“That used to be a shopping centre,” said the friendly grey-haired woman, pointing to a crumbling cement building. The ground floor looked to have been completely destroyed but the steel beams were somehow still supporting the second storey. “And this was the frontline during the war,” she explained flippantly as we drove through an intersection in her beat-up little car.
I spent the 5 minute drive from the train station to the hostel in Mostar, in the Herzegovina region of Bosnia, staring out the window, gobsmacked at the buildings pockmarked by bullet holes and the buildings that had literally been reduced to piles of rubble in the war 15 years before. I’d never seen anything like it but now I know where the expression “looks like a warzone” comes from.
We were staying at Hostel Nina. It turns out the smiling woman who’d picked us up from the station was Nina’s mother. Nina, toddler on her hip, was just as friendly, a quality we would find in almost all the Bosnian people we’d encounter.
The historic town of Mostar, less than 2 hours from Croatia, had been almost completely razed during the conflict from 1992 to 1995. As I was about to learn, the “conflict” was extremely complicated. On an extremely basic level and as I understand it (insert disclaimer here), the war was partly sparked by the break-up of the former state of Yugoslavia, which encompassed Bosnia and Hercegovina, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia. Slovenia and Croatia had already declared independence and while this had provoked brief wars with the Serbian-controlled Yugoslav Army, its full force and firepower would be saved for Bosnia. Following the lead of its neighbours, Bosnia declared independence in 1991 and this was officially recognised by the international community in April 1992.
While all this was going on, Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic was cooking up his own plan for a Serbian state, which would include majority Serbian areas in other Yugoslav countries. As Bosnia had the biggest community of Serbians outside of Serbia, Milosevic had the country in his sights. He essentially used the Yugoslav Army and mobilised radical Serbs from within Bosnia to take the country for the Serbs. And so began a very brutal and destructive war that would last three years and would only cease once NATO began airstrikes against Serbian positions.
In Mostar things got even more complicated because Catholic Croats and Bosnian Muslims, who originally fought together against the Serbs, turned against each other and started fighting each other. The beautiful city of Mostar didn’t stand a chance.
The name “Mostar” means “bridge-keeper” and the pride of the town is the “Stari Most” or “Old Bridge”. The Ottoman ruler ordered the bridge built in 1557. According to our tour guide, (Nina’s husband, just to keep it in the family) half of the bridge builders deserted when it came time to take the scaffolding off the bridge, fearing they’d be killed by their ruler if it fell into the river (bet the architect was grateful for the vote of confidence). When the bridge didn’t collapse, the workers who had stayed behind jumped off the bridge in celebration, plunging 25 metres into the Neretva River below. So began the proud tradition of bridge jumping, a skill handed from father to son for generations in Mostar.
Our guide explained that there’s a fine art to jumping or diving off the bridge so you don’t injure youself and it’s customary to get a tattoo of the bridge once you’ve made your first leap. There’s even a clubhouse on the bridge for the jumpers. These days there’s only about 25-30 bridge jumpers and jumping is a money-spinner performed more for tourists now, rather than tradition. Our guide was taught by his father and insisted it took a lot of courage to bridge jump. He said the jury is still out on whether he would teach his son. It seems none of the jumpers were courageous enough to brave the cold weather when we were there to jump because the bridge and clubhouse was deserted!
Despite being the icon of Mostar and the pride of its people, the famous bridge was deliberately destroyed during the 1990’s conflict. It withstood about 600 direct artillery hits over two days of deliberate bombardment, before it finally crumbled into the river. Even for a tourist, the footage of the almost 400 year old bridge being destroyed is pretty heart wrenching and just another pointless tragedy in a war that achieved nothing. It was painstakingly rebuilt using the same building techniques, and stone from the same quarry, as the original and was reopened in 2004.
Close to Mostar is a town called Medugorje, where the Virgin Mary apparently spoke to 6 local teenagers back in 1981 (insert sarcastic tone here). The bible-bashing Irish, Italians and Polish love this place. What was once an unassuming little Bosnian backwater is now a religious tourism mecca, with loads of hotels and tacky souvenir shops selling even tackier religious icons. Needless to say we didn’t spend long here. The church isn’t actually used for mass much because the crowds here get so big. Instead, they’ve installed hundreds of park benches out the back where you can freeze your butt off during Winter and sweat it out during Summer attending a mass in about ten different languages. There’s a weeping Christ statue about 200 metres away that will heal all your ailments and for those sinners out there, you can confess your sins in a language of your choice in one of at least thirty specially built confessionals. If I didn’t think the notion of religion was mad before, I did by the time I left Medugorje (pretty much my version of hell on earth). On the bright side, thanks to those teenagers, their little town is booming, where it would probably otherwise be suffering from upwards of 40 per cent unemployment like most other rural areas around the country.
Our trip to Mostar ended as it began, at the bus station with Nina’s mother. When we arrived she’d thanked us for deciding to visit Mostar, explaining that the town desperately needed tourists to survive. With intriguing history, beautiful sights and friendly people I left feeling pretty confident that Nina’s mother would be spending more and more time greeting tourists at the bus station in the years to come.
A note on the Bosnian food:
My little red blood cells have been squealing with delight since I arrived in Bosnia because my iron levels are most certainly through the roof (and the belt has had to be let out a notch). Red meat, breads and pastries are the staples of Bosnian cuisine, which has proved to be surprisingly tasty! Burek, a meat or cheese stuffed pastry is traditionally eaten for breakfast with a side of yoghurt. Cevapi consists of little lamb sausages in soft pita bread, then there’s mince stuffed capsicums and cabbage leaves stuffed with super tender meat. The only meal I was slightly sceptical about was the “veal stuffed with cheese” that was more like a triple quarter pounder with triple cheese, minus the bun … it actually tasted delicious but my arteries will never forgive me. And did I mention the desserts?? The baklava is pretty good and the cakes … amazing!