Bosnia and Herzegovina…
This country conjures up images of war and terror, of ethnic cleansing, and of course ‘Balkanization’. I was a small child in school when the former Yugoslavia and the USSR broke apart but those images still seem relatively recent in memory!
A brief history of this country since the start of 20th century is essential to get a grasp of it’s troubled state and may be summed up as follows:
“Bosnia and Herzegovina annexed to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand assassinated in Sarajevo and World War I started because of this.
Became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes after World War I.During World War II, it became a part of Independent State of Croatia (World War II puppet state of Germany and Italy) under Nazism and Fascism.
Became part of Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia after being liberated during end of World War II under leadership of Tito.
After the collapse of communism in the early 1990s, war broke out. An extremely complex multi-ethnic scenario. Muslims and Serbs formed an alliance against Croats in Herzegovina, rival Muslim forces fought each other in north-west Bosnia, Croats and Serbs fought against Muslims in central Bosnia.
The spring of 1993 saw fierce fighting between Muslims and Croats and in November Mostar’s most famous landmark, Stari Most (Old Bridge) was destroyed by Bosnian Croat forces.
And yes, don’t forget the Srebrenica massacre (genocide) – when in July 1995, more than 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks, mainly men and boys, in and around the town of Srebrenica were massacred during the Bosnian War. According to the then Secretary-General of the United Nations, it was the worst crime on European soil since the Second World War.”
Enough of history for now!
Gaurav Dasgupta and I had reserved our accommodation in Dubrovnik (of Games of Thrones fame) at Danica’s Guesthouse – run by a sweet Croatian lady named Danica. She had suffered first-hand from the atrocities of the Croatian War for Independence but with the will of God, she has a happy family now and a lovely place overlooking the sea. (More to be covered in another blog on Dubrovnik). Because of heavy competition in Dubrovnik for day-tours to Bosnia,, Montenegro, etc. the prices become very competitive and ideally it’s better to look around for such tours operators within Dubrovnik Old City to get a good deal. Since we had already committed to a One Day Guided Tour to Mostar from Danica’s Guesthouse, we decided not to go with any other tour though it might have been a tad cheaper (not sure of the quality though but ours was quite decent and the tour guide was a really nice guy).
We started off somewhat early (around 8:15 AM) and the tour vehicle picked us from near our guesthouse. Our tour guide, who is half Croatian-half Bosnian, fled Croatia during the 1990s war and went to South Africa when he didn’t even speak English. He worked in many odd jobs including at a butchery, as a taxi driver in one of the most dangerous places to drive a taxi -Johannesburg, etc. His daughter was born there and after many years they returned back to Croatia.
We set off towards the “Neum corridor” – around 20 km stretch of Bosnian territory along the Adriatic coast. That was our first Croatia-Bosnia border crossing. We had a small coffee break in Neum and continued our journey by the coast and the views of the Croatian islands are really delightful in the horizon of the sea. Again, we passed our third border crossing of the day and reached Počitelj . We stopped for around half an hour in this beautiful medieval town situated 30km from Mostar. This stone town was built on a hill from where we can see the Neretva River flowing close by. The architecture of Počitelj is an amalgamation of the Mediterranean and Oriental styles. We climbed up the stone stairs and explored the mysterious fortress on the hill.This place has been in UNESCO’s Tentative Lists of Heritage sites : “The walled town of Počitelj evolved over the period from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Architecturally, the surviving stone-built parts of the town are a fortified complex, in which two stages of evolution may be observed: mediaeval, and Ottoman.”
As we moved further into Mostar, the hills on the side of the road reminded me of Diego Buñuel’s TV episode ” Don’t tell my mother I am in the Balkans”. He tried to portray the Balkan’s long disturbing history in that episode. Our vehicle was parked near a church when we reached Mostar and we walked towards Stari Most (Old Bridge). We had only around 3 hours for exploring this area of Mostar. First we ordered a quick lunch of Beef ćevapčići and Beef Pljeskavica served with bread, kajmak (sour cream) and kapula (onion). (ćevapčići is a “grilled dish of minced meat, a type of skinless sausage, found traditionally in the countries of southeastern Europe (the Balkans). They are considered a national dish in Bosnia and Herzegovina”. It’s something like a kebab only.Pljeskavica or Pleskavica is a Balkan dish made of various ground meats shaped into a patty”). Our restaurant has a nice view of the Old Bridge and we once could see a Mostari diver diving from the bridge. These divers generally accept around Euros 25 to jump. So I guess someone just got his or her wallet lighter! Diving is very risky from the bridge and may lead to casualties and only the most skillful divers will attempt to jump. The divers generally acclimatize their body with the low level temperature of the Neretva river by dipping themselves into the river waters before hanging around the bridge – ready to jump when tipped!
After lunch, as we pass through the narrow cobbled stone pathway flanked by stores full of souvenirs meant for the tourists, we reach the small office of the Mostari Diver’s Club at one end of the bride. Walking across the bridge is a bit slippery and good footwear is recommended but there are grooves there for support. A couple of photo ops and then we head off to Koski Mehmed Paša Mosque which was built in 1617 and it is often visited by tourists to climb up to the top of the claustrophobia-inducing narrow minaret, which offers breathtaking panoramic views of the city and the Old Bridge. We admire the bric-a-brac’s in the many stores engulfing the streets and also find that Josif Broz Tito is still a hero at least on the T Shirts. One black T Shirt reads in Bosnian: “Comrade Tito, come back to us, Muslims, Serbs, and Croats love you. You stole, and gave to us. These guys steal, and don’t give anything.”
In 1468, Mostar was conquered by the Ottomans, The stone bridge – Old Bridge (Stari Most), was erected in 1566 under the command of Suleiman the Magnificent , the then Ottoman ruler. It is one of the most important architectural gems of the Ottoman era and was designed by Mimar Hayruddin (a student and apprentice of the famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan).The Old Bridge connected both banks of the Neretva river for 427 years, until it was destroyed on 9 November 1993 by Croat forces during the Croat–Bosniak War. A reconstruction project was started by UNESCO (among others) and the rebuilt bridge was finally opened on 23 July 2004.
Turkish rock band Bulutsuzluk Özlemi’s 1996 song “Yaşamaya Mecbursun” (‘You have to live’) portrays the pain:
“Bugün duyduğun haberler
Sana utanç veriyor
Bugün din ve ırk uğruna
Mostar Köprüsü çökmüş
Neretva ne kadar üzgün
Açlık ve gözyaşı
İnsan hep umut eder
Ne olursa olsun
Today the news that you heard
Makes you feel ashamed
Murder is being committed
Today for the sake of religion and race
Mostar Bridge has been collapsed
How sad is Neretva
Tears and hunger
That the days bring
Human beings always hope
You know that
You have to stay alive
You have to stay alive)
We didn’t have much time to explore the hidden lanes in the nearby area and we crossed the Old Bridge again. I stopped in a Café for some Turkish çay (tea) while Gaurav went to check out the river bank. We wished we had more time in Mostar but it’s time to move on. There were some more pit stops to come. The tour guide wanted to buy some beers and beverages for the Border control personnel and it was a really nice gesture in the summer heat ! So we stopped and bought some beverages in a Bosnian supermarket. On the way, we found a group of stalls on the road selling fresh fruits, honey, marmalade and all those organic stuff. Time for another stop. A highlight of this trip which I liked was a visit to an Oyster and Mussel farm in the region of Ston in Dubrovnik West coast area. Since I never had fresh oysters before, I was really excited and had some of them fresh with some lemon juice squeezed on top of them. It was delicious as Anthony Bourdain would have quipped in his Food travel episodes – ” Come to Daddy !” Also, the town of Ston is well known for the long stone walls which surround the city. I later came to know that the Walls of Ston are the longest stone city walls in Europe and the second longest in the world behind that one wall in China. Unfortunately couldn’t take a good picture of it from the tour vehicle!
After a total of six Bosnia-Croatia border crossings during the day , we crossed the Franjo Tuđman Bridge (Croatian: Most dr. Franja Tuđmana . One of the largest single-pylon, cable-stayed bridges in the world) and reached Dubrovnik.
I was wondering that if I were say born in Bosnia and Herzegovina, what would my name probably be?
I guess I would have introduced myself as : “Call me Ahmetović . Arif Ahmetović!”
1. Guided Bus Tour (with max 15 persons) : 320 HRK
2. Lunch : 7.5 Euro
3. Ice Cream : 1 Euro
4. Mosque – Entrance to Minaret : 5 Euro
5. Turkish çay (Tea) : 1 Eur
6. Beverages in a Supermarket : 1 KM
7. Oysters (3 ) : 18 HRK
8. Coffee : 6 HRK
(KM : Bosnia and Herzegovina convertible mark
HRK : Hrvatska (Croatia) Kuna)