“And as long as human beings can sit and watch with hands folded while their fellow-men are tortured and butchered so long will civilisation be a hollow mockery, a wordy phantom suspended like a mirage above a swelling sea of murdered carcasses.” Henry Miller
Finally the never-ending detour through the mountain passes came to an end and we reached the border crossing and passed into the sovereign state of Bosnia and Herzegovina. When I studied European history at University I was always intrigued by this mouthful of a name because it sounded different and intriguing. And it was!
There was a straight road that ran adjacent to the fast flowing Naretva River that was swollen from the melt waters of the snow-capped mountains that we could see in the distance. Surprisingly the road surface was much improved from that in southern Croatia but the condition of the houses and buildings in the villages that we passed through did not. Every village we passed through had evidence of war damage with the scars of machine gun and mortar fire and houses with roofs that had collapsed under a direct hit from a shell. We stopped at the picturesque town of Pocitelj that has a western castle and an eastern mosque and picturesque bars and houses that had clearly been restored. We didn’t stop long because we didn’t have any Bosnian Marks and the street vendors selling fruit were a bit too persistent.
Although we were in Europe this was like a different place altogether and being predominantly Muslim it felt as though we had crossed into Asia. It was about sixty kilometres to Mostar and when we arrived there it was a total shock. We drove past bombed out and abandoned buildings and parked the car in what looked a precarious spot next to magnificent old buildings that had been completely destroyed during the war of 1992 to 1993. Walking around I was struck that this is what most of Europe must have looked like after the Second-World-War and it was sad and a very sobering experience.
Between 1992 and 1993, after Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia, the city was subject to an eighteen month siege. Amongst destroyed monuments were a Franciscan monastery, the Catholic cathedral and the bishop’s palace, with a library of fifty thousand books, as well as the Karadžoz-bey mosque, Roznamed-ij-Ibrahim-efendija mosque and twelve other mosques and all of the bridges across the river.
During the Yugoslav wars, the objectives of nationalists from Croatia were shared by Croat nationalists in Bosnia and Herzegovina. What I didn’t know was that after the expulsion of the Serbs the Croats turned on the Bosnians and they proclaimed the existence of the Croatian Community of Herzeg-Bosnia, as a separate ‘political, cultural, economic and territorial whole’ on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Mostar was divided into a Western part, which was dominated by the Croat forces and an Eastern part where the Army of Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina was largely concentrated. The Croatians controlled all roads leading into Mostar and international organisations were denied access and they took over the west side of the city and expelled thousands of Bosniaks from the west side into the east side and heavy shelling reduced much of the historic centre of Mostar to rubble. The Croatian army engaged in mass execution, ethnic cleansing and rape of the Bosniak people of Mostar and its surrounds and a fierce siege and shelling campaign on the Bosnian Government run East Mostar. Finally they committed the atrocity of destroying the famous Stari Most Bridge. I had simply not understood these ethnic tensions existed between Croatians and Bosnians.
Without Bosnian Marks we tried unsuccesfully to change money and to make a withdrawal from a cash machine and I became concerned that this would be a visit without food or drink but I needn’t have worried because it turned out that everywhere was happy to take the Euro or the Croatian Kuna so after a walk through the restored cobbled streets fringed with eastern style bazaar type shops we selected a restaurant overlooking the river and the bridge and called for a menu.
Normally I don’t like those display boards that have pictures of the food you might get (but probably not) if you order it and there were none here, but in actual fact this might have been quite useful in this instance because there were some interesting sounding dishes but no real information that was of any practical assistance in making a selection. We settled for a Herzegovina plate that turned out to be local meat and cheese, and a couple of bottles of local beer that was very good. Being Muslim, some restaurants made it clear that they did not serve alcohol but thankfully this was not one of them and I wondered just how those others managed to made a living.
We had a perfect view of the bridge and the famous divers who kept coming to the top and standing and posing as if to make a dive but this was all a big tease and they never did. After lunch we finally walked to the bridge ourselves and crossed to the other side and from the top it was still possible to see the damaged buildings and shell holes that had brought down famous old buildings and roofs. I was pleased to discover that after the war the people responsible were tracked down and brought to trial for crimes against humanity and other war crimes including the destruction of the Stari Most Bridge.
Mostar was an amazing experience and one that I will not forget in a hurry and we walked some more around the little streets and then back to the commercial centre and to the car that because of the place where we had parked I was glad to see was still there and in one piece. I liked Mostar and would definitely go back.
Leaving Bosnia at the border we insisted on stamps in the passport to remember our visit by but almost immediately wondered if this had been altogether sensible when the policeman on the Croatian side eyed it with suspicion and applied his own stamp to cancel it. On my travels I am learning all of the time and this was something I hadn’t expected, I thought everyone disliked the Serbs, I had no idea that Christian Croats and Muslim Bosniaks don’t exactly see eye to eye either.