Sunday, 15 June 2014

What does the World Cup mean for Bosnia?

As Bosnia-Herzegovina gears up for the most important match of its history, I speak to a number of Bosnians around the world to try and understand what this World Cup appearance means to their troubled nation.

Carrying the hopes of a nation: All eyes in Bosnia will be on its players as they take
to the pitch against Argentina later today. (Source: cyprus-mail.com)

For Bosnians, the day has finally come.

Later today, eight months on from Vedad Ibisevic’s crucial goal in Kaunas, the Dragons will line-up in its first ever World Cup finals match when it faces Argentina at Rio’s historic Maracana Stadium.

The team’s presence in Brazil is a defining moment in Bosnia-Herzegovina’s short history as an independent nation.

For so long, this small and troubled land has been defined by its dark history above everything else.

Ever since Bosnia qualified for the tournament on that chilly October evening in Lithuania, much has been made of the obstacles this country has had to overcome just to reach this stage.

And, undoubtedly, these are stories which deserve to be told.

It is hard to believe that two decades ago, while my friends and I grew up with little to worry about, children the same age as me were constantly surrounded by the terrors of a brutal and horrifying war.

In all, some 100,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the battles that broke out between Croats, Serbs and Bosnians following the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

Yet, while the fighting ceased in 1995 with the signing of the Dayton Agreement, the scars resulting from this bloodied conflict are all too clear almost 20 years on.

Divisions among the three main ethnic groups persist. Politicking is ever-present, with often little being achieved. Even worse, many of the nation’s citizens suffer daily hardship, with Bosnia’s unemployment rate sitting at a staggering 44 per cent.  

Despite these problems, the national football team’s success is providing a welcome distraction for many Bosnians.

But how far does this extend?

When I ask my Bosnian mother-in-law what the Dragons’ qualification means to her, I expect to hear glowing praise of the team and the morale boost it is serving to her and fellow Bosnians. Instead, her answer provides a stark reminder of the reality of life in the Balkan nation.

“As an average woman in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I am proud of the Dragons,” says Lejla, 47, of Zenica. “But I think that we give too much attention to them. We are not really in a situation to celebrate.

“It’s all great and nice, but we have to be realistic.

“I have enough problems, and I can’t just sit calmly and watch the match like you can, for example. I can’t afford the luxury to buy cevapi, soft drinks and snacks and just sit there watching the game without a worry in the world.”

Her 18-year-old son, Kerim, is of a different mindset.

“This is Bosnia’s first time qualifying, people should not think about their problems and just enjoy this one month of football,” he says.

While most across Bosnia-Herzegovina are indeed enjoying the start of the World Cup, many are opting to support sides like Croatia instead of the country in which they are living.

On Thursday evening, fans decked out in the symbolic red-and-white checks of Croatia packed bars in Mostar to cheer on Bosnia’s neighbour in its opening match against Brazil.

But while loyalties for many non-Bosniaks in Bosnia remain elsewhere - particularly with Croatia and Serbia (who are not playing in this World Cup) - there are those who are bucking the trend.

Twenty-six-year-old Marko, of Zenica, is one of them.

“I am pure Bosnian, with Croatian roots,” he says, adamantly. “I will support Bosnia because it’s my homeland.”

Boris, a 33-year-old resident of Sarajevo, is another who pledges his allegiances to Bosnia despite possessing a Croatian background.

For him, the Dragons represent an opportunity to bridge the divide between the nation’s ethnicities.

“This is our first time to be part of a big competition such as the World Cup,” says Boris. “I hope the positive image that follows our team makes more and more people in Bosnia – who previously were not supporting our own team because of political reasons – start supporting it.”

The Dragons train on the Maracana pitch ahead of its World Cup opener. (Source: klix.ba)

It is not just people in Bosnia-Herzegovina who will be tuning in to watch their beloved side take on the Lionel Messi-led La Albiceleste later today.

Living outside the Balkan state is an estimated two million Bosnians – an extraordinary figure given Bosnia-Herzegovina’s population stands at a mere 3.7 million.

One of those expats casting a keen eye over the match will be Admir, 47, of Red Deer in Canada.

A former professional footballer in Yugoslavia for FK Vojvodina and Borac Banja Luka, Admir is mindful of the situation in his homeland, but says the Dragons embody how Bosnia should be in the future.

“It has been very hard to forgive and impossible to forget what happened there 20 years ago,” he says. “But in order to move forward we need to learn to love and respect and live together. We just have to.

“What our Bosnia football team represents is what Bosnia should look like and behave like. Those boys are great role models for others.”

Similarly, 37-year-old Denis will be watching on from his home in Ottawa, and is confident the players on the football pitch will send a strong message.

“Economically, Bosnia is still struggling as a country,” he says. “But we can show to the world through the language of football that we can be united. It is important for the people to boost their morale and to maybe – somehow – alleviate some of the pain.”

In another corner of the globe, Mirjana, a 32-year-old Bosnian-Serb now living near Canberra, is also optimistic the World Cup presence will bring people together within the region.

“I sincerely hope and expect many to support Bosnia,” she says. “Some may not do it openly but in the Balkans we have a thing about going for an underdog, and I surely have a lot of friends from neighbouring countries who will support us.

“I do not expect a lot of open support from the Serb republic on social media, but I’m sure they’ll be watching.”

Flying the flag: several thousand Bosnians are estimated to have
converged on Brazil to support their homeland.
Regardless of what eventuates on the football pitch in the coming weeks, Bosnia’s appearance in Brazil is enough to instil a firm sense of pride within a population that has long had little to cheer about.

As Kerim says: “We are not just some little Bosnia anymore. Now the whole world knows about us.”

Marko shares that mindset.

“We showed the world that we might be a small country, and the whole world could mock and look down on us, but still we are one of the best nations in the world,” he says.

“The whole world will see how beautiful my nation is. I’ll cry, cry like a baby.”

And their predictions?

“I think they have very good chances of getting out of the group and possibly going all the way to the semi-finals,” says Denis.

Marko shares that confidence, and believes the Dragons will topple its more-fancied opponent today.

“Against Argentina, we will win,” he says. “They don’t have half the passion like we do. They have arguments in their camp and they don’t have a real playmaker.”

For others, like Admir, simply appearing on football’s biggest stage is all that matters.

“We are very happy that we are there and all we want them to do is compete,” he says. “And if it means we go through to the second round, that would be absolutely great. If they go any further it would be fantastic.

“But whatever happens, we stand and cheer for our team and continue to be proud that they have qualified and are able to participate in the World Cup.”

Boris agrees: “The game against Argentina will be something special for me. I think it will be one of those moments that I will remember for the rest of my life.”

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Check out this site - sigma.ba!

Hey guys,

Just a quick little plug for a cool site that's becoming more popular at the moment: sigma.ba.

It advertises itself as a student urban portal, but does cover an array of interesting topics.

Currently, all articles are in Bosnian language, but I am told Sigma are looking at writing some pieces in English in the near future.

So, if you're a Bosnian looking to read some interesting and topical pieces from your homeland, or an outsider wanting to gain a glimpse of what's on the mind of the new generation of Bosnians, I wholeheartedly encourage you to check it out!

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Follow me on Twitter!

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I do not update this blog as often anymore, but, just to let you all know, I plan to post on here occasionally now and then.

Also, sometimes I post Bosnia-related stuff on different websites, so if you would like to keep track of what I am doing and writing, I encourage you to jump on Twitter and follow me.

My address is @rustywoodger and you can follow me by clicking here and pressing 'Follow'!

Hvala puno!

Thursday, 21 November 2013

The beautiful language of football

Every sports lover has their story of how they fell in love with their clubs of choice.

For some Collingwood fans, it might have been when Peter McKenna was flying about and kicking goals across Victoria Park throughout the 1960s and ‘70s. 

Diehards of the Melbourne Tigers may owe some of their devotion to the legendary Andrew Gaze, who lit up the local competition during the 1990s. Whilst, Brisbane Broncos converts probably reminisce fondly to the days when Gorden “Raging Bull” Tallis lined the second row.

Yet, some stories differ significantly from the next.

This is my tale of how a born-and-bred Aussie fell in love with a mid-tier football club battling it out in the unglamorous league of Bosnia.


It is November 2012, and the midweek evening is a bitterly cold one in Zenica, a working class city located an hour’s drive from the nation’s capital, Sarajevo.

Home to little more than 100,000 people, a small crowd of a few thousand have made their way to the local football stadium to support their side, Celik Zenica, in a knockout cup tie against a team from the Herzegovina region of Bosnia.

I find myself positioned right in the middle of the hardened fans in the south stand of ‘Bilino Polje’ for the match. Actually, it is nothing out of the ordinary for me to be here. I have been in Bosnia for more than nine months, and every Celik match I attend, I ensure I grab a ticket amongst the rowdy lads behind the goals who call themselves ‘Robijasi’, or ‘Convicts’ in English. Given my nationality, the name seems kind of appropriate, too.

Me, circled, trying to blend in with the Celik fans.
After months of attending games, I know many faces, though my lack of knowledge for the local language makes it difficult for conversations to progress past a “Hello” and, occasionally, a “How are you?”.

In spite of this, I have worked up a strong familiarity with the songs and chants belted out by the ‘Convicts’. At first, it wasn’t like this.

I remember my first Celik match, and repeatedly questioning my girlfriend’s brother if it would be a problem to stand amongst them, despite not knowing a single word to any of the group’s chants. I was aware that entering their area and not participating may raise problems for me.

Ultimately, there wasn’t an issue. I managed to get through the match making (poor) attempts to mime songs I did not know, and awkwardly clap (out of time, usually).

Now, on this November evening at Bilino Polje, I feel so accustomed and, heck, even comfortable on the south stand with this mob. It is only at half-time of this match that it truly hits me who I am – and where I am!

As the referee blows the whistle to bring an end to a pulsating first half, a young bloke next to me with his shirt off asks, “Imas li pljuga?”. I understand that he is asking if I have something, though I have no idea what “pljuga” is.

After having just spent 45 minutes next to this fellow belting out songs word-for-word in Bosnian, like a true bloody native, I turn to him and tell him in his local tongue, “Sorry, I don’t know Bosnian”.

As one would imagine, the lad was pretty confused. Surely, he thought I was taking the piss.

He scrunches his face in bewilderment. Probably contemplating scrunching his fist, too, another boy familiar to me jumps up and explains the situation. That is, that I am Australian and I really do not know Bosnian.

(For those playing along at home, the guy was asking for a cigarette. No, I didn’t have one.)

It was times like these when it struck me just how far removed from home I was.

Allow me to provide a bit of background to the situation.

I had come to Bosnia to reunite with a girl I had met on travels in the country a year earlier. (She is now my wife, for what it’s worth.)

Although she was the sole reason I made the risky switch as a 19-year-old from my Victorian coastal home to the wintry surrounds of this war-damaged – yet beautiful – country, I would be lying if I said following the local football was not on the agenda whatsoever.

Perhaps this interest is strange coming from a Westerner, given Bosnia’s national football competition is not exactly held in the highest regard.

Plagued with allegations of corruption, and with top sides who struggle to progress past the qualification stages of European competition, you would be hard pressed to find a football fan outside of the continent who could even name a Bosnian side – let alone a mid-table outfit like Celik.

Zenica may be a long way from the flashy lights of Old Trafford or the Nou Camp,
but the passion burns just as hot! 
The club from Zenica, however, were not always this average.

Formed in 1945, the side – whose name means “Steel” in English due to its well-known factory next to the city – were a common sight in the old Yugoslav First League. When Yugoslavia collapsed in the 1990s, and a new league was created specifically for Bosnia, Celik won the title three years in a row.

Since then, clubs from other cities have largely dominated the local competition. This is no more evident than with Zeljeznicar Sarajevo, who have been crowned champions five times in the past 13 seasons.

Despite Celik’s lack of success on the pitch, it is its passionate fan-base which made me fall in love with the club.

Loss after loss, mediocre performance after mediocre – and irrespective of weather conditions – the young men and, even, women are there on the south stand every week chanting their hearts out, hoping the next day will bring more fortune than the last.

There were also occasions where I defied the wishes of my partner and family, deciding to jump on a bus with these fanatics and travel over seven hours to an away match. In the depths of summer. With no air conditioning. And a standing room only vehicle.

For me, it was eye-opening. For them, it was just another week of being a loyal follower of their local team.

It wasn't all smooth sailing in my time as a
Celik supporter. Though, at least I discovered
what it is like to receive stitches. Never
again, thanks ...
Ultimately, I would make two trips with the Celik faithful, zig-zagging through the Bosnian mountains until we eventually reached a small, hidden stadium far away. On each occasion, we would be greeted by countless police and security at the entrance gates who gave more thorough searches than you would expect to see on an episode of Border Security.

On the second occasion, as our bus was on its return journey to Zenica, we were attacked by a group of rival fans from another city. Of course, out of the 60-odd people on the bus, I, the token Aussie, was the only one injured, copping a decent-sized rock to my noggin.

A few hours later in the hospital, and with three stitches to my head, two of the leaders of ‘Convicts’ paid me a visit to check on my welfare. They barely spoke any English, if at all, yet the fact they would make the effort resonated with me.

I was an outsider who had come in and been accepted by these people. The fact we struggled to make sense of each other through conversation was irrelevant.  

Furthermore, I realised Celik Zenica had grown into something I hold close to my heart.

Whilst I have spent the past eight-and-a-half years as a diehard supporter of Australian A-League side Melbourne Victory, it is hard to compare the two entities in terms of their make-up and history.

I do not wish to go into great detail, as I am sure to be side-tracked, though there is something beautiful at the heart of football evident in these corners of the globe.

Most modern-day fans see football through a television from an armchair perspective. In developed countries, like Australia, supporters take for granted the boutique stadiums the sport is played in nowadays. Car park underneath stadium. Check! Escalator to our seats. Check!
Me, circled, with the 'Convicts' en route to an away match
seven hours away.

Though, at grounds like Bilino Polje in Bosnia, you can forget about such hospitality – and that’s what I love.

People don’t come to the game to have a day out. They don’t even come to see multi-million dollar footballers strut their stuff. They come to support and bleed their heart out for their beloved club and the battlers wearing the shirt.  

Although Celik would cruelly lose out in a penalty shootout in the cup tie on that cold November evening at Bilino Polje – and the match would prove to be my last before returning home – my brief sojourn with the faithful in Zenica had an everlasting impact on me as a person.

It reemphasised to me that football is not merely a sport. It is a phenomenon which far transcends the white markings on the hallowed turf.

On the surface, as a born-and-bred Aussie, I had little in common with the faces around me on the terraces. Indeed, I could barely string a sentence together when trying to communicate with them.

Yet, as soon as the whistle blew to kick things off, none of that mattered. We instantly became brothers and sisters, united in support of our warriors on the field.

We didn’t need to know English. We didn’t need to know Bosnian. We already spoke the same language: football.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Life after Bosnia

It all took place in just a matter of minutes.

I was driving home from university on what could be described as a beautiful and sunny early-autumn afternoon.

Rewind a few days, and this very road was packed bumper-to-bumper with cars carrying all sorts of tourists and families who were heading down to the local Surf Coast area -- a place I call home -- to soak up the beach and sun.

There’s little doubting it: this is a truly amazing part of the world. 

Especially at this time of year.

Beautiful, crystal blue water as far as you can see. Sand. Sun. Sun. And more sun.

Throw in the fact the magnificent Great Ocean Road is on its doorstep, and you have one incredible mix that drags tourists here from not only Australia, but all over the world.

On this particular afternoon, however, driving home surrounded by all this natural beauty, my mind is elsewhere.

Fifteen-thousand-kilometres elsewhere.

What was I concentrated on?

Bosnia and Herzegovina.

(Did you guess it?)

One might be inclined to ask a simple question: Why?

Even Bosnians themselves would probably be perplexed as to why I am thinking about their country when all I should probably be thinking about is how to make the most of this wonderful scenery surrounding me.

But I can’t help it.

This small Bosnia-Herzegovina flag was presented to me by
friendly neighbours in Zenica in order for me to not forget
their country. Don't worry, guys, I haven't needed such reminders!
And, before I knew it, there it was.

Despite some meagre attempts to portray myself as a bit of a macho-man at times, I confess to expelling a tear or two in that car as my mind raced back to all the things I have left behind in the Balkans.

Yes, I, 21-year-old Rusty Woodger, cried a little.


What can I say? I miss Bosnia. A lot.

It is not one, but many things.

It's the lifestyle.

It's t
he ‘Ezan’ call for prayer playing across the city five times a day. The strong scent of cevapi and onion emanating from the local cevabdzinica.

It's dashing across to the local mesnica and ‘Konzum’ to buy all the necessary ingredients for lunch. 

It's coffee for morning, mid-morning, lunch, afternoon, evening, night-time and any other time we bloody feel like it.

It's dodging stray and angry dogs on the street. Dropping past the local pekara twice a day to grab some hljeb (Bosnians love their bread). 

It's the tense atmosphere of an important match on Bilino Polje. Being ‘that’ Aussie in Bosnia. Receiving constant compliments from locals and invitations to join them for coffee or lunch.

It's the amazingly beautiful landscape. The mountainous terrain. The Adriatic Sea a mere few hours away.

But, most of all, it is the people: those who became friends, and those who became family.

Make no mistake; Bosnia is filled with a vast array of good-natured, strong-willed and inspiring individuals. Upon leaving, it was the realisation I would not see these people for a long time that made it such a bitter pill to swallow. 

More than a month has passed since I returned to my home country of Australia.

Although he did not know much English, my fiancé's
grandfather - whom I lived with in Zenica - is someone
I grew close with, and I regularly ponder about him since
returning to Australia.
To most, my life seems relatively “normal.” I go to school. I come home. I catch up with friends whenever possible, sitting for coffee and talking about ‘everyday’ topics.

Even on that day I drove home from university with a tear-in-the-eye, I settled myself, walked into my home and confronted my Bosnian fianc√© as though nothing at all had just happened.

On the inside, evidently, my life is rather different.

Constantly, my mind travels to Bosnia, as I ponder about my old friends and family.

How are they doing? I wonder if so-and-so has found a job yet? If such-and-such has stopped getting himself into so much trouble? If this person’s health has begun improving? If that lady is feeling lonely without our semi-regular visits for coffee?

Don’t get me wrong. I am extremely happy to be back in Australia with all my locally based family and friends, and to have all the educational, occupational and other opportunities not enjoyed by others elsewhere.

Further to this, anyone who knows me personally can vouch for the fact I love my city, Melbourne, very much.

However, the fact remains: I still feel as though my life is not ‘whole’ or ‘complete’ without Bosnia.

Every day I am attempting to stem these feelings.

A photo for my 'Robijasi Zenica' friends to let them know I
have not forgotten about them here in Melbourne.
Whether it’s cooking up coffee in a dzezva, listening to some Dino Merlin or Dubioza Kolektiv, getting the “Robijasi” scarf out of my cupboard, or briefly jumping in on a Skype chat between my partner and her mother – I am always trying something to reconnect myself with the nation and culture that was home to me for 12 months.

Although I do not have any immediate plans to return to Bosnia, I long for the day I will be there taking a walk down carsija once again.

There is little doubting that this magnificent nation has left an indelible mark on this Australian’s heart.

As the saying goes: ‘There’s no place like home…

The expression is generally perceived as referring to just one, singular ‘home.’

For me, however, that scenario is too simple.

Australia is my home, but so is Bosnia.

And, trust me, there is no place like Bosnia.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Aussie in Bosnia bids Farewell

It is with great sadness that I inform you today the Aussie in Bosnia page will cease all its activities, effective immediately.

Due to the fact I must depart from these shores in the coming weeks, it is a strong wish of mine to make the most of my remaining time here, and I fear this blog could prove to be too great a distraction.

In terms of writing this page, the journey until now has been magnificent; one I can genuinely say I have enjoyed from start to finish. The decision to hang the keyboard up, so to speak, has not been made lightly.

I originally held some hope of writing a rather in-depth review on the last 11-12 months I have spent in this wonderful country, but -- what can I say -- I currently don't know where to begin on such a subject that, in truth, deserves a lot of time and care.

Perhaps, the best time for such reflection will be waiting for me once I settle back in Australia.

Nonetheless, this blog has obviously played a very big part in my life over the past seven months, providing me with a platform to pursue my passion for writing and, more specifically, to write about topics I love and which interest me.

There are so many people from both within Bosnia-Herzegovina and across the world who I have been connected to thanks to An Aussie in Bosnia.

Some of these connections have even developed into personal friendships which will hopefully last for many years to come, illustrating the power a page such as this can hold.

On top of these real-life occurrences, we also managed to post 200 blog entries, whilst attaining a view-count which today sits in excess of 35,500 -- and, trust me, it's only been climbing and climbing in recent times -- at an average of more than 160 views per day.

That is something I could never have dreamed of when I began this page. Never.

I am very proud of the work I have churned out on here over the past half year, but I know I still have a lot of work to do to get to where I want to be as a writer, and I can't wait to look back on this in the future as a sort of measuring stick to check my progress.

As mentioned earlier in this post, it is hard to find the correct words right now to write a meaningful review (or reviews!) of my time in Bosnia, but it is something I plan on doing in the months following my return to Australia.

For that reason, if you would like to hear some of the stories I have to tell about Bosnia-Herzegovina, then you can keep up to date with my movements through my Twitter page. Alternatively, you can bookmark this very page and check back every couple of weeks to see if there have been any updates!

I would just like to use the end of this post here to express my gratitude for this country and how welcoming it has been to me. There is absolutely no way I would have written to this extent if it weren't for such factors.

There's no two ways about it: I love this country, and that is why it has been so easy to write about it for this long.

Rest assured, this will not be the end of my journalistic relationship with Bosnia. It is a strong wish of mine that future work of mine involves this nation and region. In what capacity, however, I am not sure. Only time will tell.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a place I would have struggled to find on a map a few years ago (I would've had some difficulty spelling it, too!) but it is now a country which has been etched into my heart forever.

Whilst here, my perceptions on everything in life were changing on a daily basis.

Moreover, I now possess a greater appreciation for the world thanks to my time here.

Thank you, Bosnia; despite my words, you really don't know the effect you've had on this Australian boy. I will never forget your people and their hospitality and kindness.

Once again, thank you to everyone who read this blog, whether you were a regular follower or a one-time reader, I am incredibly gracious for you taking the time to even click onto this page to see what I was rambling on about.

Now it is time to move onto the next chapter of my life.

Thank you. Hvala puno.

VOLIM TE BOSNO!

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Some more Saturday Satires - Mujo and Haso

(Source: comediansnationwide.com)
1.
Mujo and Haso are sitting at a park bench.

Mujo asks Haso: "Why are we here and not helping our wives?"

Haso responds: "We don't need to - it's their job. They only know how to clean and have sex!"

Mujo stands up in a hurry. Haso asks: "Mujo, where are you going?"

Mujo replies: "Running home, my wife doesn't know how to clean."