Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Temporary Visa

Well, it turns out I had to go back to the Interior Ministry to get a temporary extension to my visa. My current visa expires this Saturday but that's OK. Rather...OK, as long as I stay in the ČR because if I were stopped for some reason by the foreign police, then they could verify that my new two-year visa is pending.

The catch is that I just found out I have to participate in an IBM seminar in Bratislava next week. Since both countries are part of the Schengen area there are no passport checks when traveling from one to the other. However, what if something were to happen while I was in Slovakia? Not too sure if the Slovak officials would contact the Czech Interior Ministry to make sure that I'm legal.

I was able to go to the ministry yesterday but had to wait for 4 hours because there were no appointments available. I explained that I needed a short-term extension on my visa to cover me until my new long-term visa is ready. After my 4 hours in line, it was a quick 15 minutes to get everything sorted. The clerk printed off a new visa sticker that is identical to the one I received last year except that my new expiration date is 1 July 2011. I didn't even have to pay anything for the temporary visa since the delay on my new permanent visa is due to the backlog generated by the recent change in application procedures. Hopefully, I'll get my new visa sometime in May.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Czech Census

Governments in most of Europe are taking a census this year. In the USA, the census is given out to only a sample of the population. However, everyone (including foreigners) had to complete the census in the ČR. I guess you can do that when there are only 10 million people.

Census officers from the Czech Statistical Office (Český Statistický Úřad, ČSÚ) had to visit every household in the country and drop off the appropriate questionnaires from 7 - 25 March. The commissioner who came to my flat spoke enough German for me to understand what I needed to do.

There are three different possible forms.
The green form is for individuals and everyone has to complete this one. It asks for basic information such as marital status, type of employment, nationality, religious affiliation, primary language, level of education and mode of transport. Since the ČR is part of the EU, there is an option under marital status for same sex registered partnerships. It's a shame that this isn't recognized in the USA.

The yellow form is for the dwelling. I had to answer questions about my flat. What floor it is on, the type of heating, how many rooms, the square meter measurements of each room, how many people live here, etc. It also wanted to know if I had an inside or outside restroom and access to the Internet.

The orange form is for the building caretaker so I didn't have to complete this form. It has questions about the type of building, its age, the materials used, sewage connections, etc.

Each form I was given had an on-line access code which allowed me to submit my forms online. All forms had to be submitted in Czech. The government had a website with instructions available in English, French, German, Polish, Romany, Russian, Ukrainian and Vietnamese. The online forms were only used as a reference and didn't give side-by-side translations. For example, on the English form under religion they listed Roman Catholic as an option. But that didn't tell me what "Roman Catholic" is in Czech so when I filled in the Czech form I had to figure out that is is "Církev římskokatolická".

The due date to submit one's census was 14 April. There is a 10,000 Kč (~$610) fine for not submitting one's census forms so I made sure to complete them online before I went on vacation to Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Regular population censuses were introduced during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1753, Empress Maria Theresa ordered a regular count of the population according to sex, age and marital status.

EDIT: As of 2 May, the government received 16.8 million census forms. The majority of forms were mailed in (61.5%). Only 25.7% were submitted electronically and 12.8% were collected in person.

EDIT: Here are the preliminary results.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Serbian Dinars

Serbia's currency is the dinar. $1 is worth 69.5 RSD. This is a lot better than it used to be.

Tito's Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia's currency was the dinar. It's budget deficit was financed by printing more money. After the country broke up, Serbia and Montenegro made up the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the currency was also the dinar. As Yugoslavia broke up, economic output declined, war broke out, and international sanctions were levied so the economy went to hell.

Yugoslavia experienced the worst hyperinflation in history. From 1990 to 1994, the currency was revalued five times. From October 1993 to January 1995, prices increased by 5 quadrillion percent - that's a 5 and 15 zeros behind it.

In 1992, a pack of cigarettes cost 1,000,000,000 dinars. It eventually got to the point where it was cheaper to use banknotes as wallpaper than it was to actually purchase wallpaper.

A 500 billion dinar note was worth just a few dollars. It's sad to be a billionaire and still be broke.

With all of the different currencies floating around it can be easy for tourists to get confused. Someone gave me a silver 5 dinar coin as change. The silver coin is from the Federal Republic days, back in the 90s. A current Serbian 5 dinar coin is gold. I guess I got cheated. Oh well, 5 dinars = 7¢ so I guess I'll survive.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The House of Flowers

The Museum of Yugoslav History was established in 1996 and is made up of the May 25th Museum, the Old Museum and the House of Flowers.

Кућа цвећа, the House of Flowers, was built in 1975 as a winter garden and served as Tito's auxiliary office. Per Tito's wishes he was interned in the central garden in 1980. From 1980-1990 there were military guards on display at his tomb but they were removed and the facility was closed to the public during the Yugoslav Civil War.

Marshal Josip "Tito" Broz (1892-1980) led the Yugoslav partisans during WWII and went on to become president-for-life, until his death in 1980, of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. It was his iron rule that kept Yugoslavia together.

May 25th was Tito's official birth date and used to be the socialist youth day. The May 25th Museum has the gifts that Tito received during his presidency. There are also lots of national costumes from the various Yugoslav republics.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Serbian Military Museum

The Military Museum was founded in 1878 and is inside Belgrade's Kalemegdan fortress. Outside of the museum are tanks, howitzers and armored cars that kids love to play on.
It’s a small museum with about 3,000 items. There are Roman and Greek swords and helmets, Serbian armor, and other medieval weapons. Everything in the museum is in Serbian with maybe 25% in English too.
Later on there is a display on WWI. It covers the events that led up to the war, tells about Serbia during and after the war. Then the same thing for WWII. There is an exhibit about Tito and the founding of Yugoslavia. This is followed by an exhibit about the UN and how Yugoslav troops served on peacekeeping missions in the Middle East and Africa.
This is immediately followed by an exhibit about how Serbia was bombed by NATO, primarily by the USA. The is even part of a U.S. Air Force uniform and part of a U.S. F-117 stealth aircraft that was shot down. The odd thing about this exhibit is that there was no historical background presented like in the other exhibits. All it says is that Serbia was bombed by NATO in the 90s. No reason why or for how long. Just a bit of historical whitewashing and then you come to the exit. Shady.

Sarajevo to Belgrade Train

A round-trip train ticket from Belgrade to Sarajevo is €31 (~$45). The route re-opened in 2009 after being closed for 17 years. The route was damaged during the war and it now takes a couple of hours longer than before.

The trip to Sarajevo should take 9.5 hours (but it took an extra hour when I went on Monday). The ride back to Belgrade was on time and took 8.5 hours.

There is a lot of pretty scenery in Bosnia and Herzegovina but it is a long ride. Thank goodness for my Kindle. This route is very basic; no refreshments on the train. It was a good thing I had some water, juice and rolls in my backpack. The train is still better than the bus since you can at least stand up and walk around on a train.

I definitely knew I wasn't in the Schengen zone any longer. Leaving Serbia, a couple of Serbian customs officers came on board and checked passports but no exit stamp. Since the train goes through Croatia, you get checked entering the country and again before the trains approaches the Bosnian border. As soon as you cross the border it's time to show your passport to the Bosnian official. On the way back you do it all over again. It's a good thing that I had extra pages added to my passport last year. This round-trip ride added 7 stamps to my passport. Four stamps for Croatia, 2 for Bosnia and Herzegovina and 1 for Serbia.

EDIT: I mentioned before about the difficulty of entering Serbia from Kosovo. Serbia seems to be more concerned with people entering the country than with leaving it. On the train, they didn't stamp my passport when I left but they did when I came back. And when I left Serbia on Sunday, Serbian immigration at the airport didn't stamp my passport. Instead they put the exit stamp on my boarding pass which I've never seen before.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Mostar is Bosnia and Herzegovina's 5th-largest city and the most important one in the Herzegovina region. In 1468 it came under Ottoman rule and the town expanded as a defensive outpost.

The best known structure from the Ottoman era is the symbol of the city, Stari Most, the "Old Bridge", which crosses the Neretva River. It took 10 years to build but the bridge was completed in 1566-67. On each side of the bridge is a fortified tower. The Helebija tower is on the northeast side and the Tara tower is on the southwest. These bridge guardians, "mostari", give the town its name.

In 1878, Mostar was absorbed in to the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of WWI in 1918.

After Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia, the town underwent an 18 month long siege from 1992 to 1993. The Bosniaks first fought the Serb-controlled Yugoslav People's Army and then the Croatian Defense Council. There had been a plan between Serbia and Croatia to divide up Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Stari Most stood for 427 years until 9 November 1993, when the Croats shelled the bridge and destroyed it in only a few hours. Here's a video I found out on YouTube of the bridge's destruction. So sad.

The bridge was rebuilt and opened on 23 July 2004. It is 4 meters (~13 feet) wide, 30 meters (98.5 feet) long and 24 meters (~79 feet) high. There are regular festivals where people dive from the bridge in to the river. In July 2005, it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Mostar's oldest brige isn't the "old bridge", it is Kriva Ćuprija, the "crooked bridge". It was built in 1558 as a construction test for the Stari Most. The bridge crosses the Robobolja Creek. This bridge survived the war but it was destroyed by floods in December 2000 and rebuilt in 2001. It too was later added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

When I was in Croatia last year, an Australian girl recommended that I visit Mostar. Unfortunately, I didn't have enough time to add it to my itinerary. So I was sure to include it on this year's trip to the Balkans. It's a pretty little town but you can still see damage from the war. Even today the Croats and Muslims live on different sides of the town and their children go to separate schools. They even have different mobile phone area codes. Things sure are complicated here.

Blagaj, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Blagaj is a small village about 12 km (~7.5 miles) from Mostar and is another UNESCO World Heritage site. It is located at a spring that feeds in to the Buna River.

I was told it is one of the top 5 European springs. The spring movers 4,300 liters (+1,100 gallons) per second.

What's cool is that the cold, clear water flows from a cave in the Hum gorge.

Beside the spring and the cave is a Tekija - a Dervish monastery. The Muslim sect is known for their extreme poverty and austerity. The monastery was built by a Sultan in 1520. Unfortunately, it was closed for renovations.

Počitelj, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Yesterday was a full day of sightseeing. I had a private tour of Počitelj, Blagaj and Mostar. All three towns are down in the Herzegovina part of the country where it was nice and warm.

Počitelj is about a 3 hour drive from Sarajevo and about 45 minutes from Međugorje. The historic town, on a limestone hill on the left bank of the Neretva River, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Počitelj also hosts the longest operating art colony in southeast Europe.

It's thought that the town was built by Bosnia's King Stjepan Tyrtko I in 1383. During the Middle Ages it was strategically important as the administrative center of Dubrava county. The city became part of the Ottoman Empire when the Turks took it over in 1471. When Austro-Hungarian rule was established in 1878 the town ceased to be of importance but fortunately the town has been preserved.

The fort was built between the 15th and 18th centuries.

The Šošman Ibrahim-Paša mosque is a classical Ottoman style mosque built in 1562-63. It was blown up in 1993 and has since been rebuilt.

The clock tower was erected sometime after 1664. The tower bell rang until 1917 when the Austrians had to melt it down for bullets in WWI.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Sarajevo Snowstorm

April in Bosnia and Herzegovina...I should expect nice Spring weather, right? When I arrived on Monday the weather was fine. It was clear. I had a short sleeve shirt on while walking through town. No worries. On Tuesday, it was a little cooler but it was still nice weather. From my hotel bed on Tuesday night I heard it begin to rain. I thought no problem as long as it doesn't rain on my Wednesday trip to Srebrenica.

On Wednesday morning I woke up to 10 cm (~4 inches) of snow. I didn't pack any cold weather clothes. So my first stop Wednesday morning was to buy a scarf and cap. At least they make nice souvenirs from my Sarajevo trip. And looking on the bright side...I got to retake a bunch of pictures with snow. It's kind of like getting two trips in one. Here are pictures form my hotel window on Monday afternoon and Wednesday morning.

Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Yesterday I made the 2.5 hour drive to Srebrenica, in the Republika Srpska; about 10 miles from the Serbian border. The city will forever be remembered for the Srebrenica massacre where, in 1995, over 8,000 Bosniaks were killed in the largest mass murder in Europe since WWII. The region around Srebrenica was predominantly Muslim but the area was strategically important to the Bosnian Serbs for the territorial integrity of their Republika Srpska. Starting in 1992, Serb forces began overrunning Muslim villages. People began pouring in to the small town and its population swelled to 50 – 60,000 people. By 1993, the overcrowded town relied on makeshift generators for electricity and Bosnian Serbs had destroyed the water supply. There was little in the way of food or medicine. In April 1993, the UN declared the town a "safe area" under UN protection. The first UN "safe area" ever. There were 400 Dutch peacekeepers stationed at a battery factory in nearby Potočari. By 11 July 1995, 20 – 25,000 people swarmed the compound thinking that the Dutch soldiers would protect them. Bosnian Serbs said that Muslims would be relocated to Bosniak territory. The Dutch troops helped the Serbs load everyone on to buses. However, boys and men were separated from the women and the men never made it. Over the next three days, over 8,000 Muslim boys and men were murdered. The remains were placed in mass graves which continue to be discovered. To date, 4,524 remains have been identified through DNA. The white headstones are for Muslims. The green markers are for newly identified remains and are given the while headstones every July 11th. In 2011, ~500 additional bodies will be laid to rest. There is only one non-Muslim grave in the cemetery. The memorial center is across the street from the former barracks. Kravica is a small Bosnian Serb village that is 15 km from Srebrenica. Earlier in the war the village was overrun by Bosniak soldiers. On 12 July 1995, more than 1,000 Muslim men and boys were killed in Kravica. They were executed with machine guns and finished off with hand grenades. Yet, this is where the Bosnian Serbs have erected a monument to the Serb victims of the civil war. This was a tough day but just like Auschwitz, I think that it is something that everyone needs to see.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sarajevo Siege

After Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia, Bosnian Serbs declared the Republika Srpska and, along with the Serb-controlled Yugoslav People's Army, blockaded the city. From 5 April 1992, until 29 February 1996, Sarajevo underwent the longest siege in modern history.

Serb General Ratko Mladić had 18,000 troops stationed in the surrounding hills. He had the soldiers shell the civilian population and gave the order to "bomb them, and continue to bomb them until they are on the edge of madness". Bosnia's capital city was totally cut off and those inside were left without power, clean water or enough food. To dare going outside in search of food, water or firewood meant to risk getting shot by a Serb sniper.

In July 1992, the UN took control of the airport from the Serbs to airlift in food. However, the UN refused to get involved to halt the fighting. Without weapons the city could not defend itself from constant attack. I still don't get this one. The UN allowed food but no weapons. So it's OK to be killed as long as you don't die hungry?

On the other side if the airport were mountains in the Bosnian free territory. Around 800 Muslims, and Serbs who stayed to defend Sarajevo, were killed by snipers trying to cross the airport to the free territory. So in January 1993, Bosnian volunteers starting building a tunnel that run under the airport and linked up with the free area in Butmir.

The tunnel was 1.5 meters (~4.9 feet) high, about 1 meter (~3 feet) wide and 960 meters (~3,150 feet) long. The tunnel was dug in a wide L-shape to prevent the Serb shells from caving it in. Luckily, the Serbs never found the tunnel's entry and exit points.

At first everything had to be carried by hand or on one's back. Later on, rails were installed and carts were used to help move food, water, medicine, oil, weapons and the wounded. Bosnian president Alija Izetbegović even had to use the tunnel, in his wheel chair, in order to make it back and forth from the capital city. Quite often people had to make their way through knee-deep water. Twice the tunnel was completely flooded, once for 2 days and later for 5 days. Water pumps were later installed, as well as, an oil pipeline.

In the free territory, the entry point was a family's house. The Kolar family gave up their home to the Bosnian army for the good of the country. Since then, they have turned it in to a small museum that is a must-see. I even got to meet the grandmother, Šida, who at one point was the only woman left in the whole area.

During the siege, 10,000 people were killed including over 1,500 children. Another 56,000 people were wounded including 15,000 children. I can't imagine what it must have been like to live in constant fear of snipers from the surrounding hills. I don't see how Sarajevo could have held on without the tunnel. Here's part of an Al Jazeera report I found out on YouTube.

©Al Jazeera