Sometimes I travel somewhere because the place holds an obsessive grasp on my memory and my imagination. Images from television news reports or sound bites overhead on the radio may have imbedded themselves in my head since childhood and, to some degree, subliminally influenced why and where I want to travel. My love affair with history has led me to many places, partly in an attempt to build a greater understanding of the world along with my place in it, but I have learned in the process that the places you see and visit in life must be viewed within the context of the past with an eye on the present and to the future. What is compelling about our recent trip to Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro is that the very beaches and town squares in which we spent most of our time were the sites of vicious warfare, ethnic cleansing, and the worst human suffering on the European continent since the end of World War II.
This region’s recent turbulent history makes it one of the least understood parts of Europe. Addressing this conflict is relevant because the wounds left from agony are still healing and the scars of war are still visible, especially so in what was one of the most devastated cities of the former Yugoslavia, Mostar located in current day Bosnia and Herzegovina. In writing this post I spent a lot of time considering the causes, origins, and outcomes of the conflict, but found that the level of detail involved could fill volumes upon volumes of entries and my few paragraphs would not do it justice.
As with so many conflicts in the world today, the wars in the Western Balkans were born out of unresolved hostilities and poorly constructed solutions to longstanding problems which occurred during the last century. During most of the twentieth century, the state of Yugoslavia was a multi-ethnic federation of various now independent nations including Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and the most recently declared independent state, Kosovo. At various stages in history they were largely influenced by power struggles within and between the Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires, with significant cultural, religious, and linguistic legacies lasting today. Although communist, Yugoslavia was unlike its counterparts on the same side of the Iron Curtain in that it was proudly “non-aligned” with either the United States or the Soviet Union, providing a distinctively objective communist voice to the “Third World”. Yet, with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism as a global system the region descended into chaos. What occurred next is a confusing timeline of events, tactics, strategies, players, and objectives which changed several times throughout the course of the conflicts, leading to even greater difficulty in understanding the “what” and the “why” of this piece of history.
As each republic declared independence from Serb dominated Yugoslavia, Bosnia followed suit, but faced territorial claims from Croatia to the west and Serbia to the east. Because this region had been unified for so long under Ottoman rule, then as a combined Yugoslavia, the movement of ethnic populations between borders was significant, with large minorities living in adjacent territories. Nowhere was this more telling than in Bosnia where the population was majority Bosniak Muslim, but with very large Orthodox Serb and Catholic Croat populations spread across the country. In 1991 the Karađorđevo Agreement between Croatia and Serbia aimed to partition Bosnia and Herzegovina between them, with each army invading Bosnia to ensure that their respective populations gained autonomous control where they had a majority. Simultaneously, Serbia launched an aggressive campaign of invasion against independent Croatia in an attempt to maintain economic and political control over this vast, coastal region, with Dubrovnik falling under heavy fire and near annihilation itself.
The conflict in Bosnia peaked in 1993 with the Siege of Mostar, a Bosnian-Croat (ethnic Croatians living within the borders of Bosnia) campaign to rid the city of its Muslim population with the aid of the independent Croatian government who were also fighting off Serb attacks themselves at the same time within their own borders and at sea in the Adriatic. Atrocities from all sides were committed in the form of systematic executions, civilian bombing raids, internment, rape, and murder.
Bullet marks on building in Mostar, B-H:
After our time in the Western Balkans, and our excursion into Bosnia in particular, I have thought about which one of my experiences captured the meaning of what happened there. Hovering high above the Neretva River in Mostar is the Stari Most, a sixteenth century Ottoman bridge that was destroyed during the Siege of Mostar in 1993 and rebuilt in 2004 with aid from the World Bank and UNESCO. At the time of its original construction it was considered one of the most marvelous architectural achievements in the world and became an icon of a united, multi-ethnic Bosnia within the Ottoman Empire. Travel is my way of bridging the gap between my own preconceived notions of a place and its reality.
Today the real significance of Stari Most is not just its architectural splendor or its technical superiority, but rather that it is a living statement which symbolizes the link between the past and the future, between hatred and reconciliation. Walking the bridge from east to west, you realize that Mostar itself encompasses a narrative of the world within its medieval walls that has been relevant for centuries; that beneath the rubble and ashes of war, the foundations of peace are strong and are the bedrock of reconstruction. Today, just fifteen years after the end of the fighting, the nations of the former Yugoslavia live in relative harmony with their neighbors. Keeping in mind their shared tragic history and recent efforts at renewed engagement, I feel confident that again there exists a strong base on which to build a mutually beneficial bridge to the future. - K.V.