The city of Mostar in the south of Bosnia cannot be described by any term as simple as ‘beautiful,’ although the architecture and location have all the hallmarks of traditional beauty.
The guide books cite its tourist appeal as the “Stari most,” or old bridge, which has been listed as a World Heritage Site following its reconstruction. It was completely destroyed by the Croat military during the Balkan conflict since the bridge was the only link between the Bosnian-held left bank of the river and a small pocket of territory under their control on the opposite side, effectively splitting the small city into two halves for the duration of the war.
Like the mountains looking down on it, the city is lush and green thanks to the river that runs through its centre. The water’s aquamarine colour, only visible elsewhere along the nearby Dalmatian coast, and the vegetation lends an almost ethereal glow to the white stone of the famous bridge and the surrounding buildings.
The troubled past
However, in the higher ground small cluster of houses form remote ‘villages’ that are surrounded by bare scrubland that is still littered with land-mines that are indicated by red skulls and crossbones at sparse intervals. Similarly, picturesque Mostar is still littered with both physical and historical reminders of a devastating war that only ended in 1995.
Houses are spattered with ugly bullet holes and empty, bombed out structures occasionally puncture the Balkan streets and stand among the tall, elegant minarets that quietly remind visitors of the endurance of Bosnia’s religion. The brilliant white of the famous bridge serves as a stark reminder of its new construction and, in effect, its destruction. At its foot stands part of the bomb responsible and a display of photographs, new and old, depicting both its original glory and its absence.
One of the most surprising, and poignant, things about these scars, however, is the way they mix invisibly with the overall scene. The bullet holes and bombed out buildings have so casually been subsumed into the now lively city that they are far from the first sight to be noticed.
The city today
It is perhaps a testament to the resilience of the Bosnians who live there that visitors are able to overlook the city’s scars in this way, and their friendly and hospitable nature seems an accurate reflection of their genuine interest in bringing tourism into the area.
But whilst the ancient landmark may have been rebuilt to a beautiful standard and as an accurate reflection of the old pictures, some tensions seem to be present in the region beneath the surface. The cobbled streets leading to the bridge are filled with the trappings of every tourist-touted country- sunglasses, postcards, cheap jewellery and other odds and ends- which jar uncomfortably with their ancient architecture and secluded turns. Moreover, a bar on the south side of the river is more likely to serve a Croatian beer whilst the northern bank will automatically offer a Bosnian brand. A seemingly harmless detail in England’s international climate, yet an uncomfortable echo of the city’s division during the war that was compounded by the bombing of the bridge.
The contrast of the lush, quite scenery with such obvious spoils of violence and war provides a haunting depth to its appearance, mirroring the tentative establishment of a tourist industry over the wounds of memory.
The city’s attraction remains both undimmed by its physical scars and heightened by the underlying tragedy of its history.