October 21-23, 2011: I suspect that the Balkan department is where Professors of History send their enemies, that they may be driven mad. While I did some rudimentary research on Balkan history (I recommend Rebecca West’s “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” and Robert Kaplan’s “Balkan Ghosts“) I don’t pretend to an understanding. The shortest and simplest outline I can manage goes as follows: in the beginning there were Illyrians and Thracians, influenced by the Greeks. The Romans ruled for a while, and after the Empire fell the area was overrun by Slavs from the Caucasus. In the west the Slavs became Croats – coastal and Catholic – and in the east they became Serbs – inland and Orthodox. After the Ottomans took over from the Byzantines, some communities converted to Islam. The descendents of the converts are known as Bosniaks in what is now Bosnia.
When I was growing up (right after WWII, a shockingly long time ago) the comforting mantra about the Holocaust was “never again”. Yet, just fifty years later, ethnic cleansing was once again disfiguring Europe, along with rape camps, and the almost medieval siege and bombardment of cities like Dubrovnik, and of Mostar and Sarajevo, where I was headed next. Mostar was a particularly sad case. After the Croats and the Bosniaks collaborated to defeat the invading Serbs, the Croats turned on the Bosniaks, bombarding their section of the city and eventually destroying the beautiful and historic bridge that was its symbol. (Not that I want to suggest that any one side was noticeably better-behaved than any other.)
On my last visit to the Balkans I had seen war damage in Croatia, although not in Slovenia, which was able to leave the Yugoslav federation largely unscathed. This time I had seen none in Macedonia, which had left with no fighting at all, or in Montenegro, which had been responsible for the seige of Dubrovnik, but seemed to have escaped damage itself. Bosnia was another matter. The iconic bridge in Mostar had been rebuilt in as faithful a reconstruction as possible (there’s an excellent museum devoted to the bridge), and buildings along the river front have also been restored. But wander a little away from the river, and damaged buildings and even streets are not hard to find, and the place still feels like a divided city.
Mostar and its bridge seem to be well-established on the tourist circuit, although while I had to dodge groups near the bridge, at least during the day, I saw no other tourists further afield. Based on a photo on the town’s tourist literature I trekked out to the Partisan Memorial, built during the Communist era to honor WWII guerilla fighters. Good thing I enjoyed the walk, as the memorial was in a horrible state of neglect. It must have been impressive in its day, but instead of the graves and tombstones visible in the photograph I had seen, it was littered with beer bottles and broken glass. I did encounter three young men there, one of whom managed a successful climb up the central relief. That made a better photograph than the memorial.
I was still fighting my Albanian cold (flu?) and Mostar was a pleasant enough place to wander around, drink coffee by the river or in the rather posh Bristol hotel, and take lots of photographs of the bridge. I walked through souvenir central, cobbled Kujundziluk, several times, but felt no impulse to buy anything. I preferred mosque-lined Brace Fejica, further north. My hotel, the Kriva Cuprija, was well-located along a side stream, but its restaurant was remarkably expensive (partly because of extra charges for bread, potatoes, service, etc) and I didn’t appreciate being constantly reminded to write a tripadvisor review.