Bosnia&Herzegovina, where East meets West

Over tobacco smugglers road

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Adventures of tobacco smugglers are parts of legends connected to our mountains. This story is reminder of those people and uncertainties, which they were exposed to in these mountains.

Thanks to its geographical position Herzegovina is a specific region where growing tobacco has a long tradition dating back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Tobacco is a commodity culture, for which money has been given, a necessary supplement to the financial economy and to the nation tobacco was known as yellow gold.

With the occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina by the Austro-Hungarian Empire the Law on the Establishment of monopolies has been proclaimed, meaning that the state was in charge of total production, processing and sales of tobacco. Tobacco could be grown freely for their own use, but for sale a tax called “mururija” had to be paid. Faced with poverty farmers were forced to learn a new craft, called the “peddlery” and began to smuggle tobacco.

It was a profitable but dangerous job, that required great ingenuity and skill to avoid the police. It demanded a lot of hard work, employing all members of the family, from children and adults to the elderly, backed up with an irreplaceable member, the donkey,mortar and a tobacco cutting machine. Unlike the harmless donkey, being caught with the mortar and the cutting machine was something frightening not just for those who owned them, but had any relationship with them. Therefore they were often kept somewhere in the basement, or better, in a hidden cave.

Tobacco wasn’t supposed to be called by its name, because there were ears everywhere, envy as well, or someone, simply, was intimidated and had to whisper the name of the place where it has been hidden.

The police would ask the villagers and sought the roads of smuggling. And the farmers would struggle to avoid getting caught, because it would mean a year in prison or even more. But the problem was that even with all the precautions being taken a person who cut tobacco used to smell very distinctively and this didn’t go in favor of the farmers.

The militia had its ways… The knives had to be occasionally sharpened by the blacksmith. Master blacksmiths often were in debt and owed the militiaman compensation for their kindness, and, as soon as they did the job they would run off telling the police. But the Bosnians had their ways too. They would find a way to bribe the militia or otherwise distract from the trail, claiming they were carrying wine, and even allowed them to taste the wine, not knowing that under the wine is a real little treasure, yellow gold!

Life in hash environment of western Herzegovina was hard throughout history. Tobacco was one of the few plants that could be grown in these lands. Production of tobacco was state controlled, and production for self-needs and free sale was strictly forbidden. But people who were relying on tobacco to feed their families were forced to sell “Škiju”, which is how people called Herzegovinian tobacco, on the black market. Tobacco smuggling was profitable, but dangerous job. In order to evade ambushes smugglers chose tracks that were not easy and High Mountain passes caring tobacco on their backs. Thus is this story about tobacco smugglers a reincarnation of the true adventures that exists only in legends. Roads of tobacco smugglers led from western Herzegovina to: Croatia and almost all bigger cities: Split, Makarska, Dubrovnik, Sinj, Knin, Bihac, Banja Luka, Brcko, Jajce, Travnik, Sarajevo, Foca etc. in which there was demand for “Herzegovina Gold” which is pet name for Škilja. Weighted by hevy backpacks, smugglers on the road with trouble in their hearts not knew weather their cargo would be passed without troubles to the said goal. It was an adventure in which you could die easily. Tobacco smugglers were main news in “Crime” section of the newspapers.

Hardest trip was that to Sarajevo. To get there you need to pass mountains: Prenj, Visočica, Treskavica and Bjelasnica. All of those are high mountains and places where weather is harsh and unpredictable. Once in a summer day you could expect all types of weather to be experienced. Harsh mountain terrain and weather was not the only obstacle on the way, smugglers had constant danger of ambushes and possible attack of wild beasts. In order not to prolong mountain stay, they had to solve problems along the way, without delays. Passage over mountains lasted several days with all-day hard walk. Smuggling of tobacco, besides all obstacles along the way, happened all throughout the year. In case if smugglers stumble across an ambush they used firearms in order to come out alive.

Smugglers during the passage over the mountains often changed their ways in order to throw any possible followers of their trail. The way they passed was often secret only known to the smugglers. They used to go over the mountains even under harsh weather conditions hoping that the weather would discourage any ambushes. Many of the smugglers were lost in the fog, froze or die in avalanches.

Coping with the harsh and complicated mountain roads in unfavorable weather conditions, with heavy cargo, smugglers need to be in prime physical fitness, resilient and had supreme knowledge of the terrain. They knew these mountains like the back of their pocket and usually avoided wells, caves, huts, and shelters for hunters and hikers since those were usually the spots for ambushes.

Sometimes for guidance and carriage of tobacco they employed people who lived under the mountains paying them well. Some of those people later became tobacco smugglers themselves.
Ruins of the police outposts or “Pandurica” as they were called by smugglers can see today on the locations : Gvozdine (965 m.a.s.l.) and Rujište (1050 m.a.s.l.) at Prenj mountain; Čelina (1220 m.a.s.l.), Valje (1453 m.a.s.l.)  and Rogoj (1315 m.a.s.l.) at Treskavica mountain; Bijele vode (1420 m.a.s.l.) and Umoljani (1390 m.a.s.l.) at Bjelašnica mountain; Radovan mountain (1200 m.a.s.l.); Jablan vrelu (1588 m.a.s.l.) at Lelija mountain; Pod Stogom (1500 m.a.s.l.) at  Zelengora mountain.

After they overcome the obstacles and mishaps on the mountain, they came to Sarajevo and went in one street under Kovači. Street is narrow and short. In the city this was known us under the table sale and there were police actions often but with little caught. Smugglers had precise tips when police will arrive.

Smugglers possessed their own watchmen that stood on the street corners and watch for police. If police came they would hide in one of the narrow near streets and wait till they leave, after which trade resumed. They kept with themselves small amount of tobacco and the rest was kept secret in houses and apartments of trussed people. Watchmen received either money or tobacco for their services. In the trade buyer was the one who approached to the sellers.

Škija was packaged in boxes for male shirts, which was basic retail measure. In case of bigger order, it went directly to the address of the buyers. Smugglers sold their cargo in two or three days after which they returned home by train or bus. When they returned home, they had short rest and that they started their adventure again.

Tobacco smugglers chose their tracks with skill and hikers rarely met with them. One of the eye to eye meets was told by Sarajevo hiker Vinko Tomičić:
“It was once during the mid fifties of the last century. It was hot summer, and city heat made us search for refreshing air in the mountain. With my friend Đuro Gϋrt I decided to spend couple of days hiking in prenj. We traveled by bus in Mostar. We exit the bus in Potoci and came to Rujište in dogs heat with heavy backpacks. Infront of house there were two black mercedes parked. From a friend we found that Džemal Bjedić was there with some forends. He rests from politcis in mountains and loved hiking. We spent the night in Rujište and todey we remained our way over Bjelih Voda to Jezerce. As we arrived in hikers house jezerze we settled in the attic. One par was without the roof. IN house we met young married couple who arrived in Jezerce to rest couple of days.“

“Tomorrow our friend Stevo arrived. Night that followed remained deep in my memory. In the middle of the night we heard doors opening in the ground. Trough the hole in the floor we saw light of few cigarettes. In the darkness you could not recognize the faces. They spoke quietly between themselves and we could not understand what they are talking about. At that time in mountains there were raids for remaining members of enemy squads remained there since the end of World War II.

We were afraid for our safety. Stevo, who was eldest among us gathered quickly. He whispered to Đuro and me telling us to immediately go down and tell to the people below that he invites them to coffee and brandy. With fear we went down and told to the strangers this. One of them came immediately with us probably group leader. He pushed the door with the barrel of automatic rifle. Light of the candle in the attic showed the stranger to us. He was tall broad and had a Moustache; dark skinned nearly black in the face.

He greeted all in the attic and sat near the Seteva. They spoke quietly with coffee and brandy. After short while, he stood up and shook hands with Stevo and gave us a bit of Škija departing. Before he left the attic he looked us and said: “There, we have made a deal, you did not see us and we did not see you”. House was quiet for the rest of the night and we were afraid to go anywhere. When dawn broke I stood up and looked trough the hole in the floor. Strangers were gone they left with the dawn. We were relieved. When we parted Stevo told us that they were tobacco smugglers and we should not say anyone that the meeting happened!”

Preparing this, I remembered one event that I witnessed:
“During the eighties on Bjelasnica Mountain, under heavy fog, we arrived on Mrtvanjske Stanare. It was Saturday and strangely we did not meet the guy who is supposed to guard the hikers home. Main entrance was licked and from the rain we hid under the roof. There were six of us in tight space and we barely stood there. We sat on the floor and eat. Avdo Jelačić carried a portable fire that we could cook on and we took from our backpacks our food and drink. While water in the pot was boiling Avdo told us a story about his meeting with tobacco smugglers. At the time Avdo was eldest by years and hikers experience. During the smuggler story Avdo did not notice that water was boiling and it burned Avdo’s hand. He cursed loudly on this turning over entire food and drink that we had. After this we teased him how even Herzegovinian smugglers heard him when he cursed.

Author of text and photography: Braco Babić