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.

Bosnia

The landscape of Bosnia Herzegovina is beautiful, lush and green, albiet marred by the too-frequent ruined buildings and walls scarred by bullets from the vicious wars of the 90s.  The first thing my friend and I did in the country was a tour around Herzegovina the day after we arrived, visiting an ancient Muslim holy house at Blagaj; the old town of Počitelj which was destroyed by the 1992-96 war; a catholic pilgrim’s site and location of a supposed miracle at Medjugorje and, last but not least, the Kravice falls, where we swam in a freezing lake (turned film set).  And that’s not even mentioning the food.  

Blagaj, Pocitelj and Kravice waterfalls

Blagaj, Pocitelj and Kravice waterfalls

Despite arriving in Mostar 3 hours late (budget time for your transport in this region) we were picked up as scheduled and taken to the fabulous Deny Rooms hostel, where that night my friend and I and a gaggle of Australian backpackers signed up for Deny’s Herzegovina day tour, drank some rakia (potent and went down easily) and shuffled off as a group for a traditional Bosnian meal in a local restaurant.  

Happily thrown together with new people, in Mostar we ate and explored with the other guests.  I don’t usually sign up for tours, preferring to explore by myself or with my friends, but because we’d all met the previous night it felt like we’d be missing out if we didn’t, and so we booked an extra night, and didn’t regret it once.

One of my better breakfasting experiences, by the side of the River Buna

One of my better breakfasting experiences, by the side of the River Buna

The picture above is where we had breakfast on the morning of the tour.  It was misty, and we were led through thick stone walls into a courtyard full of tables and trees, and a massive stone walk-in oven (ok, cooking area), and told to guess what we were having for breakfast.  The answer: börek and an unsweetened yoghurt drink.  I was more excited about the yoghurt drink than the heavy pastry with meat or cheese.

There were kittens at breakfast.  One of them kept climbing on the girl who least liked cats, and was eventually plucked up by the neck by one of the tour hosts, who pretended to throw it into the river.  It promptly came back.

The Muslim holy house, or Dervish house, was just across the river from the restaurant.  It’s built right at the bottom of a cliff too tall to photograph, and juts out over a vividly blue pool.

Dervish House 1

Blagaj dervish house from across the river

Dervish House 2

Close up, the two hostel owners who guided our tour wearing their I

Our next stop, Počitelj, on the left bank of the River Neretva, just south of Mostar and strategically important from the 15th century all the way up until the late 19th, was all but destroyed in the war of 1992-96, as was so much else in the region during those years.  We were guided by two rambunctious kids (and it’s not often that word actually applies) up to the fortress, where the view was amazing out over the river valley.  You can also climb up inside the tower.

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View from the walk up to Počitelj’s fortress

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The old town of Počitelj and River Neretva.  You can see the fortress just left of centre.

Another short drive and we were at the bizarre site of Medugorje, 35km from Mostar.  The story goes that in 1981 the Virgin Mary appeared to some teenaged walkers in the hills, and the church built to commemorate this attracts Catholic pilgrims from all over the world.  There are literally hundreds of gift shops selling kitsch religious souvenirs, and not much else.  There is a huge car park, and the church itself is an underwhelming pale yellow building.  There was a service going on inside, though, and it was more packed than any church I’ve seen.

Our day finished at the Kravice waterfalls, where we ignored the rain and obvious onset of winter and swam in the lake.  It was absolutely freezing, and while I’m glad I took the plunge (heh) and actually swum, I knew my limits and couldn’t make it all the way across to the waterfalls, the current being really strong and the temperature having evacuated my lungs of air.  Letting the current help me back to the shore I grabbed on to a dinghy sheltering a load of filming equipment. Drying off I ordered tea instead of beer (and was then the envy of quite a few cold people) when we all gathered in yet another restaurant lakeside to be served up a massive meal of meat in just about every form and (thankfully) some salads.

Kravice Waterfalls

Kravice Waterfalls

Bonus picture: dressing in loaned scarves to look around the dervish house:

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