by Tracy Barnett

A reporter finds hope at the fabled bridge of Mostar.

A maple tree grows out the window of what was once someone’s tidy little flat on the Croatian side of Santica Street in Mostar, in the green hills of southern Bosnia and Herzegovina. The leafy limb reaches out, past the bullet holes, past the strands of ivy that dangle loosely in the vacant concrete frame, toward the neighbor’s flat on the Bosniak side of the street, where a similar bombed-out, bullet-ridden scene looms in the dank dusk.

I shiver, pull my jacket around me and linger. What must it have been like here in 1993, when neighbor turned against neighbor, when children and old people were slaughtered, when there was no place left to flee because the entire countryside was erupting in violence?

Past the chrysanthemum-like shell scar in the street, the windows of what was once another apartment complex are still filled with the sandbags that turned this compound into a bunker where residents were able to shield themselves while shooting into their neighbors’ windows.

My companions urge me onward; it’s cold, it’s late, and there’s the definite possibility that nothing will be available at this hour to satiate our growing hunger.

We needn’t have worried. A couple of blocks away in the brightly lit, stonewalled Stari Grad (Old Town) area, music boomed from discos, and trendily dressed young people prowled the ancient cobbled streets. We had entered that surreal mix of past and future that is the new face of Bosnia.

The narrow byway follows the curve of the river, with intriguing stone stairways leading downward into the darkness. As we rounded the corner, the ghostly white profile of the famous Mostar Bridge shone in the moonlight, brightly floodlit from below. For more than a decade, a ragged void filled the space over the Neretva River, where the 16th century masterpiece of Ottoman architecture, designed by a student of the legendary Mimar Sinan for Suleyman the Magnificent, once stood as a symbol of national unity and a highly visible reminder of the city’s Turkish heritage.

Perhaps that beleaguered heritage was forefront in the minds of the Bosnian Croats who manned the tank atop nearby Mount Hum on Nov. 9, 1993, and shelled the World Heritage Site into oblivion. From a more strategic standpoint, the destruction of the bridge was necessary to cut off the supply route to the majority Bosniak (the term for Bosnian Muslims) side of the city. During the 18-month siege, thousands of people lost their lives.

A decade later, with great international fanfare, UNESCO inaugurated the reconstructed stone bridge, which had taken seven years and $20 million, much of which was contributed by the Turkish and Croatian governments. The builders recovered some of the stone from the river bottom and used traditional carving tools to cut the remainder from the same quarry that had been used half a millennium ago by the Ottomans. Today it reconnects the two sides of the divided city, a proud monument to a healing nation.

Mostar, perhaps the most beautiful of Bosnia’s medieval cities, was also the hardest hit during the war. Like the rest of Bosnia and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the former Yugoslavia, the city is trying hard to put the war behind it. The country still has far to go in terms of healing both the visible scars and the invisible ones, but it is putting its best face forward for the rest of the world.

The country’s tourism campaign touts the crystal waters of its many mountain streams, the snowcapped Dinaric Alps, the primeval forests and the ancient cultural mix of East and West in its campaign, “Bosnia: The heart-shaped land.” But above all it hails the people, because, as the national tourism Web site states, “people make the place — and Bosnia and Herzegovina prides itself on its hospitality and treating our guests as if they were family members. And family we take to heart.” As I will find during the course of my stay, that openness and warmth more than makes up for the still somewhat marginal tourism infrastructure of the region.

Down one of those stony staircases in the cozy hobbit-cave depths of the Stari Mlin (Old Mill) Restaurant, we warmed ourselves with heaping plates of hearty Herzegovinian fare and a tangy red wine from the new harvest, the fresh wounds of war far behind us. It’s easy for a foreigner to forget, if only for a few moments, the brutal legacy of the ethnic cleansing that took place here in the early 1990s.

Easy to forget, but not for long. Because it’s this moment, savoring the taste of new wine, listening to the faraway eastern-tinged beat and seeing the elegant arch of the Mostar Bridge reflected in the dark waters of the Neretva, that I recall later on, when a Bosnian friend tells me her interpretation of the name of this place.

A paradox of passions

“Be careful with your words, for everything began with that,” Sarajevo journalist Eldina Pleho warned me. “The honey, and the blood, too.” She was referring to the old Turkish word for Balkan: bal (honey) and kan (blood). Whatever the original meaning of the Turks when they laid that appellation on these lands, it seems eminently clear today.

Indeed, language has been used to craft an exquisite tradition in music, literature and film just as it has been used as a weapon of war. The paradox of conflicting passions that characterizes this Balkan people, the melding of the profoundly bitter and the profoundly sweet, has from time to time degenerated into war. But for most of its 14,000-year history, the diverse peoples of this mountainous region peacefully coexisted and developed a rich, complex culture that reflects the noblest as well as the darkest aspects of humanity.

In just a short time upon landing in Sarajevo, it’s easy to see both. On the way from the airport, there’s the bridge where two young women were the first to die when Serb snipers targeted peace demonstrators in the shots that drew the capital city into the bloody 1990s war. A walk through the old downtown takes you past the trendy shops of the Ferhadija into the bustling Bascarsija, the 15th-century Turkish marketplace, where you can buy a multitude of intricate handcrafted items, including mortar shells picked up after the war and intricately hand-carved by the resourceful Bosnian artisans; past classic Ottoman treasures such as the 500-year-old Gazi Husrev-Begova mosque, which was patiently rebuilt twice after being destroyed in 1697 and again in 1879; past red splashes of plasticene dubbed “Sarajevo roses” that mark the spots where a mortar explosion killed someone; past the bridge where a Serb revolutionary assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the shot that launched the first World War.

For Tim Clancy, author of the first post-war travel guide of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the country is a hidden jewel whose enormous amount of potential lies poised between discovery and extinction.

“People have lots of misconceptions about the place, which works to our advantage,” said Clancy, who has founded an ecotourism group based in Sarajevo called Green Visions. “A lot of people think it’s dangerous; but it’s safer in Sarajevo than in any major U.S. city. Some think we’re in Central Asia or next to Chechnya or something, but this is a European country, with a European culture and values.”

Unlike other European countries, however, Bosnia is still home to miles of primeval forest, virtually untouched wilderness and traditional highland communities that seem suspended in time. Clancy and a handful of other small tour groups lead trekkers through a variety of dramatic landscapes, including the so-called Bosnian Himalaya to the snow-capped Prenj mountain. He takes them to old castles and ancient cemeteries filled with the centuries-old gravestones called stecak, which combine pagan and Christian symbols in a way that is unique to Bosnia. Perhaps best of all, he takes them to tiny highland villages such as Lukomir, where the people still live in the old way, wearing their traditional dress and eking out their living by hand.

Drew Sullivan, a Texas A&M grad who fell in love with Sarajevo and founded the Center for Investigative Reporting there six years ago, is inclined to agree with Clancy. “The nice thing about Sarajevo is that most Americans have no idea what to expect, so everything is surprising. When I brought family members here for the first time, their response was, ‘We never believed it could be this beautiful.”‘

A country still divided

Bosnia was divided into two entities after the war, with the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina being majority Muslim, while the Federation is flanked by two sections that compose the Republica Srpska, which is majority Serb. At dinner I visit with two journalists from the Center for Investigative Reporting, American Rosemary Armao and Bosnian Boris Mrkela. Boris is from Banja Luka, which is in the RS, and while Rosemary ecstatically describes the region’s beauty—the rivers, mountains and waterfalls—Boris looks down and shrugs.

“It’s not like it used to be,” he says.

Before the war, when Bosnia was a province of the old Yugoslavia, the place was proudly multicultural, its cities graced with elegant historic buildings, including Banja Luka. The war left 30 mosques in ruin, with the wondrous Ferhadija Mosque being turned into a parking lot. There has been growing pressure on the republic’s government to help with its rebuilding.

Here in Sarajevo’s Old Town district the buildings are mostly from the pre-World War I Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian eras. We sit in the bay window of a rambling old restaurant, looking out at the Miljacka River (“Milyatska,” in the perplexing Bosnian pronunciation scheme). We’re eating Bosnian Pot, a spicy meat stew with a hint of cinnamon, which is cooked all day in a clay pot, and a refreshing sugary drink identified as juniper juice.

The restaurant is called “Inat Kuca” which means “Spite House,” because, as Boris explains, the house used to be situated on the other side of the river. The ruling Austro-Hungarians wanted the land for what later became a city hall and library. They offered the owner money, but he refused. He was told that he had to move, and he still refused. Finally the officials threatened him, and so he moved the house and rebuilt it, piece by piece, on the other side of the river, where it stands today as a symbol of Bosnian stubbornness.

Exorcising the demons

Boris, whom his friends affectionately call Boki, is an amiable young man, blond, blue-eyed and bespectacled, with a ready smile, a quick sense of humor and a helping hand. Like everyone else in this country, he lives with the ghosts of the war and still struggles to make sense of it all. He’s tried to forget those two horrible years when he fought in the Army of the Serb Republic — which sometimes makes life difficult in this predominantly Muslim city, since the Serbs are responsible for the loss of an estimated 10,500 Sarajevan lives.

His refusal to take up arms prompted his commanding officers to draft him as a front-line rescue worker, which put him repeatedly in the line of fire as he dashed out to recover wounded soldiers. Miraculously he survived, but years later, as the nonchalant journalist gives an objective report of the events, the even flow of words spills out for an hour before he pauses to wipe the sweat from his forehead and wish for a beer.

He has tried several times to return home to build a life with his family in Banja Luka, but Sarajevo offers more opportunities and now feels more like home to him. His presence and that of other Serb professionals is an important factor for the reintegration of the city and of the country as a whole.

The Serb population in Sarajevo numbered an estimated 160,000 in the 1990s and has declined to between 20,000 and 40,000, according to a recent report in Balkan Insight. As I read these numbers, I begin to understand the persistent melancholy behind Boris’ smile, and the apologetic look in the bright blue eyes of Adnan Strseric, the young man at the bakery who confesses to me, as he practices his English, “Actually, I’m Serbian.”

But everyone in this city feels like a minority—including the Muslims, who were brutally targeted during the ethnic cleansing by Christian Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats alike. Indeed they are a tiny minority on the larger European stage, and an important one in terms of bridging contemporary East-West tensions.

I’m Muslim—don’t panic

Elma and Selma have a bestseller on their hands, and it’s taken even them by surprise.

The two young friends have a T-shirt shop in the old Turkish district of Sarajevo. They’ve made a good business selling T-shirts to the tourists with phrases in Bosnian like “What’s Up” and “I love Sarajevo” and images such as the face of former ruler Tito.

But a German visitor to their store last year proposed an idea to them that multiplied their success while warming their hearts.

“He was working on a project involving Muslim women in Germany, and he liked our T-shirts,” said Elma, a blue-eyed blonde with a warm and friendly smile. “He proposed to us that we make him a T-shirt with the slogan ‘I’m Muslim—Don’t panic.'”

The German visitor liked the T-shirt so much that he ordered 100 of them and took them back to Germany to sell.

They decided to try it for themselves, and to their surprise, it became a heavily sought-after item, especially by tourists.

“We have Americans and Europeans who buy the shirt for themselves, and they say they like to wear them,” says Selma, still puzzled by their motivation, but touched.

“It seems that people in the West really don’t understand what Islam is about,” says Selma. “They think we’re all supporting what happened in New York. We think that’s not OK. The person who did that, he did it for himself and for his own problems, not for us.”

Convergence of civilizations

Bosnia is an important destination for travelers who want to explore a distinctive fusion of East and West, from a cultural and from a faith perspective.

“Bosnia is a wonderful place that can bridge the so-called clash of civilizations,” said Clancy. “Here the Christians and the Muslims have lived together for so long; the West can learn from the Bosnian Muslims, who have a long tradition of secular Islam.

“The West has this irrational fear of Islam. But here you look around you and the half-naked girls walking down the street are Muslims, and the guys drinking beer in the bars are Muslims. Yes, some of the women are covered, but they’re all normal human beings, they just have a different belief system, and that doesn’t make them scary. I’ve found them to be exactly the opposite.”

A lifelong Catholic, Clancy spent the bulk of the war on the Muslim side of Mostar, which he found far more tolerant of diversity than the Catholic Croats on the other side of the divided city. “The Bosnian Muslims definitely stand for a multiethnic Bosnia,” says Clancy. “It was really the Christians who were looking for ethnically pure states.”

Beyond the politics of war and peace, there are the miles and miles of spectacular scenery, the elegant architecture and the mind-bending twists and turns of history. But for Sullivan, who explored many hidden corners of the planet before settling in Sarajevo, “Bosnia is not about that. Bosnia is about the people.”

He urges visitors to Sarajevo to take their time and talk to those people, to wander the alley-like streets in the Old Town.

“Get lost, and then get surprised.”

What they’ll take home with them, if they linger just a little to converse with the locals, is a sense of a warm, hospitable people. People like Elma and Selma, Boris and Eldina and Adnan, who just want to put the past behind them and go on with life.

Beyond the statistics of division, as Clancy is quick to point out, is the uncounted and growing number of individuals who defy ethnic categorization.

“There are tons of ordinary young people who say, ‘No, I’m not a Croat or a Serb or a Muslim—I’m Tim, and I’m Bosnian.'”



Tracy Barnett is travel editor for the San Antonio Express-News. This story won the Gold Award for Destination Story in the Second Annual Solas Awards.

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