The Heart of What was Broken: Mostar and Sarajevo

We left Dubrovnik early in the morning and our bus wound through several border posts and many changes of scenery before we were definitely in Bosnia and Herzegovina (hereafter referred to as BiH).  Endless tangerine farms and fisheries in the river whizzed past the window, giving on to vineyards and long stretches of vegetable farms.  Before long, we arrived in Mostar’s bus station and backtracked to the Old Town to find our hostel.  After a short rest, the charming town center called us back like a magnet.  Of course, the main feature is the gorgeous Ottoman bridge, typically called Stari Most, which means “old bridge.”  As you have probably deduced, Mostar is named for the “most,” the bridge.  It’s THAT important.
**Warning: There’s an obscene number of Stari Most photos, because I am obsessed.

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Our first afternoon and evening, we spent thoroughly exploring each corner of the pocket-sized Old Town.  Clambering down to the banks of the river to admire that angle of the bridge and to observe the fishermen.  Slipping and sliding on the slippery cobblestones to visit all the stalls of the bazaar.  We were a little…appalled to spot Nazi memorabilia among the second hand items on offer.  Considering the bloodbath they started here in the second world war, it is sort of interesting that they keep that stuff around.  Digging into the cheap and tasty local cuisine for dinner and taking a last wander through the twinkling streets of the bazaar by night, we finally wore ourselves out and turned in for an early night.

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The next morning, Sangbyeong woke me up at 7am so that we could go snap pictures of the empty bazaar.  In the chill morning air, we didn’t see any other people for thirty minutes, and we also stood in front of a map showing the breakdown of the former Yugoslavia and all the tragedy and conflict that ensued while I gave him the rundown of the history, as I remember it.  It struck me that this was history that I actually remember happening.  At first, the people of Mostar banded together, as they have for centuries, to repel the Yugoslav forces.  However, when the enemy pulled back and a power vacuum created a Machiavellian scenario…centuries of neighborliness were forgotten and the citizens of the town turned on each other.

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Later in the afternoon, we explored the regular city streets outside of the refurbished center.  And the war is still right on the surface.  Bullet holes, bomb craters, and staggering numbers of graves ALL marked with 1992.  The Old Bridge was destroyed in the same conflict in 1993, symbolically and psychologically dividing the town in two forever.  The bridge was repaired quickly.  As it turns out, the two sides of the river…the Croats and the Bosniaks STILL do not interact much, if at all.  It was a beartbreaking history lesson to stroll the streets.

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Let there be no doubt…Mostar is jaw-unhingingly gorgeous, with hospitable folks and fabulous food (and coffee!)…but it still left my heart heavy.  For what was lost, and for what they still have not been able to put together again.  With that feeling weighing on us, we boarded the predawn train to the capitol city.  I had heard rumors that this is one of the most beautiful train routes in Europe, so we made sure to stay awake and pay attention.  They were right, and it was a balm for our aching souls.  A temporary one.

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A short phone call to our guesthouse host, and Dzemal came to pick us up from the train station.  We careened through the still-morning streets of Sarajevo with him pointing out sights and talking a mile a minute.  At the house, we were ushered into a large double in their second floor, where we had a kitchenette, as well.  Dzemal and his mother practically poured coffee and tea down our throats and shared their mandarins and hospitality with us.  Such genuine warmth and a willingness to invite us not just into their house, but into their family history and experience.  As a bonus, they live less than a five minute walk from the main square that is the pumping heart of Sarajevo’s Ottoman Old Town.  And a five minute hike through a graveyard for heroes of the Siege to a gorgeous lookout point for sunsets and city views.

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Walking back down from the lookout through the forest of delicate minarets from the mosques and steeples from the churches, listening to the church bells and calls to prayer taking turns calling to the faithful, we made our way to the newer parts of the city.  Here, you see exactly where the Ottomans started to lose ground to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  The curves and woodwork of the Ottoman style suddenly give way to the straight lines and stonework embellishments of a different side of Europe.  We explored through the city streets first, sitting to rest in a little park.  What was the sound of faint bells we heard?  Oh…just the prayer wheels with the names of children killed in the Siege.  With their year of birth and death, just to make sure that you understand the enormity of what happened here.  As we walked back along the river, we passed the Academy of Arts and several bustling university buildings…but we also passed Latin Bridge, where Archduke Franz Ferdinand and wife were assassinated, kicking off World War I.  Sarajevo just can’t seem to catch a break.

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Just past Latin Bridge is the brightly striped former City Hall, whose meticulous restoration is a symbol of the city’s efforts to put itself back together again.  It is still not ready to open to the public yet.  From there we tucked back into the Old Town for tea and contemplation.  As if to reiterate the warm welcome, a spectacular sunset shone out over the city.  That night, we indulged in the local salsa scene…and found HUGE kebabs!  The next day, we took to the back roads to discover the secrets of the city…

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And we went to the history museum.  First, there was the WWI room…harsh, but not unexpected.  And then there was the Siege room.  About which I may never be able to talk about without tears.  Blood spattered paintings by murdered elementary students when their classroom was shelled…graphic photos of pieces of people, and people with pieces missing…citizens running across intersections and praying the snipers would miss…posters from their play performances that they put on anyways…and the pictures of the monsters who orchestrated this.  It was a lot to try to process.

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As we walked back through the streets in the evening, it made sense why residents wait exactly for the signal to give an “all clear”…I wondered about the lives that those shell craters took…who those bullet holes in the walls were aimed at.  And why.  We had a lot of time to think about it the next day…because it snowed!  The city was so beautiful in the snow, the layer of white slowly building up on all the roofs and streets.  Almost like it was whole.

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We left in the snow the next morning…first passing through the snowier mountains before descending into the still green plains.  And into Serbia…whom I will have to try not to be angry at after being here.

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