Arriving late in the evening in Mostar, we emerged from the warm coach into a freezing night. We had become attuned to the mild coastal climate in Dubrovnik and Split, and the cold would have hit us hard if it wasn’t for the energetic Miran meeting us.
“OK, I am Miran. Come with me.”
He spoke fast, and walked likewise. On the coach, we had met an Australian traveller, Charlie, who needed a bed for the night. Miran swept him up with us in a flood of “Yes, yes, we have a room” and “no problem, come with me”. His wide eyes gave off a hint of fear as he was ushered along with us and led away from the bus station.
With Miran striding ahead of us, we struggled to keep up with our heavy bags, heading into the dark night punctuated only by a few dim, yellowy street lights. We jumped some metal railings before being bundled into the back of a car. Our hearts were pounding. What the hell have we let ourselves in for? Is this a heist or some strange Bosnian custom to scare the living daylights out of visitors? We sped off and almost immediately were submerged in narrow one-way lanes, few of them with any lighting. We emerged onto a main road and everyone relaxed a little.
“So,” Miran pondered, noticing our shivers, “why do you come to our country in November?”
It was a rhetorical question, and he chuckled to himself. We passed the dark silhouettes of gutted buildings, their windows emitting a murky half-light from stray rays of street lights gazing into where the roof once was. Ghostly walls flew past us, pock-marked with hundreds of rough semi-circular carvings sprayed across the stone. Our wide eyes surveyed this mysterious place, eerily quiet except for a handful of cars and the occasional dark figure walking hunched in the cold. Miran sensed our unease.
“You know, in old Yugoslavia, Mostar was the most popular place for tourism after Dubrovnik. We had Croats, Bosnians, and Serbs all living together as friends in this beautiful old place.” Reflecting on this statement, his voice lowered. “But look what they have done. They destroyed my city.”
A Bosnian Muslim who had lived all his life in Mostar, Miran was passionate about his city’s experience of the war. First, he said, the Serbs came from the east to take Mostar and the local Croats and Muslims defended it together. Then Croatian armies tried to do the same from the west. In the defence of their city, Bosnians, Serbs and Croats all fought and died together to protect the multicultural Mostar from external claims to exclusive ownership.
It was clear from this first brief conversation that hurt had been ingrained in the fabric of Mostar since the war. As much as Miran asked us about our travels, an underlying vulnerability could be felt in his passion and sadness for the city. A little hope, too, was present when he proudly stopped the car and ushered us out to look at the extension to the hostel that he and his brother were building. Twenty more beds to cater for a growing number of travellers who wish to fill them.
As we entered the hostel, we realised that this was essentially their family home. An elderly man and woman sat in a ground floor living room behind a net curtain; coats and keys dangled from hooks in the hallway; black and white family photographs hung from the walls. In our room was a bookshelf stacked with both Latin and Cyrillic books – one, an illustrated biography of Marshal Tito, leader of the Yugoslav Federation for thirty-five years – another, a red leather-bound copy of the Qur’an. As we settled down to bed, we wondered what Mostar would reveal in the daylight.
The following morning, Miran’s brother, whose name we were told twice and promptly forgot both times, gave us a ‘war tour’ of the city. We finished our tea brewed by the brothers’ grandmother and ventured out of the family house. Immediately across the street, a wall had been sprayed with a dozen bullet holes, and our host ambled nonchalantly onwards as if they did not exist. Threading our way through the narrow streets, such sights became commonplace, and even we became somewhat ambivalent towards the occasional bullet hole or ten. Although a few years older than Miran, he was fresher-faced and somehow looked younger. His cap bore a badge displaying an anarchist red and black star, although we never plucked up the courage to quiz him on it. In former warzones it somehow feels, perhaps ironically, bad taste to discuss politics.
Arriving at a relatively nondescript and run-down urban dual carriageway, we were stopped and told matter-of-factly that “we are now on the front line.”
As we looked at the scene in greater detail, a deeper blackness entered our stomachs. Bombed-out buildings stared back at us like skeletons – perhaps a quarter of the buildings we could see were barely standing, surrounded by aged wire fences and propped up by scaffolding that had sat unused for nearly two decades. Others had no such support and balanced precariously, naked and exposed to our gaze in all their ghostly glory. After the Serbs had been repelled and the Croats and Bosnians had turned their attentions to one another, this road became the site of bloody stalemate for months. New recruits from outside the city had wandered onto this road and were gunned down by snipers in their hundreds before even locating their own army.
“Let me show you something,” said Miran’s brother, eagerly ushering us onto the western (the Croat) side of the road. He led us towards an angular concrete shell of a building, five stories high, with its sharp corner pointed like a dagger towards the heart of the opposing territories. Inside, the walls were covered with graffiti, and shards of glass and electrical wires still littered the floor from when the building had served as the city’s bank. We tentatively followed our host, picking our route through glass, rubber, empty beer cans and rubble, towards a bare concrete staircase, which led us up to the first floor. We walked to the tip of the building pointing towards the road and stopped.
“Look here,” our host said, holding one of a few dozen rusted bullet shells delicately between his fingers. It was as if he didn’t want to hold it too tight for fear of damaging it.
“This is where a famous sniper sat. For months he stayed here and killed many hundreds of Muslims. Men, women, children, everyone. My grandfather, too – he was picking vegetables from his garden when he was shot in the heart by a sniper.”
We peered along an imaginary rifle sight, and gazed upon a clear panorama of the streets and homes of the Eastern residents of Mostar. It must have been, almost literally, like shooting fish in a barrel. Suddenly, the excitement of climbing through a derelict building was replaced by the reality of this dirty war. Miran’s brother gently placed the bullet onto the pile from where he had found it, and led us silently back to the road.
Walking south along the front line, we made our way past the various reconstruction and reconciliation efforts made after the war. New buildings sat alongside ruined ones, whose cavernous voids where once human life had been taken now spawned trees and vines that overtook their crumbling walls. Even after nearly two decades, many buildings remained derelict, and some of these derelict buildings had now been repopulated by the families who once fled them: makeshift reconstruction efforts without national or international aid. Many of these people still waded through rubble to reach their homes.
The reconstruction effort, we were told, was hampered by huge amounts of money simply disappearing from the books. One reconstruction project, hailed as a great success by local officials, was the local school, which had been completely destroyed during the fighting. Its orange and yellow façade was clearly inspired by the Islamic style that swept across the region during three hundred years of Ottoman rule – adorned with domed windows and intricate patterns over the grand entrance doorway. Students of all ethnicities and backgrounds, claimed the government, now studied together in harmony, tolerance and understanding.
“But this is a lie,” we were told in no uncertain terms. “They have to employ twenty security guards to stop fights. It is like there are three schools in one building – two floors for the kids they need to separate, and one for the few kids who get along.”
Strangely, although Miran and his brother’s generation had made conscious efforts to transcend ethno-national divides, younger generations had picked up and inflamed them. Where once there had been one football team for the city, there were now two – one for the east and one for the west. Now the kids had new flags to wave and new uniforms to wear that ingrained in them a new-found sense of difference and antagonism. Massive unemployment rates around 40% ensured that these differences could be used as tools to scapegoat and antagonise further.
“WMC”, read some graffiti on the eastern side of the old front line. We were told that this stood for West Mostar City, a call for the independence of the western, mostly Croat, side of the city. This call for separation is, thankfully, a minority view. As we continued along the front line, we passed a hundred yards or so of six-foot high stone wall – an effort, it transpires, to create a Berlin-like wall between the two halves of Mostar. This wall was never finished, as Mostar residents of all ethnicities mounted popular opposition to the project, culminating in massive demonstrations and back-pedalling on the part of the local officials.
Heading away from the front line, through increasingly narrow and busy streets, we arrived in the old town. This central focal point for the whole city is a tightly-knit cluster of mediaeval stone buildings jostling for space in a network of narrow cobbled lanes. As well as the social centre of Mostar, this area was also the primary focus for reconstruction efforts after the war and has achieved a UNESCO listing and growing position on the tourist trail.
At the centre of the old town is the Stari Most – the Old Bridge – whose story has been popularly elevated as an allegory for the relentless despair of war and growing hope for the future. Constructed by Ottoman engineers during Islamic rule in the middle ages, this distinctive stone bridge is a graceful pointed arc rising high above the river that divides east and west Mostar. Previously, young locals of all ethnicities would meet on its high central point to dive into the deep water below. Thousands came and watched this annual celebration of a diverse and united Mostar, and after the war this tradition was re-established.
During the most intensive period of fighting, in late 1992 and early 1993, the other bridges across the river had already been destroyed by shelling, but Stari Most remained intact – the last remaining beacon of hope in this increasingly divided city. Grainy TV news images showed its elegant shape clothed in scaffolding and defended by a makeshift roof of wood and car tyres.
Since the front line was west of the river by a few blocks, Stari Most remained as a strategic site for Bosnians to supply their fighters in their defence against the advance of Croatian armies. In an act of powerful, destructive cynicism that somehow embodied the relentless destruction on all sides in the war, the bridge was finally collapsed by Bosnian Croat artillery fire. Despite no human life being taken, the destruction of Stari Most further awakened the international gaze to the ongoing horrors in the region.
In 2004, after dredging the river waters of salvageable fragments of the original stone, the bridge was re-opened to much fanfare. A member of the Mostar Diving Club symbolically jumped from the top of its reconstructed arc and fireworks lit up the sky above a city slowly trying to repair the divisions that had seen one shell, mortar or bomb land on average every four seconds at the peak of the fighting.
On the face of it, the re-opening of the bridge heralded in a new era of tolerance and understanding and, to an extent, it did. However, the air in Mostar remains charged with intense memories of needless killing and a community torn to shreds. Massive unemployment rates and government corruption and mismanagement continue to hinder the economic, social and architectural reconstruction of the city. At the summit of a hill to the west, a huge white stone cross sits where mortars were once positioned, still surrounded by hundreds of undiscovered mines. The hill’s dark shadow is cast across the city in the late afternoon sun like a spectre of the past, lingering in the minds of Mostar’s people.
The last destination on our walk with Miran’s brother is a park just off the main shopping street on the east side of town. For most of our time together, he spoke generally about the war, but now he tells his own story. Late in 1992, at the age of thirteen, he was playing football with some friends when a mortar landed in the middle of their game. Running home, adrenalin coursing through his veins, he sensed a warm wetness on his leg – a piece of shrapnel had embedded itself in him. Later, he learned that one of his friends had been killed by the mortar.
What had once been a park was one of the few green spaces in east Mostar outside of sniper range, and became a makeshift Muslim graveyard. Several graves here had no death date engraved – these were soldiers who had simply disappeared and of whom no trace could be found. Until they are discovered, they remain in limbo, with families and friends unable to know exactly what happened, where, or when. In another graveyard by the Karadjoz-Beg Mosque, our host squatted down next to one of hundreds of graves packed closely together all facing Mecca. Its white obelisk-shaped gravestone had a child’s face engraved on it, and he touched it tenderly. It was the grave of his friend. We had seen and felt a mix of emotions on our short walk, but the raw sadness now on our host’s face betrayed the human tragedy of the battle for Mostar. He dwelt there for a few long moments before recomposing himself and purposefully standing up again.
Later, he spoke a little about his aspirations for the future: “I worked for a year and a half in The Netherlands. I did building work there and I loved it. After the next tourist season I will go back.”
“Will you return here?”
“No. My brother is a patriot and has children and a good business – he will stay in Mostar forever. But I am not patriotic. I have to get out of this place.”
His face was a complex mix of feelings: sorrow about this decision to leave his home, desperation to be rid of the dismal job market and corruption that characterised the area, and excitement about making a fresh start.
He reiterated succinctly: “I have to get out of this place.”
Despite the many problems faced by Mostar’s people, they retain a sense of determination and self-reliance that brought them through the long days of war. The beautifully reconstructed old town attracts growing numbers of visitors who bring with them much-needed money and some new jobs. However, the real charm of Mostar is its people. The friendly kebab house workers helping us to pronounce pljeskavica, the frank openness of Miran and his brother, the eagerness of their grandmother to ensure Helen had slippers to keep her feet warm in the house.
Manipulated, cheated and fatally divided by privileged politicians seeking to extend their power in the fallout from the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the people of Mostar and countless places like it have endured with spirit, and even humour. Deciding against the vast, cavernous cuboid of a train station overgrown with weeds and eerily devoid of life, we opted for the bus to take us to Sarajevo. Although a dirty, dilapidated place superficially lacking in much hope or aesthetic beauty, Mostar is a warm, cosmopolitan place with a strong allure. Miran’s brother was understandably desperate to start anew, but pulling away from the bus station and into the mountains to the north, there was a slight but tangible feeling of longing – not to get out, but to stay for a little while longer.