I have returned from a walking tour of a small city called Mostar, in Bosnia Herzegovina, and I am still processing everything I have seen. It is a city in the process of rebuilding from the war in 1995. Restored, occupied businesses and homes sit next to blackened, looming ruins. Pockmarks and blast craters still mark even some of the restored buildings. Lush trees grow out of crumbling ruins, boarded up and graffitied with warning signs to stay out. Next door are bustling cafes and groceries. Young people stroll the streets. It is a fascinating juxtaposition, and a lesson in resilience.
My host’s mother drove me from the bus station to the hostel, and along the way she pointed out landmarks and explained what happened during the war, which she lived through. When Bosnia Herzegovina declared independence from Serbia during the breakup of Yugoslavia, the Serbian army attacked the town from the surrounding hills and mountains. At first, the Muslim Bosniaks and Christian Orthodox Croats fought side-by-side against the Serbs, but soon they also turned on each other. Heavy urban fighting commenced in the streets of Mostar, and we drove along what was the front line between the two sides, a modern street called the Bulevar. At one point, all three sides were fighting each other simultaneously.
The rebuilding continues. The first major rebuilding project was the famous Mostar Bridge, which was a city landmark that spanned the river dividing the Muslim Bosniak and Christian Croat sides of town for generations. It was bombed to pieces during the fighting, and the rebuilding was a symbolic healing process for the city. They rebuilt it with help from UNESCO and used the traditional building techniques. I walked across the Mostar Bridge today along with a herd of tourists, and found myself actually getting emotional. We take so much for granted in the States, and the news of war on TV seems so far away. This has been important for me to experience.
The city itself is a mix of Croats and Bosniaks. Both are Bosnians, but Croats are Orthodox Christian, and Bosniaks are Muslim. Mostar was part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, where Christians and Muslims lived together side-by-side. It’s a European town, but not one we would normally picture. Cafes serve strong Turkish coffee (fantastic!), there are multiple mosques, minarets dot the cityscape, and calls to prayer echo out over the loudspeakers. There is even a colorful bazaar to haggle in.
Shed all your stereotypes about Muslims here – the women of Mostar walk around freely, dressed like any other European and talking on their cell phones. I did observe a few women wearing colorful head scarves, but Nina explained they choose to wear scarves as a visual show of their faith, much like many Christian Americans will wear a cross on a necklace, and Orthodox Jews will wear the skullcap.
I suppose I haven’t mentioned my health much lately. Rest assured I am holding up! The first few days I was constantly tired, but I allowed myself periods of rest, and even took a long nap yesterday afternoon. The fatigue has not been debilitating, and I hope to continue to pace myself so well. The physical aches and pains are another matter. My feet are sore, and I give myself foot massages every night. My back and shoulders are stiff, and I do stretches as much as possible to keep it from getting too bad. I will need a long massage when this trip is over!
Tomorrow I head back into Croatia. For now, I lunge back into the swirling sea of humanity that is Mostar.