Another bus, another border. We arrived in the stillness of night into the exotic town of Mostar. A warm welcome of home made spirits to soothe the soul had us introduced to the family we would be staying with. Their apartment block had been rebuilt from rubble after the war and the couple had lived in Mostar for pretty much their whole lives. We were staying in their daughter’s room who had convinced them to start using Airbnb when she moved away.
The morning revealed the stunning old city of Mostar. Basically a cobbled bazaar built alongside both sides of the river Neretva with cute little restaurants and souvenir shops. Depending on tourism the small old city still managed to retain its charm. Perusing the handy crafts and drinking Bosnian (Turkish) coffee overlooking the intense green of the river gave a sense of old Bosnia. It was particularly beautiful at night when the souvenirs were hidden away and only food remained. The food was amazing, a collision of old eastern European cuisine with a healthy dose of Ottoman influence.
The star of the show and name sake of the town was the old bridge, Stari Most. The original bridge had stood for 427 years before being bombed in 1993 by Croatia. It was rebuilt in the same ancient technique using the original stones fished from the river and is a major source of local pride and a huge tourist drawcard. There is a local tradition of diving from the bridge which culminates in a yearly competition.
We visited the oldest mosque in town which was now a small museum and was filled with amazing carpets, gifts from dignitaries abroad, and coloured light from beautiful windows. We climbed the minaret whose stairwell was just wide enough to accommodate a person and were rewarded with the most beautiful view of Stari Most and the old city.
Wandering back to the old city we stopped in to the Senses museum which had an interesting way to show Bosnian culture by aligning the exhibition to the elements of earth and water. There was a particularly interesting exhibition with traditional clothing for weddings and bathing. What struck us most was the unprejudiced use of both Christian and Muslim traditions. We also really liked the attention to detail when it came to bathing and the meticulous and spiritual process of the hamam.
Taking a break from urban life we drove out into the countryside hunting down our last and most anticipated Spomenik. Heading into what we soon realised was the Republic of Srpska. In fact Bosnia and Herzegovina is still made up of two administrative regions, Republic Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The drive started with barren rocky hills and sparse fields to forest very quickly after passing through a few towns and a huge power station belching smoke into the sky. As we drove deeper into the seas of rich autumn golds and reds civilization disappeared, soon becoming mountainous with forests, rivers and stunning views. As we entered the Sutjeska national park we scanned the wilderness hoping to catch sight of a looming structure or a sign. Just as we were thinking we might have to check our maps we spied the huge silhouette of concrete wings atop a hill. We drove with jaws agape right up to our destination of Tjentiste, our final spomenik.
The sculpture with its placement in such a dramatic and beautiful landscape seemed to come from another world. Two majestic and brutalist structures form huge wings, charging forth from the earth. Its intricate angles twisting perspective as we walked around its shadow. The size and bulk of the structure pressing a physical presence on our bodies. When looking closer into the nooks and crannies of geometric detail crude mask like faces appear. Once again, like many of the other spomeniks we had visited it was equal measures brutal and beautiful.
It was when we returned to Mostar and had our evening plum spirit and chat with our hosts that they imparted to us the significance of the Tjentiste spomenik, pleased by our interest in their local history. Built to commemorate what they believe to be the most important battle in the second world war, Tjentiste spomenik was designed by Miodrag Živković. The battle involved the attack of over 127,000 Nazi troups versus a force of 22,000 Yugoslavians. Although the battle was lost and over 7,500 partisans were killed many people believe that this battle delayed the Nazi path to Russia long enough for them to arrive too late into the dark of winter and to therefore lose the entire war.
Down below the hill which held the spomenik we could see another strange structure made of triangles. We decided to investigate, but could not get into the building and the signage was all in another language. Later we learned from our host family that this was a museum dedicated to Tito, the long time leader of Yugoslavia. Tito seemed to be very well regarded in Bosnia. In fact during the time of Tito’s reign the Bosnia region of Yugoslavia was very prosperous. It had low unemployment, good wages and free healthcare and education. We had a great conversation with our host family about Tito, they even carry a photo of the Yugoslav leader in their wallet.
We hit the road and drove once again through the golden red forests until we came to a large restaurant. We decided to stop for lunch and Emmily ordered what was to be the best sandwich of her life. A huge stale bready roll with nothing but some suspect glistening meat substance inside. Needless to say she was very pleased.
Heading home in the last hours of day light we made a slight detour to visit Blagaj. Set against a huge cliff pocked with caves and hanging above a beautiful river, Blagaj is a place with an air of peace and power. Built in the 16th century as a place of worhip and study, Blagaj tekke is a Dervish monestary in the most picturesque location possible.
Out explorations of Mostar led us all over town and one thing which we could not help but notice was the bullet holes and the bombed out buildings. They were everywhere as a constant reminder of the all too recent Bosnian war. The Bosnian war started in 1992 with the declaration of independence by Bosnia and Herzegovina. This erupted the growing tensions in the country and quickly eroded into full-blown war. The Serbian Bosnians fractured from the newly independent Bosnian and Herzegovina forming the army of the Republic of Srpska which was backed and encouraged by the Serbian government heated up by Slobodan Milosevic.
Serbia had interests in absorbing large swathes of Bosnia into Serbia. This led to widespread and indiscriminate shelling and murder within towns and cities, the attempted ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Bosnian Muslims as well as huge amounts of rape. Mainly perpetrated by the Serbian forces, but also to a lesser extent by the Bosniaks and Croatians. Croatia saw an opportunity to expand its territory and formed its own seperatist group, the government backed Croatian Defence Council fighting against Republic of Bosnia, but then turned around and joined forces with the Bosniaks in 1994 when Washington got involved and created the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. After a huge massacre by republic Srpska which flouted warnings by the UN in 1995, NATO stepped in and began bombing Serb positions. This coupled with trade sanctions by UN countries crippled the economy of Serbia and led them to the negotiating table. Thus modern Bosnia and Herzegovina is still made up of the Republic Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
A lot of the bombed out buildings were covered in graffiti which was a mixture of art, political statements and random tags. The graffiti really made what would have been just depressing, more vibrant and thoughtful, putting a veneer of art over the trauma and attempting to deal with the atrocities with a public dialogue.
One ominous building which could not help but draw our eye was the ‘sniper tower’. Once a giant bank it now loomed over the city as a huge hollow concrete shell covered in graffiti. Climbing over the back wall by the Nelson Mandela quote we scrambled over and into the darkness of the bottom floor. The structure was amazing with large open levels connected via a skeletal concrete staircase. Debris crunched under foot as we scoped out the place hunting down graff in the dilapidated renegade gallery. Still, we could not help but look out over the city and imagine the sight of a gun trained on the people below with a shiver. It was called the sniper tower for a reason as it was used for this very purpose during the war.
Our last day in Mostar began as as it had each morning with a fantastic spread of homemade dips, breads, jams, cheeses and different delicious herbal teas. A healthy and amazing breakfast courtesy of our hosts. After our last peruse of the Bazaar we decided to visit an old building called Kajtaz house which had survived the war and is now used as a museum of a typical 16th century Ottoman nobles house. Filled with luxurious carpets, beautiful wood and a shady courtyard we enjoyed stepping back in time as a rich Bosnian family.