Between Sarajevsko and Karlovacko

Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina – Bata arrived in a big, white van. He had a buzz cut, black sunglasses, and a frenzied Cheshire Cat smile. As he leapt from the driver’s seat to shuffle the group of twelve travelers into our seats, our guide for the day came into focus: he was an energetic thirty-something with darting eyes and a quick tongue, hyper as a third-grader after recess. It occurred to me that he might be seven years old, but he looked like a 35-year-old man. And regretfully, for the next twelve hours our lives were in his hands. As it turned out, however, there was more to Bata than it first appeared…

I’d come to Mostar, in southern Bosnia-Herzegovina, in part because travelers told me great things about Majda and her younger brother, Bata. Majda runs a modest hostel in a socialist-era apartment block in this southern city not far from the Croatian border. Bata runs a tour service for the young, sun-soothed backpackers just arriving from the coast. His Mostar city tour is one part levity (try authentic food, visit the area swimming hole, learn to curse in the local tongue) and one part gravity (learn about Bosnia’s war-torn past, and not-so-past). Immediately upon arriving in Mostar I signed up for the next day’s tour.

* * * *

There was a lot on my mind when I arrived.  I’d spent my first few days in Bosnia relaxing in the capitol, Sarajevo.  I wandered the jumble of aging cobblestone streets, past the artisan shops and small eateries that occupy the charming “Old Town.”  I browsed streets reserved for particular crafts—metalwork, jewelry, or pottery—much as they had been since the 16th century when the Balkans first came under Ottoman influence as it radiated westward from the Sea of Marmara. Sarajevo’s center is still a bazaar of crafts and people—church beside synagogue, beside mosque—a reminder that for most of its history this part of Europe was a mixture of Muslim, Christian, and Jew.

But it doesn’t take long to encounter Sarajevo’s gruesome history, whose major events offer suitable bookends to the most violent century in history. It was in Sarajevo, in 1914, that a young assassin named Gavrilo Princip murdered Prussian archduke Franz Ferdinand, launching Europe into World War One. (You know the story, or do you.) Eighty years later, Sarajevo drew international attention for another tragic event, equally iconic but far more horrible. During the Bosnian War of the early 1990s, the wooded valley that cradles Sarajevo became the theater forthe now infamous Siege of Sarajevo.  For four years, the city fell under relentless terror from Bosnian Serb Army forces, concealed in the delicate hills framing the city. Serb snipers and mortars cut down civilians as they hurried to work or waited in breadlines.  Western powers watched as terror strangled the city. More than 10,000 civilians died.

Walking the streets today, the scars from the conflict are obvious. You find walls and streets gauged by bullet fire, or the stump of a ruined building still waiting to be removed. Most stirring is the occasional “Sarajevo Rose.” These amoeba-shaped craters—sometimes in the middle of pedestrian thoroughfares—are remnant damage from mortar fire. I saw a few that had been decorated by artists and preserved as memories of the conflict.

I decided to visit Mostar in part because my experience in Sarajevo only scratched the surface of the ethnic struggles still wrenching Bosnia today. So I wanted to get out of the capitol and into some of the towns where the conflict continues.

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Photo: Bata tells a story with typical animation, as backpackershovering awkwardlysort of listen.

I climbed into Bata’s van with a dozen other young travelers, most of them recent arrivals from Dubrovnik. Bata plucked a CD from behind his sun visor and fed it into the dashboard, achieving only two words before the music began: “Turbo! Folk!” An ear-shattering din of euro-pop synth ripped through the speakers. A heavy techno beat, a woman waling in Bosnian, the ripple of an accordion, a shriek of a clarinet being punished. Bata howled and pumped the breaks to simulate hydraulics and the van lurched into downtown Mostar.

Turbo-folk is nasty stuff.  It’s a genre of European pop music whose lyrical subject is the banal drama of courtship between men and women at clubs. As the sound coughed from the van’s struggled speakers Bata sang along and explained the lyrics. The story was—surprise—about a boy and a girl who find love on a dance floor. I was not interested; I was wishing I hadn’t come. And just when I thought I might to vomit from the obnoxiousness of the experience, Bata turned around and said he wanted to talk about beer. He had my attention.

There are two kinds of bars in Mostar: bars that serve Sarajevsko (Bosnia’s national beer), and those that serve Karlovacko or Ojusko (two Croatian brands).  In some bars you find Sarajevsko, while in others you find the Croatian brands. This didn’t strike me as terribly odd, until Bata explained that the two groups of bars fall on either side of one street that cuts through the center of Mostar.

“Sarajevsko over here. Karlovacko and Ozjusko over there.”

Mostar’s refreshments, Bata told our group of attentive young backpackers—some still nursing hangovers from the beach—illustrates a division relevant to the conflicts of the 1990s. He was making a point less about beer and more about Mostar’s ethnic division.

Mostar is home to Bosnia’s largest community of Catholic Croats (the main ethnicity of Croatia). The city has roughly equal Muslim and Croat populations, as well as a significant Serb minority. During the Bosnian War, conflict in Mostar revolved more around Muslim-Croat violence than it did the Serb-Muslim divide that plagued other regions of the country.  As in Sarajevo, an account of the conflict is recorded on the city’s scarred architecture. Many of the bullet-riddled structures are or were homes, but the most famous architectural memorial is the reconstructed Stari Most (literally “old bridge”). Standing at the city’s center, the original bridge was for hundreds of years Mostar’s single greatest cultural inheritance (not to mention the city’s namesake: Stari Most = Mostar). But it was destroyed during fighting in the war.

Peace eventually arrived in 1995 and a decade later Stari Most was reconstructed, but the ethnic tensions never entirely settled in Mostar. The 1995 Dayton Accords divided the country in two halves: one Muslim, the other Serbian. In Mostar too there was a de facto division between Muslims and Croats. The result: Sarajevsko on this side of town, Karlovacko on the other. Muslim business on this side, Croat business on that side.  Separate football stadiums for Muslim and Croats, even separate water, electricity, and mail delivery. Public schools are shared, Bata told us as we drove past a playground, but classrooms are separated by ethnicity. The backpackers were silent.

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Throughout the course of the day Bata would alternately bludgeon us with turbo-folk and mesmerize us with touching accounts of the conflict. In Mostar there had been both violence and kindness between neighbors. The atrocities during the war were gruesome and civilians playing both victim and perpetrator.  Young men were hunted down and arrested, or killed. Others were protected. Bata, who comes from a Muslim family, decided to flee to Sweden as a refugee. Majda went to Britain, and their family home was lost.  When eventually they returned, Majda took up residence in the stuffy little flat that foreign backpackers now adore. Gradually their old lives returned. But even amidst occasional signs that the ethnic tensions could subside, to this day ethnic tensions remain a fact of life in Mostar.

You listen to the stories and just as your heart begins to feel too heavy Bata straightens his face and says:

“Her breasts.”

“What?”

“The boobs,” he says earnestly, “She’s singing about them,” he clarifies, offering an unsolicited translation of the turbo folk song-of-the-minute. Then he bares his teeth, does some crazy-eyes, and hoots. I have no idea what he’s thinking. He stops the van beside a wide panorama of mossy blue-green waterfalls and tells us we’re all going swimming.

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Photo: The dervish house near Mostar.

Hours later, our final stop is a beautiful white Ottoman house sitting beneath a 200-meter vertical rock cliff. The 16th century dervish house—a residence for Muslim mystics—is built snug up against the huge rock wall, on the edge of a deep blue river where water flows from a nearby cave. We arrived shortly before sunset when the area was entirely quiet and swallows darted over water’s surface catching gnats.

Asking us to sit down, Bata went into a long sobering speech about the house and the people who built it; about the river flowing from some unknown source miles within the mountain; about why he thinks backpackers (backpackers, he stressed, as though we were visiting dignitaries), why backpackers of all people should experience the stories and history that Bosnia has to offer—both wonderful and tragic. To be honest, I forget most of what Bata said—maybe I was entranced by his stories, or by the pulse of turbo-folk—but I recall that it was a touching finish to a long day.

By the time he finished his monologue it was dark and we piled back into the van. Some slept on the drive back to Mostar, startled awake only when Bata would turn up a song he liked. In town we stopped at a local eatery to have a competition to see who could stuff down the largest volume of delicious civapi. Then we called it a night.

* * * *

There was one more thing I wanted to see on my last day in Mostar.  It was something I’d heard about from a traveler in Montenegro. As the story goes, there was large bank under constructed in Mostar when the conflict erupted in 1992.  Construction stopped, and as the conflict escalated the building was occupied by fighters. A Croatian sniper took up occupancy on the roof and from that perch cut down unknown numbers of people.

I easily found the building, which is the tallest in town and stands like a giant grey skeleton. I climbed through its open foundation to the wreckage of the interior to find the place littered with office furniture, reams of banking papers, broken glass, and junkies’ needles. Open walls and stairwells looked out onto adjacent apartment buildings where a laundry line was strung and a window displayed some potted plants. I continued upward for six stories, and on the top floor climbed a rusty ladder to the open rooftop, emerging into the hot June sun.

In the southeast corner of the roof I found what I was looking for: a softball-size hole ripped in the stone wall, partially obscured by fingers of twisted rebar. A hole just large enough to rest a rifle. Below the hole, scattered across the roof tiles, hundreds or thousands of bullet shells baked in the sun, rusted from twenty years of weather. The bullets from these shells almost certainly took lives. I hoisted myself up to the wall and peered through the hole at the town below: a few houses, an undeveloped lot, a pockmarked building, and a kid on a skateboard. I lowered myself back down and sat quietly in the shade for a few minutes.

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Photo: A view from the sniper’s nest.

It was a dizzying walk down six stories. Partly due to the height, and partly due to the eerie atmosphere inside the awful building, frozen as it was in mid-conflict. I left in a hurry, returning to Majda’s where I was immersed in the warmth of good company and Turkish coffee. I chatted with some new arrivals about the waterfalls and cevapi. And I thought: maybe this is the kind of hospitality that nurtured people through the conflict.

I finished my coffee, took up my pack, and walked back across town to the bus station. I crossed the boulevard that divides Sarajevsko from Karlovacko and so many other things. And I thought about how life in Mostar goes on—somewhere beneath the perch of the sniper’s nest, and far above the calm depths of the dervish house. And then I decided to head north out of town; I wanted to see Bosnia’s Serbian half.

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