Monday, August 15, 2011

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Mostar and Sarajevo

By Melissa at 5:02 AM
July 19 - 26

From Croatia we took a bus to Bosnia and Herzegovina (two names, one country). For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to just refer to the country as Bosnia for the rest of the post. We spent six days there and it was quite a contrast to our travels in Croatia and Slovenia. As I've mentioned in previous posts, the break up of Yugoslavia played out in a complicated series of wars over a period of five years in the 1990s, but the impact on each country was vastly different. For example, less than 20 Slovenians died in their 10-day war with the Yugoslav army, but more than 100,000 people were killed in Bosnia during their three-year war.

Bosnia was one of the worst hit during the Yugoslav wars because of the cultural mix inside of its borders. The main conflicts in the Balkans can basically be boiled down to people of three different religions fighting over the same land. You have Bosnian Muslims (called Bosniaks), Serbian Orthodox Christians and Croatian Catholics. As you go farther south you can also add ethnic Albanians living in what's now known as Kosovo, most of whom are Muslim and some are Catholic.

Bosnia was first attacked by the Serbian-led Yugoslav army because they felt the lands inside Bosnia where a large amount of Serbs were living should be part of Serbia instead of Bosnia. After the Bosniaks successfully fought the Serbians from the capital with the help of the Croatians, the Croatians decided they would attack the Bosniaks because they wanted to control some territory with large populations of Croatians. But the Serbians hadn't completely been expelled from all Bosnian territories and they continued their campaigns of ethnic cleansing and massacres under the nose of UN peacekeeping troupes until 1995. As part of the negotiated compromise, Serbia recognizes the previous borders of Bosnia, but they are given administrative control of the areas where large populations of Serbs are living. This area is called the Republika Serbska and they use the Cyrillic alphabet as they do in Serbia. Sadly, the fighting continues in other parts of the former Yugoslav republics like Kosovo.

Enough of the war history and on to our first destination, Mostar. Mostar is in southern Bosnia and is a popular spot for tourists, most of whom come to see the winding stone streets of the old town and Stari Most, or Old Bridge, which was originally built by Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century. It was the longest single-span arched bridge at the time of construction and stood for over 400 years until it was bombed in 1993 by the Croatians. It was rebuilt in 2004, along with most of the old town by UNESCO and wiped clean of any traces of the war.

Stari Most from below
From Mostar, Bosnia
Stari Most at night
From Mostar, Bosnia
View of the Stari Most from the top of the Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque minaret
From Mostar, Bosnia
North view from the top of Stari Most (old bridge)
From Mostar, Bosnia
We walked around the charming old town and enjoyed a lot of Ćevapčići (minced meat kebabs) and burek (baked dough, stuffed with meat, potatoes, or other veggies) . As we ventured just outside of the tourist-packed old town, the scars of the war reappear in many places. We saw many bombed out buildings and even occupied buildings scarred by shrapnel and bullet holes. After a few days in Mostar we boarded another bus to the capital of Sarajevo.

Potato Burek
From Mostar, Bosnia
Ćevapčići
From Sarajevo, Bosnia
Partially repaired apartment building on the front-line
From Mostar, Bosnia
Abandoned building on the front-line
From Mostar, Bosnia
Sarajevo, the home of the 1984 Winter Olympics, is a fairly small but, vibrant capital with lots of restaurants and people out on the street, day and night. Traces of the war here are harder to find, but definitely not gone. There are several war monuments, including one dedicated to the children that died in the war and several unofficial monuments known as Sarajevo Roses. With a happy sounding name, they are anything but. The "roses" are radial scars that form in the concrete when mortar shells explode. Where one or more deaths were caused by the explosion, they were filled in with red resin.

On the Latin Bridge, where Franz Ferdinand was killed
From Sarajevo, Bosnia
From Sarajevo, Bosnia
Scars from the war
From Sarajevo, Bosnia
Main shopping street
From Sarajevo, Bosnia
A Sarajevo Rose
From Sarajevo, Bosnia
The city's rich cultural heritage is evident in it's buildings. On our first day there we visited a Serbian Orthodox cathedral, Catholic cathedral, mosque and former synagogue. The synagogue also served as a museum and was one of the best Jewish heritage museums we've been to so far.

The Orthodox Cathedral
From Sarajevo, Bosnia
Street in the Baščaršija
From Sarajevo, Bosnia
Inside the Jewish Synagoge
From Sarajevo, Bosnia
Badges worn by the Jews in WWII
From Sarajevo, Bosnia
All in all, I can't say that Bosnia was one of my favorite destinations, but there are certainly places worth seeing if you're traveling to this area of the world. While on the surface the cities had a high level of vitality and nightlife in terms of restaurants and people out on the street at night, I didn't find the people we interacted with outside of the hotels to be particularly warm. And frankly, I haven't been treated this badly at restaurants since the last time I was in Paris where the waiters are notoriously mean. As a tourist you never know whether this is due to the language barrier or perhaps because there is still a pall over the city from the wars in the 90s, but it definitely put a dampener on this part of the trip. Luckily, both of the hotels we stayed in were run by extremely gracious and helpful owners so they were nice refuges at the end of the day.

If you're into the outdoors and sports, the Bosnian countryside is quite beautiful and is supposed to be a great place to go with skiing, mountain biking, kayaking and hiking. I think if I had to do it again I would have divided up our time differently, with more time in the mountains and national parks where we could go hiking.


Brian and Melissa at the bottom of the Stari Most
From Mostar, Bosnia

More pictures of Mostar and Sarajevo.