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Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Onto Sarajevo, and then to Mostar, in Bosnia-Herzegovina

I went back looking for gaps in my narrative that I wanted to fill in, and discovered that I never published this entry, and it has somehow disappeared.  So I will try to recreate it here, since Sarajevo, especially, was one of the most interesting and poignant parts of our trip.

My major concepts of Bosnia, and particularly Sarajevo and Mostar, before we travelled there, was images and memories of the war in the 1990's, and a book that had been written by a Sarajevo teen, Zlata, who has often been referred to as the Bosnian Ann Frank. I think it's called Zlata's Diary.   She wrote detailed descriptions of her life then, of people dashing out amidst sniper fire for bread and water, of living in fear, without electricity, over many months. The images have always stayed with me, and are part of the reason I wanted to travel there.

Zarajevo is filled with history, not only about the most recent war. It is also where the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, triggering World War I.  It is also a vibrant living city.  If one were to go there without knowing the history, it is likely that she would never realize the scars it . Unless one visits one of the museums dealing with the horrors, or takes a walking tour. Or once one sees the wall of a building riddled with holes, and is told or realizes that they are the result of sniper or shell damage, still unrepaired after 25 years. And once you realize, it is hard not to see everywhere.

We looked and saw, in villages and in the countryside, as well as in Sarajevo and Mostar, destroyed abandoned buildings as well as pockmarked ones.  In some cases the buildings had been attacked, others probably were abandoned when people fled, many of whom never returned to their homes or country.

It is hard to imagine those other times, in fact, at least for me, impossible, no matter how much I try.  I have had similar feelings in places affected by other wars, particularly the Holocaust.  Not just in places like Auschwitz and Dachau, but in mundane places, homes and businesses, from which people had been deported.

One of the first place we visited in Sarajevo was the beautiful city hall building, not far from our apartment.  . We discovered that it was a reproduction, and had only been completed a few years before.  Later, I saw a film at one of the museums that showed the building burning, being totally destroyed, in the 90's war.    It had been built in  the late 19th century, in a semi Arabic style, partly to emphasize the co-existence in the city of people from various backgrounds and religions.  Not only the building, but the vast library of some 2 million books was destroyed that night. And that could not be reconstructed.

The building reproduction was beautiful, though, and a woman in one of the rooms talked to us at length (she seemed thrilled to have visitors)  about a new agency installed there that was dealing with documenting the war crimes.

Later, we joined a free walking tour (I've taken them in other cities, Jerusalem and Berlin.)  The guides depend on tips. This guide, whose name we never found out because we joined it already in progress, was terrific.  He was in his 30's and had been seven when the war began.  It was very moving and enlightening to have a first hand account. He freely talked about his experiences and his beliefs, and encouraged people to ask questions.  He was also adept at keeping much of the tour lighthearted, and balancing the terrible stories with the positive.  He had lived in the basement of his apartment for four years with his family.  They had lived on the eighth floor, too high to be safe. Many people fled before the city was barricaded, but about twenty five people, including his family,  spent the war years there.  He described his mother going out with plastic jugs to fetch water, several times a week. We had already read and seen films about that, but it added another layer to have his personal experiences. I would have loved to talk to him at greater length, but he had another, private group booked for the afternoon. (a food tour!)

Later in the tour he took us to the brewery that Sarajevo is famous for. It's built on top of a spring in the middle of the city, and is still an operating brewery.  But during the war, it became the one reliable source for clean water.  People would haul their jugs, often in carts or childrens' wagons, usually under threat of gunfire.  They didn't always make it.  I've read both factual and fictionalized versions of the four year siege, the snipers, even the City Hall and Library burning and the trips to the brewery for water.

 Our guide described himself as not religious, and not hating anybody, even the Serbs who committed a veritable genocide of the Muslims. He said his parents were secular Muslims. And, on a more lighthearted note, he related the story of once asking his mother why she considered herself Muslim. And her answer, that she liked baklava!

He ( I wish I had found out his name, we never even knew the name of his tour business) took us to a bright, one might say garish, building that dated from the communist era. We had already walked by it, I particularly noticing the very nice, bright murals along the inside corridors.   He told us that most Sarajevans considered it the ugliest building in the city. The building colors were bright blue and yellow. It  was right next to the one still operating synagogue, and one theory was that it had deliberately been built there by the communists to spite the Jewish population. It's the one synagogue still operating in the city, although there are other buildings that remain, but not as synagogues any more. I'm not sure how many more  there had been before the war, if any. But the Serbs had targeted both mosques and other religious buildings.  I don't think any of the minaret towers had survived, but most, maybe all, had been rebuilt.

 A fascinating addendum:  the yellow-blue  building was one of the more desirable and expensive places to live in the center city, more so than the beautiful Hapsburg era building across from it.  One possibility - from the building, you couldn't see it, whereas from nearby buildings it was the view!  I'm sure that there are some who truly do like the building.  I wouldn't call it ugly, but it sure was different, and didn't seem in the right place. Then again, the Eiffel Tower was considered ugly when it was built.

I will stop here and post this now, before I do anything foolish and lose or delete it again. Will continue on with another post.

Back again, same post.  I decided to live dangerously and add to this entry, rather than post a separate entry.  Trying to keep at least a semblance of chronology. 

Mostar  was probably the most frustrating stop in our travels.  What I'd known about it before was its famous high medieval bridge. It had survived many conflicts, but was destroyed during the 90's war. It has been rebuilt, and reopened about a decade ago.  It is the central focus and symbol of the city as it was before. It is also the focus of the tourists to Mostar. There is a famous diving competition every summer, which brings divers and visitors from many places. Around the bridge, on the cliffs and below, are numerous restaurants,  with wonderful views and friendly waiters.

The bridge was also the route into town in old times to the market, to traders from afar, Turkey and other places.  And it is today, too. The market still exists, or exists again.  But it is now a tourist market, hard to tell the local crafts from the imported from probably China ones.  And it is so thronged with visitors that you have literally to elbow your way through.  I did eventually find a metal worker who made interesting plaques out of copper and enamel. He was a second or maybe third generation vendor in the same place. His father still makes art, but worked from home now while the son and his wife ran the shop.  I did get my Mostar souvenir, a small piece that looks, if you look at it one way, as a face, but look again and you will see it's a represenetaton of the famous bridge.  I know it's locally handmade, I spoke with the artist. Loring is less convinced and more cynical.  But I agree with him that the market is really just a tourist trap, and it and the bridge and market is basically the whole old town.

 I went to one more war museum. Loring had had enough of disaster museums and went to the beach under the bridge to read.We arranged to meet up an hour or so later. When I got to the bridge, there were a couple of wet guys in Speedos. They had just jumped. One sounded American. Anyone can jump after going thru a short training including lower jumps, and paying 50 euros. (about $60)  There are local divers, and also tourist ones.  I don't know how many of them get hurt. It is impressive to watch.  Loring had watched several jumps already, and took a great slow motion video of one.  At one point, the local man next to him said, "this should be interesting. " explaining that the jumper was a tourist.  But he apparently made the jump okay.  Maybe he was the English speaking guy I saw later on the bridge. 

We did walk some, and saw the non tourist part of the town.  There were a number of damaged and destroyed buildings, even 25 years later.  Reconstruction is still ongoing outside the central old city, the tourist part.  One building, totally destroyed except for some of the outside walls, had an interesting exterior, looking almost like Egyptian hieroglyphics. I assumed it had been a museum. But later, we were told that had actually been a shopping mall.  It made us realize that not only was there still a lot of remaining destruction, but that Mostar had been a modern city, with amenities like large shopping centers.

Well, that's a recap of Mostar. Interesting, yes. Would I suggest people go there? Probably not,  just because the tourist market and bridge were basically all there were to do and see, and both were totally overwhelming because of the crowds.  I enjoyed the smaller, off the beaten path discoveries more, the places like Rastoke in Croatia, and Jajce in Bosnia.  And Sarajevo, largely because it is important to remember atrocities and genocides, and hopefully somehow prevent them from occurring again.  And because there is a lot to the city, in addition to the history of the war. 


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