Article published October 2021 and updated May 2023.
Mostar is the home of my family. It’s the home of my ancestors. It’s where my origins are.
And yet I am thankful that I was born in Germany because only 2 years later war would strike the country, changing the lives of the people there forever.
I was too little to understand what was going on. Probably my biggest luck. This way, I was able to enjoy the privilege of a carefree childhood, unlike other family members who were confronted with the turbulent events almost daily. Not knowing their fate or the fate of relatives living across the country.
After the war ended, I visited Bosnia and Herzegovina for the first time in my life. I was five or six years old. My parents continued to keep up the appearance. Because even at that age I was not aware of the terrible things that happened in this country.
I don’t remember much of this first visit. We would stay with my grandmother and aunt who were farmers in a small mountain village. I remember playing with the kittens and hearing the sound of chickens walking around the farm.
Almost every summer we would spend our holidays in this place. I still have good memories about these days. Rarely would we drive down to the city of Mostar. We had no home there. Sometimes we would visit aunts and uncles in the city. I have never seen the center or much of the city of Mostar until young adulthood.
The first time I remember visiting the infamous bridge was when I spent a month with my father in Mostar. I was 23 years old. When we approached the old town, I was surprised to find such a lovely and quite touristic place. Completely different from what I experienced in other, more rural regions. I guess this part of the city is better presented than the rest as it is the main tourist attraction.
Setting foot on the bridge, my father would warn me to behave inconspicuously and to stay quiet when crossing to the other side, the muslimanska strana. I respected that advice and felt a little sad. As long as I remember I was warned and told how gruesome the people from the other side can be. When I learned that my father would also walk over the bridge for the first time after the reunification, I was speechless.
Today, tourists from all over the world cross the bridge back and forth, while most people of Mostar still remain reserved and keep to their own sides.
The older I grew, the more interested I became in the history and culture of my native home. I would try to read and learn everything I could find. On the contrary, speaking with members of my family would prove to be much more difficult. It is true that most natives don’t want to talk about the past. They are traumatized and still don’t trust their neighbors. This is also reflected in the local policy and infrastructure. 25 years later the city of Mostar remains a divided city.
I wrote this article to walk you through the town of Mostar and share my knowledge and thoughts with you. As someone who never really lived in this town, just visited from time to time, I only have a limited view. My generation and younger people try to find a way of reconciliation while most older people are not interested in it. They cannot be blamed, especially those that lost close people due to the war.
Despite being raised in a liberal way, even my own family would not approve of dating a member from the other side. Nationalism is what sparked the war and nationalism is what continues it. Not violently anymore but in the way people from opposing ethnic groups still approach each other. With hostility, mistrust and blame.
We can just hope that over time this country can be one again. And there are good examples that this way is already paved.
This year marked a quarter of a century that Bosnia and Herzegovina achieved peace after a five year long battle. After the fall of the Yugoslav state with Slovenia and Croatia demanding independence, it was only a matter of time until Bosnia and Herzegovina would follow. But unlike the first two countries, BiH was not as homogeneous. There are three ethnic groups: Serbs, Croats and Muslim Bosniaks, who are spread across the country. At that time, more or less in peace. The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia established by the founding father Ivan Broz Tito in 1945, after the liberation from the Nazis, would not let nationalistic ideals get in the way of socialistic ones.
After his death in 1980, long suppressed nationalism spewed up and the brother states expressed their wishes to disconnect themselves from the Yugoslav body.
That was a thorn in Serbia’s side. Being the leading state in the former Yugoslav republic, they could not stand to lose power and started to claim territory from the Croatian and Bosnian neighbors where Serbians were in the majority. From this moment on, things took a bad turn. The Non-Serb people of BiH would form a resistance. Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims were united in their efforts to keep their country a multi-ethnic state. The way it always has been.
In the beginning it was a fight against the threatening invasion of the Serbian military who seized Sarajevo, cutting off the city from all resources (1992). The biggest nightmare should follow: the Srebrenica genocide (1995) where more than 8000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were executed and buried in mass graves, despite the UN declaring Srebrenica, which was occupied by Bosnian Serb forces, a safe area. Women and girls were raped. Many were tortured, starved, humiliated and traumatized for life. Mass graves are being uncovered until the present day, allowing the victims a proper burial.
Somewhere along the conflict, the war got a new face and suddenly Croats and Muslims turned against each other. Croats were no longer focused on the Serbian invasion. Paradoxically, they now teamed up with the Serbs to fight against the Muslim military forces. Religious nationalism took the reins.
As the Muslims were the minority, they were over-powered. Nevertheless, genocides and other atrocities were committed on all sides.
Mostar played a crucial role in this war. The city inhabited almost as many Muslims as Croats. This time the Serbs were in the minority. The geographical line between the first two groups was clearly defined. It was solely based on majorities. The majority of Croats would live on the West banks of the Neretva river while the majority of Muslims on the eastern banks. For those who suddenly found each other on the wrong side, life became unbearable. They were either forced to leave or terrorized so they had no choice than to leave.
Due to Croatian military forces supporting their brothers and sisters in Mostar, the number of deaths and destroyed buildings was higher on the Muslim side. Especially religious symbols like churches and mosques were attacked. The iconic Mostar bridge was the last one to stand but not for long. With its destruction all ties between both sides vanished.
The divided city
30 years after the war Bosnia and Herzegovina remains a divided state which is in the hands of three nationalist parties that keep tensions rising.
Under the Dayton peace agreement Bosnia and Herzegovina was divided into two enclaves: the Serbian Republika Srpska and the Croat and Bosniak Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. All members share their power in a collective yet rotating presidency which has a four year term. While all three presidents represent the head of state, they vote twice every eight months a chairperson.
Instead of joining forces and working towards real democracy, political leaders keep following separate interest. For years, long-term Bosnian Serb politician Milorad Dodik pushes his initiative to disintegrate the Bosnian Serbian entity and unite with the country of Serbia.
A vote conducted in 2021 by the Serb´s region´s parliament demanded to secede from Bosnia´s armed forces, judiciary and tax system. It was not approved by the region´s upper house, however that doesn´t stop Dodik from challenging the Dayton agreement. His presidency was transferred to another member of the same party in October 2022 who became the new representative of the Republic Srpska.
The general elections from 2022 were marked by some unpleasant incidents. The new Croat representative belongs to a civic movement which wants to reduce ethnic divisions in politics. He was not well received by many Croats who blame the electoral system which grants Croat and Bosniak the option to vote for either the Bosniak or Croat representative.
Further, allegations of fraud have arisen within the candidature for the new Bosnian Serb leader. After it was proclaimed that the new president will be one of Dodik´s allies, the contender from the opposite party has accused her opponent of intimidating voters and infiltrating poll workers to manipulate the ballots. As a result the ballots were ordered to be recounted, however there is no outcome yet.
Ethnicity keeps deciding about people´s lives. Minority groups like the Jewish and Roma community in Bosnia are not even represented in the exclusive tripartite parliament. Depending in which part of the country you live, you can only run for president of the respective ethnicity and those who refuse to define themselves through ethnicity cannot run at all. Even landing a position in a state-owned institution or company is most likely determined by one´s ethnicity.
Speaking of Mostar, the city is ruled by the Croat and Bosniak Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and almost equally inhabited by Bosniaks and Croats. Yet it holds the title of the most divided city in the country. The division doesn´t stop at the Neretva banks but continues in people’s minds. Mostly in the minds of the older generations. The newer generations are the future of the country. They experienced the war as children or teenagers or were born after.
The face of the city has changed. It becomes more and more common and accepted to have friends from different ethnic groups.
Tolerance has outpaced nationalism. Nevertheless it is still a long way to improve the overall situation.
The fate of BiH is in the hands of the people.
Unfortunately, the majority of people left the country amidst the war or in the years after. As a consequence, a lot of culture and identity is lost.
If I take myself as an example, someone who only visited her native home during summer holidays, I can truly say that I am torn between the external culture I grew up in and the one my parents kept up with at home. Raised in a Bosnian-Croat household I learned the language, celebrated the traditions and was part of a diaspora community. However, I was limited. Similar to how students in BiH get a selected education depending on their ethnicity, the same was true for me. I was well versed in the Croat customs, traditions, music, history and religion. In the end I knew more about Croatia than about BiH.
I hold a Croatian passport and even referred to myself as Croat. Questions about where I am from, I would answer with Herzegovina or Herceg Bosna, changing the order of the two regions in the country’s name. I would put Croat first. Despite living in the diaspora I experienced the same upbringing as my Croat peers who never left the country.
This demonstrates that people outside BiH, mainly the older generations, have not reconciled either. They followed the conflicts through their relatives or the news positioning themselves on the same side as people from their ethnic group.
The older I grew and the more I learned about my origins, I adopted a new attitude. When people ask me today where I am from, I would not refer to any specific ethnicity and say I am from Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
When they ask me about the war, I would share my knowledge unbiased and always put tolerance first.
You cannot describe Mostar without mentioning the old bridge. The name “Mostar” combines the native translation of two words. Most meaning bridge and Stari meaning old. The true meaning of Mostar however is “bridge keeper”.
Strictly speaking “bridge keepers” who are represented by the two towers on either side of the bridge.
Dating back to the 16th century when Mostar belonged to the Ottoman empire, the bridge became a symbol of the multi-cultural heritage of the city. Throughout history different cultures, religions and political systems left their traces, resulting in a truly diverse yet open-minded and peaceful community of people.
When locals talk about the past, they would say that it was a peaceful co-existence. Members of opposing religious groups would respect each other and were respected in return. Under the Yugoslav influence religion was replaced with practicality and uniformity. Like in any other communist state during that time, Yugoslavia was thriving. At least in the eyes of the world. Mismanagement, inflation, shortage of consumer goods and the oppression of the individual character were issues that were kept away from public eyes.
Despite, the Yugoslav people would say that life during Communism was not as bad as in other Communist brother states. That was mostly thanks to their charismatic leader Tito who understood how to win the people over.
After his death a feeling of distress and a loss of direction broke out among the people. The man who kept so many cultures together was gone and caused disruption in the political field which ultimately led to a war.
The bridge as a symbol of unity and tolerance began to deteriorate. In fact, all other bridges in the city were destroyed by bombs, with only Stari Most remaining. It would not last long, however, before this bridge was destroyed as well. When the ancient stones were blasted by Bosnian Croat forces in 1993 and the bridge crumbled into the Neretva, all hope was shattered.
If Stari Most could not withstand the war, the city was ultimately lost. This should prove true for 2 more years. Redemption came in 1995 with the signing of the Dayton peace agreement. Reconstruction began. It took 3 years to rebuild the bridge to its original state as far as possible. In fact, it is an exact replica. Even the same type of rock and technologies were used in the same way as 400 years ago.
The bridge was inaugurated in 2004. The tradition of the bridge jumpers, however, dates back to the time it was built. Today, it is not only a tourist attraction but also an international annual sports event.
The bridge has been and continues to be a magnet for travelers. Crossing from one side to the other feels like jumping between two worlds. This is often described as the Occident meeting the Orient.
The other side
The main boulevard, Bulevar Narodne Revolucije, marked the dividing line between Bosnian and Croatian communities. It was the front line of the war. One of the most dangerous zones for civilians. The sniper tower was never fixed up and acts as a constant reminder of the war. Not to mention all the other burned out and abandoned buildings in the center.
When locals talk about the other side they mean the side of the river banks opposite theirs. It is not just a geographical location but furthermore a cultural, religious and societal one.
They even speak two different languages which are used to teach in two different schools, kindergartens and universities. They have their own textbooks favoring their own history and culture, painting the course of events what suits them better and makes them appear the victim. Even the playgrounds are divided. The Old Gymnasium, Stara Gimnazija, is the only school in Mostar that unites Croat and Bosnian students under one roof. However, that does not mean that they are taught together. All subjects with the exception of a few are separated according to ethnicity. This segregation is more a result of politicians than the students who would mingle during recess.
Actually, there are two systems for nearly every aspect of life. Depending on which side you live, you will be assigned to different electricity, utility, postal, phone and citizen services. You can imagine how much it costs the city each year to maintain the necessities of a divided city. And that is what Mostar still is.
Reconciliation is a very slow progress which is even more slowed down by the rivalry between the political leaders who fail to collaborate delaying the handling of critical issues like resolving a conflict around a landfill.
In 2019 residents blocked the access to Mostar´s landfill to protest against the uncontrolled disposal of hazardous waste. Despite not meeting environmental regulations the landfill continues to operate.
In 2020, municipal elections were held for the first time in 12 years to vote for city council. This was decided by the European Court of Human Rights, ECHR, after a complaint was filed by a resident.
In 2022 the newly formed city council has started to work on a resolution around the landfill. Hopefully this will break the political paralysis and lead to some change, especially addressing environmental protection and safety.
However a real political shift could not be achieved. It´s still the same two parties which were always in charge: the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, and the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action, SDA.
Corruption and high unemployment especially among younger citizens has led to hundreds of thousands to leave the country. Combined with the mass relocation during the war, the current population has been narrowed down to 100.000.
It is a small number in relation to the size of the land.
The old town
Stari Grad is owned by the Bosniak side and offers the biggest contrast to West Mostar. The bazaar, the narrow streets, the architecture of the buildings, the mosques. Coming from the West side a new world opens up. You could say a fairy tale world from 1001 nights. Lamps with colorful mosaics, ancient coffee sets, vibrant silk scarfs, handmade goods. The souvenir stalls are a real charm.
Traditional eateries and cafes invite to sit down and soak up more of the magical atmosphere.
Especially in summer during tourist peak this place is filled with life. A stroll through the old town is a must for every tourist while the locals foster a more distant relationship. There are those who mingle every day and those who would cross just on special occasions. The latter would behave more like tourists and try not to stand out. The fear to be exposed as their enemy and thus treated disrespectfully or even threatened is still common.
The drive to rebuild the bridge was rather a global attempt to bring reconciliation to the residents. It was much more supported by the Muslim communities as the bridge was a relic from the Ottoman era that led to the increasing Islamization of the people. While in the minds of strangers the bridge is seen as a symbol of reunification, many locals assign it a nationalistic or ethnic meaning.
The bridge is the gate to the other side, meaning the East side. During the civilian war it became a strategic target for the Bosnian Croat forces. To destroy the bridge would demonstrate power over their enemies and at the same time power over ethnic belongings.
While the bridge and the old town were considered Muslim, the Croats in return used crosses and churches to segregate themselves. A good example is the giant cross on mountain Hum that thrones over West Mostar.
Until today, the conflict between the orient and Occident remains. Not in the form of violence but in everyday life. People shop, eat and go out on their sides. Music is a good example to express the ongoing division. Bosniak music is not well received in Western owned cafes, bars and clubs and vice versa.
The same applies to some kinds of food. On the East side you would see bakeries offering traditional Turkish delight (lokum) or baklava whereas Western style pastry (kolači) are preferred on the West side.
Even coffee became a means of segregation. On the East side Turkish coffee, Kafa, would be served in traditional pots (džezma) whereas Kava on the other side is regular coffee as we know it.
The biggest concern is the ongoing shrinking of the population as a result of political stalemate and poor economy. Many seek work in EU countries, not only in pursuit of financial security but also safety and liberation from political and ethnic propaganda. In 2016 Bosnia and Herzegovina applied for EU membership which will only be possible when true democracy is achieved, corruption is defeated and the economy stabilizes.
The future of tourism
As Mostar is located in close vicinity to popular destinations on the Croatian Adriatic coast, it has a quite large amount of visitors. Mostly during summer season.
The future of tourism is therefore an ongoing topic. There is a lot of unused potential, especially regarding Eco tourism. The nature in and around Mostar is splendid and offers opportunities for recreation. Outdoor activities like cycling and water sports are being developed for tourists but also the local population benefits from it.
Compared to the old town, the center of Mostar, west of the Bulevar, is rather soulless. Despite the Partisan memorial, the city park with the bizarre statue of Bruce Lee, the promenade along the Old Gymnasium and the Mepas mall there is not much to explore. While there are restaurants and cafes, they are catering rather to the people of West Mostar. The touristic sights are all centered at the bridge and old town.
Mostar has potential to combine war tourism with recreational tourism. There are enough places nearby worth visiting, like Kravice waterfalls, Hutovo Blato, the medieval fort of Počitelj or the Bosnian seaside.
Ivo Andrić – The bridge on the Drina
Kenan Trebincevic – The Bosnia List
Steven Galloway – The Cellist of Sarajevo
Zlata Filipović – Zlata’s Diary
Saša Stanišić – Origins
Lana Bastašić – Catch the rabbit
Aleksandar Hemon – The Book of my lives
Mostar is a scarred yet beautiful city that holds a special place in my heart. It does not fail to surprise me each time I visit. There is always a corner I have not seen or food I have not tried.
Wherever you go and whatever you do, one message will keep following you:
Pay your respects to the victims of war, but let it not drag you down. If you have time, explore the city beyond the tourist zone and you will find plenty of nature and fascinating sights.