25 July 2012

Mostar: The Most Bombed City

From across the Atlantic, the Yugoslavian breakup was a confusing mess of television images and magazine covers.  Stone houses, broken in the mist.  Winter landscapes, tanks and bulletholes, grim politicians, tired soldiers of undefined nationality - whole countries of undefined nationality.
Mostar became a symbol of the Bosnian War.  It was, by many accounts, the hardest hit and most bombarded city in Bosnia.  Mirroring the larger breakup, neighborhood fought neighborhood, snipers fired from building to building, Mostar became a jumble of ruined houses on two sides of a divisive river.  We in America were left with the enduring and emblematic image of an ancient bridge, connecting two cultures, being bombed and left in rubble.
Mostar is a city of tourists now.  Really.  Right here in Bosnia, at the epicenter of the fighting.  We've heard more American, German, Italian and French accents than one could believe.  And not even the typical 3rd world backpackers - young people trying to reach the edge of something - but couples in sun hats, pulling rollerbags.  There are families with preteens, retired couples, tour groups of people with cameras and safari vests.  These are tourist tourists, the type one expects to find in Nice or Berlin, people on summer vacation.
In 2004, before international TV crews and with much symbolism, the Old Bridge (called Stari Most) was officially re-opened after a lengthy rebuilding project.  The old town has been beautified again.  Restaurants are open along the streams. It's a perfect day trip from the overpacked Croatian coast, and Mostar deserves the visits because it's beautiful, safe and historic - at least, in the pretty part of town.
Coming into the old town, Rebecca said, was like finding the color insert in a guidebook.  Walking from the bus station through the heavily shelled outskirts feels like the gritty, black and white pages: history, culture, a brief detailing of current politics, hotels, local cafes.  There are children digging through dumpsters, desperate beggars, rusting cars.  Suddenly, there is color and beauty, traditional costumes, smiling waitresses, old houses and the bridge.
Stari Most (the name literally means "Old Bridge") was built in 1566 by the Ottoman emperor Sulieman the Magnificent.  It's an amazing structure, almost seventy feet high at midspan, but only a hundred feet long.  Climbing its slippery stones, the views are magnificent.  It was considered, once, one of the wonders of the Ottoman empire, a barely believable feat of engineering.  Around the old town, the scene is bleaker.
The bulletholes are still there, pockmarking otherwise normal walls.  There are broken windows too, of course, and broken steps and abandoned buildings, vacant floors strewn with trash.  We've seen this kind of thing before.  Sometimes it's even pointed out in guidebooks -  as in, "if you look closely, there are some signs that there was a war here!"  In Mostar, you don't have to look closely.  Buildings here gape open to the sky, knocked in, reduced to a wall or two.
On this trip, we've been to countless places destroyed by bombing and war - from Vienna to Berlin, Rotterdam to St. Petersburg.  It's a tough concept to grapple with, as an American, without the history that Europe has.  On this continent, if something was shelled sixty years ago, it counts as ancient history.  There are much more recent conflict zones - Georgia, Kosovo, Croatia, Albania, Azerbaijan and, of course, Bosnia.  The thing is, in most of these places, things have been spruced up again.  We've seen it for ourselves.  People will say things like, "it was right over there," or "this whole building was gone."   But the holes have been plastered over, the facades mended, stores rebuilt, new houses have gone up.  Bosnia hasn't been as lucky.
We watched this group of young men fishing for scrap metal in the river.  They used a heavy hook, cable and hand winch, dislodging stubborn bits of what looked like a bed frame from the rocks. Not far from where the tourists ate their meals and licked their ice cream cones, things haven't improved that much.
Even though people visit Mostar these days, a little tourism can only be counted as a small victory.  Bosnia's national economy is still in shambles, the war crimes are still being sorted out.  And, though they come, most of the tourists don't even stay the night.
The most common sign you'll see in Mostar reads "Attention! Dangerous ruin - access to the ruin and parking forbidden!"  There are scores of buildings like this, their doors blocked with wire fence, their windows boarded over, flattened walls fenced off.  Really, there isn't much evidence that anyone disobeys the signs.  There's no good reason to enter, there are more than enough places to live - almost half the population (nearly two million people) were displaced during and after the conflict.  Many of them have never come back.  Lots of buildings weren't bombed, but still sit abandoned and empty.
Near two huge cemeteries, we passed garages full of rusting machinery, fenced away, wires and hoses drooping.
Several times a day, men jump from the top of the Old Bridge for tourist coins.  It's a frightening drop, but the main warning against attempting it is that the water is too cold, which seems laughable.  Tourists line the top with cameras and children, politely clapping.
The rebuilding of Stari Most was supposed to mirror the rebuilding of Bosnia and the relative peace that's settled in.  It makes for a pretty picture and a feel-good story, a vignette about the triumph of better blood in a broken place.  It's difficult to tell, right now, if it represents the truth or a mirage.


  1. a very in depth and moving narrative. You have captured the soul of the city so eloquently...

  2. Rebecca and Merlin! You make me long for Mostar. The photos are lovely. Did you climb to the top of the mosque that overlooks the river? I thought the view from there was breath taking.

    1. sadly, there was a big thunder storm on our second day (the day we'd hoped to climb the minaret). you'll have to send me a photo if you took one. or a blog link, of course ; )

  3. You fail to clarify that it was most all through the war a conflict between the Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks, and that today the town is divided by the river into a Croat-dominated western half and Bosniak-controlled eastern half.
    You also fail to mention the Heliodrom concentration camp in Mostar: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heliodrom_Camp
    What's more the camp was said to have been run by Jusuf Prazina, a Bosniak gangster from Sarajevo, who started off fighting with the Bosniak army, then skirmished against it, then fled to Mostar to fight with the HVO. He eventually left the former Yugoslavia but was assassinated in Belgium.
    Serb accused him of running illegal prisons and rape camps in Sarajevo. As a matter of fact, it was the Serbian women, not Muslim women, who first sent documentation of mass rapes to the UN Security Council in the fall of 1992 - and high quality documentation with full names of 800 women and complete details of what happened to them.
    Only after this happened, did the Muslim government and subsequently the mainstream media, begin with the claims of Serbian rape camps, but of which they actually have NO HARD EVIDENCE. No DNA, no paternity, no genuine medical evidence, no increase rate of births in Bosnia in 1993, and the UN/internationals there never actually found one of these Serbian-run camps. If they had they would definitely have some real/hard evidence and not just claims.

    1. Hello James,
      This is all very interesting. As a blogger, I don't have a lot of space in each of my posts. In this part of the world - especially when it concerns the war - there certainly are a lot of opinions and points of view. I'm sorry that we couldn't find room for your point of view, but it seems to contradict most of what we've read and seen. I know that these issues are complicated, and sometimes I feel bad about boiling something down to a few paragraphs when it deserves more space.
      To address your vitriol: I haven't claimed to know anything about who committed which acts of violence or which atrocities in my post. I've only talked about general fighting, which is, to an outsider, a confusing jumble.