THE BEER BEAT: Praljak, Yugoslavia’s civil war, the brewery in Sarajevo and the bridge in Mostar.


This article is one in my series of 1987 travel recollections. Previously came an introduction to Yugoslavia in Ljubljana, then Zagreb and the way to Sarajevo

Next in the series: My Franz Ferdinand heritage trail, 30 years ago in Sarajevo.

We’ll be taking a look at an informative Atlas Obscura article about the Sarajevska Pivara’s (Sarajevo Brewery’s) heroic role during the siege of the Bosnian city amid the horrendous Yugoslav civil war of the 1990s.

First, there’ll be an admission of editorial incompetence.

Earlier this year, it abruptly occurred to me that those 2017 dates steadily ticking past me on the calendar had become synchronized with the very same ones from way back in 1987, serving to recall the day-to-day progress of my summer-long backpacking adventure in Europe during the penultimate year of Ronnie Raygun’s second term.

Consequently, without preparation or much of a plan, I launched an exceedingly disjointed “30 years ago today” retrospective here at NA Confidential. The accounts didn’t proceed chronologically because the project didn’t begin in earnest until June. Eventually I settled on a system, commenced digitalizing the ancient slides, then backtracked to pick up what had been missed.

However, as of roughly an hour ago, there is an urgent need for me to dive into the 1987 series again and reorganize the whole shebang, seeing as time spent in the former Yugoslav cities of Zagreb, Sarajevo, Mostar and Dubrovnik was completely omitted from the narrative.

It is beyond the scope of this column to make the necessary corrections all at once, so let’s begin with the brewery in Sarajevo, which dates from 1864 and remains in operation today. I drank the typical golden lager beer back in ’87, although remembering exactly what it tasted like is another matter entirely.

Significantly, it would be difficult for any brewery anywhere to continue brewing without predictable supplies of barley and hops, but since old-school breweries were built in proximity to their water sources, the wells kept functioning — and helped keep people alive.

As an added bonus, the author’s explanation of the complicated Yugoslav civil war’s origins is brief, yet sufficiently clear.

The Bosnian Brewery That Saved a City Under Siege, by Stacey McKenna (Atlas Obscura)

The springs of Sarajevska Pivara became a sole water source for many Sarajevans

IT’S NO SECRET THAT WATER sustains life, and that a lack of it can just as easily rip life away. That’s especially true of the natural springs that run beneath Sarajevo’s Sarajevska Pivara, which have been crucial to the brewery’s crisp, malt-forward beers since its founding in the 19th century: The vitality of the underground waterways goes well beyond brewing.

In 1994, as Sarajevo found itself under a siege that would outlast any other in modern warfare, Sarajevska Pivara—and its water—became a lifeline. Creeks dried up, rivers became polluted, and both water and power lines were sabotaged, but Sarajevska Pivara continued pumping water and distributing it to locals …

 … Nowhere was safe, and even collecting water could be a deadly task. In 1994, a disaster relief worker for the International Rescue Committee estimated that 90 percent of the deaths in the city happened along the exposed banks of the Miljacka River, where families sourced non-drinking water. Yet Sarajevska Pivara’s pump continued to draw water from its deep underground wells.

(Sarajevo native Haris) Hadziselimovic recalls trekking to Sarajevska Pivara each day with his parents to help them bring water home. “We were simply taking canisters of whatever type we had, and loading them on a bicycle or a sleigh in the winter,” he says. “We walked for about an hour to the brewery, then lined up with people for several hours.”

By the time Yugoslavia devolved into bloodshed, Rich O’s Public House was underway. I remember reading accounts of the siege and being appalled, having visited the city only seven years before. The regulars would ask me if I saw “it” coming, and of course the answer was no; a few days on the ground couldn’t possibly be enough to predict the gruesome future.

Now the “future” is more than two decades in the past, except it isn’t gone, because we’ve only recently witnessed a considerable aftershock when the Croat commander Slobodan Praljak publicly committed suicide by drinking poison following the confirmation of his verdict by the International Criminal Tribunal at the Hague.

I highly recommend this article.

The Cultured Destroyers Of Culture, by Gordana Knezevic (RFERL)

Before the war, Praljak had been a writer and film director. He had also been the director of various theaters, including in Mostar. With the outbreak of the war, the man of culture became a general and an adviser to Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. He was eventually accused of command responsibility for the destruction of the Old Bridge in Mostar, one of the most striking Ottoman monuments in the Balkans, and a jewel of Bosnia’s Islamic heritage.

Where did I go immediately after Sarajevo?

Mostar, where the Croats led by Praljak destroyed the famous 16th-century bridge over the Neretva River.

Yes, these are my original photos of the beautiful and (then) peaceful scene. In 1987, I spent several hours on each of consecutive days drinking draft Sarajevsko Pivo at a cafe overlooking the Old Bridge, which was rebuilt in 2004.

In closing, here are a few photos and a passage from a piece I wrote approximately ten years ago about my 1987 arrival in Sarajevo. It will be rewritten and expanded (with additional photos) when I get around to completing the 1987 travelogue.

In 1987, the most recent translation of the Bible – that most valued of possessions, otherwise known as the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable – showed a main line running from Zagreb to Vinkovci, then another line branching off southward Sarajevo, through Mostar.

The map showed trains finally reaching the Adriatic at Kardeljevo, now known as Ploce, where I’d been told a bus could be taken to finish my journey to Dubrovnik, the famous walled city widely known as the “Pearl of the Adriatic”.

Sarajevo and Mostar were projected as stopovers for me after departing Zagreb, Croatia’s largest city, where’d I’d stayed for only a day owing to the youth hostel’s unavailability.

In truth, I was eager to move toward salt water … and time wasn’t at all an issue. It still was May, and I had until the last week of June to be in Budapest, Hungary. Before that would come Bulgaria, and maybe even Romania.

Safely aboard the train, and foraging from the sandwich cart, it soon became evident that mile after mile of the route through Bosnia-Herzegovina would be filled with jagged, unforgiving mountain terrain, evoking stories of the murderous internecine conflict between ideologically disparate partisan forces fighting against the German invaders during the Second World War, as well as just as frequently against each other in the bloody positioning for postwar supremacy.

Marshall Tito’s Communists eventually triumphed, and a non-aligned Yugoslavia became a well-known player on the Cold War stage, but as we all too sadly know, the full bill didn’t come due until the cataclysmic civil war of the 1990’s, which brought with it the disintegration of the nation as well as wanton death and destruction in Sarajevo, Mostar and many other towns and cities too numerous to name.

As a foreign visitor in 1987, there was no indication of the approaching conflagration, and in fact, memories of my time in Sarajevo are fleeting. As noted previously, my primary reason for visiting was to examine the place where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914.

It was a bonus that the city, the center of Muslim life in Bosnia, had a historic reputation for tolerance, and housed mosques, various Christian churches and synagogues. Reputedly, budget accommodations were easy to find, along with burek, pleskavitsa (local delicacies), strong espresso-style coffee and pivo (beer).

It will surprise you to learn that I didn’t write a journal back then, although some photos were taken, but unfortunately, the film later was developed into slides, not prints, and these snapshots are no longer easily accessible without resorting to a 30-year-old slide projector that has a tendency to mangle to precious relics. It’s true that whenever I drank a different brand of beer, I’d record it, and the list documenting my drinking record survives intact, helping to explain where the money went.

In a scrapbook there is somewhat of a paper trail. As a card-carrying pack rat, I’ve always seen to it that ticket stubs, receipts and the like are stashed – even before they became the basis for tax deductions. These receipts show that on the chilly and overcast May afternoon when I stepped off the train in Sarajevo, I took a bus or streetcar to the vicinity of the central tourist office.

As was the case throughout my early travels, the very first objective when arriving in a new city (after the imperative to get there as early in the day as possible) was to master local logistics, and most important among these considerations was finding a place to stay, one in my price range, which at the time was no more than $10 a night.

In Yugoslavia, this could be achieved in two ways, both of which were legal (although the same could not be said for all the countries in the Bloc), and involved accepting the offer of what was called a “private room” for tourists.

On way to accept this offer was to book the room formally through the local tourist office, which kept the officially sanctioned list. The other way was to haggle with the housewives who typically met train and bus arrivals for the purpose of taking in visitors and making a bit of petty cash on the side.

In Sarajevo and Mostar, I chose the official route. Later, in Dubrovnik, the unofficial path was taken. All of them worked out quite well.

Naturally it was important to be oriented and to have a map, and one was acquired at the same office, along with directions to the high-rise building where I’d be staying. It was within easy walking distance, but as was often the case for an unworldly non-urbanite, navigating the perplexing numbered system of buttons for ringing the occupant took some time.

My initial rings were not answered, so I went window shopping nearby for a while, sniffed around the entrance of what appeared to be a tavern, returned to the building, and had better luck the second time around.

And so, after climbing w few flights of stairs, I stepped into the tiny foyer of an equally minuscule apartment occupied by a man nicknamed “Mickey,” whose coffee table boasted copies of tourist phrase books in English, French and German, and whose first words after greeting me and looking at my receipt was to ask whether I’d like slivovitz.

Before I could answer, and in a fashion that I would come to regard as routine in the Balkans, the bottle and glasses already were place between us on a tray. With the help of the distilled plum juice, we were briefly acquainted.

I was shown to my closet-sized room, and noticed immediately that nearby there was a washing machine. This was critical for a shoestring traveler who had been rinsing articles of clothing in Woolite and hoping they’d dry before the next morning, a system that usually works with t-shirts, socks and underwear, but fails miserably with jeans and larger items.

Mickey was happy to start a load of laundry for me, and he gave me perfect directions to a restaurant down the street where I could grab a meal, it now being early evening and the slivovitz settling queasily on an empty stomach.

At the eatery in question I was introduced to an institution that would be a constant throughout my ensuing Eastern European travels: The thoroughly egalitarian institution of the Socialist state-owned self-service cafeteria, a place where a foreigner was just as welcomed as the natives, and could point with ease to foodstuffs without the bother of an indecipherable menu … and, usually, a place that served cheap draft beer — in this case, Sarajevsko Pivo.

I recall the lettuce being brown, the meat gray, and the beer sufficiently cold; moreover, the price for a plate of passable grub and a couple of half-liter mugs came to less than $2.

Sated and sleepy, I returned to my lodging to study the map and get a good night’s rest, because on the following morning, there was much Franz Ferdinand lore to indulge.


They remain a problem of mine.