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Excerpts from Travel as a Political Act

3. Lessons from the Former Yugoslavia: After the WarBosnian Hormones and a Shiny New Cemetery

Our welcome included building-sized anti-US murals showing American flags with stars of skulls and dropping bombs painting the stripes.

Bridge at Mostar

Exploring the city of Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina—with its vibrant humanity and the persistent reminders of its recent and terrible war—was both exhilarating and exhausting.

Mostar represents the best and the worst of Yugoslavia. During the Tito years, it was an idyllic mingling of cultures—Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosniaks living together relative harmony, their differences spanned by an Old Bridge that symbolized an optimistic vision of a Yugoslavia where ethnicity didn’t matter. And yet, as the country unraveled in the early 1990s, Mostar was gripped by a gory three-way war among those same groups. Not so many years before my visit, the people I encountered here—those who set me up at a computer terminal in the cybercafé, stopped for me when I jaywalked, showed off their paintings, and directed the church choir—had been killing each other.

Mostar’s 400-year-old, Turkish-style stone bridge—with its elegant, single-pointed arch—was symbolic of the town's status as the place were East met West in Europe. Then, during the 1990s, Mostar became the tragic poster child of the Bosnian war. Across the world, people felt the town’s pain when its beloved bridge—bombarded for days from the hilltop above—finally collapsed into the river.

Our welcome included building-sized anti-US murals showing American flags with stars of skulls and dropping bombs painting the stripes.

Now the bridge has been rebuilt, and Mostar is putting itself back together. But the scars of war are still evident. The Serbs who once lived here have fled deeper into the countryside, into the Republika Srpska. The two groups who still live here are effectively segregated along the front line that divided them during wartime: The Muslims on the east side, and the Croats on the west. While the two groups are making some efforts at reintegration, progress is slow. In 2005, some young Mostarians unveiled a statue of Bruce Lee, who they saw as symbolizing the fight for positive values that all sides could identify with. Lee, who fought against ethnic divisions between Chinese and Americans, represented to the people of Mostar an inspirational bridging of cultures. Sadly, two days after the unveiling, the statue was vandalized.

But there is progress. As I explored the workaday streets of the town, it seemed that—despite the war damage—Mostar was downright thriving. Masala Square (literally “Place for Prayer” square) is designed for big gatherings. Muslim groups meet at the square before departing for Mecca on their pilgrimage, or Hajj. But on the night of my visit, there was not a hint of prayer. It was prom night. The kids were out...Bosnian hormones were raging. Being young and sexy is a great equalizer. With a beer, loud music, desirability, twinkling stars...and no war...your family’s income and your country’s GDP hardly matter. Today's 18-year-old Mostarian was a toddler during the war. Looking at these kids and their dried-apple grandparents in dusty black warming benches on the “Place for Prayer” square, I imagined that there must be quite a generation gap.

I was swirling in a snow globe of teenagers, and through the commotion, a thirtysomething local came at me with a huge smile: Alen from Orlando. Actually, he’s from Mostar, but fled to Florida during the war and now spends summers with his family here. A fan of my public television series, he immediately offered to show me around his hometown.

Alen's local perspective gave Mostar meaning. He pointed to a fig tree growing out of a small minaret. Seeming to speak as much about Mostar's people as its vegetation, Alen said, "It’s a strange thing in nature...figs can grow with almost no soil." There were blackened ruins from the war everywhere. When I asked why—after nearly two decades—the ruins had not been touched, Alen explained, “There’s confusion about who owns what. Surviving companies have no money. The Bank of Yugoslavia, which held the mortgages, is now gone. No one will invest until it’s clear who owns the buildings." I had never considered the financial confusion that follows the breakup of a country, and how it could stunt a society’s redevelopment.

Our welcome included building-sized anti-US murals showing American flags with stars of skulls and dropping bombs painting the stripes.

Headtone in the city of Mostar

We walked to a small cemetery congested with more than a hundred white-marble Muslim tombstones. Alen pointed out the dates: Everyone died in 1993, 1994, or 1995. Before 1993, this was a park. When the war heated up, snipers were a constant concern—they'd pick off anyone they saw walking down the street. Because of the ongoing danger, bodies were left for weeks, rotting on the main boulevard, which had become the front line. Mostar’s cemeteries were too exposed to be used, but this tree-filled park was relatively safe from snipers. People buried their neighbors here...under the cover of darkness.

Weaving slowly through the tombstones, Alen explained, "In those years, night was the time when we lived. We didn’t walk...we ran. And we dressed in black. There was no electricity. If the Croats didn’t kill us with their bullets, they killed us with their music.” That politically charged, rabble-rousing Croatian pop music, used—apparently effectively—as a kind of psychological torture, was blasting constantly from the Croat side of town.

As we wandered through town, the sectarian symbolism of the conflict was powerful. Ten minarets pierced Mostar's skyline like proud Muslim exclamation points. Across the river, twice as high as the tallest minaret, stood the Croats' new Catholic church spire. Standing on the reconstructed Old Bridge, I looked at the hilltop high above the town, with its single, bold, and strongly floodlit cross. Alen said, "We Muslims believe that cross marks the spot from where they shelled this bridge. They built it there, and floodlight it each night...like a celebration."

The next day, I popped into a small theater where 30 Slovenes (from a part of the former Yugoslavia that avoided the terrible destruction of the war) were watching a short film about the Old Bridge, its destruction, and its rebuilding. The persistent shelling of the venerable bridge, so rich in symbolism, seemed to go on and on. The Slovenes knew the story well. But when the video reached the moment the bridge finally fell, I heard a sad collective gasp. It reminded me of how Americans feel, even well after 9/11, when watching video of the World Trade Center disappearing into a column of ash. It helped me, if not feel, at least appreciate another country’s pain.

At lunchtime, I stopped at a tiny grocery store, where I was happy to see a woman I had befriended the day before. She was a gorgeous person, sad to be living in a frustrating economy, and stiff with a piece of shrapnel in her back that doctors decided was safer left in. She made me a hearty ham sandwich and helped me gather the ingredients of what would be a fine picnic meal. Stooping to pick up items on shelves lower than she could bend to reach, I considered how this woman’s life will be forever marred by that war.

The sentiment I hear from locals when I visit this region is, “I don’t know how we could have been so stupid to wage that unnecessary war.” I've never met anyone here who called the war anything but a tragic mistake. The lesson I learned from their mistake is the importance of taking pluralism within your society seriously. While Bosnian sectarianism is extreme, every society has groups that could come to blows. And failing to find a way to live peacefully together—as the people of Mostar learned—means everybody loses.

That night in Mostar, as the teenagers ripped it up at their dance halls, I lay in bed sorting out my impressions. Until the wee hours, a birthday party raged in the restaurant outside my window. For hours they sang songs. At first I was annoyed. Then I realized that a Bosniak "Beach Boys" party beats a night of shelling. In two hours of sing-alongs, everyone seemed to know all the words...and I didn’t recognize a single tune. In spite of all its challenges and setbacks, I have no doubt that this Bosnian culture will rage on.


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