Rebuilding Peace: 48 Hours in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Rebuilding Peace: 48 Hours in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

you meander through the Bosnian countryside along the winding
road to Mostar, it’s hard to believe that just over 20 years ago
this unassumingly beautiful place was the scene of one of the most
vicious, embittered civil wars in history. On approach to the
ancient metropolis, wizened trees, half-built houses and buildings
ravaged by the scars of war flank the thoroughfare, silent
witnesses to the destruction wrought during the siege of 1993.

Rounding the bend towards the old town centre I caught my first
glimpse of the Neretva, the jade green river which splits Mostar
into east and west and divided Bosniak from Croat in the darkest
days of the city’s history. Edging our Ford Fiesta cautiously
around the narrow streets, young men in high-vis jackets
gesticulated widely on every corner, vying for our custom by
signalling towards the bright red “P” stuck to their front. Parking
is big business in Mostar.

Haggard, weather-beaten old women dotted the side of the
pavements, perching precariously on wooden stools and smoking like
chimneys. With thanks to our GPS, we arrived at our hotel at the
end of the Old Bazaar in the heart of historic Mostar early on a
Friday afternoon with the heat of the late August
sun still heavy in the air.

Ambling down the treacherously uneven cobbled streets of the
Bazaar, enchanting, nasal music emanates from one shop door to the
next, blending together to create a syncopated cacophony of mystic
eastern sound. Underfoot, the cobblestones are curiously slippery,
akin to walking on a bed of writhing eels, throwing balance into
disarray. With shop vendors energetically touting vibrant fuchsia
and rich, royal blue fabrics on either side of us, each promising a
better price than the ones before, we wound our way towards the
pièce de résistance – Stari Most.

When the bridge was commissioned in 1567, the architect was
charged under pain of death to make it the widest man made arch on
earth. Legend has it that the construction was held together with
egg protein and metal pins, and as the scaffolding was removed, the
engineer was preparing for his own funeral. But against all odds,
the bridge held and remained intact until it was blown up in

The worst atrocities of the Bosnian war took place that same
year, the year I was born. From the very first time I read about
the Bosnian conflict as a young girl, I carried with me the dream
that one day I would visit this place, steeped in chequered
history, where the residents are committed to ensuring that this
inhumanity never happens again. Crossing Stari Most for the first
time, I was arrested by the palpable tranquillity hanging in the
air, the diverse multiculturalism of the tourists and, most of all,
by the words etched into a corner stone on the bridge’s eastern
side: Don’t Forget 1993.

We ducked out of the sweltering sun into War Photo Limited, a
photography installation beside Stari Most exhibiting the work of
photojournalist Wade Goddard who documented the bloody
conflict from its inception to cessation in 1995. With the profound
sense of being in a place where humanity has temporarily failed, we
journeyed up the bumpy streets to the Koski Mehmed Mosque whose
spindle-like minaret offers a postcard perspective of Stari Most
and the old town.

Later that night, after a traditional feast of Bosnian cookies
and braised meat, we happened upon a throng of revellers outside a
pub beside our hotel. As the majority of visitors to Mostar are
day-trippers taking advantage of excursions from neighbouring
, we found ourselves English-speaking outsiders in a
melee of jolly locals, enjoying provincial Bosnian beer and singing
with gusto to the bizarre, atonal melodies played on a loop by the
five-piece brass and percussion ensemble. The atmosphere was almost
indescribable, laughter and merriment electrifying the night, the
musicians building speed, faster and faster, until the crowd were
spinning in a widening circle like Alice in Wonderland at the
Caucus Race. We clapped and danced with the Bosnians until our feet
and voices grew sore, and collapsed onto the patchwork cushions
strewn around the bar’s front door.

The next morning, we breakfasted on pancakes, sinfully salty
Bosnian bread and eggs. We watched the local divers throw
themselves from Stari Most with the poise and grace of Bolshoi
ballerinas, and tinkered with the tea sets studded with pearls and
jewels on sale in the Bazaar. The day was not so oppressively warm,
and we took advantage of the cooler conditions to drive almost two
hours to the Kravice waterfalls near the holy site of Medjugorge.
Quite firmly off the beaten tourist track, Kravice is a favourite
haunt of Bosnians who like to bring soap and wash themselves in the
murky water while their children frolic and splash in the small but
picturesque falls.

On our drive back, we passed Mostar’s international school, a
sure sign that peace reigns supreme and that a semblance of
normality has returned to this colourful outpost. We passed along a
street laced with affluence, ivory marble pillars guarding gated
stately homes and a walled compound with the flag of the European
Union flying at full mast. Juxtaposed against these grand
developments were the half-shelled buildings still lying in ruins,
products, we overheard one tour guide explain, of a corrupt
administration who siphoned restoration funds into the coiffeurs of
their own departments.

After driving through the “new” Mostar en route to Kravice, we
chose to walk the half hour trip back to the Old Town, taking the
circuitous route by what was once the Mostar Sniper Tower. It was a
deeply humbling and emotional experience to stand in the shadow of
a building that had so recently served as a platform for racial

Ambling back to our hotel, we went to take one last look at the
beloved Stari Most of my dreams. Illuminated by yellow light, with
the Koski Mehmed Mosque keeping watchful eye, bathed in its own
amber glow, I was struck by how far this bridge, this city and its
people have come in just over two decades.