The Other Side of Bosnia

Mostar is, in many ways, another Sarajevo: another divided, destroyed city.  Another city where your political surroundings can change very quickly just by crossing the street.  Another city buried in a valley, surrounded by vantage points from which its enemies could hurl down shells – the Ottomans have a lot answer for.

But Mostar comes from the forgotten side of the Bosnian Wars, that period in 1992 when the Bosniaks were under attack not only by the Serbs but also by the Croats.  Much of southern Bosnia towards the coast has traditionally been the preserve of the Croats; it was part of the fascist Independent State of Croatia during the Second World War.

During the Bosnian Wars the region formed part of the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosna, an unrecognised breakaway state declared by the Bosnian Croat nationalists.  Its President, Mate Boban, declared Mostar the capital, but as it was a war zone effective control was exercised from the city of Grude, on the modern Croatian border.  Even today many Croat nationalists, both inside and outside Bosnia, claim Mostar as their capital.  Just as many Muslims consider that the city belongs to them.

It’s a difficult issue – the Catholic Croats feel left out of Dayton’s patchwork nightmare government, as they don’t have an entity to themselves.  Many have called for the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina to be split, but this is deeply unlikely.  The memory of the breakaway Croatian Republic is so bitter that the canton which used to share its name (Herzeg-Bosna) was renamed Canton 10.  Local Croat authorities insist on the old name, and continue to make use of symbols which the national government considers illegal.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMostar is famous for its bridge, and equally famous now for the demolition of the bridge in 1993, when the Croats dynamited it (video) after months of trying to blow it down with smaller weaponry.  Although the destruction was seized on as a potent symbol of the lack of understanding between the Bosniak east and the Croat west, Mostar at that point was a fairly mixed city; it is only since the bridge has been rebuilt that segregation has really begun in earnest.

Our host, Meša, meets us at the bus station and takes us to the guesthouse.  It turns out that no-one else is staying there: it’s the low season.  Meša and his wife bombard us with such a full welcome that we are left temporarily speechless.

We set out from the guesthouse and have wandering Mostar for about ten minutes when we suddenly run into a guy we’d met back at the hostel in Sarajevo.  We talk, and he explains that on the Croat side there is a nine-storey tower – gutted, but structurally intact – from which the Croat snipers used to fire on the town.  The walk takes us across a newer northern bridge, through the informal buffer zone smeared with slogans, and up to Spanski trg (Spanish Square), the old front line.  All the buildings are ruined, but there is no money to fix them.  On the Croatian side of the road stands the sniper tower.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEvery floor is covered with graffiti, bits of glass and metal, and who knows what else.  Our friend said he nearly stepped on a needle earlier in one of the bathrooms.  All the way up, Mostar is visible only through the slit windows on the building’s front unless you want to stop halfway up the dizzying, unwalled stairwell.  On the eighth floor, the stairs stop.  Passage to the roof can only be achieved via a circular metal ladder on one of the patios.  The weather on top is dismal – it’s beginning to rain again – and my slight fear of heights produces such adrenaline that I can’t take good pictures, as I discover later.  The most prominent feature of the landscape by far is the mountain to the south which towers over the old city, and from which the Croats used to shell the old city.

Later that night, Meša plies us with rakija and makes us watch a series of YouTube videos of the war.  Unlike Sarajevo, Mostar is so small that we had already seen most of the city centre, and nearly every shot was recognisable as a place we had visited that day.  But Meša, until our Sarajevo guides, was old enough during the war to fight.  He shows us a picture of himself during the 90s, in military clothes, but adds, “I have never killed anyone.” From a lot of people it would sound defensive, but from Meša I can believe it.

The economic situation in Mostar is probably better than anywhere else in Bosnia.  It gets a lot of tourists, including visitors who come for the day from Dubrovnik.  But things are still difficult.  Meša has more than one job; outside the busy summer season, he works as a distributor for Milka and other sweets.  His wife has a prestigious job near the top of a national company based on the outskirts of Mostar.  But, he says bitterly, she earns in Bosnia a fraction of the money she received in a lesser position when she lived in Germany.

Something about Bosnia which I had not expected is that one of the most prominent nations in the rebuilding process was apparently Turkey.  I noticed it in Sarajevo, where the entrance sign says “Welcome” in English only after having said it first in Bosnian and Turkish, but it’s clearer in Mostar.  Restaurants have Turkish menus.  There are books in Turkish.  It’s not omnipresent but it is certainly the most common foreign language after English.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Koski Mehmed Paša Mosque is located on a promontory into the river just north of the Old Bridge.  It has a public-access minaret with astounding views and a large plaque in Turkish by the door.  Inside, what really stands out is the colour: the mihrab is brightly painted in yellow, teal, and blue; the minbar has red and gold decorative edges; and all around the dome there are multicoloured stained-glass windows.  It was finished in 1618 by the Ottomans, which perhaps explains why the modern-day Turks were so keen to be involved with its restoration.

We have to call the doorman to come and let us in.  He is surprised when I ask for the tickets in Bosnian and explains that most visitors do not know a single word of the language.  After coming down from the minaret, I chat to him.  Like almost every other Bosniak, he spent the 1990s living abroad in various European countries, including Turkey.  I take the opportunity to ask him about Turkish involvement in the country.  He smiles.  “They come to Bosnia with money, with funding.  They really like us.” I ask if the Bosnians like the Turks.  There is a pause, long enough to make the answer clear.

The next day, after rushing in the pouring rain to the bus station to arrive five minutes late for a bus to Dubrovnik which, as it happened, didn’t actually exist, we return to Meša.  He offers to take us for free to the nearby Sufi monastery, or tekke, at Blagaj.

The road south goes past several industrial estates, then curves into fields of olive trees and vineries.  “Over there is airport,” says Meša, pointing to our right, “and over there… you see the hill? Under the hill is a place to hide airplanes, during Tito’s time, Yugoslavia.  You want to see?”

Without warning, Meša turns sharply left off the freeway and, before either of us register what is happening, steers at about 35 mph through a sturdy metal fence which has gap in it perhaps 6 inches wider than the car.  The car is on a wide road – more like a runway – leading to the hillside, where it curves to the left.  Inside is a concrete arch and a massive void stretching into the earth. “You want pictures? Okay, but quick.  This is a military zone.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABlagaj itself is beautiful, although night is falling and it’s difficult to see properly.  The Buna river emerges from underground at the bottom of a great cliff, and huddled next to it is the tekke.  It’s been raining for most of the past week, so the river is extremely high and fast-moving.  All the riverside cafés and bars are flooded, and the bridges are only just above the water.

The secluded area at the back of the tekke is adorned with bright rugs and endless repetitive calligraphy of the same Arabic letter stretching hundreds of times across a single page.  It hasn’t been used for religious purposes for at least 100 years; the only current inhabitant is a cat which follows us, posing for photographs only to move just as I take the picture.  As we leave I catch it unawares.

Returning to Mostar from Blagaj, we drive past the mountain with the old Croat shelling positions.  Today there is an enormous cross, illuminated at night, erected on exactly the same spot.  Its construction is an act regarded by many as an unnecessary provocation.  If anyone supposed that uniting to fight against Serbia would heal the breach between the Bosniaks and the Croats, they were wrong.  Looking at the state of Mostar today, you wonder how they ever managed it.

(All photographs copyright Duncan Wane 2013.)

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