What was in the cards of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s future, we wanted to know. “I have no hope,” our tour guide sighed with remorse. The war still sat deep in the bones of the country’s residents. It is a topic that should be touched with sensitivity but our guide didn’t hold back. He spilled it all out. How he went to live with his grandparents for a while. How the war broke out and his 5-year-old self couldn’t get back. The fear. The Alienation. The return.
The Fall of Yugoslavia
From Mostar’s eastern, Muslim side, only 95% of its original buildings were left standing after the gun fire and bombing seized. The Christian side was mostly spared. Nowadays, the country has a staggering 55% rate of unemployment. Its residents are disillusioned. The government and its three presidents are corrupt. Where is Titu? He was the former leader, often labeled dictator. “He was a leader. People loved him,” our guide says.
He isn’t much younger than me but even so the memory and longing for times gone by is still there. Times when five countries were one. When Yugoslavia was seen as a glorious land. Where people had guaranteed houses, unemployment were kept as low as possible and the leader took care of his people. That is the sentiment we heard during our tour across the region.
No Sugar Coating
It was hard listening to his blunt and raw tales. Of how the war broke out over night because of grapples over the size of land. Of how former neighbours had become enemies. One with a strong army, another supported by other European countries and one, Bosnia, creating makeshift weapons out of the little they had.
“Lonely Planet and all the guide books have it wrong. The river does not divide the city.” Our guide draws an imaginary line between the bold orange school, which is the only one where both students from east and west learn side by side, to the formerly highest building in town, now a skeleton covered in tags and graffiti.
Scars Are not Covered
The divide is visible if you know what to look for. The big street that stretches like a scar throughout. The houses peppered with bullet holes. 1981 or Red Army sprayed on every second house in red and black. A constant reminder of what has happened not that long ago. How could this still happen after all the Wars we had been through? Will we never learn?
“It was the second biggest genocide since World War II.” I felt bad not knowing that it happened. Had I not learned about it in school? Was I too busy learning facts and quickly dropping them after each test? I couldn’t remember. But I should have. More people should. In July 1990 the Srebrenica massacre happened. It ended in a staggering number of 8,373 murdered Muslims. The war was political on the surface, but religious in its core.
Underneath the Beauty
As we drove through the winding streets of the beautiful lands, I suddenly felt very cold. The sun shone glaringly. The lush green trees swayed sadly. The river almost seemed too quiet. Soon enough we reentered the city, now up on a mountain slope, overlooking all of Mostar.
I had only known the Bosnian city from the grand photos. An Old Bridge reigning over a small river. Antique buildings all around. Minaretts rising high in the distance. It looked so pretty. That is why I came. But Bosnia and Herzegovina’s beauty is not only what will remain with me. The impact runs so much deeper.
Where Is the Hope?
Where once the words “Titu, we love you” graced the slopes of the mountain top above in bright white stones, the leader’s name has been erased. Now it only says “B&H, we love you.” From what I heard during my tour, I am not so sure people feel this too much. Many of the war’s refugees choose to stay away.
Former buildings that have been returned to their original owner thanks to Annex 7, are left in shambles. Only occasionally you can see new flats built into dilapidated ruins. If they will stand the test of time? Surely not. They look like they could break any minute. It’s like the fear of falling is so ingrained, it’s just accepted. But there is still hope. Mostar is beautiful and deserves a chance as does Bosnia and Herzegovina. Let’s all give it a big hug.