War and Healing in Bosnia and Herzegovina

There’s something really uplifting in seeing what a generation can do to a place that looked downright hopeless twenty years ago.

After a few weeks of coastal relaxation in Croatia, we traveled north to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The apparently short journey (131 kilometers, or about 81 miles) ended up taking over six hours by bus. We crossed into Bosnia and Herzegovina, then back into Croatia, then back to our destination country once more – each time enjoying a long queue of vehicles and an apparent joke of a passport inspection. Hey, not all parts of international travel are glamorous!

war-healing-bosnia-herzegovina

I was curious to see Mostar, where some of the most brutal fighting took place between the Croats and Bozniaks during the Bosnian War in the early 1990s. There’s a chilling BBC documentary available on YouTube showing some of the horrors of that era – scenes of families forced out of their homes, shot dead in the streets, and dying in overcrowded makeshift hospitals. It’s reminiscent of some of what’s happening in Syria today.

It’s bizarre to visit a place where that type of conflict – that level of crime against humanity – is so recent. I was young, but I remember that war. It was on the evening news almost every night.

One of many abandoned buildings in East Mostar

One of many abandoned buildings in East Mostar

The scars of the war still linger in Mostar. In between the modern buildings and active restaurants and shops, there are blown-out buildings covered in bullet holes and mortar shrapnel damage. Just a few blocks away from the Airbnb apartment where we stayed was a cemetery that was once a city park, only turned into a burial ground when locals had nowhere else they could safely take their dead. Almost all of the tombstones bear the same dates: 1993 and 1994.

Cemetery in East Mostar

Cemetery in East Mostar

Today, Mostar is a different place. It’s not a big city (there’s not much of interest outside the tourist-centric old town), but it’s a vibrant and active mix of tourists and locals. There’s a large population of both Bozniaks and Croats, though the war moved masses and changed the demographic landscape of the country permanently. Even Mostar’s famous 16th century bridge, shot down by the Croats in 1993, was rebuilt in the early 2000s and is now covered with pedestrians at all hours.

Bridge jumpers entertain tourist crowds for tips

Bridge jumpers entertain tourist crowds for tips

Stari Most

Stari Most

Neretva River

Neretva River

Above: A journalist taking cover from gunfire on the west side of Stari Most; Below: Tourists exploring the old town

Above: A journalist taking cover from gunfire on the west side of Stari Most; Below: Tourists exploring the old town

We had the pleasure of meeting up one morning with Jarryd and Alesha from NOMADasaurus, one of our favorite travel blogs. Where so much chaos had taken place a few decades prior, we talked over tea and espresso and enjoyed views of the river. When I see hopeless scenes from elsewhere in the world, I’ll try to recall the change in Mostar since the dark days of the early nineties.

Above: Four people carry a dead man's body up a flight of stairs in East Mostar; Below: The same plaza is lined with shops and tourist knickknacks

Above: Four people carry a dead man’s body up a flight of stairs in East Mostar; Below: The same plaza is lined with shops and tourist knickknacks

On a lighter note, Bosnia and Herzegovina was our first destination where we really felt the strong purchasing power of the US Dollar. We spent just $14 a night on a massive four-room Airbnb apartment, one of the nicest places we stayed the whole trip. And after several weeks of grocery store and bakery meals in Croatia, we splurged on dinners out at the two highest-rated restaurants in the city. Two massive platters of grilled seafood and meats – more than enough food for both of us – cost about $20.

The most popular song from Budapest to Butrint (Bosnian version)

The most popular song from Budapest to Butrint (Bosnian version)

Eating like kings

Eating like kings

"Don't Forget, But Do Forgive Forever"

“Don’t Forget, But Do Forgive Forever”

We took another bus north from Mostar to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I won’t ramble on too long about Sarajevo, but the modern history there was at least as fascinating as Mostar’s. The city hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics, only to be in the midst of one of the longest sieges in modern history ten years later.

We enjoyed Sarajevo’s vibrant Ottoman old town (which felt more like Turkey than Europe), World War I history (most notably, the corner where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914), and moving 11/07/95 Gallery of the Srebrenica massacre (part of the largest genocide in Europe since World War II).

Sarajevo's Ottoman old town

Sarajevo’s Ottoman old town

The haunting 11/07/95 Gallery

The haunting 11/07/95 Gallery

Miljacka River

Miljacka River

Cemetery overlooking central Sarajevo

Cemetery overlooking central Sarajevo

Once again, we found ourselves wishing we had more time before moving on. But we were off to Montenegro, Albania, and Greece to finish off our summer in Europe.

12 Comments

  1. I absolutely love reading about your travels and seeing the amazing photos — thank you for sharing. It’s especially powerful to see the photos from the 90’s next to yours.

    My cousin graduated high school in 1993 and joined the military right after. My aunt was really worried about him being sent to Bosnia. Luckily it never happened, but our family kept an eye on what was going on there. Crazy to think that was more than 20 years ago already.

    Looking forward to reading about the last leg of your trip!

  2. Amazing pictures and it’s crazy to see how much has changed in ~20 years.

  3. Great résumé… I like the area a lot. Never have been there. A 2017 plan?

  4. The pictures you took of the river are beautiful. And your before/after shots were also very stark. It’s amazing what time can do. Thank you for doing such a great job illustrating it.

  5. Your photos are beautiful. And I just love your descriptive writing style. It must feel very eerie being in some of these locations with all the reminders of violence. That cemetery smack in the middle of East Mostar is quite jarring in contrast to the nice, almost suburban looking buildings in the background.

    • It was definitely bizarre walking those streets after watching that horrifying documentary just the night before. The cemetery was just one of many — and so sad to see all the people killed in needless violence.

  6. Very cool place to visit. I heard lots of interesting stories from an old colleague whom used to live in Mostar until he emigrated to Canada. Still like to go one of these days.
    Have fun on your trip!

    • That would be very interesting to hear it from a local. I thought about asking our Airbnb host, but I was hesitant to broach what might be a very sensitive topic.

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