Day 32: Mostar, Bosnia Herzegovina

by - September 05, 2011

“over the grey-green river swoop hundreds of swallows, and on the bank mosques and white houses stand amongst glades of trees and bushes.  There was not an old tin or rag of paper to be seen.  It was likely to be due to the Moslem’s love of nature, especially of running water, which would prevent him from desecrating the scene”

The empty gorge, 1993
Catching the morning bus out of Dubrovnik we made our way to our last country of the trip - Bosnia Hercegovina.  On my family holiday to the Balkans last year we had done a day trip from Split in Croatia to the town of Mostar, which most people remember for its famous bridge, destroyed by Croat forces in the Balkan conflict. The town had impressed me enough to come back, not just to Mostar but to Bosnia as a whole and we will be spending longer here than any of the other countries on the trip.  Bosnia Hercegovina is probably now more famous for its hard to pronounce name everytime Eurovision comes around, however it is one of the most complicated and fascinating countries in Europe.

Stari Most, 2011
The name itself shows that it is made up of two parts - Bosnia and Hercegovina but this is only the start of it.  While in modern Bosnian history the differences between these two parts is slight, the more important division is between the Serbian Republic in the east and the Federation of Croats and Muslims in the west.  These two parts represent the split negotiated for the 1995 Dayton Agreement, which attempted to provide a settlement to end the war.  Originally these were like two separate countries, both ruled from Sarajevo, but now apart from separate postal systems and different designs of bank notes, they are generally united.  We would be remaining in the Federation of Croats and Muslims, but would be visiting Bosnia AND Hercegovina.  To go much further in describing the history of Bosnia Hercegovina would be at the risk of not knowing what I was talking about, because while I have done my best to get up to speed, I still don’t feel confident enough to go into details.  All I can tell you is that the Bosnian tourist authorities (which are in a pretty embyonic state) describe their country as the ‘heart-shaped country’ and you can’t hope to understand it without knowing how it has been broken time and again throughout its history.

Mostar is the capital of the Hercegovina region, which doesn’t mean much politically nowadays but meant that it was a major trade post within the Ottoman Empire.  The name literally means 'the bridge keeper’ and it is built around the Stari Most bridge, commissioned by the Sultan when his traders complained about being too scared to cross the wobbly wodden one that preceded it.  A considerable Muslim Quarter sprang up on the east bank while Christians traditionally inhabited the west bank, but relations between the two tended to be friendly.  This all changed in the 1993 conflict when Croat forces who had originally been allies of the Muslims, blew the bridge in an attempt to cut off ties with their Muslim neighbours.  Images from Mostar showing the crumbling bridge were projected around the world and are one of the main reasons that people visit.  Its wrong to believe that it is all about the war however, as the town and surrounding countryside is amazingly beautiful in its own right.

Ljublanska Banking Tower, Bosnia
Hotel Neretva
We arrived in Mostar at about 1pm and were met at the bus station by a representative from our hostel - Hostel Miran.  Upon arrival at the hostel itself we were given a massive piece of baklava and this was to be a good start to one of the best hostel stays I have ever had - but more on that to come.  Our first port of call was the bridge which is a main point of orientation.  We decided to go straight to the west bank where the former frontline used to be.  This is where you get hit by both how devastating and also how recent the conflict was.  On our way to the frontline, which ran along the main road through the town, we passed plenty of bombed out buildings before coming to what I think are the starkest reminders of the war.  The first of these is a graveyard located on a terraced street where houses must have once stood.  On closer inspection this is no ordinary graveyard, as all of the hundreds of headstones are inscribed with a year of death of 1992, many of which have the same day on.  If this isn’t poignant enough, the years of birth on the headstones include 1970, 1975, 1981 and even 1987.  A bit of deduction shows that this is a cemetary full of children.  Further on from this is a building that I dismissed as a multi storey car park but a bit of research showed that it was once the Ljublanska Banking tower and has just never been rebuilt.  We didn’t go inside (the threat of landmines and unexploded bombs means that most ruins are sealed off) but a google search shows that the interior is full of bits of officeware and even memos and letters dated from the early 90s.  There just isn’t the money here to clear it up and there is a belief amongst some that buildings like the bank should stand as anti war monuments.  I don’t know quite where I stand on that issue.  At one of the other bridges (the stone bridge isn’t the only way to cross the river) is the ruined Hotel Neretva which has never been repaired, but which has had a shiny new building put next to it, providing a symbol of now and then.


The old town, Mostar
Having had our fill of war, we headed back into the Čaršija district to look around the bazaars and to take photos of the bridge from every possible angle.  We went to the banks below the bridge to try out the water (at ten degrees it was cold enough to make your feet numb) and were lucky enough to see one of the famous bridge divers jumping off.  These men are pretty hard as the air temperature is in the high 30s and the sudden change in temperature (as well as the fact you have jumped the equivalent of about six storeys) can induce a heart attack.  Luckily we saw him surface and after joining in with the round of applause headed back to the hostel.  In the evening we went into town, which was very busy as yesterday had been the last day of Ramadan.  The family that we were staying with (most hostels in the Balkans are essentially homestays - there are none of the sprawling backpacker complexes of western Europe or SE Asia) were Bosniaks - Bosnian Muslims.  When we got back in the evening we arranged a tour for the next day with Miran, the owner, who was quite an amazing man.  The war had cut short his training to be a lawyer and after it had finished (he didn’t say if he had fought as such) he had to open up his house as a hostel to support his family.  He is a lovely guy and it is pretty heartbreaking to see that his family now have to sleep in one room while the rest are given over to travellers.  We would get to know him even better tomorrow, but more on that later.

Stari Most at night.
I am extremely conscious of the fact that most of my pictures on this blog are of the war or the iconic bridge, despite the fact that I said that Mostar isn’t all about war.  Tomorrow we will get into the countryside a bit and put the war to one side but I have made this a war based blog however because Mostar is the greatest anti-war symbol I have ever come across - more than even the battlefields of Flanders and Normandy for example.  The reason for this is that you can still taste the war here in a way I have never felt before and it all happened in my life time, with anybody who is older than a teenager in Mostar with some experience or another.  The fact the war was so recent helps you to put yourself in the same situation - times haven’t changed that much in the last 20 years or so and nor have the people, who aren’t any different to you and I.  Watching the kids running about in the street, or the old ladies sitting outside their houses chatting, or the old men playing chess in the mosque, you can imagine that going back 20 years, these were the people who were running for cover from mortars or being buried as their family homes crumbled around them.  The holes from shrapnel in the walls of any building, renovated or not, that was built before the war means that it doesn’t take much imagination to imagine the bullets flying while I, at the age of 2 was just starting my happy, stable and above all lucky life in the UK.

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