The blog is not finished! But after the Theft (yes, capital letters), the want/need to update the blog took second fiddle to dealing with the Theft and just finishing the trip sans computer. Since being home, it's been hard to get that motivation to complete it. But I will. Ever so slowly. Please be patient!

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Scars of War

Days 231-235, July 16-20, 2011.

There was something strangely enticing about going to Bosnia and Herzegovina(hereby I will refer to the country as BiH). I didn’t really know much about the place beyond knowing that a war had been fought there not too long ago in the 1990s. What I did know was what I heard from others that had gone there: it was breathtaking and an experience in itself. And knowing that, in this summer, most travelers tend to stick to the coasts, heading inland into BiH would take me away from the hordes of tourists.

Before leaving Dubrovnik by bus for Mostar, the first city on my little trip into BiH, I did a little research on what I would be seeing. What little I did read convinced me that I was making the right choice as to where to go. And as a student of Political Studies where the Cold War and the fall of communism is usually a fairly large component of Canada’s history in the 80s, this was going to be an interesting view into a part of the former Yugoslavia.

The first thing that I noticed as the bus moved inland and crossed the border into BiH was how relaxed the authorities appeared to be. They came on the bus at the border, glanced at my passport, and that was it. No stamps, nothing. I would end up fretting about this fact for a few days as I was now in a country with no exit stamp from Croatia and no entry to BiH. I hoped that this would not cause issues later on in the trip.

IMG_0138I chose Mostar to stop as it was the closest big city to the Croatian border from where I entered. It was also the city that suffered the most during the war in the early 90s, even moreso than Sarajevo. The hostel I stayed at, the owner had been living in Mostar at the time and would spend many hours telling those that would listen stories from that time period. Mostar, not just caught in the war between Yugoslav forces and BiH troops, but was also stuck in the middle of a war between Christians and Muslims, Croats and Serbs. It was a war being fought from three angles. And the evidence is still there, all around the city.

IMG_0128One street, Boulevard Republika, was the former front lines of the war and the street is still full of buildings that are bombed or shot out. Walking down this street, I was already feeling this intense melancholy and sadness wash over me and I had to wipe a few tears from my eyes as I stood in front of a building completely abandoned and being slowly taken over by weeds and plants.

IMG_0140Mostar’s main attraction, and has been for hundreds of years, is the Stari Most – the Old Bridge. The original had been over 570 years old when, on September 11, 1994, it was destroyed by Yugoslav forces. Watching a video later that night in the hostel about the war, including images of streets I had just walked down, and of the bridge collapsing into the river below was just too hard to watch. I was just glad I wasn’t the only one that was crying. Seeing the hostel owner, Miran, struggle to give the introduction to the film – even knowing that he’s shown this dozens, if not hundreds, of times – certainly brought things into stark perspective.

The bridge that now stands is an exact replica, mistakes and all, of the original, and was completed in only a few short years ago. With its completion, the tradition of the Mostar Diving Club to use it to dive into the river below and now continue into infinity. Watching the men jump from the 25 meter high bridge into the river is amazing to watch. The river is deep, and IMG_0189surprisingly very clean looking. It’s also freezing cold and the diver’s have to hose themselves down first to lower their body temperatures to avoid possible heart attacks.

The hostel I stayed at also offered a full day tour of the surrounding area for a pretty reasonable price. The tour started by heading down to an old medieval town not too far from Mostar where we were able to climb to the top of the hill and into the old medieval tower that still loomed over the town. A restored mosque, destroyed during the war, is also situated on the hill and we were able to go inside to see it.

IMG_0203The main attraction of the tour is the four hours we are given at the waterfalls. Much like Krka, the waterfalls are clean, crisp, and feel oh so good in the hot sun. We only had to keep an eye out for snakes while there. If in the water, they were harmless. It was on land that they could be dangerous. Luckily, I saw nothing living besides fish in the water.

After the waterfalls, we stopped extremely briefly in Medugorje, a town in a small valley where, thirty years ago, six youths are said to have seen an image of the Virgin Mary. The town, and the hills surrounding it have become a pilgrimage site for Catholics in this area. We only had enough time to look at the massive Cathedral so I made note to come back for a full day to hike the two pilgrimage hikes.

IMG_0235The final stop on the tour, after a little stall when the van’s engine heated up and quit working, was Blagji, a stream coming out of a cave in the mountains. The water is so clean, in fact, that you can drink it straight from the stream. Probably the best tasting water I’ve had.

I did make good on my personal promise to head back to Medugorje to hike in the hills. At least here I would not have to worry about possible land IMG_0301mines. There are two large hikes that one can take from the centre of the town. The shortest one, Apparition Hill, takes you up to the spot where the Virgin Mary was first seen by the six youths. The large stones and boulders that you need to climb over to get up the hill have been completely worn smooth by the hundreds of feet that have stepped here over the past thirty years. The views of the valley were beautiful.

The longer trek, two kilometers away, is commonly called the Way of the Cross hike as going up the mountain are 13 stations with a cross and a scene from the crucifixion of Jesus. While not a religious man myself, I couldn’t help but be humbled by the site of old women with canes climbing the steep and slippery rocks to the top, as well as one or two people doing the entire thing barefoot. I IMG_0329assume this is a personal decision to do the trek as Jesus would’ve. This particular trek rises a good 500 or more meters above the town. It took me just over an hour to get to the top of the hill to look over the entire valley.

Mostar and its surrounding area have a beauty that I haven’t really seen before on my travels. There’s a life here as well. A life and a soul of having just come out of a devastating war. Whether the city will finish rebuilding itself completely remains to be seen but there is something to be said about leaving up some of these signs of war so as to never forget what happened when ethnicity and religion collided with nationalist identities.

IMG_0240It was my first introduction into an area that has seen war in such recent times. Talking to people who are not much older than I who have stories of having to dodge sniper bullets is sobering.

But there is still life here. People have endured and are rebuilding their lives. And those of us that travel here have a rare opportunity to see the scars of war still fresh in both the architecture of the town and the souls of the living.

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