ood luck,” the customs agent croaked, handing Shelby our passports through the car window. He had bushy, black eyebrows and a protruding chin.
“Hvala,” Shelby replied.
Skutull sat in the back, leaning his entire body against the seat. His eyes mindlessly tracked the customs agent without moving his head. He looked bored out of his mind.
The highway was smooth and paved with fresh asphalt. Bright, white paint divided the road into two lanes, which weaved through small cities. Plastic bottles and aluminum cans littered either side of the street. Sheets of plastic wrapped themselves around bare branches, flapping in the breeze.
The landscape of Bosnia and Herzegovina was similar to Croatia, only without a coastline. Red and burnt-orange shrubs covered endless limestone and granite boulders, which flowed in hills toward the horizon, erupting into occasional mountains. Soil was scarce.
Structures were few and far between, and when we did pass them, many appeared abandoned, destroyed, or both.
People were more scarce than buildings. Perhaps it’s because we were visiting on a Sunday. Only a few cars coasted down the road with us, most of them going significantly under the speed limit. Inside the villages, the only signs of life were clotheslines draped in drying pastel dresses and whitey tighties, beds of red flowers perched in windowsills, and smoke rising from chimneys.
Dilapidated buildings mingled amongst the inhabited dwellings. They were often built of exposed cinder blocks and broken wooden trusses that caved in decades ago. Empty holes where windows, doors, and garages should be stared at me like the eye sockets of a clean-picked skull.
Gas stations were numerous and stood out like alien structures constructed of glass and shiny metal—the style of the architecture had a retro 1950s Americana meets Scandinavian vibe. Shelby parked the car next to a pump and jogged inside to use the restroom. A tall, young man rushed out when he saw me reach for the gas pump. He filled up our tank, then escorted me to the counter inside to pay. I was surprised to find Shelby standing in line.
“Do people here not see women?!” Shelby asked me, widening her arms as I walked through the door. “That's the second guy to cut in front of me when I’m clearly standing in line.”
I shrugged my shoulders and Shelby explained that she couldn’t find the restroom and was waiting in line to ask.
The shelves behind the counter were lined with packs of cigarettes and bottles of vodka. I’d grown accustomed to cigarette packs in the EU, which were decorated with sick people and cancerous lungs, but here the packs were branded with slick graphics and swanky text like they are in the United States.
A tall man with spikey, gray hair cut in front of us. Even through our surgical masks I could smell alcohol on him. He leaned up against the counter and pointed at a pack of cigarettes, speaking with slurred speech.
The girl behind the counter rang him up, then spoke to us in perfect English. Shelby walked to the restrooms around the back of the building while I paid. Groups of men filled a dozen tables on the far side of the store, conversing loudly while enjoying a cigarette and shots of espresso. Smoke hung in the still air like autumn fog.
Before the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s, the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was made up of six states, each with independent, democratically-elected governments: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Serbia. While the borders of each state were drawn based on the territories ethnic groups had occupied for hundreds of years—Slovenes in Slovenia, Serbians in Serbia, Croats in Croatia, etcetera—people migrated and intermixed over the centuries. There were cities in Croatia with 70% ethnic Serbians. Bosnia and Herzegovina was part of the Ottoman empire for hundreds of years and as a result has a large Bosniak population, a Muslim ethnic group with historic ties to modern-day Turkey. Catholicism dominated in the northern and western regions while Eastern Orthodox was the predominant religion in the east.
For nearly five hundred years, these countries, ethnic groups, and religions coexisted in relative peace. Then Slobodan Milošević took over the Serbian presidency in 1989. The economy of Yugoslavia was suffering from a combination of factors, including the death of Yugoslavia’s founder and leader for 35 years (Josip Broz Tito), increased competition to supply the West with manufactured goods after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and an episode of hyperinflation brought on by decades of waning worker productivity in combination with growing piles of debt.
Yugoslavians were frustrated, and Serbian president Milošević seized an opportunity amongst the discontent to rally ethnic Serbians around the idea of creating an “ethnically pure and independent Serbia.” He convinced his followers that their miseries could be blamed on the other ethnic groups of Yugoslavia and that if they didn’t act now, their jobs would be taken, their wives would be raped, and they would be killed.
Milošević’s goal was for Serbia to conquer territory in both Croatia and Bosnia, where there were large ethnic Serbian populations. With both Yugoslavia’s capital (Belgrade) and its military headquarters located in Serbia, Milošević was able to sieze full control of the The Yugoslav People’s Army, leaving the other states of Yugoslavia armed only with city police to counter his attacks.
War broke out. Slovenia quickly declared independence, which Milošević granted after just 10 days of war. He viewed Slovenia as “independently and ethnically pure,” and since there weren’t large Serbian populations there, he narrowed his sights on Croatia and Bosnia, where he rallied groups of untrained militia to commit war crimes and sack cities.
The Croatians were ultimately able to defend themselves, but only after losing a third of their territory and tens of thousands of lives. With the help of NATO, they acquired artillery and arms, trained soldiers, and took back control of all previously held Croatian land.
Bosnia and Herzegovina—sandwiched between Croatia to the west and Serbia to the east—had large populations of ethnic Serbians, Croats, and Bosniaks. After Croatia took back their original territory, the center stage of the war shifted to Bosnia, where Serbians commited mass genocide and ethnic cleansing. Their goal was to wipe out the Muslim Bosniaks so that ethnic Serbians could take control of the land. Muslim cities in Bosnia became concentrations camps and it’s estimated that over 100,000 Bosniaks were murdered, including around one third of the male Bosniak population.
Stari Most is a bridge in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina that crosses a gorge of the river Neretva, connecting the Muslim city on the eastern bank with the Christian city on the western bank. Pictures of the bridge are common on social media and there is an annual event where divers jump from the bridge into the water 78 feet below.
Stari Most is interesting from an architectural standpoint because it arches over the gorge rather than lying flat. The Ottoman explorer, Evliya Çelebi, described the bridge well:
“[Stari Most] is like a rainbow arch soaring up to the skies, extending from one cliff to the other... I, a poor and miserable slave of Allah, have passed through 16 countries, but I have never seen such a high bridge. It is thrown from rock to rock as high as the sky.”
For nearly 500 years, Stari Most was both a physical and metaphorical bridge linking East with West, Bosniaks with Serbians with Croats, and Islam with Christianity.
Unfortunately, a tank fired multiple rounds of heavy artillery at Stari Most during the fighting, intentionally destroying it in what is seen today as an iconic moment in the Yugoslave Wars.
I initially assumed the Serbian army manned the tank that shot down Stari Most, but I was surprised to learn that it was actually a Croatian general who ordered the strike. Croatians and Bosniaks united for several years early in the war, pushing the Serbian front line back and reclaiming territory. However, once the Croatian army crossed into Bosnia and saw success fighting the Serbians there, they too set their sights on taking control of Bosnian territory with large ethnic Croat populations.
While no official report exists, it is generally believed that the Croatian and Serbian leaders met secretly at this stage in the war and briefly discussed each country taking half of Bosnia for themselves, leaving ethnic Bosniaks with nothing. The Bosniaks were understandably livid and the partnership between Croats and Bosniaks dissolved. The fighting continued, only now there were three sides to the war instead of two.
Peace was brokered in 1995 with the signing of the Dayton Agreement, ending the war in Bosnia and reverting the borders of Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina roughly to what they were before the Yugoslav Wars. The Croatian general who ordered Stari Most to be shot down was one of many people later tried internationally for war crimes. He committed suicide on live television during his trial by drinking poison.
Shelby and I watched a documentary titled, The Death of Yugoslavia, which covers the events of the Yugoslav Wars in detail. I found this documentary especially interesting because it was filmed a few months after the Dayton Agreement and features interviews with all of the key presidents, generals, and other major figures in the war. The recounting of history through the lens of each side, and then through an academic perspective, was both enlightening and chilling. I’ve never seen a documentary quite like it.
Intermixed between men explaining the brilliance of their war strategies and personal moral views were images of families suffering as a consequence of those ideas. The hopeless stares and defeated march of all civilians—Serb, Croat, and Bosniak—as they departed their crumbled homes with only a few bags of luggage were reminders that war is thrust upon more people than it’s chosen by.
Stari Most was rebuilt as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. Many of its original stones were recovered from the river while others were mined from a nearby quarry. I’ve wanted to visit Mostar for a long time so I could walk across the bridge that connects East with West.
A few hours after leaving the gas station, we arrived in Mostar and parked our car on the eastern side of the city. Rain drizzled down from gray clouds as we zipped up our raincoats and clipped Skutull into his harness. The old town buildings were small and some were pockmarked with bullet holes—scar tissue from the war thirty years ago. The streets, the walls, and even the roofs of the buildings were built of mortared rock. Uneven cobblestone streets wound down and around gift stores and cafes, leading to the base of the bridge.
Stari Most’s arch inclined at a much steeper angle than I was anticipating: it wasn’t quite as steep as a staircase, but it was close. Slick limestone rose to the apex at the center of the bridge with rows of protruding rock footholds spaced every couple feet to provide traction.
We climbed to the top of the bridge, which was an odd concept, and gazed out over the blue-green river. A girl about our age followed, clinging to the stone banister with both arms. Her friends huddled together, waiting for her on the other side. As I descended the bridge’s steps into the Christian half of Mostar, I noticed a painted boulder resting against the wall that read, “DON’T FORGET ‘93.”
“Which side is which?” Shelby asked me.
“This is the Muslim side,” I replied incorrectly. The buildings on either side of the river were so similar, they were difficult to tell apart. I assumed we were on the Muslim side because I figured the rock was a memorial of the Bosniak genocide that took place in that year.
A young girl sprang from her chair inside one of the shops as we walked by. She stood in the entrance, smiling and ogling at Skutull. From a park down by the river, we discovered a vantage point where we could see the bridge and both old towns. Like the rainbow arch Evliya Çelebi described centuries ago, Stari Most once again connects the two halves of the city. It is a truly beautiful sight.
Only, now things are different. As part of the peace treaty that ended the Bosnian War, Bosnia was partitioned into two equal-sized states—the eastern Republika Srpska that borders Serbia and is majority ethnic Serbian, and the western Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) that borders Croatia and is majority ethnic Bosniak. Mass migration occurred during and after the war, as Serbian civilians fled east toward the Serbian stronghold, Croats fled to Croatia, and Bosniaks fled west and into major cities.
Mostar is in the western, Bosniak-controlled state of BiH, and while I had a difficult time researching exactly how many ethnic Serbians left Mostar as a result of the war, the rough number I came across is that around 95% of ethnic Serbians abandoned their homes and never returned. Now the city is mostly inhabited by Croats and Bosniaks, and tension between the communities remains higher than it was before the wars.
While Mostar is technically a single city, it is functionally two segregated communities. Each side has their own fire department, electric company, and even soccer team. In 1991, just before the war, around a third of marriages within Mostar were ethnically mixed. Now they are unheard of. In fact, the steps that I took across Stari Most is a short journey most citizens report they have never experienced. People fear for their lives if they cross to the other side of the bridge.
Even the road built centuries ago by the Ottomans that runs through both old towns and over Stari Most now has two different names: the Boulevard of the People’s Revolution on the Muslim side, and the Boulevard of the Croat Defenders on the Croatian side.
Stari Most may have been physically rebuilt, but it is no longer a bridge linking Islam and Christiantity, Bosniaks and Croats, East and West—it is a divider, segregating ethnic Croats from ethnic Bosniaks. The rainbow is gone and only stones remain.
For me, Stari Most is a stunning memorial that reminds the world of the horrors humans are capable of committing in the name of tribalism, the broken dream of perpetual peace, and the feeble hope that future generations can break the patterns of history.
Open Picture Book
Edited By: Shelby Thoutt