“I left the army because I wanted to protect, not attack.” Native Bosnian and ex-soldier Josip* explained while showing us around the Glass Bank, one of the buildings in Mostar that was destroyed during the Bosnian War, the conflict that raged between 1992 and 1995, killing hundreds of thousands and displacing millions. It was the first case of genocide to occur in Europe since the Second World War.
What happened just over 20 years ago has left permanent scars on modern-day Bosnia, and on the lives of its people. As a major hub in Bosnia and Hercegovina, Mostar was one of the most heavily bombed of all Bosnian cities during the war. As a result, it lost many of its important buildings and structures, including a once-iconic emblem of the city, the Old Bridge.
Today many bullet-marked buildings still stand along the wide Bulevar, the central artery of Mostar city. This boulevard was where the front line of the war stood and also where the biggest destruction of the city occurred. To get a glimpse of the devastating urban scars left behind by the war, we wandered into an abandoned building along Bulevar area and found Josip.
Surviving the war
With a bottle of beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, Josip — lean, ragged, and barely in his forties — showed us the scars that the war left on his body: a big patch of bullet wound on his left arm, a long trail of stitches that ran from his chest to abdomen, and another on his right thigh.
“My family all died in the war,” he said. “I am from Sarajevo but I cannot return because everything there reminds me of the war.”
Josip now lives as a squatter in the Glass Bank. Having defected from the army almost 20 years ago, he doesn’t receive any financial aid from the government, and he doesn’t have any family around to assist him. He depends on money from curious tourists.
Religion in Bosnia
Religion is an important part of the lives of many Bosnians, despite the fact that religious intolerance fuelled much of the Bosnian War. When my husband and I met Josip, he asked us what our religion was, and he was surprised to hear that neither my husband nor I had one. “It’s important to have faith in a higher being — be it in God, Allah, or Buddha,” he said. “Otherwise, what’s the meaning of life?”
Josip is a Catholic, and still goes to church every Sunday. I was surprised to hear that, despite all that he had gone through, he had not lost his faith.
Since the Bosnian War, the country has fostered an increasing religious tolerance. Restored mosques, churches and synagogues can now be seen standing side by side in Mostar.
Vivacity regained in old town Mostar
Mostar’s Old Town has undergone a facelift, with many reconstructed buildings and newly tiled public, outdoor walkways. In the cobblestoned Ottoman quarters, regal mosques, churches and tourist cafes line the alleys.
But Stari Most — the Old Bridge — continues to be the star of the show. The 400-year-old, Turkish-style stone bridge was a symbol of the Muslim society here, sporting an elegant, single-pointed arch and a marker on the spot where East meets West. During the war, the pummelled bridge collapsed into the river after being bombarded by Croat paramilitary artillery shells from above.
Today, the bridge has been restored it to its full glory, and stands high and mighty over the green waters of the Neretva River. Even the age-old bridge-diving tradition continues today, as local divers collect money from tourists before plunging 21m into the icy water.
Reminders of the Past
As we walked through Mostar’s Old Town, we found ourselves in a small cemetery congested with more than a hundred white-marble tombstones, almost all of them marked with a date between 1993 and 1995 — the height the Bosnian War.
This was a park before 1993. When the war started, snipers were a constant concern. They would shoot at anyone they saw walking down the street. Mostar's cemeteries were too exposed, but this tree-filled park was relatively safe from snipers. People secretly buried their loved ones here, under cover of darkness.
Josip is just one of the many people who have been scarred for life by the destructive war. For him and many others, the pain of the conflict will take generations to heal — but the hard work of recovery is well underway.
*Name has been changed.
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