisan leader (and later ruler of Yugoslavia) hid his base in a cave near Dvar, in the thick of the Krajina's mountains.  Thousands of German paratroopers failed to capture him there in the embarrassingly unsuccessful Operation Rösselsprung - his escape and the Yugoslav victory helped create a legend after Tito returned.
In truth, our experience in the frontier has had little to do with bloodshed.  We've traveled here like drivers across the American west, covering large distances and letting a larger ambience sink in.  Between busy towns, there are stretches of light and shadow as the trees and plains pass and the sun rises or sinks.  We've come by lakes near Jajce, followed river canyons around Bihac, climbed winding passes through the firs.  The towns, when they appear, are pass-throughs, with sunny-walls and self-contained cultures - a whirl of gossip, wedding halls, rusty trucks and the smell of meat.  Sometimes we stop, sometimes we don't.  In Bosanski Petrovac, we parked our car at the bus station - a place even more transient, where ancient-caravan buses creaked and puttered in from the lands around.  We ate lunch at "Florida Restaurant," where the sign was very faded but the trout was perfectly fresh and tender.
As we licked ice cream in the old castle of Bosanska Krupa, looking down on the Una river, we felt satisfied that we'd made it far enough.  We had a pleasant time doing it, too.  The Bosanska Krajina is a beautiful place to come to grips with history and culture.
For us, this is also the frontier of our journey - the last push into the hinterlands of the Balkans, of southern Europe, middle Europe, wherever it is that we are.  In a few days, we'll be ensconced in Sarajevo, then headed home, then on our last leg - Scandinavia, the British Isles, places that feel especially far removed from heat and confusion, tiny cultures, bombed buildings and Turkish coffee.  We'll leave behind a tangle of roads traveled and looped, borders crossed, towns with impossible names.  This is the last foray into this particular wilderness, and, standing in the breeze atop the castle, we began to sense the end.  Fitting, probably, that this historical middle ground felt like a perfect place to finish the chapter.
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