Moving Beyond the Bullet Holes in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Story and photos by Tim Leffel

A quarter century after the bloody Bosnian conflict ended, splitting up the former Yugoslavia, tensions still simmer just below the surface of the pockmarked buildings in Mostar and Sarajevo.

Bosnia building

There’s a clear dividing line in the Bosnia-Herzegovina city of Mostar that most visitors never even know is there. On one side are the Muslim Bosnians, with their mosque minarets and gravestones topped by a fez or a turban. On the other side are the ethnic Croatians, with their steepled church and a giant cross on a mountain.

To pin the tension on religion is an oversimplification, however. “That cross is not a symbol of faith,” Harun my local tour guide tells me. “It is a symbol of power, of a desire for domination.”

On the old city side there are still shelled-out buildings and seething grievances about past invasions. Foreign investments are slow to arrive and the average monthly salary is reportedly 380 euros—lower now than before the breakup of Yugoslavia 26 years ago, without adjusting for inflation. On the Croat side there are newer and fancier buildings—but also swastikas spray-painted on walls. I walk past posters advertising a racist “white power” musical act that’s banned in most of Europe. The two lead singers/rappers have their arms held out in a Nazi salute.

Mostar from above

Most of the hotels are on the Muslim side because that’s where the beautiful historic part of the city is. Straddling the Neretva river, Mostar is old Europe come alive, with 16th-century buildings and an Ottoman bridge high above the water. For a while that bridge everyone comes to see was in ruins though. In November of 1993, the ethnic Croats shelled it—the symbol of the city they shared—until it gave way and collapsed, after standing through 400 years of changing rulers. Well after the Bosnian war ended, a coalition of international donors paid to restore it, using mostly the same materials it was built with originally. After years of work, it reopened in 2004. The next year Mostar became a UNESCO World Heritage city.

a bridge in Mostar

The Balkan Beer Wars

At first the ethnic Croatians and the Bosnians fought together against the ethnic Serbs in the early 1990s, when Dubrovnik was also under attack. Once the Serbs were pushed back though, they turned on each other and thousands died. The two peoples of Mostar have kept to their own sides of the dividing line ever since, like two college roommates who are no longer on speaking terms. The city has two governments, two school systems, two major hospitals, and two different soccer stadiums for two different teams.

If men from the different ethnic groups were to get together for a beer, they probably wouldn’t even drink the same thing. On the old city side of the line you can occasionally find a Croatian Ožujsko beer served in tourist bars, but you will be hard-pressed to find a Sarajevsko Bosnian beer on the other side. “If you ask for one over there they will politely tell you they don’t serve that brand,” Harun says. “If you press the subject and ask them why, they might tell you to leave.” Although they live within the borders of what is known now as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevsko may never pass their lips. They think of themselves as Croatians, waiting for the day this land will become part of their ancestral homeland, so it’s not their beer. “In their mind the war is not over,” he says. “It is just in a period of rest.”

Pockmarked building in Mostar

To Bosnians with a long memory, however, Sarajevsko’s brewery means more than just a label on a bottle. While the city of Sarajevo was under siege, the brewery was the one place residents could rely on for safe drinking water, thanks to productive springs that kept pumping no matter what happened to the city’s infrastructure.

Sarajevo Survives

These days in Sarajevo, there are surprisingly few signs of the pummeling the city received in the early 1990s. It would be obvious to those who came before, but for me the signs are a few pockmarked facades, a city park turned into a sobering memorial for the dead, and the empty lots that have yet to be redeveloped. To get a feel for what happened not so long ago, you must tour the tunnel under the airport that ferried in supplies or visit the former soccer stadium turned graveyard, where thousands were quickly buried.


I’ve been reading The Cellist from Sarajevo though, a morbidly fascinating novel with a siege story told through four fictional residents of the city.

Grbavica is completely controlled by the men on the hills, and to even go near it would be suicide. The same is true of Ilidža. Dobrinja, though it has not fallen, is often cut off from the rest of the city, and is, like most places, extraordinarily dangerous. Skenderija is a smoldering ruin. So are the post office, the Parliament and Canton buildings, Oslobodenje, and the library. Koševo Stadium has burned to the ground, and its fields are being used to bury the dead. The trains don’t run anymore. The streets are full of debris, boxcars and concrete piled at intersections in an attempt to foil the snipers on the hills. To go outside is to accept the possibility that you will be killed. On the other hand, Dragan knows, the same can be said of staying inside.

The siege of Sarajevo was the longest in modern history, lasting 1,425 days. During that time, somewhere between 11,000 and 14,000 people were killed, more than a third of them innocent civilians. While the city was blockaded, sniper bullets and shells rained down from the surrounding hills on all sides, with no regard for what they hit.

The Yugoslav army was well-armed, so when the republic broke up there were plenty of weapons to use. Some 60% of the national budget went to defense in the communist nation and in Mostar I see the scale of their military obsession. Convinced an invasion from the west was imminent, they built a bunker under a mountain that could hold 50 fighter jets, with enough food and water to enable 100 people to survive for months. It was designed to survive a nuclear attack, or let everyone escape via a second huge door on the other side.

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Read this article online at: Moving Beyond the Bullet Holes in Bosnia and Herzegovina

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