Eastern European Expeditions

Eastern European Expeditions: Mostar’s Unhealed Wounds

So yes, after the vague disappointment of the ‘party destinations’ of Split and Hvar, a more cultural excursion was on the cards. To Mostar we went. The coach journey was another special one. Initially, heading south down the Dalmatian Coast with the sun setting over my shoulder, the views were stupendous over the Med, and later, heading inland towards the border crossing into Bosnia, the views were stupendous over the Neretva river valley. It was one of those days when the sunset just decides to be spectacular, and the reflective power of the waters took it up to another level.

We arrived in Mostar under the cover of darkness and eventually made it to the hostel, tucked surreptitiously away on a tight back street. Our host, an old Bosnian lady by the name of Majdas, presented us with some much-needed soup and showed us round what in effect was just her house with a couple of dorms on the second floor. Nicely settled, we headed off into town for some more dinner with a classic group of hostel randos. Mostar is a small city, so within twenty minutes of trying to find somewhere for food that balanced affordability and quality, we had already seen the world-famous bridge and a couple of charming mosques. During the search for dinner, the boys spotted a pool bar, which of course later supplied the evening’s entertainment.

The next day we booked onto a tour with Majdas’ son, figuring that with only two nights there, it’d be the best way to see everything in our limited time. The tour began around the hostel’s local area, which included Musala Square, once the focal point of Mostar’s Bosniak community. On the Square two particularly notable buildings stick out: the first is a glass and concrete modernist building, once serving as a residence to Josip Tito, although now there’s just a very normal café on the ground floor while the upper stories remain deserted; and the second is the ruins of the Hotel Neretva, once Mostar’s most prestigious hotel, now a skeleton on the banks of its namesake.

However, it is when you cross to the west side of the Neretva that the duality of Mostar becomes depressingly clear. About 100 metres west of the river was the frontline during the second siege of Mostar, where the Bosnian Croats, formerly having defended Mostar against the Bosnian Serbs alongside the Bosniaks in 1992, laid a brutal yearlong blockade on their ex-allies in East Mostar. The majority of buildings leading up to and around the frontline (now a main road) remain derelict, if still standing at all, graffiti dancing over their innumerable bullet holes.

The place also plays host to the most striking juxtaposition I’ve ever seen. On one side of Spanjolski Trg (Spanish Square) is a brand new school building, bright orange and clean as a whistle, where ethnically Croat children and ethnically Bosniak children are taught on different floors. Directly opposite is Mostar’s ‘Sniper Tower’, a former bank, once cloaked in glass windows, which now resembles a particularly imposing, triangular multi-storey car park. It was from here that the Croatian Defence Council would fire indiscriminately on Bosniak civilians over the frontline, and even take payment from international criminals who wished to do the same.

Such juxtapositions tell the story of Mostar today. The east side, where the majority of the population are Bosniak Muslims, is still filled with ruined buildings at every turn of its narrow streets, whereas on the west side, mainly housing Croat Catholics: sparkling new buildings, wide boulevards and roundabouts, banks, shopping malls, schools, not a scar of the war in sight. A personal observation that illustrated the difference most poignantly to me was the style of election posters. On the east side, small A4 manifestoes were printed out and stapled to lampposts. On the west side, huge billboards lined the main roads, each with a different HDK (Croat nationalist party) candidate frowning down at you.

The city now operates on a system akin to apartheid. Although the population was far less physically divided before the war, the rise in ethnic tensions in its wake has led to the current situation. The Croat side is more populous, and as such the local government is controlled by the secessionist HDK, who in turn direct the majority of non-embezzled public funds into the Croat side that elected them. While the Croat side flourishes with the recent completion of a new mall and some university buildings (for the Croat-speaking University of Mostar), the older Bosnian side struggles, not even equipped to repair or redevelop bombed out buildings that have stood for 30 years.

The ethnic divide in Mostar is by no means cooling down either. I was informed that three days before my arrival a memorial cemetery in the city, which commemorated Yugoslavia’s victory over the Nazi-puppet Independent State of Croatia, had recently been defaced. Gravestones had been smashed, swastikas welcomed you at the entrance, as did other symbols representing the Ustase, a former Croatian fascist group that had committed genocide against both the Jews and the Serbs in the latter stages of the Second World War. The same Ustase symbols were later pointed out to us on the side of a Bosnian-language nursery school.

Mostar, as indeed much else of Bosnia, still readily bears the scars of its past. On the east side, a bullet hole or shrapnel mark is always close by, the memories of the horrors of the 90s are still fresh. Yet despite the current challenges that the people face, it was one of the friendliest, most welcoming cities I visited. Mostar’s Old Bridge, destroyed by the Croatian Defence Council in 1994, is now beautifully restored, and gazing from the banks of the Neretva up at its iconic arches, lit up by the summer sun, one could not help but feel that maybe hope does still exist.

Aside from the sombre tour of modern Mostar and its brutal division, we also saw the beauty that the area also has to offer. The Kravica waterfalls are gorgeous, but the hillside town of Pocitelj blew me out of the water. Although I had only spent two days in Bosnia, my need to return was easily cemented. A country, not only abounding in natural and historic beauty, but also in powerful stories that deserve to be shared. In a bit.