The three-hour drive from Dubrovnik, Croatia to Mostar, Bosnia-Hercegovina follows the blue-green Neretva River that cuts through mountains. We splurge on a driver to take us there, since we only have a two-night stay, and the bus would arrive at nighttime, stealing an entire day from us.
Egan, our Croatian driver who is about 55-years-old, stops at the Ottoman-era fortress village of Pocitelj along the way. Marilynn and I climb the layered rock steps around stone houses that people still inhabit.
“Bosnians are the friendliest people in all of eastern Europe,” Egan says. “Everybody gets along with each other here, whether you’re Muslim or Christian, doesn’t matter.”
“What was the reason for the war?” I ask.
“Politicians argue with each other, and poor people get bombed,” he responds. “No good reason. Just like many places in the world. Bill Clinton is a hero to us for ending the war in Bosnia.”
He drops us off near Pansion Villa Nur, in Mostar, which provides comfortable lodging and a shared kitchen for only $30USD per night. It’s near the main tourist sight, Stari Most (old bridge), that leads into old town.
Built by the Turks in 1556, the old bridge was bombed to ruins in the 1990’s, but rebuilt in 2004. Thrill seeking tourists pay to jump off this bridge into the Neretva River during summer months.
Mostar was the most heavily bombed city in Bosnia during the war following the breakup of Yugoslavia. Reminders of the war remain in piles of rubble.
The small, old town district has been restored with protruding river rock walkways lined with tourist shops and cafes.
Let’s stop for some local brew and delicious traditional food at Sadrvan restaurant. Spiced minced meat rules, stuffed inside of cabbage, grape leaves, onions, peppers, and formed into cylindrical pellets served with fresh pita bread. Bosnian cookies (shortbread) with cucumber salad accompany the delight.
In the morning, we meet up with Rasim, the 21-year-old cousin of a friend of a good friend back in the USA, who was born after the war. He brings us to a café for some Bosnian coffee (liquid amphetamine), and lights up a smoke. “I love to hang out,” he says.
“It seems like everyone smokes.” Marilynn says.
“Yes, about 90 percent of Bosnians smoke cigarettes,” Rasim responds. “Smoking, coffee, and beer are my only pleasures in life.”
I ask what he does for a living. “I’m a bartender, but haven’t worked in a long time. Jobs are fixed. When you’re 15 and in school you already know if you have a job or not. You have to know somebody to get a job.”
His expression turns morose. “I can’t even hang around on the other side of the bridge for long. They want to beat me up for being Muslim. They tell me to go back to Turkey.” He holds up his thumb and index finger about an inch apart. “We’re this close to another war.”
Nadzida, who is Rasim’s 19-year-old girlfriend, picks us up for a drive to the town of Blagaj. The Buna River springs from a cave, where mountains surround Ottoman architecture and the Dervish Monastery.
We dine on fresh trout from the river, on this sunny day with our new friends.
The following day, Fedja, proprietor of the Villa Nur drives us to the bus stop. He’s in his forty’s, and was 14-years-old during the bombing in the 90’s civil war. Not able to resist, I ask, “Are you Muslim?”
“That was never a question during Communist rule,” he responds. “Religion was secondary to life, and everyone got along.”
“I had heard that there is religious tension today,” I explain.
“My father is Muslim and my mother is Catholic. I have an orthodox name,” he explains. “So, I get along with everyone. The global war on communism happened all around us. I guess it was just our turn. I was lucky not to lose anyone, but most people lost family and friends in the bombings. Over 8,000 Muslim men were killed. There’s resentment that can’t be forgotten.”
There you have it. Three different views from three different generations. As for Marilynn and I, we are fortunate to be tourists. Mostar is a beautiful, fascinating place full of friendly people. Speaking of being tourists, it’s time to head back to the Dalmatia coast in Croatia! Ron Mitchell