I'm the type of traveler that likes full flexibility when I'm out exploring, so it should come as no surprise that I tend to avoid hard and fast rules when I'm on the road. Rules often end up being the antithesis of what good travel is all about - they trip and tangle, wither and hinder. I feel the most engaged in travel when I'm unburdened and rules take me in the opposite direction.
If anything, my rule is "no rules" on the road.
And yet with every maxim comes the inevitable exception and for me that exception is this: when I stumble upon a crowd of people while traveling, I will always stop to see what they're waiting for. Even if it's completely unclear why they're waiting around, I will stop what I'm doing and quietly stand around. Sometimes I've been treated to a delicious local dish from a food vendor. Other times I've found myself waiting in line for a bus to some unknown corner of Armenia.
You win some, you lose some.
And then every once in awhile you witness something so amazing that it reaffirms your belief in the transformational power of travel. That was the case this July when I found myself walking down a street one peaceful morning in Sarajevo, Bosnia.
I had left my hotel near the Sacred Heart Cathedral and was making my way down Marsala Tita, one of the major roads running near the Miljacka River, when I noticed the sidewalk was becoming a bit more crowded. I'd already been in Sarajevo for a day and had found that even in the heart of the city center it never felt particularly crowded, so the increasing number of people standing around stuck out to me as unusual.
After walking for another block the crowd suddenly became thick as weeds and I went from simply moving around people to carefully plotting my path forward and squeezing past bodies to make any forward progress. The crowd was thickest in front of a large building made of giant granite blocks with Bosnian flags hanging from the front. A government building I assumed, but my Cyrillic comprehension is terrible so I couldn't confirm from the sign out front. A handful of cameramen from television news stations and a few photographers had coagulated together by the entrance to the building, smoking cigarettes and quietly murmuring to one another.
By now my curiosity had been piqued and I knew it was time to invoke my "if a crowd....." travel rule. I made my way a little further down the street to a slightly less crowded section of sidewalk and found a place to stand under the shade of some trees to patiently await whatever was so highly anticipated.
The mood of the gathering was somber and almost religious, like I was in the midst of some outdoor church service. Heads were hung low and skin was pulled taut across bone on every face as I scanned the crowd. Often I'll try my hand at asking questions of someone nearby in English or using the handful of broken phrases of the local language I had managed to cobble together in my mind prior to arriving, but this time I decided it was best to just stay where I was and watch.
Striking up idle conversation didn't feel right with the almost suffocating blanket of emotion that hung over the crowd.
The minutes ticked by and before I knew it I had been waiting for about half an hour. I was quite intrigued but was growing increasingly impatient. Just as I started to consider moving on with my day, whispers started to break out around me and the crowd collectively seemed to awaken. Backs straightened and heads came up from chests as everyone turned to the left in anticipation of whatever it was that had kept all of us plastered to our hot little patches of pavement on a scorcher of a July morning.
From the left, two motorcycles came around a street corner with their lights flashing but no sirens. Behind them a small convoy of black sedans with tinted windows made their way down the street in single file until finally a massive flatbed truck came into view carrying a shipping container draped in an enormous Bosnian flag.
As the truck inched its way down the road the crowds of people lining the street began to follow it with hands held upward and impassioned wails of grief echoing through the air. It continued down the road until it reached the front of the government building I had passed a bit earlier where it finally came to a halt. Now stationary, the truck pulled people from every angle like a magnet. The crowd began to circle the truck enmass, most with hands still held upwards. The wails continued but were joined by a chorus of hushed prayers tumbling from hundreds of lips. The photographers and videographers leapt from their stations and ran into the crowds, the sharp click of camera shutters punctuating the air.
If the air had been seasoned with somberness before, it now felt soaked with heartache. For a minute or two the slow circular procession around the truck continued, though eventually people stopped their solemn march and simply stood still around the truck while quietly praying or placing their palms along the length of the container. A few people from the crowd placed single flowers or bouquet arrangements into the web of strings and netting holding down the container and flag.
Eventually the photographers and cameramen congregated near the front of the truck as someone spoke a few words to the crowd. While many paid attention to the speaker, most continued their quiet reflection and vigil over the truck. I put my phone back in my pocket and tried to pick up any clue as to what was going on. As I scanned the faces around me, an older man locked eyes with me. He nodded and gave a quick smile.
"Bodies inside. Picture okay."
His English was limited but he confirmed what I had suspected - the truck held the bodies of the deceased. How and when they had passed was still unclear but starting a conversation didn't seem appropriate at that moment as almost everyone remained hushed if they weren't crying or praying. While lips didn't move people's hands did, as most people were documenting the proceedings on their phones.
I tried to focus on what was happening all around me and tabled questions for research later.
Having stopped for about five or six minutes at this point, the low rumble of the truck's engine broke through the now deafening silence. People stepped back from the truck and kept their heads lowered for a few more moments before they began to scatter in all directions. And just as miraculously as it had started it seemed like it was all over. The shroud of misery seemed to have lifted and everyone was walking away as if it were just another day, almost like a scene from a movie where life is paused and someone slapped the "play" button at the conclusion of the scene.
I joined the crowds of people meandering off into every nook and cranny of the city and finished out my day of exploring. Even though the specifics of that morning's event remained unclear to me, as I spent the day staring up at bullet hole-riddled buildings I knew that the two were undeniably related. It was only later when I returned to my hotel that I was able to hop onto the internet and look into the backstory of what I had seen.
It didn't take me very long to learn that the truck was, as the gentleman had indicated, carrying human remains. Inside were 175 coffins of victims of the Srebrenica massacre, a tragic event in the Bosnian war where approximately 8000 Muslim men and boys were killed when their town was overrun. The bodies were being moved for burial at the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial site on the 22nd anniversary of those dark days and as is customary it made a stop at the Presidential residence (the government building) for the community to mourn and for the President to make an appearance (the speaker that the cameras were focused on).
I knew what I was watching was important to those that had attended, but I didn't know the magnitude of what was felt. Many Bosnians have family members that went missing during the war and have never been heard from again. While I'm sure many assume their loved ones have died, they'll never get the closure of a burial and final goodbye. I wonder how many people who came to the truck that morning did so to say goodbye to a loved one who's remains would never be found or never be identified.
One thing I noticed about Bosnia over my stay was that it's a nation where the war is still very much a part of everyday life while for most other people in the world they've simply forgotten the pain and suffering that erupted in this corner of the globe just two short decades ago. I'll be writing a bit more in the future about my experiences in Sarajevo and Bosnia and how the war has impacted the people, places, and culture. But for now consider taking a moment to research a bit about the Bosnian War if you're unfamiliar with its history or even to simply remember that for many Bosnians the events of those years aren't relegated to history like it has for you and me. Chairs at the dinner table still sit empty and birthdays are remembered but not celebrated.
People may be gone but they're still there - a tangible, aching part of every day life.