At the beginning of the Bosnian War, every city and village on the east of the country was taken by the Serbian army. In order to stop the independence of the recently self-proclaimed Bosnia and Herzegovina, and to establish a big Serbian republic, Slobodan Milošević’s forces put in practice one of the most repugnant ethnic cleansings of our recent past.
Bosnian Muslims’ houses were looted and burned down, civilians were captured and tortured, women were raped and murdered. The Srebrenica massacre was the pinnacle of the genocide: within less than a month, more than eight thousand Bosnians were killed in an ONU-protected area declared safe two years before. When the war reached its peak, Serbian dominion had covered most of the country, and the military troops had decimated every Bosnian community they could access.
If the village of Lukomir still exists, it’s because isolation saved it from destruction.
Still in the fourteenth century, semi-nomadic tribes began settling at the top of the fifteen hundred meters of the Bjelašnica mountain. The lack of water on the lower regions of central Bosnia, during summer, was deadly to their sheep herds. The abundance of rivers and waterfalls led them to create Lukomir, which would become not only the oldest, but also the highest community in the whole country.
The road that leads to the village is recent. Snaking on the slopes of a mountain range, the dirt way is – although providential – precarious and impassable to most of the vehicles. Buses, no way. It’s only surpassable by jeep or on foot. Before its construction, the only connection between Lukomir and the rest of Bosnia was a steep walking path that plummeted itself in an 800-meter canyon and crossed a river to emerge, later, towards the “neighboring” community.
- Until recently, we had no idea of what was it like to receive a visitor. – Ismet, the 70-year-old bushy-eyebrowed man who welcomed me, recalls. – It was only after this road that people down there found out about a village that has managed to remain intact even during the war.
The road brought not only visitors, but also a shy influx of modernity. At the end of 2012, most of the couple of dozen houses already had electricity. And the traditional architecture, seen on the walls assembled of big blocks of stone that extend themselves in a pointy roof, was already being modified with the addition of aluminium tiles – important allies when fighting the cold.
- You have no idea of how cold this place becomes on winter. – Ismet said.
But I had some idea. At the height of autumn, he wore a cottony bonnet and uncountable layers of coats. His wife, peeking us from the single window of her house, had her head wrapped by a wine coloured turban, her neck muffled by a scarlet scarf, and her hands sewed frantically a pair of thick socks, as if she was already late on its making.
- From December to April, it’s impossible to get in or out of Lukomir. – Ismet continued. – Snow blocks the road and the paths. It’s tough to herd the sheep. That’s why, for a while now, some of the inhabitants here have been going down to their children’s houses, in Sarajevo, to escape the winter. And they come back only in the next spring.
What happens is that, every year, more people abandon the village with the arrival of winter. And, every year, fewer come back in spring. In Lukomir, modernity might have arrived too late.
- The first snowfall of the season has already happened. – Ismet pointed at the white summit of a mountain, at the end of the canyon over which the village seemed to lean. – In two weeks, I guess, whoever wants to leave Lukomir must be gone already.
Ismet himself was one of those who were not staying. The last thing bounding him to the place was the cow he still had in his name.
- I sold her last week. – he told me, relieved. – Now I can go.
- What about sheep? Don’t you still have some? – I asked.
- A few. But they’re going with me. Carrying them is as easy as pie compared to fitting a cow on the back of a jeep.
Protruding nose, skin carved by wrinkles, and the bonnet almost jumping out of his head: Ismet not only looked like a movie character. In 2010, a Dutch crew filmed a documentary in which they followed the daily lives of those who remained in the village throughout the course of a winter, and Ismet is one of the local inhabitants who had their routine captured by the cameras.
The movie is an important record, since it immortalizes a reality on the verge of extinction. When I visited the village I talked to all the fifteen men and women that were there. And none of them planned to return at winter’s end. For the first time, there was a real chance of Lukomir being completely abandoned.
Isolation has salved Lukomir from the devastating action of men. But today it is precisely what makes the village so vulnerable to the action of time. It’s impossible to predict until when the settlement will stand. All we can do is ensure that the dignity of all those who have lived in Lukomir will remain alive, forever, at least in the pages of history.
www.vimeo.com/41070797 – Link to the documentary Winterslaap in Lukomir
www.greenvisions.ba – Link to the tourism agency that organizes visits to Lukomir