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.
Human geography
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.


Table of contents

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6