May 22, 2024
Bosnia and Herzegovina
War Victim’s Tour

It was a confusing war of identity, of choosing between your land and your people, in a country with a confusing mix of identities and people. But our guide knew exactly where he was.

By Vivekananda Nemana

“Let me say one thing first. I am Bosnian, I am Muslim,” warned Bata from the driver’s seat. “I?ll be telling you my version of things. You need to choose what you believe.”

Bata, my roommate Jacob and I were crammed into a small Peugeot, clambering along tortuous mountain roads in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The unusual warning, the first tidbit that our gregarious 37-year-old tour guide Bata imparted to us, was a fitting comment on our remarkable trip to Mostar, a city where the scars of the Bosnian war in the early 1990s have yet to heal.

A tall, bearded and big-bellied ex-soldier, Bata had the size and demeanor of a playful grizzly bear. During the war his family’s home was occupied, and they were forced to scatter. Bata told us that he fled to Sweden, where he replaced his upper-class lifestyle with shifts as a taxi driver and a kebab cook. He and his family are now back in their old home, which they’ve converted into a hostel.

Bata’s ability to entertain made him immediately endeared him to us. If our faces betrayed any hint of emotion, he would jokingly yell “SNAG,” his acronym for Sensitive New Age Guy.

He would make us giggle with jokes about Bosnian inefficiency. He would roar, sing, pose, shout –? anything to keep us marching along with him.

But it was his moments of contemplation, when he revealed his thoughts as a survivor of the Bosnian war, that made him unforgettable.

Bata showed us how war still ravages life in Mostar, nearly 15 year after war had ended.

Tour with a View

I had signed us up for an eight-hour tour of Mostar and the surrounding areas, in hopes of making sense of the dilapidation we had seen while wandering around town. Jacob and I had arrived there on a whim, by taking an $8 bus ride from Split, the Croatian beach town where we were vacationing. So we were unprepared for what we would see.

The remains of punctured and burned structures, perhaps someone’s home in the past, now functioned as deposits for disposed beer bottles and used condoms. Broken panes still dangled from the windows of shelled buildings. Bullet holes patterned walls like polka dots. Occasionally a new building with a gleaming coat of paint would emerge, in painfully conspicuous contrast with the landscape. But, strolling passively through around these structures, or through thehe touristy “old city,” or at the famous humpbacked Stari Most Bridge,? destroyed in the war and rebuilt a few years ago, taught us nothing about Mostar, and especially nothing about the war.

We needed a local guide.

Bata pointed at a massive white cross on the summit of Hum Hill. I had seen the Jubilee Cross the night before. Its illuminated form shone brightly, seeming to float in the night sky. Its haunting glow spread for miles across this mainly Muslim city.

I saw now that the cross was perched atop a concrete bunker, from where Croatian forces had shelled the city and destroyed the Stari Most bridge. The summit was strategically perfect — the entire city of Mostar sprawled below;? you could throw a baseball and shatter a window two miles away.

Bata told us that the Catholic Croats had built the 100-foot high cross after lifting their siege on the city. To him, it was a hideous insult, a perpetual reminder of who had really won the war.

He also pointed out the front line, a highway that divided the city like a fault line. Fifteen years after the war, the split was still obvious. The Bosnian side, dotted with small clay-roofed houses, looked like a village; whereas the Croatian half had skyscrapers. Tall minarets pierce the sky on one side, while equally grand church spires abound on the other. They were two separate cities welded into one by the force of the mountains around us.

Bata explained the divides in even the most trivial aspects of life. Mostar had two soccer teams, one supported by Croats and one by Bosnians. Sarejvsko Pivo, the national beer of Bosnia, is apparently not sold in cafes on the Croatian side of Mostar. We (unscientifically) investigated this later, and found even Pabst Blue Ribbon, but no Pivo.

Guide Therapy

“Giving tours is like psychotherapy. I need to tell the world what they didn?t see on CNN,”? Bata confessed. He stepped to the edge of the overlook and shouted, “The truth will set you free!”

Not everybody was as expressive. Bata’s cheerful, pigtailed sister Majda, who ran our hostel, kept urging us to relax. Her persistence made us feel that the worst might be yet come. Unlike her brother, Majda preferred to discuss how well Mostar was doing today, and how modern it was in contrast to the city of her childhood. Whenever I asked her about the war, her smile faded, and she would look away before mumbling an answer. She was one of those who preferred to look hopefully towards the future.

To travel to Mostar means to not just see the damaged buildings and the rebuilt bridge but also to decipher a twisted and tangled history. When you set foot in a place where something terrible has occurred, you can think only: what happened?

Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia were all historically separate regions but were unified as Yugoslavia under the Communist leader Josip Broz Tito. Tito was able to stifle ethnic tensions for most of the 20th century, but after he died and his Ccommunist regime collapsed, tensions resurfaced. In 1992 Bosnia and Herzegovina’s declaration of independence prompted an invasion from the Yugoslav army, which turned into attacks from Serbian and Croation forces.

In Mostar, the largest city in Herzegovina and the most heavily bombed during the war, the Serbian invasion was rebuffed with the help of the Croatian Defense Council. But the Croats wanted the city for themselves, so in a Hollywood-esque twist, the Council attacked the very Bosnians they had helped defend a few days earlier. The Bosnians could not organize an effective resistance, and soon huge swaths of their city were turned to rubble.

It was a confusing war of identity, of choosing between your land and your people in a country with a confusing mix of identities and people, in a city where you didn?t know who your neighbors were. Even for a passing visitor, confusion consumed everything.

The war officially ended with the signing of the General Framework for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina? in December 1995. But it was clear that, 14 years later, a different kind of war was continuing.

Bata took us to Our Lady of Medjugorje, where in 1981 a group of children had claimed to see an apparition of the Virgin Mary. Now this spot is a magnet for Catholic tourism. As we approached the church, the streets became clogged with charter buses and crowded with hotels, gift shops and expensive restaurants. Suddenly I was counting more expensive cars than on Park Avenue. Occasionally a gargantuan villa would emerge. Construction was everywhere. This was gentrification in the developing world, funded by droves of wealthy Christian pilgrims who lavishly doled out their money along with their devotion. According to Bata, few Bosnians gained from this lucrative industry, and the ones who lived in the village were driven out. Judging from the Croatian flags hung ubiquitously like Christmas wreaths, we thought his words must be true.

Because Bosnians were constantly victimized in Bata’s version of things, I couldn?t believe everything he said. But obviously they weren?t embracing one another.

“You can?t expect us to start loving each other just because the UN told us to,” he said over a lunch of burek, a meat-filled pastry. (We had stopped at a place that promised ?best burek in all Balkans.” I encountered seven such establishments during my two-day stay).

A perpetual feeling of underlying unease made the most striking landscapes feel tragic. We saw Kravica falls, where the roaring blue water found its origins in a series of small brooks, and Pocitelj, a hillside Ottoman settlement that overlooks sweeping vistas of the Nerevta river valley. The stark contrast between the natural beauty and the continuing tensions only emphasized the tension.

At the end of our tour, a large wedding procession swallowed the street and delayed our trek back to the hostel. A three-block long caravan of big, expensive cars brandished Croatian flags and blared victorious music, rolling past the pockmarked buildings and over the bomb craters in the streets. We watched the loud festivities in silence. For a moment, we could almost hear gunfire.

One comment about “War Victim’s Tour”

  1. says:


    Crossed the border into Bosnia for a short period to visit Mostar…I found the city to be tightly packed with tourists and really does give you the feeling that the city is maintained for that purpose however it does have a natural beauty in its own r…

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