Monday 24 October 2016

Zenica still bears the war's scars

Liverpool's Dejan Lovren
Liverpool's Dejan Lovren

They will use an air-conditioned bus to make the short trip from their hotel to the match stadium here in Zenica tomorrow night.

But if the Irish squad were so inclined, and wanted to avoid a traffic jam, they could make the journey on foot, the Bilino Polje Stadium only a four-minute walk from their hotel. Just leave the team hotel which is nudged beside a smoke-filled shopping centre (even toddlers in Bosnia seem to smoke), walk across the bridge over the river Bosna, take the first right and the stadium's just there.

But, go left at that turning and any Irish visitors would get a glimpse of just what life - and death - in Bosnia were like just two decades ago.


On an ordinary April day in 1993, ordinary Bosnians were out doing their ordinary business in Zenica's market square when death rained out of the sky. Shells fired from a village in the hills above killed 15 civilians, aged between 14 and 65. The fact that the shells were fired not by Serbs but by Croatian paramilitaries makes no difference to the bereaved.

It may seem crass to link football to such an atrocity but one of the players in the Bosnian squad for tomorrow's game, Srdjan Grahovac, was just nine-months-old when the attack happened, so his parents could have been taking him out for some fresh air in his pram in Zenica that day (though that's unlikely as he was born in the Serbian stronghold of Banja Luka, 100km away).

But Liverpool's Dejan Lovren, born in 1989, may have had an escape. He's a local boy, from the city of Kakanj, just 20 minutes away.

The Anfield man is still flying the flag for Bosnia (even though he opted to play for Croatia) with a visit to his home town and old primary school yesterday.

The war in Bosnia (1993-95) intended to wipe out a generation of Bosnians but that hateful ploy failed as Bosnians and Bosnia live on. The scars remain and any Irish visitors to this city over the next two days should at least visit the site of that massacre and pay their respects.

Zenica and Bosnia survived and the city today is a strange mixture of cultures. One of the city's main mosques is tucked away in an alley off the main shopping street, Muslim women walk around with headscarves but no other outward signs of religion.

Irish fans, if they make it this far and opt to avoid the Dubliner Pub here, can eat Turkish kebabs, drink Bosnian beer and smoke their brains out. Welsh supporters enjoyed their visit here earlier this year and Irish fans will be welcomed, and won't be ripped off. This city is curious about visitors but also welcoming. But the green army should also be aware: everything (yes, everything) shuts down at midnight.

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