Bosnia | A History Lesson

On my third day in Mostar I decided to head out on a paid tour with Adi, the owner of the hostel I was staying in – it was another recommendation of the Kiwis from Zadar.*

*Kiwis from Zadar would make an excellent album title

I don’t normally do guided tours – not because I’m a cultural lout, you understand, but because I’m on a budget, and a lot of the ‘excursions’ that hostels offer are wildly overpriced. You can often do a lot of them yourself for free, if you’re willing to figure out a couple of details yourself. That said, I knew nothing about Bosnia whatsoever, and a day with a local guide sounded pretty enticing.

A small group of backpackers joined the tour, which cost 40 euros. We clambered into a stuffy minivan, and over the course of the day we were to have five or six stops. Our first was in the Catholic area of Mostar, west of the river. Here, Adi stopped by a large shell of a building, and we got out to walk around the perimeter. Now: a quick lesson on the Bosnian war, which Adi gave us at length as we stood in silent awe and attention. Apologies if you already know all of this – but I certainly didn’t.

Also, I must stress that this was the history I was told by Adi, and so there’s likely a large element of bias, and I’m sure there are aspects he over-simplified or failed to mention. But here’s what I learned.

The Bosnian War

After the First World War, Yugoslavia was founded as a federation. Six republics made it up: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. It was ruled in the middle of the twentieth century by one Josip Broz Tito, who Adi described as ‘the most brilliant mind in history’. He ruled the country with flair, building Yugoslavia into a worldwide power to be reckoned with, duping the Americans into funding the country by promising them assistance in the Space Race without the means to do so.

Tito died in 1980 and left no successor, and for over a decade, there was nobody either willing enough or capable enough to take his place. In 1991, Slovenia left Yugoslavia, and the nation began to fraction. In 1992, Serbia, as the wealthiest part of the union, sought to overpower Bosnia and Croatia, and war broke out.

Initially, Croatia fought alongside Bosnia in repelling Serbia. However, this alliance didn’t last long, as an agreement was reached between Croatia and Serbia to divide Bosnia and Herzegovina between them. Croatian troops were placed on the hills around Mostar, and the president of Croatia at the time wanted to establish a Catholic nation. He gave the people of Mostar a choice: come and live in the west side of the city and convert to Catholicism, or stay in the east side. Many Muslim families and also some Catholic families chose to stay in the east, where they’d lived their lives and made their homes.

Once this ultimatum expired, artillery began to fire on the east side of Mostar – over 2000 grenades a day at its peak, according to Adi. I couldn’t comprehend how anything was left standing at all under such a huge bombardment. Thousands of people were killed and many homes and buildings were flattened, and every bridge out of the east was destroyed, trapping the people who lived there.

The local people, including Adi’s father, formed into military groups, and went on raids across the river to seize weapons so they could fight back. Adi’s father, Adi told me very proudly, went on four such raids in the space of one month, and lost three best friends in this period. Meanwhile, Adi and his mother had managed to get out of the city to safety, and they didn’t hear from Adi’s father for several years.

A peace agreement was reached in 1994, and the city began to rebuild.

Again – if any of that is incorrect or biased, it’s just what I was told so don’t hate me please.

Okay, back to the tour. Adi told us that the building we were standing in front of – peppered with bullet holes, bombed to a skeleton – was the spot from where snipers fired down into the east side of Mostar. He pointed out to us that on the west side of the city, there were very few bullet holes – suggesting that the fighting and devastation had focused on the east. I did see bullet holes on both sides, to be honest, but Adi didn’t acknowledge them. You could tell he was very passionate.

Our next stop on the tour was a huge bunker, half an hour’s drive out of the city, in the rocky, arid hillside. This bunker, Adi told us, was one of several that Tito had built with the money the Americans had been tricked into sending Bosnia. The bunkers had been used to produce munitions and warplanes. It was a sight to behold – a vast gaping black hole hidden in the hillside, large enough to pass a plane through, so deep that no light could penetrate beyond fifty metres. We walked through the entirety of it, and it felt like disappearing down the track left by some leviathan worm. After four hundred metres the tunnel curves around to emerge at another point in the mountain. Adi told us that he and his friends used to play paintball in the many little escape tunnels within the vast, gloomy bunker as a kid.

Adi told us that this would be the last part of dark history on the tour – which was a relief for the group, as his detailed and incredibly graphic stories had turned us all green.

The next stop was a little town called Blagaj; there’s a huge cave system there from which flows a crisp, clear river. The water is safe to drink, according to Adi, and if you drink it you’re granted a wish (not a selfish wish, like wishing for fame and fortune, Adi warned us). Along with the English guy, Jack, I filled my water bottle with lovely magic water.

We then visited an old Dervish house. I don’t really understand what a Dervish is, despite Adi’s explanation. Religious people have lived there for hundreds of years, and two notable inhabitants are interned there. Jack and I had to don floor-length skirts to hide our legs in order to enter, and we slowly explored the creaking old building, in several rooms of which we found people chanting and praying with their eyes closed. I didn’t want to get too close (or film them like some other knob end tourists were doing), so satisfied myself with standing outside the door and listening to the hypnotising sounds of their prayers.

Next we drove to a crumbling old fort town, Pocitelj. It was built by the Ottoman Empire, and today is the home to a mere 17 people. A few years ago they had their first birth in decades, and there was a huge celebration. The inhabitants seem to be mostly little old ladies, and they sold me a plastic bottle of frozen pomegranate juice while I hiked up to the top of the ravaged tower in the 40C heat. The ancient tower had taken a battering over the centuries, and it’d definitely be off limits to the public were it located in the UK. Come to think of it, so would many things we saw and did in Mostar. The Balkans just give less of a shit about that sort of thing.

Our final stop was a waterfall and lagoon, around which a few bars had been built. Adi went to sit with a few of his friends – other hostel owners, they all run variations of the same tour – while the rest of us went for a swim. The water was crisp and refreshing, and I swam several times back and forth across the lagoon. I’ve always had quite a powerful phobia of water; any water that I can’t touch the bottom of puts me straight into panic mode. However, over the three months of this trip I’ve been pushing myself on every beach/lake/river swim to spend a little longer out of my depth, even if it’s only a few inches. I’ve gradually got used to it, and I’ve been proud to notice the fear subsiding. The lagoon was deep – but I didn’t know how deep. There was a thirty metre span in the middle where the ground dropped away, turning from sandy yellow to deep green, and for all I knew it could have been five, ten metres down there. However, I managed to cross it back and forth several times without panicking, and even spent time treading water in the centre. It might sound like a small thing, but I was really, really proud of myself.

We got back exhausted in the evening, and with a few hostel people I went for dinner near the Mostar Bridge. We ate a dish called ‘dolma’ – flavoursome, tender mince wrapped in some kind of dark green leaf (I really ought to pay more attention).

The next day (40C again, fucking insane) was spent melting quietly in the hostel courtyard with Jack, awaiting the train we would take together to Sarajevo. I’d not intended on going there at all – goodbye, Dubrovnic – but I’d seen enough of Bosnia to feel fascinated and hungry for more.

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