This is part of a 35-day trip spanning 5,000 kilometers. To be honest, this part of the trip through Bosnia was an add-on. I had read reviews on Air B&B and walked away with the sense that this was a special place to visit. So I took a couple days from other places and extended my trip to fit in time in Sarajevo and Mostar.
Along the way, I visited Serbia because it plays an important role in the recent history of Bosnia and the wider region. So the first two posts below are about the Serbian view of their neighbors.
It became the highlight of my trip in many ways. I was so surprised, so utterly charmed by the people and history and food and scenery. Now I want to come back for at least an entire week.
During my Croatia trip years ago, I had thought about driving into Mostar for a day trip. But it seemed kind of exotic and scary for some reason back then. And Sarajevo just seemed so distant and like some war torn city filled with rubble. All my preconceived notions were wrong! These places are beautiful and mesmerizing to me. I really want to go back, like today!
Please DO NOT do a daytrip to Mostar. Spend at least one night (I’ll give you the best Air B&B recommendation there is) and really experience it. More time if you can, as I will next time. Hope you enjoy discovering these cities with me.
You know I don’t like flying. It probably would have been cheaper and easier to simply fly from Bucharest to Sarajevo, but I hired DayTrip drivers to take me from Bucharest to Belgrade to Sarajevo. I took the morning train to Mostar, and then hired my awesome Air B&B host to drive me through Croatia to Slovenia. Quite the adventure. One advantage and disadvantage of hiring drivers is having someone to talk to for six hours. Although I took brief naps (because they weren’t Ukrainian drivers!), I tried to take advantage of this time to learn about their different cultures.
Belgrade (Zemun): Fascinating Encounter with Serb Teen
It was a chance encounter with a 15-year-old Serbian kid at a basketball court that salvaged my day in Belgrade.
I arrive at about 3pm and upon check-in, the front desk guy smiles and says, “Nice passport.” I don’t understand what he means initially. “I didn’t win the lottery,” he laments, shaking his head. He is referring to the process by which a certain number of foreigners are granted access to America. It is their way out.
The Serb view of America is mixed. We bombed them in the late 90’s as part of NATO (because Milosevic kept attacking his neighbors and committing atrocities). There is a huge Serb population in Chicago and they know it’s a way to prosperity they can’t get here. An apartment may be only $250 here, but wages are like $350. It’s rough.
I choose this hotel because the room is small with good A/C (it’s 90+) and because I don’t want to have to mess around with meeting an Air B&B person. Easy in and out. The front desk people are super friendly, a nice start.
So I set out to walk. I want to find the charm in this little neighborhood of Zemun. I want to romanticize walking the quay along the mighty Danube River. But I can’t. It is ugly. The grass is overgrown, pavement cracked under sweltering sun, the beckoning restaurants are dated and the river is brown and smelly. It looks better after dark. And in this picture.
Plus these nasty apartment buildings loom over you, like the eyes of the strongman dictator and genocidal war criminal Slobodan Milosevic watching over the city from his grave.
So I am conflicted. I had read there is a cool bohemian district in Belgrade across the river, but it is another five miles ahead. I have no local currency for water or a bathroom. It is sweltering hot and ugly. I consider going back to the cool hotel room and calling it a night.
So I give myself a challenge. Go the entire night without getting local cash out. That quickly becomes too uncomfortable so I withdraw 2000 Serb Diner, about $19, and vow to get lunch and dinner and water on that. I see people on a makeshift beach. I walk past soldiers with guns on a long makeshift pedestrian bridge to see it. It makes me thankful for where we live.
Then I walk through empty parks and finally make it across the river into Belgrade proper. It is ugly. Yes, I know there are probably pretty parts and I’m a little biased. But Zemun is supposed to be the charming little neighborhood and it’s not.
I find the so-called and misnamed Bohemian neighborhood and sit down to enjoy a traditional Serbian dinner with grilled meats. (And use the bathroom!) I ask the waiter about this one option and he says, “That’s for two people.” So I ask him if he can make it for one person. Sure. Well, how much? He can’t tell me. Oy. So I decid to spend as little as possible. I get veal cream soup with bread and a beer. For $6. The guy could have easily sold me on a $14 dinner with a good tip.
A little happier, I save another dollar by choosing one street vendor over the one nearby and score a huge cold water bottle and single scoop of Snickers ice cream for the 6 mile walk home. $2.
Tired, I stop to watch young Serbs playing three-on-three basketball. A kid looks up and asks in broken English, “You going to play?” Vladimir tells me he loves the Boston Celtics but hates Tom Brady and the Patriots. Probably because they are winners and the Serb mindset is one of perpetual victims. My own cheap shot there, but I have found it to be unfortunately true of so many.
He’s a sweet kid. Reminds me of Keith. In a prep school. Wants to play basketball, but backup is medical school. We talk.
I get up to go. He walks with me for the next hour and he talks. At first, I think this is hopeful. A new generation of kids growing up with a different mindset than their parents. He’s engaging, working really hard to speak English. It’s such a surreal moment for me, waking in this foreign country talking to a local teen.
But all he talks about are how the Serbs have been victimized by different groups. He says we are warriors who fight. And they are. They fought the Ottoman Turks in Kosovo in 1389 and lost. And they are still stuck there, 600 years ago, as I discovered in Kosovo this winter. They used to be the leaders of the greater Yugoslavia. Look how big it was. But once communism fell, all these countries wanted their independence.
So Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who basically turned the former Yugoslav Army into a Serb-dominated army, decided that the Serbs would rule the other republics. He got them fired up and attacked four countries. And promptly lost all four wars in the 1990’s, but not before committing horrible personal atrocities.
Vladimir recounts numerous times with pride how Serbs shot down an American stealth bomber in the 1990’s. But they lost badly. He laments the loss of Kosovo to Albanian Muslims. It’s our ancient homeland, he insists. We spilled blood there. And I’m sad. Because it’s clear that’s been drilled into him in school and by his parents. We are victims. Everyone is against us. We must fight.
He recounts how NATO dropped bombs in 1999 to end the Kosovo War and killed 135 civilians, among them his neighbors. He’s earnest in his feelings. And we did kill civilians. What he doesn’t know is that we only reluctantly got involved because of the mass atrocities being committed by Serbs (rape of 20,000 Kosovo women and execution of men). He hasn’t been taught that part.
It is astounding when he talks about crimes against Serbia, completely oblivious to the fact that dozens of Serb leaders have been convicted in an International Court of genocide and crimes against humanity. Not a clue.
I consider gently encouraging him to read some history on his own. But I don’t. Regrets. Here’s this bright-eyed, earnest, smart kid who could be a future leader to help build his country from the inside instead of continuing to foment the constant strife against enemies. I am afraid this will doom the next generation as well.
We say goodbye and I wish him well. I seek out a restaurant I had seen earlier in the day. It’s got something I want to try. I walk in at 9pm, drenched in sweat. The kindly gentleman seats me on a rooftop terrace overlooking the old town.
There’s one couple there. I wonder why it’s empty. Mosquitoes attack. He burns some local root that apparently scares them away. It only causes them to attack my legs 🙂
Alas, a masterpiece. Chicken stuffed with local cheese and wrapped in bacon, in a plum sauce with seasoned potatoes. $9 plus a $2 tip. Mission accomplished! A cold shower awaits and the A/C in the small room works like a charm.
My mixed feelings about Serbia are mangled even more this morning. I go to breakfast and am met by an ordinary woman of about 40 eager to walk me step by step down this entire buffet, explaining each item with pride.
She explains the ingredients, which are authentic Serb dishes, and even the history behind them. She’s obviously proud of her work and beams when I take pictures. I love grilled vegetables in the morning. I love this breakfast.
I ask her which is the best dessert given that I’m stuffed. She brings me an apricot ball so good I considered stuffing five in my ziploc baggies!
There are kind people everywhere. I met three in one day. But I’m not sure I’d ever go back to Serbia. Love to all.
Tension in the Car: Serbian Confession Driving to Sarajevo
So I got a breakthrough today with my young Serb driver taking me to Sarajevo. We had five hours together and I didn’t want to waste it. Although I was surprised at how beautiful this land is.
At first he told me how important Serbian history is to their people. I asked him point blank: would you join the Serb army to go and fight to take Kosovo back? “Yes.” Well, that shows commitment.
I asked if he could be friends with Muslims. He was noncommittal and uncomfortable.
We drove in silence for a couple hours. I asked about former Yugoslavia dictator Tito. He is revered. He brought together all these people in different countries who speak the same language. They are unified and relatively prosperous under him.
Times were better then. It’s hard to make it now.
I then decided to go for it and asked about the dozens of Serb leaders convicted of war crimes. I’m actually reading a great book about how the special forces in different countries tracked them down. “We do not talk about it or learn about it.” Uncomfortable silence in the car.
And I didn’t even mention the documented atrocities committed by Serbs. I didn’t want him driving me off a cliff. But I perceive he’s driving faster, irritated.
Then the big crack.
“I think we should forget about the past and get along with others. We speak the same language. We used to all be neighbors. I don’t think we should hold onto the past anymore.” This is the first time I have heard a Serb utter this sentiment.
He thinks more in his generation might lean this way. If so, that would be refreshing.
It feels like he’s working it out in his mind. It’s hard because his father fought in the war in the 90’s and wants to hold onto it. It may be a couple more generations before the attitudes change. But it’s hard when Serbs still talk passionately about 1389!
But that was a huge breakthrough and I’m happy to have met some young Serbs to give me context.
What follows is an overview of what happened in this region in the 1990’s. It will be great context so I hope it’s not too tedious!
When communist dogma lost its tenuous hold on people’s minds with the fall of the USSR, the more ideologically flexible and unscrupulous of the fading Communist elite, led by Slobodan Milosevic, switched to nationalism.
Either way, you can control people. In the face of chaos and fear left by the collapse of the old order, nationalism provided certainty. We are right and better than you. See, all our textbooks and leaders tell us this.
The challenge of converting a totalitarian state into a democracy, or turning a command economy into a free market, were waved away with colorful flags, hazy nostalgia, recurrent myths, and folk music.
It’s like Arafat told Bill Clinton. It’s easier to tear down others than build yourself. It’s easier to fight than make peace.
The Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Muslim Bosniaks had been friends and even intermarried for generations. But making allowances for ethnic nuance robbed the nationalist message of its simplicity and power.
Serbia and Croatia leaders both mapped out greater territory for themselves. But rather than change their maps when the Bosnians balked, the leaders decided to simply carve up the people instead to fit their fanciful drawings.
They would use terror to force change on flesh and blood and create ethnically pure territories. Brutal violence was unleashed by a deceptive question: “Why should I be a minority in your country, when you could be a minority in mine?”
Serbian leader Milosevic had access to plenty of arms and members of the former Yugoslavia became members of the new Serbian military. Pretty convenient.
So the former Yugoslav countries, once held together by Toto, fought each other one by one, with Serbia taking on Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Kosovo. Serbia lost all of these wars. But it is the people who ultimately lost.
100,000 neighbors killed each other, 40,000 women were raped (leading mass rape to be categorized for the first time as a crime against humanity), and 2,000,000 people were displaced.
Yugoslavia marched into hell because its leaders took it there.
Happy Sarajevo: I Love it Here
I was instantly smitten with Sarajevo as soon as I walked into the city from my apartment up on the hill.
Despite all the destruction you will read about, Sarajevo is a rather joyful place. The shopkeepers, both Muslim and others, smile and speak almost perfect English. People are friendly.
It’s a small little city surrounded by beautiful green hills dotted with red-roofed homes. It’s hard to capture, but while you’re walking through the pedestrian market streets, you can see a minaret, domed mosque and orthodox cross against the backdrop of the green hills.
There are wide walking boulevards with outdoor cafes and ice cream stands (less than a buck per scoop) and narrow little bazaars that remind you of Istanbul on a much smaller scale.
The mosques are great because you can use free restrooms and refill water bottles for free or splash your face to cool off on hot days like the people below. I constantly refilled multiple water bottles and never had to purchase water.
My apartment has a living room and outdoor terrace with amazing views for only $60 per night. You have to climb a hill and then five flights in the building but the payoff is worth it.
Locals love the cevapi, grilled meat in a chargrilled pita pocket. It’s a ton of meat and filling for $4. I learned in Spain to watch where the old local men eat and follow them. That’s how I found this. I had seen an older guy sitting outside eating when a local called out to him. Okay, that means the old guy is a local. I asked him if the food was good. “The best.”
I had stocked up on yogurt and bananas for breakfast, but stopped in a bakery on my walk through a residential neighborhood and asked the nice lady what her favorite breakfast bread was. It’s huge and filled with chocolate/Nutella. 60 cents. Now I’m hungry for that again! She asked me to tell her what I thought so on the way back, I stopped in and thanked her. Very sweet. Last night I had veal stew, good bread and a salad for $6.
There are people of every stripe, including women completely covered except for a slit in her hijab trying to eat an ice cream cone. Notice the inherent unfairness. You’ll see Muslim men in shorts on hot days while their wives are covered in black.
You see the Moorish Muslim influence in architecture (remember from Spain how it influenced churches and synagogues). Same here. This is the National Library. It was filled with 2 million volumes about Bosnian culture and history. The Serbs destroyed it to erase the memory of Bosnian culture. How nice. But it has been rebuilt and restocked. #Resilience.
This is a church with the Moorish arches and design. There are good free walking tours here where you just tip your guide at the end based on your satisfaction.
I really love it here and would come back anytime. It’s walkable and packed with history. This is the epicenter, ground zero, where the spark that triggered World War I was ignited. But it’s also fun and lively with great aromas and smiling people. As it should be.
Lots of interesting history and experiences to come. Love to all!
Sarajevo: Where Snipers Killed Their Neighbors
25 years ago, one of 800 Serb snipers (possibly a former neighbor and friend) would have splattered my brain matter for being a Bosnian Muslim.
Lest you think I am exaggerating, look at this residential apartment building. Zoom in. I hiked up to the Jewish cemetery this morning, a favorite sniper vantage point, and could see these buildings. Look closely below at the bullet and mortar shell holes all around the balconies. This is where everyday families live. It was an eye-opening walk.
It is 1992. I am 26 and Anita is pregnant with Casey, living in Milwaukee next to Jeff and Tracy. Halfway around the world, ordinary people like Davud and Amina go to work everyday in the city of Sarajevo in Bosnia. It’s a beautiful city surrounded by mountains that just played host to the 1986 Winter Olympics.
You walk to work, eat picnics in the park on the weekends, go to the cinema and eat ice cream with your kids while strolling the charming streets.
You are Muslim and your neighbors are Serbs. Orthodox Churches sit alongside mosques and synagogues. It is a cosmopolitan city where intermarriage has become the norm.
But imagine that the next day, you can no longer go to work. These same Serbs, your former neighbors, are now hiding in the hills surrounding your city, shooting at you as you cross a bridge or stand in line for food at an outdoor market. Snipers are killing your father, your brother, your child, your grandmother, your neighbor because they are Muslim.
Know why they are Muslim? Because 500 years ago when Catholics were killing Jews and non-Catholics during the Inquisition, the Muslim Sultan of Constantinople offered them protection if Christians converted to Islam. He didn’t make Jews convert because they were needed as merchants. Then 500 years later, supposedly Orthodox “Christians” are killing and raping you.
You have to duck while crossing certain streets. (Actual photo below from 1992).
Suddenly, mortar shells are blowing up apartment buildings where you live. Electricity is cut off and there is no more running water. Serbs have cut off the city.
It is now under siege. And it will remain that way for another 1,425 days. That’s almost four years, your entire high school or college experience. Trapped like an animal. Unable to live a normal life. Longer than even the Siege of Leningrad when 1 million Russians died.
You have to sneak between buildings and run quickly across bridges just to get fresh water from a spring in plastic jugs. One devastating and psychologically cruel element of this siege is that the snipers in the hills kill civilians randomly. I have never heard of that being done so systematically in a war. And it happened here recently.
You’re at a bridge. Two people run across. Safely. Must be safe this afternoon. But then you see a nice lady’s head blown off, her body contorted and bleeding in front of you. Do you help her? If so, you risk being shot. Does that make you a coward? What about these feelings of hatred for the Serbs (or Muslims) that you never had before? Have you become like them? You eventually cross the bridge, safely. Why were you spared? The psychological toll was unimaginable.
Dark humor gets you through. A common joke: “Would you like coffee,” a host asks her visitor. “No, thank you.” The host smiles, “Good, now I can take a shower.” Meaning that’s how little water the people learned to use to wash themselves.
By the end of the siege, nearly every building in this city is damaged, with 65% nearly ruined. 100,000 apartments are destroyed. 5,400 civilians had been killed. The dead are piled in parks and the former site of the Olympic Games. You can still see the scars of war, bullet and mortar holes, in many buildings as you stroll by.
Atrocities had been committed on each side. But particularly awful was the Serbian tool of raping women in front of others to humiliate them.
There are 30,000 men, women and children still missing from the 1992-1996 War here. Remains of the dead from mass graves are still being identified by relatives. The country is still coming to terms with the fact that its own citizens just killed each other.
There are these Sarajevo Roses marking where civilians were killed throughout the city. There are a lot of them.
I just can’t imagine being stuck in my apartment or home for four years, hiding in a basement as shells hit indiscriminately. I can’t imagine snipers surrounding my home, having to crawl to get from room to room. And yet that’s what people here went through. And yet it remains a joyful place somehow.
Bosnia: Blowing Up My Assumptions & Civilians
Sarajevo: World War I (and Veal Stew) Began At This Bridge
At 11:00 in the morning on June 28, 1914, an event occurred here that lead to the deaths of 20 million people.
A young Bosnian Serb named Gavrilo Princip assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his pregnant wife at the far end of the Latin Bridge below. This lone teenager possibly had more impact on the 20th Century than anyone else.
The Serbs were upset because Austria had just annexed Bosnia from the faltering Ottoman Empire. The Serbs wanted to rule themselves. The Austrians were arrogant enough to parade their royalty through the streets on June 28, the Serb holy day commemorating the 1389 Battle of Kosovo when they lost to their first oppressor, the Ottoman Turks. Duh.
You can go to the exact spot where the Archduke’s car turned right below instead of going straight. The young Serb, who is still a national hero to Serbians, stepped up to the car and fired. He wasn’t even a major player in this drama and wasn’t even in the right position. The driver made a fatal mistake by turning right.
This assassination, of course, was the fuse that led to the eruption of World War I, ultimately resulting in the deaths of 20 million people in Europe. And World War I ultimately fueled the lingering resentments resulting in the ascension of Adolph Hitler to begin World War II. Triggered by a wrong turn by a man who probably didn’t want to stop to ask for directions 🙂
Right near this spot is also where two sisters operate a little restaurant called To Be or Not To Be. There are only two tables inside, two out. When I approached, I saw the one sister dozing off! I sat down and before long this Bosnian Grandma Rosie greeted me warmly. I ordered the veal stew.
I determined that my final meal in Sarajevo would be here.
So I am sitting here just trying to soak up the moment on my last night here. I never ever thought I’d come to Bosnia. It seemed so scary, so exotic. So different. And I don’t usually like different.
But I think you’d like it. Maybe even love it here in Sarajevo.I’ve been thinking about the veal stew all afternoon. My natural inclination is to get the same exact thing on my last night here. But Nikki persuaded me to try the beefsteak in chili chocolate sauce. The verdict awaits.
I cleaned my plate. The chocolate and chili balance each other. It helps that the beef is tender and juicy, the potatoes are crispy with those grill marks, and I like that they are bold enough to put a cabbage type salad right there with the sauce. For pure flavor, veal stew. But I’m glad I tried this. And so glad I came to Sarajevo. I will really miss it here.
Spectacular Train From Sarajevo to Mostar
It frustrates me that I need to have a plan. So today I kinda winged it, albeit uncomfortably.
It’s only 1.4 miles from the apartment, but it’s supposed to be raining. There’s no Uber here, which I’ve grown to love for its upfront pricing and timing. So I get up extra early at 5:45, leave at 6:30 and assume I’ll see lines of taxis along the main boulevard. But that’s assuming they are like Americans or westerners. I see nothing. Ordinary people don’t start their day here until much later!
So I walk and think I’ll make it a challenge. It’s cool and not raining. By the way, I can’t explain that. It was supposed to rain all day in Mostar and it didn’t until after dark. It’s been five weeks and I haven’t lost a minute to rain. Thankful.
I bypass taxis. I make it. Ahhh.
Then I step into the train station. It’s empty. It’s also 129 degrees and filled with smoke.
You have to get there 15 minutes early and see a ticket agent (in this case puffing smoke) who hands you a handwritten ticket! It’s one of the problems here—it’s hard for tourists to get to Bosnia when you don’t even have an international train. Just rudimentary.
It’s $12 from Sarajevo to Mostar, but I paid the extra $4 for first class to be away from people. Plus I have an empty coach so I can bounce back from side to side to catch views along the way. Plus the bathroom is actually big and clean.
What a surprise! This two hour trip turns out to be spectacular. Really. There are mountains and lakes and quaint villages and dozens of tunnels.
I could quit my job and become a tourism promoter for Bosnia. It’s 75% as beautiful as Switzerland at about 35% of the cost.
I have time to reflect. So here’s where I am on this adventure.
The ticket guys on the train are happy and smiling. It’s just odd in a good way.
We arrive 20 minutes late but my guesthouse host is waiting for me. She’s warm and friendly. Let’s me into my room early so I can go explore. I’m thrown for a minute by the shared bathroom but it’s only one night.
I had heard this two hour train ride was good but had no idea it hid so many surprises.
Thankful that anxiety can turn into unexpected surprises! Love to all.
Mostar: Go Jump Off A Bridge!
And the best food of the entire trip goes to Bosnia. I took the waiter’s recommendation and got the veal with mushrooms. He gave me fries for free because I’m American 🙂
But what Mostar is most famous for is Stari Most, the Old Bridge.
It was built by the Ottoman Turks in the 1500’s and stood as a symbol of the city for 427 years, connecting both sides of the town. And that’s why the Croats bombed it in 1994. F******!
It was rebuilt in 2004 using many of the same stones and the same process. Now it’s known for the famous bridge-jumpers who walk along its 78 foot high edges like ballerinas.
Then they work the crowd as a team, collecting tips. Only when they count it and get enough do they jump. It’s a cool sight even though it’s touristic. You can see the guy free falling in mid-air below the bridge if you zoom below.
Today the call to prayer played as a jumper was about to lift off. It was actually very beautiful echoing off the canyon walls. See video of the jump below.
I went home, changed clothes, grabbed a towel and came back to the river’s edge. And I jumped into the mountain water from a height of about a foot :). The current was really strong and it was frigid so I didn’t take too many chances since I only saw a couple other people get in. But it was a great way to cool off and complete another mission!
The guesthouse hosts are incredibly warm and friendly, which is a relief since the hubby is driving me six hours north tomorrow.
I’ve been really impressed by Bosnia. I came this time because of the history. I’d come back for the scenic beauty, warm people, and fantastic food. Thanks for sharing the journey with me.
Goodnight from a stormy Mostar!
Love to all!
Escaping Death & Arrest Exploring Mostar’s Abandoned Sniper Tower
My most dangerous mission of this 35-day trip was to trespass and climb to the top of the abandoned Sniper Tower in Mostar without falling to my death or getting arrested.
One day in 1992, this was a bustling bank building, filled with professionals and secretaries and bank receipts and customers. Then another day, it was taken over by the Croatian (Catholic) Bosnians and used as a sniper tower to kill their neighbors. Notice its position in the middle of the city.
I drop my bags in the guesthouse and take off walking through Mostar. I know I will chicken out if I wait. And I walk right into the middle of a movie being shot about the war above!
It is illegal to trespass here. But sometimes you have to break the rules. I finally make it and go in, tentatively looking around. Graffiti covers the bullet holes.
Back then, it was a beautiful glass building with wonderful views over the city. You could see onto people’s balconies and onto the streets below. I start climbing up stairs. Stairs with no walls. Freaky. And I can see right into these people’s kitchen.
So if you wanted to shoot your former neighbors, who you and your family have lived next to peacefully for centuries, because now you’ve determined that your religion/ethnicity is superior to theirs, this was the perfect place.
My palms are getting sweaty and I’m afraid I’m going to drop my phone. I walk like a dork, so methodical. With each floor, the views get better. But the higher I get, the more I know I can be seen by cops from the outside as a trespasser.
Over three years, snipers controlled the activities of everyday citizens walking, driving, or living in their homes. For most of 1993-94, Bosnian Muslims were under constant threat of sniper fire from the Croats. Residents constructed sniper warning signs in the dangerous areas, but they were often ignored because people had to get to UN-supplied water and food.
It is eerie as the stairs are exposed to the outside without walls. You can literally fall right off the stairs and splat on the cement from 9 stories high.
The elevator shaft is out of order so you can see down nine flights of stairs. It feels like eyes are on me, alone in an abandoned building. I kept looking down, afraid I’m going to step onto bad concrete and fall through.
Today the building hovers over the city as a reminder of the war. But it also continues to separate the city and remind the Bosniaks (Muslims) that the Croats are still in control politically, deciding which buildings get restored. So the Croat side on the west is rebuilt and modern, and the eastern part still looks like a war zone. You can see two bombed out buildings below.
I stop at the 7th floor, kind of shaken. I start to think too much and turn around. But when I go back down, I almost step over a ledge. When going up, the stairs are right in front of you. Going down, they optically disappear. I decide I’ll regret it if I don’t go all the way.
Damage remains because of confusion over who owns what building. The Yugo Bank held mortgages on many of these properties before it went out of business, and no one wants to invest in any construction on these buildings until clear ownership is established. Mostar was like Stalingrad, even more heavily bombed than Sarajevo.
The city is also home to an education system of “two schools under one roof” in which children are separated into different classes, and taught different lessons, based on their ethnicity. This only ensures that each side never owns their part and will eventually fight each other again.
25 years ago, 100,000 people (mainly civilians) were killed. Tens of thousands of women were raped. 2 million people were displaced and lost their homes.
I finally make it to the top floor. But then you have to climb up through a turret.
The views and experience are worth it. You can see a minaret in the foreground and a huge cross on the distant hill.
I go back down as quickly as I can and run out of this creepy place of death. I admit I am shaking a little bit, but I didn’t die. I didn’t get arrested. Mission accomplished. I am done for the day and it’s only noon! Read more about my time in Mostar and Sarajevo here.
I’m safe, Mom! Love to all.
Car Accident in Mostar. I Am Part Asian.
She asked me to take a picture of her and coached me so the light hit her face perfectly. Very Asian! And she insisted on taking mine.
I had about an hour before the host fixed me breakfast. You can see how quickly the sky changes in that time below. Over a smaller bridge.
I returned and was seated and treated to, without dad-like exaggeration, the best breakfast I have ever had in 53 years.
All fresh and in many cases ingredients from their own garden. Andrej is known for his breakfasts but this was beyond gourmet. Made with the pride of a French chef but warmth of a Bosnian host. Eggs with Bosnian cream. Crispy potatoes with thin-sliced sausage. A Paprika Pepper with cream.
The kind of tomatoes Jeff would be proud of. That actually taste like the tomatoes of our childhood. With feta cheese sprinkled with mint and dill. And homemade bread he made that morning, with specks of a special spice grown in the region. Plus a homemade apricot jam. I demolished it.
And for the first time in my life I drank coffee. Thick strong Bosnian coffee.
His wife came outside to thank me for staying. Again, very warm. We got in the car to head north through Croatia to a tiny speck of a village in Slovenia.
And at a red light, we got slammed hard from behind by a young kid. I got whiplashed a little and there is a welt in my knee. But thankfully we are okay.
It’s such a weird and scary thing. Out of your control. The police came. The offender would normally have to pay the police about $250 for an official report but it was clear cut and both drivers have the same insurance company. We drove to the agency where an adjuster wrote his report. There are no deductibles here so it’s all covered. Andrej’s son brought their other car and off we went, losing about an hour.
As we crossed the border, Andrej said this:
“These borders are silly. These seven republics (of the former Yugoslavia) are all the same people. We have the same genes. Our brains are the same. Some chose to be Muslim or catholic or Jewish. But we are the same people. It is only false nationalist pride that causes us to kill each other. Without that, we are one and the same people.”
He’s a Bosnian Muslim, but you’d have no idea and he despises the label AND the Muslim terrorists “who give me a bad name.”
He said Mostar people are happy and joke a lot. It was a thoroughly enjoyable drive compared to Ukraine! I fell asleep and he covered me with a towel from the back. Again, warm and thoughtful people.
He hugged me when he dropped me off in the tiny little town.
I have no doubt I will see him again. But I won’t be alone next time. Bosnia is too special not you share with others.
Love to all. And yes, Mom, I am perfectly fine. No pain or discomfort 16 hours after the accident.