Oh my god, he’s going to do it!” screeched the American teenager to my left. Sure enough with a quick wave to the crowd, a furtive glance downwards and a tuck of the pants, over he leapt. One of Mostar’s bridge-jumpers had just taken the plunge into the icy Neretva River below. I’d just witnessed something that wasn’t possible two decades before.
In 1992 the Bosnian town of Mostar, until then a peaceful mix of Muslims, Serbs and Croats, self-imploded; a microcosm of all that went wrong in the former Yugoslavia. Neighbours who had fought a common enemy turned on each other. The pointlessness was summed up by one act: the destruction of Stari Most – Mostar’s old bridge which had stood for over 500 years was destroyed by Bosnian Croat shells.
I was in BiH (Bosnia & Herzegovina) to see how the country had progressed since the Bosnian War. What I found was a vibrant, friendly culture and people that only respected, but also remembered, the past. “Never Forget ‘93” is painted on a rock. Bombed out buildings house trees where once windows were. Cemeteries have the same year on the headstones. And yet, the country is warily finding its own way in the world and once again attracting visitors.
While Mostar itself is a relatively small town it is one of the most visited in the Balkans. Known for its alley of coppersmiths, where the sons and daughters of coppersmiths before them have toiled, the ‘clang clang clang’ nearly drowns out the Europop wafting like the smell of burnt coffee.
“I have been here with my brother for 17 years,” said one proud artisan. “We started after we stopped fighting. These are the tools of my father”. Showing me his family symbol on the bottom of a plate, he demonstrated how each tool creates a different indent while explaining that “imported stuff in other stores could never be pretty”. I walked away with a copper bowl, a shiny, hand-crafted, story-infused memory of Bosnia.
The memory most of us have of Bosnia of course is the nightly news 20 years ago, dominated by Sarajevo. For nearly four years the city was under siege, surrounded by Bosnian Serbs who wanted it as part of a Greater Serbia. Today in The Hague sit those being tried for war crimes for the shelling and snipers that made Sarajevo unliveable. Zig-zagging across the street for fear of being shot. Queues for water and bread. Every tree cut down for firewood. And football fields converted to graveyards. When the 1993 Ms Sarajevo contestants held up a banner saying “Don’t let them kill us”, they were crying out to the world.
When the 1993 Ms Sarajevo contestants held up a banner saying “Don’t let them kill us”, they were crying out to the world.
The city had one way in and one way out, a tunnel to the UN-protected airport. We decided to tour it.It wasn’t long before our tour guide was on the verge of tears. She apologised for her emotion and had to stop at the tunnel entrance. “We found out our friends had died because they didn’t come to school. I had many friends… die. It was very sad to be 8 and lose friends”. Her English was broken but not because she didn’t speak fluently. 11,541 civilians were killed in the siege.
Today’s Sarajevo is a symbol of resilience, buzzing with tourists-a-plenty. Its pedestrianised areas are filled with chain stores. Old men play chess, young couples kiss passionately and kids cry over spilt gelato. The charm of the old town is still there with restaurants serving up shots of rakia (40% distilled alcohol) and hot plates of cevapi, a moreish grilled lamb dish in open kebab bread.