Jacqui Ruesga

Instead of staying home for the 2012 holiday season, and eating my body weight in complex-carbohydrates, I decided to set off on a two week backpacking journey to three Balkan countries. One of these countries was Bosnia and Herzegovina. I had little background knowledge of this nation before having arrived, hearing of it mostly in passing during discussions of the First World War and its 1990s civil conflict. In terms of global current events or international politics, Bosnia and Herzegovina has mainly fallen off the mainstream map. Thus, I was even more excited to arrive in this somewhat mysterious country with a very dark past.

With a flexible time-table, it just so happened that we arrived in the little town of Mostar, in the southern region of Herzegovina, on Christmas eve. We were the only guests at our hostel, and apparently the only foreigners in town. We were not surprised as it was off season for Balkan travel, as most people visit the region in the spring and summer months. Nevertheless, the temperature was relatively mild, and the four of us girls greatly enjoyed wandering the cobble-stoned streets of Mostar without the standard summer crowds.

We had done some research before our arrival and learned that our Hostel Nina was well known for the war tour that its owner Źica provides. Thus, we quickly expressed our desire to the proprietor who promptly set up a date for early the following morning.

The town of Mostar is most well-known for its bridge, built by the Ottomans in the 16th century. The bridge is a great source of pride for the town, as it signifies the unity between the two banks, and thus the unity of the ethnically and religiously diverse citizenry. However, Mostar now also has a new infamy as a front line in the 1990s Bosnian Civil War. Having been born in the late 1980s and early 90s we had little knowledge of this conflict, but Źica was about to open our eyes to a whole new perspective on the Balkans.

After the death of Marshal Josip Broz Tito, the former leader of communist Yugoslavia, the region was broken up into independent states. However, as is usually the case with the fall of an administration and the break-up of a nation, territorial agreements did not go smoothly. Bosnian-Serbs wanted to remain part of Yugoslavia while the Croats and the Bosnian-Muslims wanted their independence. Thus, the Bosnian-Serbs decided to take over Bosnia and Herzegovina with financial and military backing from Belgrade. Additionally, ethnic cleansing took place as the Bosnian-Serbs wanted to rid Bosnia of its religious and ethnic diversity, and they began expelling and executing the Muslim communities. Bosnia became the front line between the Serbs, the Croats, and the Muslims all fighting for Bosnian territory. Our tour guide Źica was seventeen years old when the war broke out.On Christmas day, Źica took us on a walking tour of his city explaining the conflict, and pointing out significant landmarks and his personal memories of war time. The paradoxical beauty of Mostar lies in that the city is not completely rebuilt, and therefore much evidence of war remains. For this reason, Źica’s tales of battle resonated even further as he could point to decrepit buildings, war ruins, and even walls riddled with bullet holes. It was easy for him to paint us a very vivid picture of his experiences.

One very overwhelming sight was when Źica brought us to a small cemetery. He explained that it used to be a park, but during the war the people of Mostar had nowhere to bury their dead, and thus graves were dug on sight. He told us that half of his high-school class was killed in battle. “This was my best friend.” he said, pointing to a grave stone.

Another unforgettable sight was the town sniper tower. Originally a bank, the tallest building in the city, during the war it was taken over by the Croats and used as their sniper tower. Źica took us inside. There was still broken glass on the ground and remnants of the building’s original structure. At the top of the tower, a hole in the east wall pointed towards the city centre. This was the sniper’s nest. The ground was littered with bullet shells. Despite over two decades of peace, the evidence is left. The tower lies just off of the town’s front lines. Źica explained to us that to this day, the people of Mostar do not frequently cross between the east and west banks of the Neretva river unless they have to. He told us that he crosses over to the west bank for business or to run errands but that he does not go for entertainment purposes. When asked why, he said “I do not go to the cinema on the west bank because I might end up sitting next to the man who shot me. I do not go to have a drink because I could run into the man who killed my best friend. I know where I belong.”Finally, Źica took us to his beloved bridge. “This is my home” he told us, “my teacher of English, my facebook profile.” He explained to us that the town’s symbol of unity was destroyed by Croat artillery fire in 1993. For days the bridge was shot at, while the people of Mostar attempted to defend it. Eventually, Źica saw the bridge fall with his own eyes. “They destroyed the bridge” he said “but they did not destroy our spirit.” The bridge was rebuilt in 2004 through international donations. In 1995, under the command of U.S President Bill Clinton, NATO became involved in the defense of the Bosnian people. It performed several air-strikes against the invading Serbs which resulted in a cease-fire and peace negotiations. The war finally came to an end on November 21st, 1995 with the Dayton Peace Agreement. The Muslim communities that were expelled were reinstated, and Bosnia and Herzegovina became a demilitarized state. The country’s only source of defense is now NATO. Źica told us to look up the U.S Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia. “It is not an Embassy” he said “it is a military base.”

It was an unforgettable Christmas day, learning about the political history and importance of this tiny town. Źica gave us his perspective of the war, but he made it abundantly clear to us that every person in the region has their own take on the events that took place during those years. We heeded his disclaimer, but walked away feeling that the Bosnians had been victims of this war, and the Serbs the persecutors. It was not until we met Źaco that we realized that war is never so simplistic. On the night of December the 26th, we were catching the over-night bus up to Sarajevo. We arrived at the lonely bus station, purchased our tickets and sat at the only bar in the terminal. The owner of the bar was a Bosnian-Serb named Źaco. He was an older man, with peppered hair who spoke very little English. We ordered some pivo (beer) and began to play some cards. Źaco approached us and in very broken English asked us where we were from. Haley answered that she was an American, when my sister and I saw the expression of polite disappointment on his face, we quickly explained to him that we were Canadians. This seemed to cheer him up a bit. He also heard the word Mexico come out of our mouths, and assumed Adriana was the Mexican and proceeded to call her ‘Mexico’ for the rest of our time there. Źaco joined us in our game of crazy eights, learning the rules quite quickly despite the language barrier. He joked constantly and made us laugh quite a lot with his one-liners.

Beginning with the usual small talk, Źaco eventually communicated to us that he was a Bosnian-Serb, and therefore his experience and perspective of the 90s civil war was very different from the one we’d heard the day before. He jokingly accused Haley of her American responsibility in the NATO bombings of his home, and went on to half-mime, half-speak the story of how NATO forced him from his home for being Serbian and gave up the residential area to the Bosnian-Muslims who had been expelled from other parts of the country. It was hard for us to believe that this kind man had earlier been perceived, in our naïve minds, as the enemy during the war, and here we were drinking beer and playing cards with him. It’s so easy to forget that the participants of these conflicts are real people and not just characters in a story.

During our trip to Mostar, we had the pleasure of meeting these people, hearing their stories, and learning that ‘enemies’ and ‘victims’ are such incredibly subjective terms. War is enormously complex with innumerable factors playing a role in the battles and their outcomes, and the only way to know the real story is to hear it from those who lived it, acknowledge the discrepancies and understand that there is no absolute truth in the morality of war, only perception.