Sunday, June 15, 2014

Mostar, Bosnia

The small city of Mostar has been a tourist destination since the 19th Century, drawing visitors from  around the globe to revel at the 16th Century architecture and Ottoman charm of the city built alongside the banks of the Emerald green Neretva River. But in recent years, visitors who leave Mostar's romantic Old Town encounter the visible scars of a devastating war.

While I was a four year old playing Evil Knievel on my bicycle (some things never change), the most fortunate children of Mostar had escaped to refugee camps. Those left behind, saw their streets turned into battlegrounds, and bore witness to, or themselves perished in, the mass executions, ethnic cleansing, and systematic rape that plagued the historic city during the  Bosnian war. Much of Mostar was reduced to rubble during the nine-month siege that began in April 1992, including the famous Stari Most bridge commissioned by Suleman the Magnificent in 1557.  

Today, while the Old Town has been restored and a vibrant modern strip houses street caf├ęs, boutiques and restaurants, much of the city continues to lay fallow under the posted signs "Beware of ruin." Some apartment building and shops plastered over the bullet holes and replaced the stones damaged by mortar attacks, while others chose to keep portions of the war's destruction visible, reminding those within of all the building and it's inhabitants have endured. Many homes are still abandoned--perhaps their owners fled, were expelled, or fill one of the hundreds of gravestones marked "1993." The siege was so intense at its height that all of the parks within the city were converted into cemeteries to enable quick burial amidst the flying gunfire. 

Graffiti throughout Mostar reads "remember '93," with other messages displaying the persistent ethnopolitical complexity in Bosnia. Graffiti touting one ethnocentric political party's slogan are crossed out and replaced by another  party's message.

In college, I studied the Yugoslav Wars, but as is always the case with visiting war-torn regions, written histories do little to convey the depth of human suffering. Walking the streets of the city and seeing the destruction firsthand, I wept for those who lost their lives and those who survived, having witnessed the numerous acts later deemed "crimes against humanity."  

It's hard to imagine what it means to have nothing left, to have one's whole livelihood robbed by war or ethnocide, but seeing a decimated community attempt to rebuild serves both as a testament to the utter devastation of war and the indomitable spirits of its survivors.