Geography of Bosnia and Herzegovina
by Thierry Domin
First published in
SFOR Informer#124, October 17, 2001
Surrounded by Croatia in the Southwest
and much of the North, by Serbia and Montenegro in
the East, Bosnia and Herzegovina is not such a large
country. It has borders with Croatia (at the Southwest
and the largest part of the North), Serbia (at the
Northeast) and Montenegro (at the Southeast).
The country is only 51,100 square kilometres (as an
example, Switzerland is 41,293 square kilometres),
with the shape of an isosceles triangle; each side
of the right angle measures about 300 kilometres,
from Trebinje to Bijeljina and from Bijeljina to Velika
Kladusa. It is this shape that is symbolised on the
BiH national flag.
Facts and figures
But to count in kilometres in this country doesn't
make any sense. For those who regularly travel, it's
better to count in hours, and it is even worse during
the winter season. This is because, and everybody
is aware of this fact, BiH is a mountainous country.
Its mountains are not very high (the summit is a peak
in the Maglic Range, at the border with Montenegro,
with a height of 2,383 metres, 7,821 feet), but when
you drive you never stop going up and down. The reason
is that the Alps, called the Dinaric Alps here, run
across two thirds of BiH, from the Northwest to the
Southeast. Hence this succession of mountains, high
plateaux and deep valleys. The only flat open country
is located in the North: it is the beginning (or the
end) of the great Hungarian plains, the former "Puszta."
The hilly relief explains the hydrology. The rivers
quite unanimously flow towards the North because the
natural slope of the mountains gradually climbs towards
the South. From west to east, the main rivers are:
the Una and its tributary, the Sana (which both give
their names to the Una Sana Canton, (Canton 1); the
Vrbas (which flows through Banja Luka); the Bosna;
and finally the Drina (which mainly forms the border
with the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia). All these
rivers flow, directly or indirectly, into the Sava
River, a tributary of the Danube. The Sava River forms
the border with Croatia. The only sizeable exception
is the Neretva, flowing first towards the North, but
turning back in the vicinity of Konjic and finally
flowing into the Adriatic Sea.
The mouth of the Neretva River is not located in Bosnia
and Herzegovina, but in Croatia. The fact is that
BiH has a very small coastline, about 12 kilometres.
And if you travel from Mostar to Dubrovnik using the
main roads (Pacman and Cynthia routes), you first
enter Croatia in Metkovic, reach and follow the coast,
enter BiH again, and finally return to Croatia. On
the route, you will pass through the town of Neum,
which as result of the borderline, is the only Bosnian
town located on the sea. But Neum is all but a port.
To overcome the lack of a port suitable for shipping,
BiH signed an agreement two years ago with Croatia
for the use of the harbour in Ploce, through which
an important amount of goods and commodities arrive
by sea. Furthermore, BiH has its own port, but it
is a river port: Brcko, located on the Sava River.
But the town and the port installations were heavily
destroyed during the war. That's why the International
Community has a special interest for the re-opening
of the facilities of Brcko.
Another aspect of the geography lies in the population
settlement. Before the war, apart from some big towns
like Sarajevo, Mostar or Banja Luka, the major part
of the settlement was rural: a lot of remote hamlets
surrounding a mosque, a catholic or an orthodox church.
Life there was difficult and hard, especially during
the winter season, but these small communities survived,
thanks to the solidarity of the villagers. Self-sufficiency
prevailed through local agriculture and cattle breeding.
Almost four years of war totally changed this landscape.
Even though the three parties (Bosniacs, Bosnian-Croats
and Bosnian-Serbs) were of the same ethnicity, the
ethnic cleansing they all practised as a strategy
drove a large part of the population to flee from
their houses, their villages and their areas of settlement.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
(UNHCR) assessed that, by the beginning of 1996, about
one million Displaced Persons were spread out all
over the country, while 1.2 million were Refugees
abroad. Of course, this movement strengthened the
urban population to the detriment of the rural one.
A lot of people of course returned to their pre-war
homes. Nevertheless, by Aug. 1, 2001, UNHCR's figures
establish that nearly 700,000 Bosnians are still Displaced
Persons and Refugees (DPREs). Almost 500,000 persons
have the status of Displaced Persons, and a little
bit more than 200,000 are still Refugees, mainly in
FRY (144,000). It is the hope of the International
Community that the improvement of the overall situation
in FRY will encourage more and more people to return.
Those horrific figures must be compared to the pre-war
population in BiH. A census carried out in 1991, one
year before the war, established that the overall
population of this country was 4.4 million. That means
that one inhabitant in two, just at the end of the
war, was not living in his pre-war home but elsewhere.
Despite all the efforts and the positive trend observed
over the last two years, the situation will never
be the same as before the war.
That is also a kind of geographic evolution.