Mostar: A City Divided
Driving into town, we heard about the bridge, Stari Most: the star of Mostar, a UNESCO world heritage site. It was built in the 16th century by the Ottomans and stood until 1993 when it was blown up during the Croat-Bosniak War. For the next 11 years a cable bridge stood in its place connecting the two sides of town until the stone bridge was reconstructed using the original methods and as much original stone as possible. People now refer to it as the New Old Bridge. If you’re there on the right day you may even see young men collecting money. Once they reach €50 they leap off the bridge, landing in the cold Neretva 20 meters below.
For a town with such rich and ancient history what first got my attention in Mostar however, were the buildings covered in bullet holes and shrapnel hits, looking as if soldiers had only moved out yesterday, instead of nearly 20 years ago. Between 1992 and 1993 the city was subject to an 18-month siege – mosques, cathedrals and Orthodox churches were destroyed along with many secular buildings. The city was divided. Today, the buildings left untouched are generally in poorer neighbourhoods or former government buildings that no one has claimed and so will eventually become ruins. It’s an eerie feeling to see the evidence of the war slapping you in the face so many years later.
Most locals are tired of talking about the war with tourists, which I can understand, but for a lot of people it’s that history that brings them to town more than the reconstruction of a bridge. It’s not hard to understand the curiosity about a place that has seen such turmoil, without wanting to get too close. Is it morbid curiosity or a quest for a deeper understanding? For me, maybe a bit of both. I was only a tween during the Yugoslavia wars so my understanding was very, very limited. I only knew that it was a dangerous place.
Despite the claims of co-operation, Bosnia and Herzegovina is still a country divided: between Bosniak Muslims, Serbian orthodox and Croat Catholics. The national anthem has no lyrics since the three groups couldn’t decide on a set of words. The flag borrows themes from the EU flag because they couldn’t decide on a design. The country also has three presidents at a time so that each group is represented. While they may not be fighting, their co-operating could still use some work.
Our tour guides says that things are better now but I’m not so sure. Just because your car doesn’t get stripped if you park it on the wrong side of town doesn’t mean that things are hunky dory although it’s certainly an important step in the right direction. It’s hard for peace and co-operation to gain traction in a bad economy and the economy of Bosnia and Herzegovina is currently shit with 40% unemployment. I don’t even know how you go about starting to fix that. Tourism is a big part of the puzzle for Mostar, the largest city in Herzegovina. Nowadays, busloads of tourists roll into town every day and flood the old town, spending euro, kuna and convertible marks at restaurants and shops.
While they could all use our money, none of the vendors in the old town are pushy or aggressive with the masses shuffling along the cobblestones. While this place feels touristy, in sharp contrast with Dubrovnik, it doesn’t feel commercial or slick. I bought a handmade copper bracelet for a mere €8, earrings for two. A large plate of ćevapčići (sausages) at a restaurant set me back just over €5. Though the currency of B&H is the convertible mark, if you have Croatian kuna or euro, the businesses of Mostar will take it.
Visiting the town has given me a more immediate understanding of what happened. I wish I had left with the knowledge that it couldn’t happen again in this region, but I’m not so sure. Mostar is still rebuilding and I do hope that that sense of co-operation will continue to grow. Although Stari Most has been put back together like Humpty Dumpty never could and spans the Neretva once more, the city itself is still divided.