Recently a co-worker’s daughter told me she was graduating from college with a couple majors and a minor in spacial studies. I had never heard of spacial studies and asked her what it meant. It was the idea that the physical geography of where we live is intricately tied to the way we experience life. For example, Denver is popular because of the Rocky Mountains, would the city of Denver be as popular without them? Would the economy experience such growth? I would argue that Denver’s fate is somehow linked with the physical geography. And, by extension, this realization amplifies the value of what the U.S. stole from both Indigenous Groups and Mexico. Another example are the fates of Jamaica and Guyana. Jamaica’s physical location and beauty have been habitually exploited; whereas, Guyana’s dense forest and dangerous wildlife protect it from the same forms of exploitation. Of course, the idea that our fate is tied to the geography of where we live and sometimes literally to the dirt we walk on, is not my idea. In addition to the emerging field of spacial studies, this concept has been widely accepted by native people all over the world since humans were around.
That said, it made me wonder about how the physical landscape of Bosnia impacts the fate of the people living here. Bosnia’s physical location has deeply and sometimes gravely impacted the identity of the people living here. Empires from the East and the West have occupied this land bringing with them their religions. As early as the 9th century–before “Bosnia” is mentioned in any historical text, Bosnians were introduced to Christianity. Catholicism took root under the Franciscan Order in the late 1200s, and the Ottomans brought Islam to Bosnia in the mid-1400s. Bosnia is truly a point where East and West fought for identity. These labels from hundreds of years ago tied so dramatically to the value of the land, are the same labels that divided the country during the war in the 1990s. We see this again, at the end of the Ottoman Empire when the Young Turk government lost the Balken Wars, it changed the course of history for the Ottomans–most dramatically for the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire. Again, in WWII and the following years of the USSR, Bosnia (then part of Tito’s Yugoslavia) was outside the iron curtain, but wholeheartedly communist. Again, a point where East meets West, and Bosnia, due to its physical placement and vast resources, stood in the gap between. I’m skipping through over a thousand years of history so forgive me for the brevity and simplicity of this argument, but it holds that historically Bosnia is a point between East and West, and the identity of the people here are tied to this quasi-transient location.
Then there are the specific geographic features of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnia is forested with plenty of rich arable land with a small but important coastline. To talk about Bosnia and fail to mention water, would be to wholly miss an identity of this place. So many of the roadways and cities fall along the rivers of Bosnia. Clean, crisp natural water flows through the country and is stored in the vast old-growth forests of Sutjeska National Park–known by some as the “lungs of Europe.” And this water, made ever-more significant by the hills and mountains, dictated where people built cities. The cities and most notably, Sarajevo are built along the rivers. There’s an obvious practical reason for this–people need water to survive. So all of this brings me to a point about Sarajevo: if the water wasn’t in the valley, if the land was flat, if the land was dry, if so many other things happened, Sarajevo may not have been built in a valley and the siege may have played out so differently.
There’s an inescapable truth that our surroundings have a hand in our fates, but walking along the river in Sarajevo, it is so beautiful and tragic that water, this necessity of life, would be both the strength of the city and a tragic flaw that made Sarajevo so vulnerable during the siege.