The split personalities of Mostar

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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.

Diving man, Mostar

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…

Damaged building, Mostar

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.

Derelict building, Mostar

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.

Cemetery in a park, Mostar

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.

Mostar river and mosque

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.

13 Responses to “The split personalities of Mostar

  • Great review of the city. I was also confused by the city, but even though the river area is vibrant, the sadness of the graves and the bullet holes still made me tear (I’m over sensitive that way).

    • Yeah I was pretty somber at times, especially in the park/cemetery. Mentally it was a long way from the crowded cafes etc, even if physically it was barely 100m…

  • OHHh, so Mostar is the place. Lol. I’ve seen that infamous photo everywhere and have always wanted to visit but never quite knew where it was. It looks quite enchanting though I can see a place like this with a dark history too. Now that I know where, would love to visit one day.

  • Another place added to my ever-growing list. Plus I’d like to take on the challenge of crossing that bridge without going all Bambi on myself. 🙂

    • Haaha … there was a *lot* of Bambi action going on on that bridge. Surprised they don’t have an ambulance squad on permanent standby…

  • It’s amazing that such different worlds can be found in the same town. From your description, I don’t know that I’d be able to fully wrap my head around Mostar either.

  • Such an interesting and different post, really enjoyed it… so did you jump on the bridge?

    • Heh, I didn’t … it’s a surprisingly long way down and the water is pretty cold – apparently it’s not unheard of for the dramatic temperature change to actually stop people’s hearts when they dive in! I figured I’d leave it to the professionals…

  • Incredibly how it recovered… I was there in 1997 for the first time (then, a couple of times, last time in 2000). Look at the pics (sorry, I did not translate it in English, I will do it … some day 🙂

  • There was a time where a lot of East Berlin still had bullet holes from the war, over 50 years later. So it is possible that part of that will never heal, but good to see the people looking at moving forward.

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