I didn’t quite know what to make of Mostar.
In the eyes of the many coachloads of tourists that come to this small town in southern Bosnia, it is just a gorgeous place on a scenic river. Cobbled streets, souvenir stalls and the famous Old Bridge that everyone comes to see.
For a few dollars, divers arch gracefully into the water underneath the blazing sun. People pack into the restaurants surrounding the old town, drinking over-priced pivo and comparing photos. Music booms out from a nearby bar as tourists slide across the bridge, the slippery surface causing many tumbles every day.
There’s no doubt about it, Mostar is a beautiful town, just another pretty spot in a region that is full of them. If all you see is a few streets either side of the bridge, that is…
This was one of the most damaged parts of the country during the Bosnian War of the early nineties, sustaining heavy bombing and small arms fire during an eighteen month siege that left much of the town in ruins. Churches, mosques and cathedrals, as well as many other buildings, were destroyed. Even the Old Bridge was blown up, taking more than 60 direct hits from tank shells in an act alleged to be nothing more than deliberate cultural destruction.
The bridge and surrounding area has been completely restored since the end of the war, at a cost of around 15 million dollars. Step a little further away, however, and the damage is plain to see.
Hundreds of bullet holes scar building after building – those that are still standing, at least. Only the outside of many others still remain, the derelict facades in stark contrast to those only a few streets back down the hill.
Even the city park hasn’t escaped unscathed – far from it. This little slice of greenery, visible from the main pedestrianised street, was turned into a final resting place in 1993 when the dead needed a place to be buried and the rest of the town cemeteries were inaccessible due to the war.
I really can’t imagine walking through Central Park in New York or Hyde Park in London and seeing row upon row of gravestones laid out there because it was the only place to inter your loved ones.
And yet, much like Sarajevo, the town is moving on. Tourism has become big business here, and as I walked back into town and was jostled along the narrow street beside the bridge, it was hard to envisage what Mostar was like as war tore the place apart while I was attending high school.
The only outward evidence of the destruction was in the buildings, not the people. Cafe owners smiled as they welcomed me in for a drink. Locals swam in the river, or sat drinking coffee in the shade. Away from the bustling bridge, a sleepy mood permeated the town as the summer heat took hold each day. My hostel owner had plenty to say on every topic except the conflict.
Was this deliberate avoidance, or just a determination to look to the future? I wasn’t qualified to judge. As my bus pulled away from the station and headed south a few days later, however, I didn’t feel my usual regret about leaving a place. While I had enjoyed my time in Mostar, I didn’t really feel that I had understood it.
The place had a strange energy, and beneath the restored beauty I felt that there was a lot more going on. A slightly darker side to the town, perhaps, and one that will almost certainly take more than foreign aid dollars and a couple of decades to resolve.