East and West of the River Neretva

May 30 2023 - Living the expat life, Exploring different Cultures, Travel and enjoying the free life

Not so long ago I wrote a blog about the 10 funniest things in Mostar, the city we got to grow so fond of.
For quite a while I have been postponing writing about the other side of Mostar. The side where trauma, grief, shame and guilt go hand in hand and leave the city scarred with the traumas of the past.

There is probably never a good time to write about the war that took place here during 1992 and 1995. But as a foreigner who is observing life here, it’s also hard to ignore and not write about it. It’s a fine line and a highly sensitive topic. I tread with care; it is not my intention to hurt or offend anyone. And I sincerely apologize if I do.

What caused the war and what happened during the war can be found in the numerous history books that have been written since. What interests me is what is still left of war today, visible, and invisible. To understand the dynamics, it helps to know that before the war, various religions and ethnicities lived with and among each other across Mostar. Bosniak Muslims, Croat Catholics and Serb Orthodox were living and working together. As neighbours, friends, colleagues. They started families and business together.

After the war, the city was divided in two sides: Bosniak Muslims on the East side of the river, Croat Catholics on the West side of the river, just west of the former frontline – a long street called Boulevard that runs in parallel alongside the river.

Even though the city is still divided along these lines today, as a tourist you will not notice much of this. The city is buzzing and bustling, people are enjoying the spring, friendly neighbours greet each other warmly on the streets. And the Neretva flows on, sometimes fast, sometimes slow.

But the visible remnants of the war are hard to miss. Half collapsed and heavily damaged buildings are still part of Mostar’s streets. While they remind us of the damage that was done, it’s hard to truly grasp the level of devastation that the city has recovered from. The colourfully restored buildings along Braće Fejića and Kujundžiluk are contrasting cheerfully with the doom that once took place here.

 Authentically restored old town of mostar

And buildings that still remind of the devastation that took place.

Less visible are the more systemic dividers that are still in place. For instance, the two postal services that run in Mostar: BH Pošta on the east side of the river and Hrvatska Pošta Mostar on the west side of the river. The same goes for the electricity company, bus stations, and other community services. They both stick to “their” side of the city.

Similarly, the city has different ways to celebrate important religious holiday periods, such as the Christian Christmas, and the Islamic Ramadan. During the month of December, the west side of the city will have a Christmas market, and the city is lit up with Christmas decorations and lights. During the holy month of Ramadan, it’s the East side of the city that lights up, with festive food markets and decorated streets that come alive after sunset.
It's a unique balance that seems to work the way it works.

Decorated streets for Christmas and Ramadan

However painful this all might be for an outsider, I do try to keep in mind that the war happened only quite recent. While I certainly remember the news when the war broke out in the early nineties, to me it feels like something from ages ago. It did not leave a permanent mark or impact on my life, and it soon became something of the past - history.

But people who I interact with here went through it personally. They vividly remember and for them it might feel like only yesterday. Most of the people I meet here, have grown up at least a part of their childhood (if not all) in another country, in Europe. They were born before, during or just after the war. The war has been, and sometime still is, a big part of their life. It shaped them to who they have become.

So how to move forward from here?
They say time heals all wounds. I meet so many wonderful people here who genuinely care for their beautiful city and its community and who are not divided in their heart or mind. They know their past, their history and the sensitive complexity that exists. But they also look forward, and work hard and passionately to (re)build bridges. Not just the famous Mostar bridge that was so authentically restored. But also the less visible bridges. The ones from mind to mind, from heart to heart.

Somehow, they have managed to bridge ways to the hearts of so many foreigners, tourists and expats who enjoy the life here. And that includes mine.

United World College in Mostar, with it's mission: “To equip the next generations of young people in Bosnia and Herzegovina with the knowledge, skills, leadership qualities and international values, necessary to bridge the still existing ethnic divisions and move their country into the 21st century.”