Shattered Pearl: Notes from a visit to war-torn Mostar

Like Jerusalem, the city is divided along sectarian lines.

mostar 248 88 (photo credit: )
mostar 248 88
(photo credit: )
The first things you notice are the bullet marks. There are literally millions of them, and they cover everything. It seems no pre-1992 construction is spared - no house, no factory, no monument. Even graves and tombstones are riddled with bullets. The human landscape carries them like a bad case of acne. Sometimes it's more than mere shallow holes in the mortar but rather huge, ugly, roughly circular craters in the walls, with multiple smaller scars spread around them in a fashion that indicates the force and angle of impact. Hundreds of houses are in ruins, gutted skeletons that will never be repaired and quietly await demolition. It was my first day in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I rented a room in a private pension in Mostar, and hours after my arrival was still lying on my bed, staring at the ceiling and trying to gauge the violated scenery I was witness to on my way into the city. Having come by bus from elegant, pleasant Dubrovnik in Croatia, it was somewhat of a shock. It was like riding through a set of a big-budget war movie with the crew off to lunch. I tried to grasp the complexity of my exact location: I was in Mostar, capital of the Canton of Neretva and the State of Herzegovina, which, alongside the State of Bosnia make up the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which, alongside the Serb Republic (Republika Srpska, the de-facto capital of which is Banja Luka, and which is not divided into cantons and must not be confused with Serbia), make up the country they call Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is known by the acronym BiH, the joint capital of which is Sarajevo and which includes the autonomous district of Brãko. Indeed, while the 1995 US-sponsored Dayton Agreements managed to end hostilities in this pivotal corner of ex-Yugoslavia, they also created a most confusing new political entity. Little wonder the Bosnian Institute has once called BiH "perhaps the most complex, not to say contradictory, political structure of any country in the world". I went over the pages in my passport. Oddly enough, of all places, it was here, in the nationality-obsessed Balkans, that no official bothered to stamp it when I entered the country. I washed my face and went for a walk. It was a drizzly Sunday and most of the streets of this small, picturesque city were deserted. I was walking along one of the main roads, among pilfered and abandoned buildings, some in complete ruin. Signs were hung on the walls: "Dangerous Ruin! Entrance and Parking of Vehicles Strictly Forbidden!" The luckier buildings just bore hundreds of pock marks but were left standing; some were in the optimistic process of renewal. Over the next couple of days I noticed that the people of Mostar resembled their built environment: the young were smiling, optimistic, cheerfully chatting in bars and coffee shops. The older people were stern, grumpy, and a relatively large number were on wheelchairs or on crutches. Mostar, much like Jerusalem, is a city divided along sectarian lines. As in Jerusalem, Muslims occupy most of the Old Town and its' immediate surroundings, while non-Muslims (Catholic Croats in this case) occupy the relatively new and wealthier neighborhoods to the west. As in Jerusalem, there is no physical division but rather one borne out of mutual animosity, mistrust and fear. I crossed that invisible line numerous times during my stay but was blind to any change in the ethnicity of the people walking by me. Nevertheless, I had concrete landmarks with which to ascertain my position. Slender, pencil-like Ottoman minarets dominate the eastern skyline. The Western skyline is centered on a newly heightened Catholic belfry, ridiculously and disproportionately taller than the church it serves. It is a poignant symbolic message of assurance to the Catholic population - and of defiance towards the Muslims. On the mountain behind the church the Croats have erected a huge white cross, thirty-five meters high, shimmering in the light of the rising sun. It's always visible, towering over the city like a miniature version of Jesus on Rio's Mount Corcovado. I later learned that it was placed exactly where the Croats positioned their anti-aircraft artillery. NATO restrictions regarding Serb flights over the region meant that this deadly weapon could be directed towards Muslim civilians rather than towards the skies. At least in theory, this meant that the Muslims were sitting ducks, subject to close-range shelling from a weapon strong enough to shoot down aircraft. Between the two parts of town runs the pea-green Neretva River, over which spans the elegant, renowned Old Bridge, which was built by the Ottomans in 1566 and pointlessly destroyed by Croat forces in 1993. Its destruction was symbolic, and hopefully its' rebuilding will be, too, but only time will tell about that. The truly sad thing about the destruction of the bridge is the fact that it was that, and not the thousands of dead, wounded and displaced which made the world finally pay attention to the Balkan bloodshed. Another sad thing was that the destruction came after Croats and Muslims together fought off Serb and Montenegrin forces and then turned against each other. There are more than a few cemeteries in Mostar. More than one would expect in a city of barely 100,000 people. Surely this has to do with the war, as does the chilling fact that in two cemeteries I entered, both Muslim, many headstones shared the same date of death. Beautiful stone fountains spouting fresh water adorned them, both a gift from the Iranian government. I walked for hours, took pictures and scribbled notes, wondering the whole time whether one day soon somebody will do the exact same thing, surrounded by similar, post-traumatic landscape, in my native Jerusalem. One evening, in the Muslim part of town, I heard heavenly music coming from an open window on the second floor of a stately building, an intact piece of masonry amidst derelict ghosts on the main road. I stopped and listened, and then looked up. A plump woman was smiling to me from the window. She then waved to me and indicated that I was invited to come up. I entered the building and was immediately surrounded by children of all ages, running around in excitement. It was the Pavarotti Music Centre, and the kids were about to perform an open recital. I took a seat and listened to these children clumsily make a go at pieces by Chopin, Mendelssohn and Bach. A huge banner bore a bigger-than-life image of a white pigeon soaring high. The kids themselves, I was later told, were Muslims, Croats and Serb. Indeed, that was the very idea behind this philanthropy. It was a commemoration of beauty and hope played out in a former war zone. Looking out the window at the bullet-scarred buildings around me while listening to the Cello was like being in the final scene of Welcome to Sarajevo. It was tempting to think that this was the new Mostar. Indeed, tensions in the city were not as bad as they used to be, especially among the younger generation. But after the recital I had dinner in the small restaurant in the Music Centre, and a Muslim who offered to buy me a beer and then struck up a conversation had other things to say. I told him how remarkable I found it to listen to Muslim, Croat and Serb children play music together. Yes, he said, but still most Croats would not send their children here and would not look favorably on parents who did. His name was Tariq and I figured he was in his forties. He told me he was the only member of his family who remained in Mostar; the rest were killed or else sought refuge, during the war, in Scandinavian countries. "Croats - they are animals," he said, and reminded me of their fascist tendencies during World War II. "Don't believe everything the Muslims tell you," was the advice of a Flora, a Catholic Croat girl with whom I shared another drink the following evening. We were sitting in the Old Town. She pointed out to me a souvenir shop. "It used to belong to our family," she said, "but the Muslims invaded it and many other Croat properties in the Old Town during the war and are now refusing to vacate them. Your friend Tariq didn't tell you about that, did he?" I told Flora about Jerusalem, she talked about Mostar. It turns out that her city was indeed physically divided during the last stages of the war and for a short while after the war had ended, but the people of Mostar themselves demanded that the barriers be removed. I told her that The Economist ran a similar story the same week about common objections among Sunni and Shi'ite residents of Baghdad to an American plan to build a wall to separate the two hostile communities there. The wall in the Cypriot capital of Nicosia was also little more than a mere technicality, I told her, and it was my guess that only a few Jews or Palestinians wanted to see Jerusalem being physically divided again. "But Mostar is still divided," said Flora. "All of this country is. We have separate TV stations for Muslims and Croats, separate schools. Even separate cellular providers!" And a third person told me, "You've been misinformed, you see. Things are not that bad. Croats, Muslims and Serbs live together. It's an uneasy truce perhaps, but it holds. My colleagues in this very office are from all backgrounds." The speaker was Aida, the girl who worked in the tourist info centre. Herself a girl of mixed ethnicity, she fled with her family during the war and lived as a refugee, first in Slovenia, then in Croatia. "There are friendships again, and business partnerships. It's not always easy, for sure. But we are optimistic. No body wants to return to the way things were during the war." I came into the office in the first place to ask about a "war tour" of Mostar. There was no such tour, Aida told me, and anyway tourist guides are not even allowed to refer to the war during their work. "Things are too complicated. The memories are too fresh and the subject is just too sensitive." She took out some leaflets and tried to interest me in excursions to nearby waterfalls and Roman ruins. But I pursued the matter of more recent ruins. "You tourists are all the same!" she nearly snapped at me. "All you want is blood and suffering. They come in here, and the first thing they ask is, 'are you Muslim? Are you Croat? Where can we see more evidence of the war?' I tell them, 'Walk the streets and look up at the ruined buildings! Isn't it enough for you?' To tell you the truth, this is all very frustrating for us." Again I was thinking of Jerusalem and the "Conflict Tours" I give there. Maybe, I thought, maybe I too will also grow sick and tired of it, once the already tense situation in the city culminates, as it did here, and all there will be to show gore-thirsty visitors are pockmarked ruins and provocative monuments. It was May 9, Victory in Europe day (according to the Soviets, under whose influence was the former Yugoslavia), and naïve schoolchildren paintings were hung on the Old Bridge, depicting crushed Swastikas and portraits of Comrade Tito. But Mostar's famous Partisan Cemetery was abandoned and neglected. While the swastikas drawn by the children were broken, here the graffiti swastikas were all quite intact, and the tombs themselves were broken. The main monument - a fierce, communist-style stone structure adorned with abstract images - was in shambles, with shards of beer bottles and used condoms strewn about. I noticed two fresh wreaths were placed at a corner of this forgotten garden of remembrance. It was as if whoever placed them was too lazy or scared - or maybe ashamed? - to venture deeper into the cemetery. But May 9 was more than that: it also commemorated the day on which, back in 1943, Comrade Tito's partisans blew up a strategic bridge near the town of Jablanica, barring the passing of Nazi troops over it, expediting communist victory over fascism. That would explain the children ceremoniously crossing the Old Bridge, waving the flag of the old Bosnian-Croat Federation. And May 9 was also the fateful day, back in 1993, on which Croat forces started pounding the Muslim district of Mostar from the hill on which the cross is placed. But that was not marked, at least not publicly. Why rock the boat? I took the bus to nearby Blagaj, where the River Buna gushes out of an underground cave and Muslim worshipers come to pray at the tombs of two revered 17th century dervishes. I scaled a nearby mountain on which the impressive ruins of a fort used by a long forgotten Bosnian king looked over the entire green Neretva valley. But most of my time I spent in the shelled-out cobble-stoned streets of Muslim Mostar, of which I couldn't have enough. The city enticed me, gripped me with a magnetic atmosphere of oriental magic and wartime horror. On my last morning in the city I sat down for coffee in a side street café, in which I could hear the rustling of the radio from the kitchen and I was the only patron. From the window I could somehow see one of the old Ottoman towers by the river. An old woman, most certainly the owner of this humble establishment, placed before me a round tray, and on it a miniature cup, a glass of water and a small, golden finjan, from which the intoxicating aroma of freshly brewed coffee made its' way to my nostrils. It was all I wanted. It was bliss. Then a teenager came into the café, then another, and suddenly a whole group was inside, ordering their burek pastries and yoghurt. They all sat down and, as if by cue, lit their cigarettes. In no time the air was thick with smoke and the scent of fresh dough, meat and spinach. Their meal had a curious, steady dynamic to it: a bite of the burek, a sip of the yoghurt and a drag of the cigarette. A bite, a sip, a drag. Girls came in, wearing long skirts and head scarves. Discreet glances and smiles were exchanged. The girls ordered their burek, paid and left. The boys left shortly after that, almost all at once. The clearing smoke and oily crumbs were soon the only witnesses to their presence. It was the perfect Balkan scene, and it made me content. I got up, paid and boarded the train for Sarajevo. The writer is a licensed tour guide, and has an MA in Geography and Urban and Regional Studies.