Calmly winding southwards, Neretva is as mesmerizingly colorful as ever. Upon reaching Mostar, a witness to bitter conflict almost two decades past, it pushes through a narrow, both geographical and historical, not yet healed and in its senselessness difficult to grasp. Tourists come for the disaster porn, Neretva minds little.
Even today, I can vividly recall the trips to the Croatian seaside that my family used to take while we still lived in Bosnia. The year must have been 1990 or 1991, I was maybe four or five, my brother two years my junior. Sitting in the backseats of our old spacious Polonez, our feet dangling from the sticky upholstery, we devised an innocuous-looking game of endurance: the brother to hold one's breath longer in the tunnels cutting through the picturesque mountains, wins. There was no prize for winning, no reward, nor punishment for defeat, the pastime was meant to be an exercise in sheer one-uppery. Never the one to take losing lightly, my brother had a trick or two, a new rule popping up mid-game, unfailingly ready. This time, the brilliant loophole turned out to be breathing through the nose. During a particularly long stretch, while I was slowly turning a violent shade of blue, he smirked and marveled at my single minded effort to starve myself of oxygen; his curiously energetic baby blues gliding up and down my tortured face. His side-glances betrayed joy brought on by my obliviousness to his deception; even better, they conveyed a puzzling question: why does one bother with rules when there are other ways that require much less effort? Looking at Neretva winding next to our car, I remember growing suspicious, yet I tried carrying on, losing one round after another. It was somewhere right past Jablanica, a town we'd usually stop in for some lamb, a pack of cigarettes and a spectacular view of the valley, where my mind pieced it all together. By the time we reached the river bend before Mostar, I gave up. There was no sense in continuing - losing was simply not an option for the little one that day. The newly discovered experience of consciously understanding futility stayed with me for a long time. The places and emotion warped in my mind, Mostar became a symbol of failure. A failure to reconcile two sides of a game that in theory should have followed the same rules, but never quite could. As it turns out, me and my brother were not the only ones unable to play straight.
Arriving to Mostar, 23 years later, feels almost foreign these days. Much has changed. I'm neither a child, nor a Bosnian anymore; rather an all-too-typical post-war product of antagonistic identities belonging a bit here, a bit there, quite a bit nowhere. As for the city, it went through some of the worst violence Europe has witnessed since its WWII days and the scars still show. Yet, traversing the same passes and valleys, some things seem constant, unflinching. In a decidedly poignant sign of general malaise the country's in, the cars on the road are almost without an exception the same as in the pre-war nineties - old, a bit rustier now and still uniformly driven by underweight prematurely middle aged guys busying their hands with a lit-up smoke. The uphill battles they fight every day show on their faces in deeply carved furrows - and on the road as voluminous black fumes appearing with every defiant push of the gas pedal. And sure, the breathtaking mountain ranges and the river colored teal are all still present and as gorgeous as ever, echoing only with the occasional roar of a glitzy Audi or BMW of a war profiteer taking you over in the steep hills. That change, the feeling of visiting a foreign land, does not lie in the rubble of the buildings torn down with shells. Though subtle and imperceptible at first, it is more apparent upon arriving at the gates of the Old Bridge.
Following the clumsy queue of plasticky flip-flops and ergonomic sneakers treading over the bridge, one gets a gnawing feeling of a new spectacle unfolding in front of their eyes. Those oversize buses that rows of cars dutifully take over one by one while traversing the Herzegovina mountains have now parked and are unloading thousands of pilgrims on their way to or from Međugorje. The hoards of Catholic, short and contextually oblivious Slovak, Slovenian, Italian and the occasional Polish and American grannies with weapon-like elbows come for their divine fix of precisely composed and drip-dosed information about the Virgin Mary apparition; and they stop over in Mostar to satisfy a craving for some war spice in a prepackaged all-inclusive travel buffet bought on a whim.
The air is ripe with tragic irony that would eat one up if allowed to fester in the subconscious: while it was the Croats laying siege to the town during the second part of Mostar's 90's wars, and while it was the Croats who in an act of deliberate killing of shared cultural heritage between Muslims and Christians destroyed a true jewel of Islamic architecture in Europe, the Old Bridge, they now stand to profit the most from selling those same Islamic-like trinkets and postcards of a slender arch they despised so much. The souvenir shops lining both sides of the river, often owned by Bosnian Croats nowadays, sell artisanal wares inspired by Ottoman art, yet all signs of crescent moons have been carefully removed from them.
Although officially and legally barred from accepting any other currency but Bosnian Convertible Marks (KM), as a part of a silent agreement many tourist guides will have their foreign flock pay the shop owners in Croat Kunas (KN), a currency of the neighboring country that carefully nurses a vested nationalist interest in this part of Bosnia & Herzegovina even after a lost war. The Croat officials outwardly disapprove of this practice, yet their tacit support is visible everywhere, most prominently on campaign billboards of Croat political parties dotting Herzegovina. Granting a Croat passport to the Croat Bosnians has proven a fruitful policy as it kept many a nationalist Zagreb politician glued to power long after their original expiration date. The divisions are still present, still unhealed, still tragically obvious and steadfastly maintained even 19 years after the war ended.
The divisions are still present, still unhealed, still tragically obvious and steadfastly maintained even 19 years after the war ended.
And the disaster tourism hums along unhindered. The pilgrims of Međugorje, in a quest for a proper mix of divine enlightenment and wartime entertainment, never really ask to be given the real story. The version they get has been stripped of meat and attribution of blame; years of tragedy only ever hinted at and turned into an interesting factoid to hasten their steps towards a discount Turkish coffee set. Ultimately, even those that ask away dare not put a heavy shadow over their heads - they only come for a taste, not a full serving. Still, who can blame them, one is seldom prepared for horrors of armed conflict; one seldom understands without living through it.
Standing in the Museum of the Old Bridge, watching the video reel capturing its destruction about to happen on Nov 9th 1993, one is suddenly gripped by terror when the final of the 60 shells, grenades and bombs goes off with an ear piercing thunder. Its white stones dropping in a cloud of dust into the pristinely blue river underneath. There is no escaping, no reprieve. That moment, standing paralyzed in front of a flat screen showing both literally and symbolically what hatred is capable of, shakes the core of any perceptive human being. The full disaster serving neatly arranged before their eyes, the tourists briefly try to reconcile this newly discovered reality of horror in the absence of context provided by the tour guides until their faces, perhaps out of a sense of self-preservation, without exception turn rock heavy, their feet automatically steering them towards the souvenir section and a quick out, ready more than ever to "say cheese" and ultimately, grateful for that blissful ease of forgetting.
The bridge is the story of the town. Pacing its sublime arch, the realization hits one just like a gust of wind blowing though the narrow of Neretva: it once strived and temporarily succeeded at uniting the peoples and riverbanks, yet now serves as a demarcation line in a festering unease between Eastern (Muslim) and Western (ethnically cleansed Croat) Mostar. The original white stone turned rubble and buried at the bottom of the river, recovered by Hungarian military divers, was used in the construction of the new Old Bridge. Financed by, among others, Italians, Iranians, World Bank, Croats, Turks and the Dutch, it strived to make the neo-historical marvel of engineering as true to the original as possible. Yet, even though the mission of re-erecting the bridge succeeded brilliantly, the bridge itself does not fulfill its original purpose. Unity that it historically symbolized and mediated is nowhere to be found. Not in the restaurants that slavishly serve ethnically segregated cuisine. And not on the streets where one catches forced accents and tribally proper archaic words reminding one more of a grotesque comedy with a dark twist than an attempt at communication.
"The 33m tall Christian cross on the hill of Hum elicits many responses from the Muslim population, from irritation by a perceived attempt at provocation, to quipping "For Mostar, it's a big plus."
The Western part of the city bears witness to some of the most blatant examples of one-uppery between the two river banks and ethnicities. One of the two most prominent pieces of physical evidence of this city's unsuccessful dealing with its recent bloody history is the enormous Catholic church of St. Peter and Paul, erected in far greater dimensions after its destruction during the war. It sports a thin, 107m tall steeple that, in a feat of unintentional self-deprecating irony, reminds a keen observer of the many minarets surrounding it; while the 33m tall cross on the hill of Hum erected in 2000 elicits many responses from the Muslim population - from irritation by a perceived attempt at provocation, to a lighthearted quip "For Mostar, it's a big plus." The question, as a perceptive Croat reporter Marijan Oršolić puts it, remains: is this really just a monument celebrating the the 2000 years of Christianity as officially proclaimed or an in hoc signo vinces cross signifying a wartime triumph as well?
Islamic community does not fall short in this regard in any sense: oversize Islamic centers funded by Iran and Saudi Arabia are in various stages of building and planning and the way of life deceptively taught in them differs dramatically from the one traditionally led in Islamic parts of Bosnia. Moreover, that Saudi and Iranian money that reconstructed much of the torn-up country now slowly buys the lives and minds of its people as well. A substantial part of this can be attributed to the narrative of victim mentality that has taken root in the Muslims of Bosnia: we have not attacked first, we did not wish for this war, we did not fight back initially and yet, we bore the brunt of our neighbor's boots and knives, killing and chasing us out of our houses by the droves. The historical injustice perpetrated on Muslim populations of Bosnia and the lack of a meaningful catharsis, be it political, economic or emotional, pushes them ever closer to the forces that promise protection if they join up.
A substantial part of this ever increasing polarization between the two camps can be explained this way, but not all of it. The post-war economic malaise and frustration protracted by an ethnically divisive, gridlocked and dysfunctional political system installed by the Dayton Peace Agreement is here to fill out the rest of the picture as it explains why nationalism has taken root this quickly in a country that was once a supposed model of co-habitation. As Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian American writer, summed up eloquently in a beautiful essay on Bosnian education system called National Subjects:
The [Dayton Peace] agreement basically awarded big pieces of ethnically cleansed territory to its ethnical cleansers. The Serb territories were gathered under the name Republika srpska (Serb Republic), while the Croats and Bosniaks formed a loose federation. The Bosniaks, among whom the idea of common life had the strongest support, retained the control of famously multiethnic Sarajevo and found themselves the majority in the parts of their territory abandoned by Serbs and Croats.The war ended and the three sides agreed on peace simply because continuing war would have cost each of them to lose more. The Dayton Peace Accord essentially froze the situation on the ground in hope, from the West and many Bosnians, that in some future the country could be reintegrated and refugees would be able to return home. For the Serb and Croat negotiators, the hope was that the process of destroying Bosnia and Herzegovina, which started in the war, could be completed and their respective territories joined with Serbia and Croatia proper. To make things worse, the Dayton Constitution assigned sovereignty to three ‘constitutive’ nations: Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs. The political representatives of Bosnian Serbs and Croats, who had doggedly and bloodily fought against the very idea of Bosnia and Herzegovina, thus agreed to be part of the country’s government. They signed on to the Constitution, while ensuring that the state it defined had no chance of successfully functioning.
Today, Republika srpska is semi-independent and its politicians openly disdain the idea of the unified Bosnia and Herzegovina in any shape or form. Their member of the presidency has often refused to speak under the Bosnian-Herzegovinian flag or stand for the anthem. In some Croat parts in the Federation, the flag of the neighboring Republic Croatia is exclusively flown, its currency is in circulation, the schools follow its curricula, while the local politicians and institutions blatantly ignore the laws of Bosnia and Herzegovina. As for Bosniaks, they have been losing patience rapidly, which is visible in the sharp increase in exclusionist nationalist rhetoric and the concomitant Islamic passions. But even if brotherhood and unity between the three ‘constitutive’ nations were somehow to be miraculously restored, the Dayton Constitution effectively prevents the country from operating.
Many would say that the Dayton Agreement forced peace upon people in a way that speaks volumes about the single-minded American cultural and political insensitivity. The architects of the concord believed that creating a pluralist liberal democracy, in this instance a system where all ethnicities would be represented and heard in an intricate scheme of rotating presidencies and independent de-centralized parliaments, would make the people work together and heal their divisions in order to move the country forward. What's more, they believed that cooperation was not only possible but viable immediately after a bloody war fought for reasons utterly antagonistic to the principle of one state, one person, one vote. As documented by the two-decade long stalemate and state of rot of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the desire to move forward together is easily trumped by nationalistic sentiments.
To live nationalism is a specialty of Europe - to fight for its principles a craft indigenous to Balkans. And, as Oršolić adds, nationalism is a mental illness that usually spreads from one person to their closest neighbors. When nationalism as a political force, I might add, goes hand in hand with religion and slowly threads in a handful of ethnic issues, it becomes resistant to any medicine.
Moving west of the bridge and witnessing the commotion at Španski Trg, a square named after a fallen Spanish UNPROFOR soldier, one almost starts believing that the Dayton Agreement and nationalism will not last forever and some wounds will heal with time. Here, at the square that holds a regular fresh produce market located in front of the Old Mostar High School, people of all faiths and ethnicities are present and accounted for, engaged in haggling and shopping for the famed Herzegovina produce in a cacophony of sounds, colors and smells. The school, built in the Moorish Revival style by a Czech architect František Blažek during Austrian rule, now stands reconstructed in a place of a former front line of war as the only ethnically integrated high school of Mostar and one of only a few such institutions in the whole of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Along with the market, they seem to be solitary islands of peace and co-operation. Yet, almost unsurprisingly, a closer look reveals the hidden fault-lines lying underneath. Divided by a self-imposed invisible border, the Croat sellers set up their shop on one side, the Muslim ones on the other, while the students behind the windows overlooking the produce stalls are forced to use two separate entrances and, segregated in classes, taught in two completely mutually intelligible languages. Attempts at desegregation and integration of, at least, politically and ethnically unbiased science classes, have been resisted - mostly by Croats who argued that this presented a threat to their national identity. In another instance describing an insurmountable reluctance to find common life, the (at the time) Minister of Education of Central Bosnia Canton, Greta Kuna, was heard saying that "the system of Two schools under one roof is satisfactory since apples and oranges should not mix. Apples with apples and oranges with oranges."
There are times when and places where it seems all hope is not lost for Bosnia. However, looking more closely, there is very little left of it. As Hemon points out, while many people, mostly Muslims, sincerely profess their loyalty to the idea of common life, there are few others to establish the commonness with. All signs suggest that common life is possible only in exclusion, on the fringes together with the few that are willing. Unfortunately, the commonness of life seems possible exclusively within one's own ethnicity.
It's easy to forget all of this, or indeed even spot the fault lines while touring the attractions-laden historical center of the city. Yet unmistakably, both Bosnia and Mostar are left in a state of material and societal rot that is only getting worse with every passing year. Remembering the trip to the seaside and the frustration with my brother's antics, the realization of futility of continuing a game that the other side is only interested in subverting, one gradually starts to understand why Bosnia has been stuck in the same place for almost two decades. Thinking about the wasted years of the city - and, adding in the same breath, the country, is an exercise in frustration and no happy endings in sight. And yet, the people, their history and traditions, the food and the nature are all worth not packing up and leaving for greener pastures just as the many international organizations facing gridlock and wide-spread corruption have done in recent years. Bosnia for them is a shut case filled with uncomfortable truths and self-accusations that reek of failure in spite of best intentions. A wholesale refutation of the concept of international state-building; a soul-crushingly unsuccessful attempt at a post-war recovery showered in more dollars per capita than the whole of Marshall Plan - a program that somehow succeeded in erecting post-war Europe out of ashes while its much richer spiritual successor broke its teeth on an inconsequential country of 4 million.
Crossing the bridge one last time, I was witness to an age-old tradition, a performance in which young men jump from the 24 meter height of the bridge's arch into the freezing cold teal waters of Neretva. The tradition, this year in it's 477th incarnation, makes one believe that not all customs, and maybe the unity and mutual respect with them, are not forgotten and lost. And yet, there is something viscerally frightening about a man who, in order to achieve this momentary bliss, hurls himself into the abyss and hopes all goes well. Mostar, it seems, is one of those places that can only be saved by a leap of faith taken by all its inhabitants. This time, the man came out unharmed. With hope, Mostar will too.