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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Nero in Bosnia: Walking in Mostar

What do I say about a town that seems like it has just been taken out of a medieval era and placed in today’s world. A town whose soul is a four hundred year old bridge and every evening, people gather all around and talk the night away. A town that makes you feel as if you have come to a place where you don’t want to do anything but go on long walks in the evenings and sit in the balcony in the night and write.

A town that was ravaged twenty two years back has blocks of stones lying everywhere, with the line “Don’t forget ‘93” written on them in black chalk.

Let’s just start at the beginning.

It was almost ten pm when I got down at Mostar bus station and walked over to ‘Hostel David’.
It was actually a house that had been converted into a hostel. The ground floor had been converted into dorms, and upstairs there were two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and a balcony that was used by the family running the hostel.

A young boy, about sixteen years old, came down the steps and greeted me. His name was Tariq. At six feet one, he was towering over me.

They were all full for the night.

There is a room upstairs inside the house. I can give it to you at the same price as the dorm.”

Of course, I took it.

Famished, I came out of the room in five minutes to go grab some dinner. 

Come sit here”, said Pedja, the owner of the hostel. I looked at him, as he sat lazily on a chair in the balcony. His daughter was sitting next to him, and she introduced herself as Ana.

I sat obediently, and he poured wine in two glasses and handed it to me and another backpacker, Bernat. Tariq brought some hot goulash and huge loaves of bread. There was nice music playing in the background and I asked Pedja the language. “Catalan”, said he and Bernat together. Bernat was from Barcelona and we all raised our glasses and grinned at each other.

The dinner was wonderful. In all my travels in two years, never had any hostel offered me a free dinner. And we had barely arrived. These people did not even know us. It was simply a generous gesture and we spent the next two hours sitting there in that balcony, listening to Catalan songs and sipping wine.

But what can I say about a town that makes you feel as if  life could not be more peaceful than here but the moment you read about its past, you are jolted by the gruesome violence that it has been a victim of.

The word “Mostar” means bridge keeper and the name of the town comes from the four hundred year old bridge that is the heart of the town. It lies in the old quarter, and on one side of it lies a delightful Turkish bazaar. A little alley just after the bridge heads downwards and takes you down to the river Neretva. The river is blue green in colour, absolutely crystal clear and deliciously cold. It’s temperature is around 7 degrees and it is one of the coldest rivers in the world. 



Between 1992 and 1993, after Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia, the town was under an 18 month siege. The Yugoslav People’s Army bombed Mostar and controlled a large part of it. The Bozniacs however got support from the Croatian Defence Council and together they chased  the Serb dominated Yugoslav army out of Mostar. But within a few months, the Croats wanted control over Mostar and soon began a bloody war between the Bozniak Muslims and the Bosniak Croats. The Croats took over the western side of the bridge and bombarded and shelled the eastern Muslim area. Those captured were tortured and killed, and as the rest of the world kept silent and watched, a systematic, shocking and brutal ethnic cleansing happened in this town that had for hundreds of years seen Serbs, Croats, Bozniaks, Muslims, Christians all coexist peacefully. The Croats kept firing and bombing and the bridge which had withstood all tests of time, weather and armies, finally collapsed into the river.

It was as if Mostar’s heart had been plucked out. 

Twenty two years since the war, the people from the two sides, the eastern and the western, still don’t mix. There is hostility still in the air.

Pedja would say a lot of things about the waterfalls around the region, the rivers, the fortresses in Herzegovina, but every time I tried to talk to him about the war, he would go silent. It took me a couple of days to understand that he had seen it all, had suffered greatly from it, and did not wish to remember or be reminded  of it. I kicked myself for not realizing it earlier, and made it a point to never talk about the subject in front of him again.

As we walked around Mostar, we could still see some broken houses, still see bullet marks in the walls of houses. Some of these houses stand next to perfectly new buildings. The government picks specific buildings and reconstructs them.

In 2004, the bridge was reconstructed and opened up and the city roared in happiness at the unveiling. In a beautiful move, they decided to build it with the same flaws as it had been originally built, and even retrieved as many stones as they could from the river and reused them in the construction.

Today young local boys hang around the bridge in their speedos, and if you  give them a few euros, they will jump off the top of the 27 metre bridge into the river. There is an annual diving competition too off the bridge. As Pedja told me, "To be a man in Mostar, you have to dive off the bridge."

 Mostar was one of my favourite places in the entire two month trip through the Balkans. I wonder why though.

Maybe it was the bridge. In the evenings, it looks even more beautiful when it is lit up. As I went to it, every evening and sat there every night, I looked at the people as they all came together; the couples kissing or just holding each other, the old men who would sit around a table and play a board game, the girls in the heels who would giggle and laugh and squeal as they  found it impossible to walk on the slippery surface; the café owners on either side who would ask you to come over but never pester, the bazaar  that would completely alive and look as bright as could be with the dazzling lamps, the hookahs, the bowls, the flowing robes, the souvenirs. 

Maybe it was the slowness in the air. Those cobblestone streets, those buildings of Ottoman architecture, the narrow alleys in the bazaar, had a charm that made you feel as if you were in a different era altogether. It made you want to just saunter through those lanes, it made you want to write. 


Or maybe it was just that family I stayed with. Every day as I walked into the hostel, after my morning or evening excursions, Ana and Tariq would smile widely at me. Not just a heavy breakfast, they also insisted on giving me dinner every night. Each time I entered the house, I was offered something to eat. And in the nights, Pedja, Ana, Tariq and I would sit in the balcony, drink wine and listen to the music playing in the background. Sometimes they were songs of Freedom, sometimes they were classics, sometimes they were jazz, but they all sounded beautiful. Pedja would never remember my name and would keep calling me Gandhi, a man he greatly admired. They had never had an Indian in the hostel before, and Gandhi soon became my name there. By two days, we had become very attached.

On the third night, there were a number of new backpackers in the hostel. A rumbuctious lot, they kept shouting and laughing and drinking in the middle of the night, and it annoyed me to see this, especially because Pedja had such long work days, and their noise would not let him sleep. I had not even realized how I had become possessive towards this new family of mine.

On the fourth morning, I planned to leave. Tariq’s face fell when I checked out and paid him for my room.  Something just pulled at my heart right then so I impulsively said “alright I will stay for an extra day.”  Both he and Ana whooped in excitement. Pedja was away conducting a group tour to the waterfalls, and Ana called him to say that I was extending my stay by a day. I could hear him roar on the other end of the line, and say “Tell Gandhi I will put his picture on my wall”.

The whole day I sat with Tariq and Ana at the dining table. We played chess, we spoke, they taught me some Bosnian, I taught them some Hindi. We were all terrible students.

The next morning as I woke up, Tariq grinned at me and said, “my brother”. It sounds cheesy now but in those moments, listening to that giant of a sixteen year old say those words in a heavy accent made me smile.

Finally, I had to leave. When I proceeded to pay for the room, they refused to take money and told me that Pedja had said that he would not accept more money from me. For four nights, the family fed me breakfast, dinner, snacks, and filled me with wine and beer and had not taken a single penny for it. Now they were not even accepting money for the room. I kept pleading but they did not listen.
I walked out of the hostel, shaking my head. As I walked on, I realized I loved this town. Ahead a crowd had collected. A man was blowing large giant bubbles. He was wearing a hat, and long flowing pants.The kids in the crowd were completely fascinated by these large bubbles and came forward to hold them or burst them. He moved his hands in an exaggerated manner, and kept calling out to the kids, and they all came, enchanted, entranced, following his command and following the bubbles. Their parents clapped and the crowd cheered as the man had the kids fascinated. Through his act, the child in all of was coming out.

A small hat lay on the ground, and next to it lay a placard that said he was a traveler from Argentina and needed money to travel. That he went to every town and performed in the evenings. I have seen people busking before, but almost all of these street performers have either been musicians, singers, dancers or fire eaters. It was the first time I was seeing a man blow bubbles, make children happy and try to earn money. I went forward and put a few coins in his hat.

I stood there for ten more minutes, watching him enthrall the kids. Every single person in the audience was smiling and it was beautiful. Realizing that my bus would leave soon, I left. As I walked on, I realized I loved this town.


























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