(I’m touring Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia. To read about Slovenia, please see the previous post, “Breaking free.”)
The region now known as Bosnia-Herzegovina is a melting pot that never melted.
The country has three major ethnic groups, three self-governing territories and two alphabets.
Its schools are segregated.
Bosna i Hercegovina is the country’s official name. It is also spelled Bosnia-Herzegovina and sometimes abbreviated to BiH, B-H or B&H. For the sake of convenience, I’ll refer to it as Bosnia.
The country is the size of West Virginia with a population of nearly four million. It is bordered by Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro. Sarajevo is its capital.
Bosnia’s currency is the convertible mark, but most Bosnian businesses accept euros and Croatian kuna as well. Bosnians joke they are the only predominantly Muslim country in the world with no oil.
The Old Bridge over the Neretva River in Mostar was a work of art.
The stone footbridge bowed elegantly in the middle like a stairway to heaven and back.
A traveler in the 1600s described it as a “rainbow arch soaring up to the skies.”
Spanning, as it did, a community of diverse ethnicities, the bridge was a symbol of peace and goodwill. It was treasured by locals, who referred to it as “old friend.”
Built by the Ottoman Turks in 1566, the bridge stood for over four hundred years. Then, during the Bosnian wars, it was intentionally shelled.
In November 1993, the Old Bridge collapsed into the river.
Some combatants claim the bridge was destroyed due to its strategic location.
Most, however, believe it was targeted because it was a symbol of ethnic harmony.
The three not-so-amigos
In ancient times, several cultural groups invaded and occupied the area that is now Bosnia, including, to name a few, the Illyrians, Greeks, Celts, Slavs, and Romans.
In the 300s CE, the Roman Empire, which included the Bosnian area, split in two. The Catholics in the western half looked to Rome for leadership. The Orthodox Christians in the east looked toward Constantinople.
Bosnians split between the two halves as well, with Catholic Croats in the west and Orthodox Serbs in the east. However, the majority of the population were the Bogomils, members of an unaffiliated Christian cult.
Then, in the late Middle Ages, Ottoman Turks invaded the region and brought with them a third religion: Islam.
To take advantage of the economic opportunities presented by the Ottomans, most of the Bogomils converted to Islam.
Thus, Bosnia has three major ethnicities.
About half of the population are Muslim Bosniaks.
One-third are Orthodox Christian Serbs and most of the rest are Catholic Croats.
Throughout the twentieth century, the three groups—Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats—have taken turns ethnic-cleansing each other.
Graveyard of converts
The morning was rainy as our group crossed the border from Croatia into Bosnia. The checkpoint resembled a toll booth.
Our guide, Tina, warned us the crossing might take some time and, perhaps, the bribe of a couple of Cokes from our bus’s refrigerator. However, after a quick review of our passports, the guards waved us onward.
We drove through rolling terrain, passing vineyards and orchards. The skylines of the villages were pierced by minarets.
On the outskirts of the town of Stolac (STO lats), we stopped at a field containing a cluster of monoliths the size and shape of large doghouses.
The field is a graveyard and the doghouse-shaped blocks are massive tombstones.
As we wondered among the stones, Edo, our Bosnian guide, explained the history of the area. Humans have inhabited Stolac for at least fifteen thousand years, he said, as evidenced by a prehistoric petroglyph of a horse found in a nearby cave.
Stolac was once home to the aforementioned Bogomils, a Christian sect neither Catholic nor Orthodox. Edo joked that they were early Protestants.
In medieval times, the Bogomils buried their dead near huge monuments called stećci. In Stolac’s cemetery are over one hundred stećci. Most of them date to the 1400s and 1500s.
Each stećak was carved from a block of limestone. Some are plain, but many are engraved with Cyrillic script and likenesses of the deceased.
Some are inscribed with grape leaves, hunting scenes, or animals. A few are marked with crosses, as pagan and Christian beliefs were intertwined at the time.
When Bosnia fell to the Ottoman Turks around 1500, most of the Bogomils switched to Islam.
During the Bosnian wars of the early 1990s, the descendants of the Bogomils, now the Muslim Bosniaks, were terrorized into leaving Stolac by their Catholic-Croat neighbors. Their mosque was destroyed. Some were sent to concentration camps where hundreds died.
Today, crosses are displayed prominently around Stolac. They send an obvious and ominous signal to the remaining Muslims, whose ancient ancestors were, ironically, Christians.
Descent into war
In 1914 the heir to the Hapsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in the capital of Bosnia.
The shooter was a Bosnian Serb intent on liberating Bosnia. The incident set off a chain of events in Europe, which led to World War I.
After the war, Bosnia joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, the forerunner of Yugoslavia.
During World War II, Bosnia was invaded by Nazi Germany. The Croats were recruited by the Nazis to help exterminate hundreds of thousands of their neighbors, the Serbs, in death camps. The Serbs never forgot.
Fighting against the Nazis was the underground Partisan Army, led by Josip Broz, also known as Tito.
After the war, Tito amalgamated six territories, including Bosnia, into a new country called Yugoslavia.
The name means “land of the southern Slavs.”
With the brute force of both his personality and his tactics, Tito held the confederation together for thirty-four years.
When he died in 1980, the union began to fracture. Slovenia and Croatia both seceded in 1991.
In Bosnia, the three ethnic groups could not agree on secession. The minority Bosnian Serbs wanted to stay in the union. The Croats and Bosniaks wanted out.
Two savagely cruel wars followed, one in 1992 and another in 1993-95.
In the first war, the Muslim Bosniaks and the Catholic Croats teamed up against the Orthodox Serbs, who were supported by the non-Bosnian Serbs from Serbia proper.
Eventually, however, the Bosniaks and the Croats turned against each other as well, leading to the second war—a three-way conflict between the country’s three ethnic groups.
What followed was horrific. Atrocities were committed by all sides—mass executions, systematic rape, and indiscriminate destruction.
It was genocide. There were no “good guys” to root for in the Bosnian wars.
The Peace Accords of 1995, signed in Dayton, Ohio, ended the conflict. The agreement divided the nation into three autonomous territories, gerrymandered by ethnicity. Above them is an anemic central government.
At least one hundred thousand people were killed. Over two million people were driven from their homes. Bosnia’s economy and infrastructure have never recovered.
From the ashes
Continuing on, Edo toured us through his hometown, Blagaj (BLAH guy).
The town was gloomy. Maybe it was the weather. Maybe it was the walls riddled with bullet holes.
Blagaj, like all of Bosnia, still bears the scars of war. Many of its homes are abandoned. Many of its residents fled for their lives and never returned.
As we walked through the town, Edo told us about the various mills that were once powered by the Buna River. He is hopeful that Blagaj will return to its former eminence in the region.
Young men sat in cafés, sipping coffee and watching us pass. On the hill above us, a rebuilt Ottoman fortress overlooked the valley.
At the main crossroads, worship centers stood on three of the four corners—a Catholic church, an Orthodox church, and an Islamic mosque. At least two of them have been rebuilt since the wars.
We visited a not-for-profit daycare center, a favorite charity of Edo’s, and bought handicrafts from the children.
Edo was a child himself when the fighting began. He and his five-year-old sister were among those forced to flee Blagaj. He said they walked for days through the woods to find safety.
Along the way, they took refuge at the Blagaj Tekija.
A tekija (or tekka) is a place of worship for Sufi Muslims. The one in Blagaj was built by the Ottoman Turks in the 1400s for an order of whirling dervishes.
As part of their religious practice, dervishes dance themselves into a trance of divine ecstasy.
The Blagaj Tekija is tucked picturesquely into an alcove of a cliff at the spring of the Buna River. The river is crisscrossed with footbridges. Restaurants and souvenir stands on both sides serve pilgrims who visit the monastery.
The tekija has been rebuilt a couple of times, most recently by a Turkish travel agency.
We removed our shoes before stepping inside and quietly explored the monastery’s many small rooms. Small, patterned rugs cover the floors. The sound of rushing water through the open windows enhances the spirituality of the place.
Sadly, no one whirled.
The monastery that won’t die
We visited Žitomislić (ZHEE toe meez leetch), a Serbian Orthodox monastery near Mostar. A tall, soft-spoken, bearded monk in a black robe allowed us a look at the colorfully frescoed church.
The monastery first opened in 1606. Its industrious monks were renown for writing, copying, and illuminating religious manuscripts. Three times it was destroyed by the Ottoman Turks and three times it was rebuilt.
During World War II, the monastery was raided by a Nazi-appointed Croatian terrorist group, the Ustaša. Again, it was plundered and demolished. Its eight monks were tortured and killed.
After the war the monastery recovered. Then, during the Bosnian wars, Žitomislić was again razed, this time by Bosnian Croats.
Its library of priceless manuscripts was destroyed, its cemetery dynamited, and its buildings burned.
For the fifth time, Žitomislić was reconstructed. Expert painters from Syria frescoed the walls and ceilings of the church. The monastery reopened in 2005.
One of the frescoes features the eight martyred monks.
Cemeteries and souvenirs
On the outskirts of Mostar the graveyards seem endless. Once in the Old Town, we checked into a small hotel near the green Neretva River.
Mostar has a population of over one hundred thousand. During the Bosnian wars, ninety thousand fled their homes. Around two thousand were killed.
The city was named after the mostari (bridge keepers) who, in medieval times, guarded the Old Bridge—the one that was blown up in 1993.
Most of the places of worship were also destroyed, including the cathedral and twelve out of fourteen mosques. Mostar was the most badly damaged city in Bosnia.
The next morning, our Mostar guide, Adisa, led us on a walking tour past both ruined and reconstructed buildings. The city now has ten mosques. The new 350-foot-tall Mostar Peace Bell Tower of the Franciscan Church of Saints Peter and Paul looms over them all.
Despite the damage, the streets are busy with traffic and pedestrians.
We stepped into the calm of the ornate Koski Mehmet-Paha Mosque. The walls are painted in floral patterns and quotes from the Quran in Cyrillic script.
We passed a city park, which is now a cemetery. Every single tombstone is dated 1993, 1994 or 1995. During the wars, the dead were buried under the cover of darkness to avoid sniper fire.
Coppersmiths’ Street is a busy Turkish bazaar crowded with cafés and colorful stalls. The shops sell hammered-copper handicrafts, embroidered linens, and artwork.
Many sell souvenirs made from spent shell casings.
We visited the Bišćević (BEESH chev eech) Turkish House, which dates from 1635. It was the home of a prominent Turkish family during the Ottoman reign.
A pleasant courtyard is covered with river stones and surrounded by high walls. In the center is a fountain.
On a second-floor balcony, overlooking the river, we sipped Turkish coffee, while our hosts decoded the ritual of serving.
Hot coffee means you are welcome. Lukewarm coffee means, “You have come at a bad time. Drink your coffee and go.”
A prospective husband is served coffee laced with salt. If he drinks it without complaining, he is considered a keeper.
Adisa said, “During the war, I was always a little grumpy because I did not have the coffee.”
Coffee was not all Adisa missed during the wars.
She told us she and her family fled their home and hid with friends in another part of Mostar.
They lived in fear of being discovered and once missed arrest by a mere two hours.
Adisa was nearly killed by an explosion. She was reading near a window when a grenade blast shattered the glass and threw her backwards across the room.
Due to the constant shelling, there were no utilities or food. Adisa’s family ate scraps. Some nights she and her mother walked for five hours into the country to beg for food from farmers. They hid during the day and returned the next night.
During the wars, the United States military airdropped pallets of food and medical supplies. Edo’s father, a soldier, complained that nearly every pallet landed on a dangerous-to-access rooftop.
Are they bitter about losing their childhoods to war?
“Life is good,” Adisa said. “Today, no one is shooting at me.”
Bridge with a soul
Abandoned homes, bullet holes, cemeteries—reminders of the recent wars are everywhere in Bosnia. The locals put on a cautiously bright front, but I sense they are walking on eggshells. The wounds are still open.
I learned some of the history of the region, yet struggled to reconcile the inhumanity that occurred during the wars.
Touring the devastation sometimes seemed like slowing down to gawk at a car accident.
Is there hope for Bosnia?
On the surface it appears Bosnians of all ethnicities are working to build their businesses and attract tourists. Economics is a driver.
And the younger generation of Bosnians, those who grew up during the wars, seem ready to move on.
I heard hope in the gentle voice of Edo, who is helping to rebuild his hometown. I heard hope in the determined voice of Adisa, who said, “I don’t care which religion someone is. I care only if they are good or bad.”
I saw hope in the reopening of the new Old Bridge in 2004.
Workers of all ethnicities participated in its reconstruction. Similar building materials and techniques as the original were used.
“This is a bridge which has a soul of its own,” an official at the reopening said.
“Even when it was destroyed and did not exist, it was present among the residents even more than ever.
“I am sure that this bridge will do more for the unification of Mostar and Bosnia—more than declarations or politicians together—because it is, simply put, our history.”
Today, tourists pose for selfies with the bridge. The famous divers have returned, busking for donations from sightseers before taking their daring leaps into the river.
I climbed up the steep span, stepping around a peacefully sleeping dog.