Cities / Towns Visited: 60
Countries Visited: 17
Steps Taken Today: 9,680
Steps Taken Around the World: 2,121,235
After a much needed sleep in, we awoke determined that our day would not be wasted, and that we would make the most of it despite not needing to do the tour we had planned on, as it had all been covered in our extensive trip the previous day. So what would we be doing, you ask? We were going to retrace the steps of yesterday’s evening walking tour and spend a little more time appreciating and coming to terms with the locations and their meaning to the people of this city.
As I stated previously, Mostar is a split city, and was forced into this format by the war, on one side Bosnian Muslims, and on the other side Croatian Bosnians. These two parties fought a long bloody battle against each other after the conclusion of the Yugoslav war. Now our guide, Žika, had explained that this was not a religious war as many would have you believe, as the Catholic Croatian Bosnians, and the Bosnian Muslims had lived in peace side by side while Tito was in power, but the tensions of the war led to them fracturing into their religious groups, and the Croatian faction ejecting the Muslims from ‘their’ side of the city. It was a classic case of bad people using religion as an excuse for their actions; as a way to segregate. During our stay we were residing on the Muslim side, and our first hand accounts are obviously coming from this side, so although I am want to believe the stories they tell of atrocities towards them, I did try to leave some space for empathy towards those who were killed on the other side; at least until I spend some more time learning the history of the war in the future. Any life lost in war is a tragedy, regardless of who is to blame; especially considering the fact that the people fighting are merely pawns in the political game of people far from the front line.
So as I was saying, Mostar is a split city; each side has its own amenities, it’s own schools, it’s own hospital, it’s own bus station, it’s own everything. We started our walk on the Muslim side, wandering once more down the streets of pockmarked buildings. Tom (our guide from the walking tour) had stopped us at one point to draw our attention to a building which had acted as the cookhouse, providing food to those fighting on the front line of the segregated city. It was here, he explained, which was the first place that Žika, who had been only 19 at the time and was running food to the fighters, had been injured during the war. He had attained quite a bit of shrapnel damage to his leg when a mortar had blasted through a house just above us and sent projectiles flying, and also killing two women in the house; shrapnel that is still imbedded in his flesh to this day. I say fighters and not soldiers, as these were simple civilians with no formal training just using whatever weapons they could get their hands on to defend themselves and retaliate. Tom spoke of how food was so scare that they were often eating pigeons, or anything they could get their hands on. The community would pool its food together just to make sure everyone got fed.
As we continued our walk Tom made a rather obvious, but still somewhat confronting statement; that if we saw anything that looked like a bullet hole, it’s because it is, and if it appeared to have been blown up and crudely patched back together, it is because it has. There was even a tall apartment building which had been renovated but they had left the bullethole riddled concrete wall facing their aggressors as what almost looked like a billboard yelling ‘Look at what you’ve done!’.
I was so busy looking at these scars, that it was scarcely a moment before we had reached our next location. For the most part, the city is seperated into its halves by the main road which runs through it. This had been the no-man’s land of this urban killing field; yes we’re talking barbed wire and booby traps. We were standing on the Muslim side of this line just beside an underpass, which we had been informed was where many Muslims were sent to this side when they were forcibly ejected from their homes by the Croatian Bosnians, many in the middle of the night. They were forced to run under the road and out the other side, all while being shot at as soon as they reached the Muslim side. As I explained in the last blog, the massive white cross which sits up on the hill on the Croatian Bosnian side was where they were sniping the Muslim population from, and the exit of this underpass was just one more spot in the line of sight from this vantage point. This spot was also where Žika was shot in the shoulder when running provisions to the fighters.
Passing over to the other side through this macabre tunnel, with its roof marked with divets from countless explosions, we climbed back to street level on the Croatian Bosnian side. Tom explained that they had begun to build a wall during the war, but never completed it, although the remnants of the small section built remains.
Walking onwards we reached the bright yellow building from the day before. We had been told about the fact that this was the only school in the entire city which teaches children from both sides together. That is of course except for history class, which they are both separated again in order to teach them their own peoples side of the battle. I couldn’t help but think just how counter-productive this is to the healing process. If they can’t even decide on the reality of what occurred, and teach it in an unbiased way, this city will never be able to move forward in a positive direction. History is written by the winner, but in this case both parties are still standing, so they continue to teach their own truths. It really does induce a sense of despair to think that these children are being taught to be intolerant of their fellow classmates through this selective teaching.
Further down the road we reached a monument to several Spanish soldiers who lost their lives in the efforts to remove the land mines from the mountains around the city at the conclusion of the war. It was almost surreal to be informed that there is still a noteworthy percentage of the land in this country which still potentially has live land mines hidden within its soil, and that each year a number of people are still killed by these remnants of war. In Australia you are taught not to stray into scrub land as there may be snakes, but never have I ever had to consider the possibility of being blown up on a hike.
Walking down the next street we passed a gutter out former brothel, and reached the government office of the town. Tom had explained that at this present moment the country has three different leaders, one Croatian Bosnian, one Muslim Bosnian, and one Serbian Bosnian; essentially one to represent each part which had fought over this land in the war, and each group who still claims its own territories in the country. Each leader only gets one month before they swap with the next, and must wait two months before they get another turn. Seriously, no wonder nothing is achieved by way of repairing and uniting this struggling nation; the government hasn’t even united. On top of this, they spend so much time squabbling, helping their own segregated part of the country, and lining their own pockets, that nothing trickles down to where it’s needed the most. The problem is compounded by the fact the that the people know that they aren’t getting any financial aid, so they do not wish to pay tax, thus living as a cash culture in order to evade paying it as much as possible. It was upon learning this that I truly understood where Žika was coming from when he said that things were better here when they were communist. Bosnia in particular, lost so much during the war; homes, infrastructure, industy; all of which have never recovered. Instead of moving ahead into the future, the war set them back almost incomprehensiblely.
From here we moved on once more to the park were the one more light-hearted attraction stands; an almost life sized bronze statue of Bruce Lee. Why exactly its here, when Bruce Lee has no connection to this city, really just comes down to the fact that Bosnians seem to really like him, and so have this statue I their park. If nothing else, at least they agree that Bruce Lee had some pretty sweet moves.
Back to the more serious agenda of the day, and the next site to revisit was one of the most shocking for me personally. We walked down a street with ruined houses on both sides, so untouched that they still had bullet ridden sandbags blocking the crumbled windows. This had been the deadliest street during the fighting, so much so that it was literally suicide to walk down it, and tragically some people used it expressly for that purpose. That, however, was not our end location. Eventually we reached the old bank building, so damaged and derelict now that it almost resembles a multi story car park, given its lack of windows and rather bleak concrete facings. This had been the site of something that had almost knocked me over when I was told. This was where normal people (were talking doctors, lawyers, bankers, and anyone who wanted a slice of the action), would come on their weekends during the fighting, bring a gun and ammunition with them, and snipe people from the other side like some sick twisted big game hunt. They were paid per kill; turning civilians into makeshift bounty hunters. To this day it still boggles my mind. We all like to think that at the heart of it all people are quintessentially good, but if nothing else, this shows that given the opportunity, even the most innocuous of people will allow the darkness of their hearts to take over. I understand that many of them had probably lost friends and family to the fighting, but I still cannot fathom just mindlessly shooting people out of some misdirected sense of vengeance.
Next up was one of the more surreal locations we had been shown. It was not odd at this point to be lead to another gutted building laying in ruin. It was, however, extremely strange to see that although the bottom two floors were derelict, the top two floors had been patched up and had people living in them. Nothing about the building looked structurally sound, obviously aside from the fact that it was still standing, but I guess when the government isn’t helping you and you need somewhere to live, you just make do with what you have, safe or not. We had entered the day before with the group and the inside was just as confronting at the interior. The litter and remnants of many a homeless person finding a rather squalid place to lay their head, fire damage on the ceiling, and a few too many holes you could see down to the bottom floor through. Apparently people still spot a stray bullet lodged in the brickwork or hidden in the rubble.
Heading back into the Muslim side of the city and into the main town, we wove through the narrow souvenir stall lined main street until we reached a much more macabre location; the cemetery. Before the war this space had been a park, a beautiful green space for families and friends to enjoy each other’s company, but with space at a premium in war times, this became a makeshift graveyard, with an almost constant need for more and more holes to be dug. All of a sudden people were burying their family and friends here instead. Like much of the city, this site was within eyeline of that most haunting hilltop cross, meaning that a number of the heartbroken men burying their brothers wound up needing a hole of their own. The graves were so very like so many other war graves; countless headstones with the names and pictures of men who had barely reached adulthood, and more than a handful of dates with no names and names with no dates; those lost but not recognised, or lost but not found. My heart wept for this senseless killing.
At this point in our tour the previous day, Tom had told us about the country’s flag. Now almost every country has a deep connection to their flag, as it has deep symbolic meaning to the country, or at the very least represents something; the USA has its 50 stars for its 50 states, Australia has its Southern Cross to represent its southern position, England has St George’s Cross thus closely linking them to their religious past. Now Bosnia and Herzegovina attained its flag after the war, but not through some deep discussion, or a vote, or even a thought to something meaningful to the country, it was decided after the leaders of the three parties fighting over the country were placed in a room in the USA, and basically made to stay there until they’d, for lack of a more tactful phrase, sorted their shit out. For the most part no one in this country cares much for it at all, and looking at it you can almost hear the ‘leaders’ yelling ‘Screw it, let’s just go with that one so we can leave!’.
With the circuit almost complete, we headed back to the city’s famous bridge. This gorgeous peaked stone structure, put in place by the Ottomans, had withstood centuries prior to the war, but was destroyed in during the fighting. In its defence, it did take 60 direct blasts before it gave way, so respect on Ottoman building methods. After the war, the European Union, along with some other large donations from countries like Italy, helped to fund the rebuilding of this essential landmark for a city named Mostar; ‘most’ being the word for bridge in most of the Slavic countries, and the Mostari being the bridge keepers who had protected it and collected the toll in centuries past. Nowadays it is almost constantly shoulder to shoulder with tourists waiting to see the (ever so slightly insane) members of the dive club jump from its 21 metre apex into the comparatively shallow (6 meter deep) water below. They hype up the crowd, collecting money, and if they manage to collect twenty euros one of them jumps. We crossed the bridge and headed down to the small rocky beach beside the river, and lingered long enough to see one brave diver make the plunge. He be a braver soul than I. That being said, if you’re crazy enough, you can pay for them to train you on a smaller diving board they have a little further down the river, and if they think you are capable you are able to make the leap yourself.
With the day wearing on we stopped in for a quick late lunch of one of the country’s most loved dishes; ćevapi. These small, spiced, handrolled sausages, served with grilled flatbread and astringent raw onion, made me reminisce on the dishes we’d eaten in Turkey and Croatia. I love how you can taste history in the food of a place; you can feel that the Ottoman influence lives on, not only in the architecture and the religion of these people, but also in their meals. They are cheap, filling, and pretty damn delicious, and we would soon discover that they would become a staple for the rest of our stay in the country.
With our exploration complete, and the hot afternoon sun beating down we decided to head back to the hostel to whittle away the rest of the day in our room. As I reflected in our adventure, I found my heart still weary and bruised. This is the closest to a war zone I’ve ever been. It’s one thing to see places like this on the news, or in movies, but actually standing in it is unexplainable. Watching the opportunistic trees swaying in the hollow shell of a bombed out buildings; seeing roads peppered with holes, and sandbags bleeding their protective filling onto the trash littered ground; hearing our guide Tom lower his voice on the Croatian Bosnian side of the city, lest we be heckled for speaking a history which to them is nothing but fake news. The scene is sobering and macabre, but then you meet these people who are so kind, and so thankful that you have come, that the feeling of being out of place fades away. We of the privileged West are so uncomfortable with the idea of poverty that we avoid it at all costs; it is the same reason we avoided eye contact as we pass the homeless beggars on the street, or look down our noses at the rather rough and ready underprivileged family using coupons and counting coins at the supermarket. But what if we all forced ourselves to step out of our comfort zone and into their shoes; visit these places and truly understand their struggle. Imagine how much more empathetic and how much more tolerant we would be as a people. Imagine if we all opened our hearts enough to be inspired to help, instead of just sweeping it under the rug and pretending it doesn’t exist because it doesn’t affect us directly. Imagine what we could achieve if we chose sympathy and compassion over self importance.