Ivanka was pleasant enough. She smiled a lot and made sure to explain the aging relics of the Ottoman Empire as the van rolled northwards into Bosnia and Herzegovina. The ride was long, and I could not help as the van sat peacefully at the border crossing to think of the 600,000 Bosnians who for fear of their lives and in search of a new home had crossed in the opposite direction only 15 years before. What Ivanka did not explain were the burned out buildings which dotted the countryside, still standing as a reminder of the recent war. Our destination of Mostar derived it name from the phrase “keepers of the bridge”, referring to the Stari Most, or “old bridge”, which spans the Nerveta River in the city’s center. The bridge was built in the 16th century, and survived long enough to support Panzers during the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia – only to be destroyed in 1993 by Bosnian Croat artillery fire.
As we walked though Mostar, I felt that there was some tension which pervaded the city that was very real, yet carefully hidden. Ivanka, herself a Bonsian Croat refugee, mentioned that she would not be surprised if there was war again here in the next decade – yet walking though the city, with its touristy shops and pleasant exterior, one would never guess. Looking closer, there was something different about this city than any other I had been to: the dust on a life and death struggle between two groups of people who still live there today has barely settled. Yes, every tourist shop had copper Turkish coffee pots of all sizes as our tour guide was sure to explain, but I couldn’t help but notice that every shop also sold little trinkets – airplanes, belts, cars, jewelry – all made out of AK-47 shells. As if embracing the sad reality that war is what now makes Bosnia famous, locals who still bear the scars of bombshells and shrapnel try to sell what once made them afraid to go into the streets as knick-knacks for tourists to take home with them – the same tourists from countries whose governments did not have the courage to lift a finger as the Serbian army began to give meaning to the term ethnic-cleansing.
We crossed the Stari Most, the beautifully rebuilt replica of the bridge which now stands over the rubble of its older brother at the bottom of the Nerveta River, and came to a vantage point so that the group could take photos. Looming above the city was a ridge which served as the high ground from which the Croats bombarded the bridge and the Muslim side of town. Our Croat tour guide paused and pointed in the direction of the ridge.
“Finally…” I thought, “He is going address the sad reality of what happened here.”
I wondered how he was going to explain the shelling of the bridge, given that it was his people that were responsible for its destruction – for some reason I felt that would require a fair bit of tact.
Instead, he told a joke about the ridge and we moved on for lunch. You have to pay a little extra to get the whole story, I guess.
It’s not surprising that, especially in front of tourists, those that lived here portray a sense of optimism, and a desire to move beyond the past. People do not take vacations to be reminded that humans, from time to time, pick up arms and do their best to kill their each other. I didn’t expect to get a full history lesson on a war which only recently ended from a tour guide whose people were the aggressors, but it was chilling to hear Ivanka say, “yesterday, we were fighting in the streets…. today, we are fighting in the parliament…. tomorrow, who knows.”
As I write, the trial of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb General who was tasked with ridding his country of Muslims and became infamous for directing the Srebrenica massacre, has just gotten underway. It’s hard not to think that it’s possible to be sub-human, or something of the sort, when one watches this man chuckle and beam with pride as he watches videos of himself congratulating his men after they have just murdered thousands of men and boys for the crime of being born the wrong race.
Walking out of the city, we passed some graffiti which would have seemed normal if not for one thing: the language in which it was written. On the Bosniak side of the river, inconspicuously tucked behind a table of souvenirs, was a rock that read, “Don’t Forget” in English. Written in the language not of the locals who assuredly do not need this reminder, but of the passersby and tourists, who see the blown out buildings and after their quick tour which pretended they weren’t there wonder… “What happened here?” The grave yard at the corner of town in which nearly all the tombstones are marked with a burial date of 1995, and even less with a birthdate before 1975, stands as a reminder of what they don’t want us to forget.
My wife and I arrived back to our apartment in Dubrovnik before sundown – plenty of time to freshen up from the long day and find a nice seafood restaurant overlooking the Adriatic in time for dinner. The town which felt so foreign just a few days ago strangely felt like home after having been to Mostar. At dinner, we watched as the lights in the harbor began to come on and fisherman tied down their boats for the night. I thought of the bullet holes, AK-47 shells, and cemetery of teenagers, but quickly found my mind wondering to wineries and the beaches on Korcula Island, tomorrow’s destination. One cannot dwell on such horrors when they are on vacation.