War Tourism

Our host has given us directions using a human being – movable, usually – as a landmark. “Go past the junkie,” he said. “Then you’re there.”

Sure enough, the solitary figure on the pavement watches vacantly as my friend Hannah and I slip behind the advertising signs and small piles of rubble. We’ve found ourselves at the end of one summer in Mostar, in the Herzegovina part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The building we’re entering – a tower – was once a bank, captured in the Croat-Bosniak war and converted into a sniper tower. It’s made up of angles; triangular and aggressive in design, or so it appears now.

Bereft of windows and completely hollow, stepping inside is like walking into a multi-storey car park, only the floor is lined with broken glass, litter, general debris. Old documents here and there. Bullet casings.

Disquieted, I follow Hannah up several flights of stairs – unsupported, marked in red where declared by some authority as unsafe. My hesitance is half because I’m nervous of what we might find, and half because a sense of guilt is playing on my mind, making the camera around my neck feel heavier than usual. Little more than a decade ago, gunmen chose to nest in this building because of its height and outlook, and murdered people. I take few pictures. Hannah takes more. We justify our curiosity to each other – we’re students of conflict and should witness its realities. I still feel voyeuristic.

Over the half height wall looking at the adjacent buildings you can still see the damage the bullets wrought, while standing where their shells fell.

I look instead to the school across the road, its bright orange walls some contrast to its surroundings. Out of the gates of the United World College, opened in 2006 to aid reconstruction of post-conflict society, children and young adults of mixed ethnicities finish their day of school. Behind the college, across from the entrance to this looming ghost of a bank, a trendy café with cream umbrellas plays host to a lively crowd.

All over Mostar buildings sit unrepaired or crumbling, decimated by fighting. Beautiful old structures from a past now clouded by recent history. But there is more than a little recovery, even though it seems slow. The famous bridge has been rebuilt and is gleaming (I slide over the polished stones). The old town is a tourist gem – artisan shops and restaurants, with only galleries and a museum to tell of the past. Everyone is welcoming and talkative. One day, when the damage is no longer so visible on its surface, the Mostar tourists encounter won’t be so completely defined by conflict, but by its hospitality, its food, and its surroundings.

The day before we leave for Sarajevo, in an old fort overlooking the River Neretva at dusk, we learn that our tour guide hasn’t told his son about the war. The information is offered unbidden, reflectively.

“But don’t you want the children to learn, so that history doesn’t repeat itself?” asks an Australian girl. “No,” he says resolutely. “He’ll never know what people did to each other here.” He’s protecting his son’s innocence, and of course in other places we are urged never forget. Still, I wonder if it matters, and if we ever learn anyway.

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