As the bus arrived at the station I wondered whether visiting Mostar was a good idea. Whilst the city is nestled in the scenic Neretva valley the main street of the eastern side of the city, Maršala Tita, was deserted and still bared the marks of war-time shelling. To reinforce my apprehension Dervla Murphy’s words from her book “Through the embers of chaos: Balkan Journeys” were ringing in my ears: “More than anywhere else in the Balkans, Mostar distressed me personally because of its recent decline into the bitterness from which Northern Ireland has begun gradually to emerge”.
But as soon as I turned onto pedestrian Brace Fejica my reservations disappeared and within minutes I was relishing my visit to Mostar, invigorated by culinary aromas and by colours in the form of clothing, jewellery and the national flag draped bunting-like over the streets. It was also at that moment I experienced the unique intangible energy of Bosnia-Herzegovina for the first time.
Tired as I was from travelling I dropped the bag upon check in and returned to strolling around Mostar’s streets, streets partitioned by the Neretva River but more so by politics which seemingly make this the most ethnically-divided city in the Balkans. Thankfully I saw a glimmer of hope in an activity which usually divides rather than unites: football.
My night stroll coincided with Croatia’s final World Cup 2014 Group A game with Mexico, a game which the Balkan team lost 3-1 ending their World Cup journey. I found myself on the predominantly Croat west side of the city during the first half of the match and, given my research into Mostar’s ethnic divisions, was not surprised to see excitement for Croatian shots on goal and relief for Mexican near misses. What did surprise me was the disappointment amongst viewers in the predominantly Muslim east side during the second half when Mexico went three-nil up and the delight when Croatia scored a consolation goal. I pondered this unexpected incident as I discovered the rest of the city during my visit.
There is no doubt that the leading light in Mostar’s show is the Stari Most, Mostar’s Old Bridge, from which the city gets its name. For some, the Old Bridge is the raison d’être for visiting Mostar. The Stari Most spans the emerald-coloured Neretva River in the Old Town area. Both the Stari Most and the Old Town are UNESCO Heritage sites. The original 16th century bridge was destroyed by Croat shelling in 1993 and the re-built construct opened in 2004.
Mostar Old Town is a female shopper’s paradise with a plethora of jewellery and accessories waiting to be counted as part of the luggage allowance. Whilst I painstakingly examined (and bought) hordes of earrings my male companion’s aversion to shopping led him to observe the traditional methods of crafting ornaments out of copper pieces, a tradition which dates back to medieval times in this region.
But Brace Fejica street on the east side was a revelation; a microcosm with its multitude of cafes, shops and bakeries all conducting their trade in a relaxed and friendly manner. I frequently strayed onto narrow side streets off Brace Fejica and found more gems all enveloped in Ottoman architecture. I highly recommend the below bakery on the south end of Brace Fejica for devilishly delicious pastries and heavenly service.
Brace Fejica also contains a mosque and an Islamic graveyard. Graves visible from the exterior sadly showed 1993 as the year of death as did the tiered graveyard on the Croat side of the city, reflecting the suffering all sides encountered.
It was a privilege to be in Bosnia-Herzegovina whilst the country was competing in its first World Cup since independence. But the road to Brazil 2014 was an arduous journey. The Dayton Accords peace agreement of 1995 divided the country into two entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina with a majority Muslim and minority Croat population, and the Republika Srpska where the majority of Bosnian Serbs live. The football fraternity divided itself along similar lines resulting in several internal leagues based on ethnicity.
Whilst the political community are quite happy to perpetuate the status quo, such sectarianism was not tolerated by FIFA and UEFA, and Bosnia-Herzegovina was threatened with expulsion from international football with sanctions imposed over time. The country complied and was re-admitted to international competitions. The fact that Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini succeeded where the EU and UN failed only underlines the international community’s impotence.
I took a similar stroll around the city during Bosnia-Herzegovina’s final Group F match against Iran. I was in the east side for the first half where Manchester City’s Edin Džeko put the Balkan country in front. I popped over to the west side for the second half where the remaining two goals scored by Bosnia-Herzegovina were acknowledged positively. The match ended 3-1 with the city returning to normal service at full-time.
The internal Bosnian football scene counts hooliganism as one of its problems but football worldwide is often the unfortunate and only portal that vacuous idlers are capable of expressing themselves through, differentiated only by the colours of the teams they purport to support. In Bosnia-Herzegovina football and hooliganism have been used by political entities as instruments to further their agenda.
The ethnic quotas which permeate the political system are non-existent on the national team – the best eleven are fielded regardless of tribal ties. One hopes that more of official Bosnia-Herzegovina follows the tolerant lead of its national football team and that individuals are able to integrate & celebrate without fear of repercussion. It’s better for society to argue openly about the offside rule than for silence to prevail.
It’s clear from the reactions of individuals in the city watching both World Cup matches that reconciliation has begun on a personal level but it’s still only half-time in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Mostar: political and social division remains. Perhaps this has more to do with the economics of politics than with ethnicity as duplication of services means twice as many jobs for the boys. Given the country’s high unemployment a change in this respect is unlikely soon.
When visiting Mostar I stayed in the east side and obviously this is the area I became familiar with and the part which I have most to write about. But all sides in this city were welcoming and I was astounded by the numerous random acts of kindness I experienced.
Mostar’s ethnic divisions were irrelevant to me as a tourist and for some natives I met they were equally so. I got the impression that individuals have moved forward, busy with the business of living, contrasting sharply to the static political mindset. But the people are equally aware of their past and the following stone in the Old Town is a reminder to all.
Sport can create barriers but is equally effective at removing them. For years I’ve been advocating sport’s ability to connect people and I sincerely hope the beautiful game is the start of something beautiful in this country, a nation undeserving of the hostility and division thrust upon it.
GETTING TO MOSTAR:
I travelled from Dubrovnik (Croatia) to Mostar by bus. The bus was scheduled to depart in the afternoon but the incoming bus didn’t arrive until the evening – delays are apparently a regular occurrence due to the lengthy border crossings. Therefore, I don’t recommend visiting Mostar as a day trip from Dubrovnik. There is no train service from Dubrovnik to Mostar.
Several buses a day travel the route from Sarajevo to Mostar. There are daily trains from Sarajevo to Mostar in the direction of Čapljina on what I consider one of the most beautiful railway journeys in Europe.
For the Mostar and Neretva Valley region I found the Bosnia & Herzegovina (Bradt Travel Guides) by Tim Clancy of immense use. Buy this copy from Amazon.