by Jim Bartlett, Editor-in-Chief
Part 1 · The Terrain
Part 2 · Why the War?
Part 3 · The Armies
Part 4 · Land Mines
A land of great
beauty and danger
The first thing that greets visitors to Bosnia is the extraordinary scenery. Stemming from the Dinaric Alps that run down the Balkan Peninsula from Austria to Albania, the land is both beautiful and forbidding. Ridgelines and valleys are steep and routinely reach heights of 1100 meters to 2088 meters along axis that run generally northwest to southeast.
Along Croatia's Adriatic coast,known locally as Dalmatia, the heights rise abruptly from the sea and are composed of rough, wind-swept rock that bears a striking resemblance to Afghanistan or Sicily. This area pushes northward towards the Central Bosnian Highlands and encompasses the region known as Hercegovina. The environment is home to Europe's only indigenous poisonous snake, a small pit viper similar to a copperhead, an ominous characteristic as its home is also a hotbed of Croat nationalism which saw the most savage fighting witnessed during Yugoslavia's civil war. There, the ancient city of Mostar became a tragic, devastated, symbol of interethnic hatred.
The soil is very rocky and does not support substantial agriculture. There is an old Yugoslav saying that refers to the region, "The only thing that grows in Hercegovina is snakes and Ustashas," a reference to Ante Pavalic's WWII Croatian Fascist, pro-Nazi movement known as the Ustashi. Among the region's Croatian and Muslim peoples, the bitter interethnic fighting of 1993 has left much to be desired for the future harmony of the Croat-Muslim alliance.
Tactically speaking, the area is hard going. The infinite crags and jags amongst the rock and boulder-strewn hills provide much in the way of cover, and little in the way of level landing zones (LZs). Breaking an ankle is as easy as drawing a breath. In summer, it is hot as a skillet and in winter, cold as ice. From the high ridges, one looks out over valleys with little tree cover. It is a gunner's and artillery spotter's dream. All structures are built of stone or masonry.
Central Bosnia, an Agricultural Paradise
Moving north into the Central Bosnian Highlands, the traveler leaves behind the rocky strata of Hercegovina and moves into high, rolling mountains and majestic old forests of pine, oak, white birch and maple. This is Bosnia proper, and before the war it supported a thriving tourist business that in 1984 hosted the Olympic Winter Games in Sarajevo. The forested hills look out over lush, green, alpine valleys that support the region's agriculture. Here you can still see people using horse-drawn farm wagons and cutting hay and grain by hand.
Every farm has cows, chickens, and goats and the old-style center pole haystacks. Folks here cure their own meats and sausages, make cheeses and gather eggs. One delicacy made by Croatian farmers is a pork sausage prepared from the best cuts and slow-cured in hardwood smokehouses. There is not a store in the world (to my knowledge) where you can buy it. Every farm also has its own fruit trees, usually plums. From these, many people distill local brandy, slivovica and rakiya. It has been suggested that this home brew has been the principle fuel for much of the scale and intensity of violence here.
The mountains also yield the world's most sought-after woods for making violins and cellos, Bosnian Maple. A fine combination of altitude and soil conditions produce a wood that is light, flexible and resonant as well as displaying a dramatic grain known as "flame".
From a tactical standpoint, the forests of Bosnia earned a well-deserved reputation as a favorite hideout for Tito's partisans in WWII. There are numerous sinkholes and limestone caves from which the partisans staged hit and run raids against the occupying German Wermacht and Italian forces. The forest itself, and the steep hills it covers, are almost jungle with few clearings large enough for helicopters.
The climate is comfortably warm in summer and cold and wet in winter. Roads are narrow and winding, and run past villages cut into the hillsides and in the valleys these roads are made entirely of stone and masonry. In winter they are extremely hazardous and few of the roadbeds or bridges capable of carrying the weight of battle tanks or infantry fighting vehicles over 30 tons. In the forest itself, lines of sight are cut dramatically and when overlooking valleys stretch anywhere from several hundred meters to thousands. These terrain features are found all the way north to the flood plains along the Sava River, known as Posavina and Banija and Bosnia's northern border with Croatia.
Tuzla to the Croatian Border
Traveling west from the city of Tuzla you encounter the regions known as Poasavina and Banija. This area runs west roughly from the city of Brcko on the Sava River just north from Tuzla, past Banja Luka to just west of Prijedor and the Croatian boarder along the Una River. The area can be best described as bearing a striking resemblance to the Piedmont country of Virginia. Slowly rolling hills and pasture lands mixed with deep ravines, gullies and forest make this one of the most fertile areas of Bosnia.
Like Central Bosnia, it is a land of pastoral activity. Here too, one can find the horse-drawn farm wagons and single-pole haystacks, but owing to it's flatter nature, more mechanized farming has sway. Here too, though, you will find tightly-clustered villages and hard scrabble little farms that are muddy when wet and dusty when dry. You can find cornfields and wheat, many more birds, and even pheasant. Also hanging around the field edges at dawn, and further up in the wooded hills, are quite a few of the stunted little deer that have been the hunting sport of kings in days gone by. It comes closer to resembling Orange County, Virginia, than anywhere else I know in Europe.
From a tactical viewpoint, the area lends itself to mobility a little better than the mountains. The roads tend tobe a bit less treacherous, but tightly rolling draws and gullies make for excellent avenues of approach and withdrawal. The wider fields provide better cross-country going, but when wet, especially along the river plains, will turn to a morass in no time flat. This can be compensated for, however, by the numerous areas suitable for heliborne operations. Just as in the mountains, there are even more sinkholes and caves where small groups can hide and launch hit and run attacks. Lines of sight are generally greater owing to more cleared land for agriculture, but in cold weather can become blanketed with fog.
Yurope People, Places throughout the Former Yugoslavia
Bosnian Virtual Field Trip A Guided Tour with Maps
Croatia Croatia's natural attractions
Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina Information Statistics, Maps, Archives, Stories
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Macedonia The Comprensive Site for Macedonian Interests
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