Mostar


After my days in Mostar I feel at a loss for words. I’m not sure if it’s possible to describe the conflict I feel for this small town in Herzegovina. On the one hand, it’s one of the most beautiful cities I’ve been to. Mostar immediately took my breath away. The view of the old bridge from the minaret of the Koski Mehmed-Pasha mosque is one of a kind. It’s looks like the painted backdrop of a fairytale. Old stone buildings dramatically hanging over the cliff side, dropping down to the river below. The old bridge, arching 24m above the icy currents, is one of the most perfect postcard settings I’ve seen in Europe yet. The old town is bustling with markets and restaurants, locals sit all afternoon in coffee shops, drinking Bosnian coffee and chatting with friends in the late October sunshine. It’s so perfect.

But this is just the surface of the city. This is the image that is set for those of us passing through: day trippers, tourists, backpackers looking for nothing more than to eat cevapi and seek the adrenaline rush that comes from jumping from the bridge, 8 stories down into the Neretva River. I wish so much that this was the real Mostar. I wish that this idyllic, post-war image that we were presented with was honest; that people drink coffee on sunny terraces because they have found the meaning of a life well lived, instead of being forced to due to a national unemployment rate of 47% (75% among young adults). Or that the abandoned wreckage of homes on the frontline, now overgrown with ivy, is an eerily beautiful reminder of the past, instead of a forgotten, needle-ridden dump that may never be rebuilt due to a corrupt government. Mostar has layers; and if you are willing to peel back the facade, there is a dark, almost hopeless truth to it. 

I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand what happened here. The deeper I get into Bosnia, the more I learn. And the more I learn, the more confusing it all gets. I am addicted to figuring it all out: googling, reading, talking to locals. I’m sure I’m nowhere near the truth. 

If you ignore the tourist information, you get the sense that, 22 years later, the war still isn’t over in Mostar, especially among the younger generation. The divisive lines that have been made are hard to break. The very identities of people in Mostar divide them. Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs refer not just to nations (Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia) but they are synonymous with religious heritage as well. Croats are Catholic, Bosniaks are Muslim and Serbs are Orthodox Christian. And yet, it seems many people of Mostar are only religious by heritage. If your grandmother was Catholic, you are Catholic. If your Grandfather was a practicing Muslim, you are a Muslim. The very names of people give away their heritage, and so, there is no escaping your chosen identity. 

The phrase “the other side” is used so casually in Mostar, it’s innate. One side is Croat, the other is Bosniak. One side is Catholic, the other is Muslim. The boulevard is the distinct dividing line, and although guides will tell you the war is over, locals will tell you that, 22 years later, they still do not cross those lines. 

It’s hard to know what to believe. Their is an air of paranoia in the city, but it’s hard to see the truth as an outsider. I take everything both sides say with a grain of salt but regardless of which side of the frontline you belong, the story is the same; the troubles are far from over. 

Jodon and I spent 12 hours travelling the Herzegovina region with a local Bosnian man named Bata. A large man with a thick neck and a “cevapi belly,” as he calls it, Bata is a communist at heart. He longs for the “good ol’ days” of Tito’s reign over Yugoslavia: things were better then. This is a popular opinion in the country. Bata took us to the Kravice Waterfalls, the medieval town of Pocitelj and the Blagaj, a 16th century Dervish house just 30km from Mostar. But the trip was not about seeing the attractions. Along the way, Bata told us his story. His story of being a young man, thrown into civil war; of losing best friends to “the other side”. The story of being defined by a religion he did not practice. The story of the people that risked their lives to save him from the firing squads of a concentration camp, to smuggle him in an ambulance out of the country, and to be sent as a refugee to Sweden. Bata told us the struggles he had to face returning to Mostar 14 years later, the therapy he’s had to endure, and the prejudices that still run so deep within the city. 

Bata is crazy; he’ll be the first to tell you. He is unapologetically loud, drives like a crazed madman with a few loose screws and has an energy that never slows. He is wild, and breaks loudly into song at random intervals. He spends more time speeding down the middle of a two-laned road, with his hands off the wheel, looking in the rear view mirror than not. He thinks seat belts are for SNAGS (Sensitive New Age Guys) and if you’re not afraid (mostly referring to his driving) then you’re not living to the fullest. And yet there is something wonderful and lovable about Bata. When you look past his eccentricities, you can see a man trying his best to come to terms with the atrocities of his life. A man trying to bring together his city with communal love. He dreams of a pre-war existence where 60% of all marriages were inter-religious. Where Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks lived together as one community.   

The world will tell you the only troubles that remain in Mostar are political. I want to believe this; that the war is over and Bosnia is beginning a new era of peaceful independence. But with Bosnia’s government now split into three religious groups, that utopia is hard to imagine. The Croatian government has given money to aid and rebuild the city of Mostar, but only on the Croat side. New malls, new roads and new schools are built while the Bosnian side of the tracks remains war torn. And all the while the tensions between the two sides grow stronger. 

We met a young Muslim man in a local pub one evening who was eager to tell his story.

“No one goes to the other side,” he said nonchalantly “they will kill us.” Then he lifted his shirt to show us the long-healed stab wounds from a knife attack he endured after “crossing over” one day. We’d heard the same story from two young Croat teenagers just two days earlier and took their tale to be exaggerated stories kids tell tourists. I’m still not sure what I believe. 

And yet, the city of Mostar carries on; tourists come and go by the thousands, taking photos of the old bridge and buying trinkets in the market, oblivious to the realities. And Bata’s Crazy Tour continues, every day, passing on the truth to those who are willing to listen. 

It’s been three days since Jodon and I left Mostar, but we will never forget the truths we found there. We’ve spent hours watching documentaries, and researching the facts we were told, trying to find some meaning behind it all, some hope for the future. But in the end, I guess, only time will tell. 

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Sarajevo


Sarajevo is one of those cities you can fall in love with at first sight. It’s lively and charming and has a beautiful history tainted with the sorrows of warfare. The old town is filled with cafe’s and restaurants; tiny joints that serve cheap cevapi (small grilled sausages served with bread and raw onion) and a thick yogurt to drink it down with. The city oozes with Turkish influences while still maintaining the scattered Austro-Hungarian landmarks that give the city a European edge. I could easily spend a week relaxing in the Bascarsija, sipping on Bosnian coffee with a good book. Nothing more. But Sarajevo has a tragic history that is hard to imagine as you walk the colourful streets of the Stari Grad markets. Apart from being known as the city that sparked WWII after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Sarajevo also is noted for having the longest city siege in the history of modern warfare. 

The siege on Sarajevo during the Bosnian war began April 5th, 1992 and lasted 1425 days: just shy of four years. That’s three times longer than the infamous Battle of Stalingrad. The city was surrounded by Yugoslav forces from Serbia. At the collapse of Yugoslavia, the Bosnian-Serbs hoped to create an independent republic of their own, with the capital as Sarajevo. They surrounded the city and strategically placed themselves in the hills around the capital. For the next four years, they never even had to enter the city; instead, they used sniper fire and bombs to wreak havoc. It was Hell.

Our tour guide in Sarajevo was a young man named Neno. He was only a boy when the war struck in Sarajevo, but he remembers it well. He and all his neighbours were forced to move into the basement of their building. They lived together as a small community, eating whatever food they received from UN air drops, listening to the bombs above: for four straight years. The city was torn to pieces; major landmarks, including the city hall and local brewery were prime targets. The brewery in Sarajevo was built over a fresh spring. It was the city’s only source of water during the war times. Hundreds of civilians died while waiting in line for water. Snipers attacked soldiers and civilians as if they were equal. By the end of the 4 years, nearly as many civilians had been murdered as soldiers. 

But Sarajevo remembers. At each place where a shell exploded and killed citizens, a red “rose” is now painted into the concrete. It’s a sobering realization when you stumble upon one of the many splotches of red paint that scatter the city streets. 

This was the first point in the trip where I realized I understood very little about the decline of Yugoslavia. And this epiphany only grew stronger as we travelled deeper into the Balkans. 

But despite spending a significant amount of time enveloped in the horrors of war, we actually had a wonderfully relaxing time in Sarajevo. Cafe hopping in the day, a museum here and there, and late afternoon hikes into the hills. The view from the Bijela Tabija at the edge of Sarajevo is well worth the climb. Low hanging mist in the valley made the city seem as if it were emerging from a dream. Young teens and couples hang out on the walls of the abandoned white fort while the sun sets. Wild sheep and stray cats graze the last green patches of grass within the old walls. The structure is nothing more than stone ruins, towering over the sprawling city below. It is beautiful. 

I was surprised at how quickly Sarajevo captured my interest. It’s middle eastern influences were unlike any other city we had come upon in Europe yet. The place was both exotic and familiar at the same time, and everyone was more than welcoming. Sarajevo is a gem in the mountains of Bosnia, and as we head South through the region, I hope to find more places like this.