The beating sun of Dubrovnik was long gone and as we arrived in cloudy Mostar. Our first destination was the old Turkish quarter (which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site) with its cobbled paths; where we wandered through streets lined with kitschy souvenirs (If the mood takes you, you can buy ashtrays for your loved ones made from spent mortar shells) and copper tea sets mingling with the smell of freshly cooked Burek. This is the picturesque Mostar for your instagram account; and while the area is small, you can really see why this place is becoming more popular with tourists.
A place of note is Koskin-Mehmed Pasha’s Mosque which is open to visitors. It is a small and modest mosque which you are allowed to enter with your shoes on and women are allowed to enter without covering their hair. (You have to pay a small fee as part of this. We tried to avoid this charge but they identified us as tourists and insisted on the fee.) Once inside, you can also go up to the top of the minaret. It is 89 steps in a very claustrophobic funnel but at the top, you will have an excellent panorama of Mostar.
This panorama will allow you the best view of the city’s main sight; the Stari Most (or Old Bridge). Originally built in the 16th Century to link the two sides of the city together, it stands majestically across Bosnia’s Neretva River. Once described aptly “as a rainbow arch soaring up to the skies” by the famous Ottoman writer Evliya Çelebi, it was destroyed by Croatian missiles in the war. The bridge was painstakingly reconstructed for three years, using the same stone and the same construction methods as the original, and it was unveiled to great fanfare in 2004; a major milestone in Bosnia’s recovery from the war. Despite this significant restoration project, and the symbolism that comes with the bridge, it hasn’t healed all the wounds in Mostar.
“I don’t really cross the bridge much” Ivo said over a beer. “Just for whatever we need, then we go back”.
Today, the bridge is most famous for its divers — people who plunge off the edge into the icy Neretva River below he jumps are typically done feet-first, but some of the men do a traditional head-first dive. With the river only three meters deep, this feat is extremely difficult and dangerous and not recommended for amateurs. These men are the celebrities about town; each with tattoos of the bridge on their biceps as a permanent reminder of their tremendous feat.
It seems pertinent to speak of permanent reminders of past moments because Mostar has been marked in more ways than one. As we walk down the street, it’s hard not to notice how certain buildings have been cleaned up and reconstructed; but others are still mere skeletons. In most situations, they sit next to each other as uncomfortable bedfellows. Despite the restoration, nearly every building still shows pocket marks from bullets. A few of them have been repaired and repainted and some have been repaired but not yet painted (which means you can see the splotches of fresh new concrete) with little rhyme or reason.
This scattergun approach of restoration is best demonstrated by the juxtaposition from the new UWC World School which is built next to the infamous sniper tower of Mostar.This building used to be a bank — until the war, when it was taken by the Serbs and Croats and turned it into a sniper tower that they used to pick off the Bosniaks across the river due to its location and height. Now it has been left as a concrete skeleton that reaches several stories high, art work sprayed on the inside with broken glass all over the floor.
It is not an official attraction (even though it draws attention from travellers) but the building isn’t closed off to the public despite it not being safe. Entrance is through the blown-out shell of a revolving door, stepping through piles of ashes, broken glass, and what is likely asbestos. After climbing up eight precarious floors to the top, we’re greeted with a wide view of the city and it dawns on you why this building was chosen; a sniper would be able to see everything from this structure; down the streets and into the homes on the other side of the river.
Of the houses left behind after the conflict, one stands out and that is Muslibegovica House. Constructed by the Ottomans 300 years ago, it is beautiful example of the architecture from that period. After buzzing the owner outside a large gate, he led us into a beautiful garden filled with sweet-smelling flowers and running water. Taking off our shoes to enter through the double-arched entrance with the central pillar (that betrays the heavy Mediterranean influence on the owners) the exquisitely carpeted house (walls and floors) is comprised of separate quarters for women (haremluk), and men (selamluk). Inside, items and documents provide an insight into the life of a wealthy bey family and is a. It’s a surprise it survived in such detail and has been preserved so well.
As a contrast, we then came to the large Mostar cemetery, fresh with headstones from the last 25 years. Some are headstones for bodies that were never found and are still presumed missing. This sharp contrast remained in my head as we crossed to the other side of the city to stay with our host. His friends all came around and we enjoyed the summer air. As we sat and drank Bosnian beer and ate Cevapi in the cool summer heat, the conversation turned to the nature of Mostar and the divide.
“My family are all from Mostar but I am Croatian.”
“Would you ever move to Croatia?”
“No. I am for a Croatian nation but that is not my home. Mostar is my home and it will always be.”
Mostar a city split in the middle by nature had become split demographically in the war and in a region such as Bosnia & Herzegovina where ethnic groups for hundreds of years mingled peacefully without one side claiming dominance. All that changed with the war and now I find myself sitting in Bosnia watching Bosnians (according to their passport) booing their national team as they beat Slovakia in a World Cup qualifier. But if a Welsh community grew somewhere in England, would they stop being Welsh because they don’t live in Wales anymore? I’m reminded of a time when I watched some Welsh people cheer on Australia verses England in a Rugby match in a pub Shepherds Bush, London and somehow, this divide makes sense. While in appearance there appears to be no difference, a divide in culture is human and normal.
However, shortly after, loud bangs and flares are seen outside among chanting crowds in the night air. News reports say that it is caused by ethnic Croatians trying to attack Bosniaks on the other side of the city. My host says the opposite; saying that Bosniaks have crossed the bridge to goad the Croatians. We watch the flares burn in the distance amongst the sirens of and the divide between both sides no longer seems jovial but raw and based on more than banter.
Mostar exists between two sides and all that is between them is a bridge; a physical metaphor illustrating that divides can be crossed. But someone has to make that crossing and at this time; some of the Bosnians do not seem ready.
Some scars cannot be seemingly plastered over so quickly.