Notes from Mostar

This piece was originally published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine.

The bus rolls slowly into the central station in eastern Mostar, the familiar crunching sound of gravel under the tires signalling the end of the ride. The journey from Sarajevo had taken just a little over two and a half hours, and we’d got to enjoy the sight of the enticing emerald-green waters of the Neretva river along the way.

In a couple of days, I’d catch a ride to Split, Croatia, from the bus station in the western Croat-majority part of the city.

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Mostar is a Balkan city in the southern Herzegovina region of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with a population of a little over 100,000, primarily Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats. I wondered why a city this small needed two main bus stations.

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Soon enough, I learned that nearly 25 years after the end of the Bosnian War, Mostar remains a divided city. It isn’t the only city in Bosnia and Herzegovina where the major ethnic groups — Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats — continue to lead segregated lives. The majority of Bosnian Serbs live separately in Republika Srpska in the north and east, and Bosniak and Croat children continue to attend segregated schools.

I’m staying in a small apartment in the eastern Bosniak-majority part of Mostar. Outside, a sign announces that the building, which was wrecked during the war, has been renovated with the help of European Commission donations.

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It’s a balmy April day and Mostar’s famed Old City — a short walk away — is buzzing with tourists. Souvenir shops and gelaterias line the path leading to the iconic Stari Most. A man perches nonchalantly at the edge of the 24m bridge, ready to plunge into the cool waters below.

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Built in 1557 during Ottoman rule in the Balkans, Stari Most (Old Bridge) is an exquisite single-arched stone bridge that stretches 30 metres across the width of Neretva river. It was constructed to replace an older wooden structure in the same spot. Today, the area is a well-known UNESCO World Heritage Site and the bridge a spectacular example of Balkan Islamic architecture.

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Across the Old Bridge stands the Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque. Climbing the constricted staircase up the minaret is not for the faint-hearted but, once on top, you’re rewarded with sweeping vistas, the lush mountain, emerald waters and historic bridge painting a breathtaking picture. Strolling through the vibrant lanes of the Old City, it’s easy to forget Mostar’s grim past and the fact that the formidable Old Bridge was destroyed by Croat forces in 1993.

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The Bosnian War of 1992-95 has been referred to as the deadliest conflict since WWII; it culminated in widespread destruction and a genocide largely orchestrated by Bosnian Serbs. Termed a “war within a war”, the Siege of Mostar pitted Bosniaks and Croats against each other and constituted one of bloodiest episodes of the war.

Today, scars from the conflict are scattered all around: abandoned buildings riddled with bullet holes, graffiti, and an ethnically divided city with separate water plants, colleges and bus stations.

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During the early 2000s, the efforts of various countries and international organisations led to the Stari Most being painstakingly rebuilt by hand, ensuring that it remained true to the original structure. Some choose to see it as a symbol of hope in an increasingly polarised environment.

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There’s a spot near the river bank where people from all over the world gather to gaze up at the extraordinary bridge. As the moonlit waters of the Neretva gleam below, I feel grateful to be here.

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