Mostar and Međugorje - Andrew - 2001
Bosnia and Hercegovina is a country which conjures up many images of suffering. When the former Yugoslavia broke up so violently in the 1990s the area which would eventually become Bosnia and Hercegovina endured more than most.
For centuries this area had been a melting pot of different cultures, the Catholic Croats, the Orthodox Serbs and the Bosnian Muslims. The underlying tensions between these groups exploded into bloody conflict with all sides committing atrocities and violence upon all the other sides. It took UN intervention to bring an end to the fighting.
Today Bosnia and Hercegovina is split into two entities; Herceg-Bosna (the Muslim-Croat Federation) and Republika Srpska (the predominantly Serbian part of the country).
The capital is Sarajevo, although the Republika Srpska is administered mainly from Banja Luka in the north. Other places of interest include Mostar which was very badly hit in the wars and Međugorje, a site of international Catholic pilgrimage.
My first trip to Bosnia and Hercegovina started early in the morning in Dubrovnik, Croatia. Having torn myself out of bed and emerged into the already warm morning (it was about 7:00 am) I waited for the bus operated by the Atlas Tourism Company - who operate about 90% of excursions from Dubrovnik - and was relieved when it finally pulled up. I was even more relieved to find it was air conditioned.
The bus went up the coast from Dubrovnik; having done the usual round of hotels picking up other guest until it passed into the 7 km coastal strip that belongs to Bosnia and Hercegovina which splits the parts of Croatia around Dubrovnik from the rest of the country. The historical reason for this tiny strip of Bosnian land goes back to when Dubrovnik was an independent state. Everything north of this point on the coast belonged to the great rival of Dubrovnik, the Venetian State. So the State of Dubrovnik made a deal with the Turkish Empire giving them a small strip of land and thus creating a buffer between themselves and the Venetians. Very clever - but I don't imagine for one moment they would have expected that 300 odd years later their actions would result in this odd little bit of political geography.
Because of the volume of traffic travelling through here the borders are very lax, passports were not checked passing into Bosnia, nor passing out of it again at the other end of the 7 km. Our first stop of the day was in Bosnia and Hercegovina's only coastal town, Neum.
With the best will in the World it is very hard to say anything nice about Neum unless tax-free cigarettes and alcohol, rather grotty cafés and dilapidated hotels are your "thing". I took a few photos - this was after all my first footfall in Bosnia and Hercegovina. Then having very quickly exhausted Neum's scant attractions I waited for the others from the coach who had headed straight for the nearest café.
Neum has virtually no port and Bosnia's access to the sea is generally through Ploče in Croatia. It's a funny old world sometimes. Just as well as "funny" would not characterise the majority of the rest of the day.
After Neum we passed back into Croatia - again no border checks - and then turned inland at the Neretva River Delta to follow the river into the hills. This brought us to Metković, a fairly unpretty sort of town which happens to be the last in Croatia as you head eastwards. Shortly after you arrive at what our guide described as the "proper" border with Bosnia and Hercegovina. This time passports were quite thoroughly checked and I got a nice BiH stamp in mine, not something many other people I know have. At the border checkpoints here and before Neum were the only two places I ever saw the Bosnian flag flying, once into Bosnia all you saw were the "Hercegovina" flag (which is almost identical to the Croatian one - although according to the guide on my second trip this was the Croatian flag and was flown to show brotherhood, even the flags in this country are a little mixed up!).
As you travel further into Bosnia and Hercegovina the landscape gets steadily hillier and the Neretva River gets smaller and faster. You pass by empty looking fields with cars rusting by the roadside, presumably being left where they have broken down because it is too expensive to tow them away. It isn't until later you realise why these empty fields are unused - in this place you don't walk through any field that doesn't look regularly plowed, you might just be wandering amongst some of the million or so landmines which were laid during the War, very few of which have been found. In fact it is probably best to avoid any land that isn't quite thoroughly tarmaced or concreted ... you can never be too safe.
As we passed through this empty landscape our tour guide, who was of course a Croat, began to tell us more about the War which had torn the former Yugoslavia (and particularly Bosnia) into bloodied chunks. She was magnanimous enough to say that the Croats were acutely ashamed of their part in the fighting. Later on I found out she had missed out on some very specific details about the places we were to visit which might have made us feel a little more uncomfortable about rolling up in a big, posh Croatian coach.
The first place at which we stopped was Počitelj, which was once one of the showcase villages of the old Yugoslavia. It is a town founded by the Turkish Empire, and like all good Turkish towns had a Mosque (built in 1563), a clock tower, a hamam (built in 1573) and a medresa. All these were built in the shadow of a strong fortress built by the Hungarians on a bluff high above the Neretva guarding one of the few easy passages through the hills. The Turks re-fortified the Castle and began exacting tolls from the people passing. Počitelj became an important place and thrived for centuries, then when Mostar grew in importance Počitelj became a small but very pretty village.
Then during the War after the Croatian HVO retreated from Mostar back towards Croatia they stopped in Počitelj. They dynamited the minaret of the Mosque which fell onto the roof and smashed it in, many other ancient buildings including the hamam were also destroyed. Then the people of the town were rounded up and taken to a concentration camp. They have never returned. Having done this the Croats left. Today the broken remains of Počitelj have been re-occupied, by people displaced from Kakanj in Central Bosnia. Oddly enough our Guide merely said the Mosque and other buildings had been "destroyed in the War" - not wantonly and pointlessly blown up by a retreating army in an act of pure ethnic cleansing.
The people of Kakanj have made Počitelj habitable again, although the Mosque still remains a crumbling ruin. We were greeted by what can really only be described as a little old lady dressed in black who was selling sugared figs from a basket. I got the uncomfortable feeling that the tours passing through were her only source of income and bought some figs from her despite the fact I'm not really keen on them. My western conscience thus sated I had a look around Počitelj as best I could in the 15 minutes or so we had in the village. This meant that there was no way I could get up to the Castle, although the view from there I guess isn't what it once was. Anyway it was so hot here the climb up would have been exhausting.
Considering the destruction meted out upon it it is truly remarkable that Počitelj is still quite an attractive place. Given some reconstruction and a bit of money - and possibly the return of some its original inhabitants if they are still alive - it could once again be one of the prettiest places in the whole of the Balkans.
With our 15 minutes up we all piled back onto our air conditioned coach leaving the little old woman with lots of unsold figs. I expect she knew exactly when the next coach was due to arrive and would materialise in the village square then, figs in hand.
To read more about Počitelj Castle, see Castles of Europe pages.
It is only a short journey from Počitelj to Mostar, which was the main objective of the trip. We pulled up in the Muslim part of town, by a once grand building that had obviously been badly hit during the shelling and had plants growing through it's windows.
I took a photo of it, thinking it dramatic, and having never seen a building riddled with bullet holes at such close quarters before. Later on I realised it was the tip of an iceberg.
Once we disgorged from the coach into the blistering heat of what we later found out was the hottest place in the whole of the former Yugoslavia we were met by our guide in Mostar. The coach would meet us the other side of the Neretva in the Croat part of town. Before the war there were no distinctions in the town, but now the Muslims live east of the River and the Croats west of it. Most of the interesting buildings of Mostar, those that have survived at least, are in the Muslim section.
Our first stop was the remnants of the Karađoz Bey's Mosque. This used to be the most beautiful of Mostar's many Mosques, but it had the top of it's minaret blown off during the fighting. The interior was badly damaged, but the structure just about managed to stay up - a fate better than most of the rest of the Mosques which, along with churches, were amongst the first targets of the opposing armies guns. After a brief talk explaining the differences between Christian graveyards and Turkish ones we were taken inside (shoes removed of course as it's still a working Mosque). Inside you could see massive cracks across the interior of the Dome, it's amazing it stayed up at all really. Outside the Mosque was a small boy with no legs sitting in a wheelchair begging, it wasn't the first or last beggar we saw, but he was probably the most genuine.
From here we were taken on to the Turkish House Museum. This is an old typical Turkish pasha's house built on stilts on the river banks. The interior is furnished as it would have been when the house was built in the 18th century. The most attractive part of the construction is the small white-washed courtyard, centred around a fountain for pre-prayer ablutions.
Inside one of the women on the tour, Sue (who I later got to know along with her friend, Janie), was dressed up as a "typical Turkish woman". All this made a welcome light-hearted break from the stories of war which had characterised most of the day and would do so for most of the remainder. By this point the temperature had gone somewhere beyond blistering towards skin-fryingly baking and the walk down to the Old Town was a long hot one.
The Old Town is more or less made up of one street which slopes down the riverside towards the point where Mostar's most famous landmark used to stand. This was the Stari Most (Old Bridge) and it gave it's name to the town (a mostari was a keeper of the bridge). It was unique in Europe, constructed in 1566 by using big square stones connected by metal hooks - there was no cement used in its construction. It was famous throughout the world and attracted many thousands of visitors to Mostar. On November 9th 1993 it was blown to smithereens by the Croatian HVO (who later went on to devastate Počitelj). Apparently the Bridge will be reconstructed by 2002 - but from what I saw, I fear it may take a little longer than that.
A modern bridge now spans the gap, allowing the visitor to get some very close up views of the stubs of either end of the Old Bridge and the work going on around it. At either end of the bridge were two defensive towers, these survived the bombing (more or less) but now stand unused and derelict.
The single street of the Old Town has been almost entirely taken over by souvenir shops, mostly selling metal work and the occasional engraved shell case. We stopped at the top of the Old Town in the horrendous heat and our guide told us about the Bridge and the destruction - again not mentioning that it was the Croats who had done the dirty work ... it seems that the only people who are allowed to be blamed for anything in the former Yugoslavia are the Serbians.
After this last talk we were given an hour on our own to explore wherever we wanted to, but we had to meet up in the same place or be left behind. After letting the crowd disperse I headed down to the new bridge, looking in some of the souvenir shops on the way (one of which had a massive machine-gun on a stand outside it). From the new bridge (and once upon a time from the old bridge) there is a wonderful view back at the Old Town with the river-side Koski Meshed-pasha's Mosque reflected in the deep blue waters of the Neretva. This Mosque has been completely rebuilt since the war when it was almost totally destroyed, being far too easy a target in it's exposed site next to the river.
As I crossed back over to the old town the Muzzein from another Mosque (not sure which one it is there are so many!) began to call the faithful to prayer (albeit in a recorded form). This was juxtaposed for me with the sight of two UN soldiers walking down the street, a reminder of just how confusing and unusual a place Bosnia and Hercegovina is.
By this point my body fluid felt like it had all but evaporated in the heat, so it was definitely time to find a café and re-hydrate myself a little. Another beggar came around the diners, but was sent away with a flea in her ear. We would later see her counting out a huge wad of money as we walked to the coach.
When everyone was gathered we crossed the new bridge and walked through the Croat part of town to where our coach was parked. We then drove along the dramatic Bulevar Hrvatskih Branitelja which once marked the front line between the two opposing forces pummelling Mostar into dust. On one side of the road there are largely empty spaces where destroyed buildings have been cleared, but down the other side the wrecked buildings still remain, rows and rows of them a stark and dramatic reminder of the destruction which took place in Mostar.
After this sobre sight we were taken to the luxurious Hotel Ero for lunch, before heading away from Mostar completely. On the way out of town we were stopped by a local policeman who tried to extract money from our driver for breaking some new road rule that, from the sound of it, was made up on the spot.
The remainder of the journey was uneventful and we crossed back into Croatia at Metković, stopping briefly at Slano further up the coast before heading back to Dubrovnik.
Two days later I was off to Bosnia and Hercegovina once more.
The trip would have quite a different feel. Whereas last time it had focussed inevitably on the war and the rebuilding following it, this time I was heading to Međugorje, a small village which was thrown into the public eye on 24 June 1981 when six village children saw an apparation of the Virgin Mary on a hill just outside town. The Virgin gave these children a message, the following day they received another. Word spread and today millions of pilgrims a year come here, even though the Catholic Church has yet to officially recognise the phenomenon.
The tour stopped at Metković for a coffee break, which is no more attractive stopping there than it was passing through it before. Then we were back in Bosnia and Hercegovina. We were supposed to cross the Neretva at the only major bridge to survive the war, but the traffic was horrendous so our driver decided to take an alternative route. This meant crossing the river just after Počitelj and then heading up the steep winding road leading up the side of the valley and approaching Međugorje from the north. It also meant we arrived later than we were supposed to and picked up our guide for the town.
She was a very softly spoken young lady who seemed to ooze serenity and piousness in equal proportions. I began to realise that I was probably the only person on the coach who wasn't a devout Catholic, let alone an agnostic.
The coach drove through the town and then deposited us near the bottom of Podbrdo Hill, which since the events of June 1981 has become known as Apparation Hill. At the foot of the hill we were pointed out the surprisingly humble house of Maria, the only one of the six Receivers who still lives in Međugorje. She still gets a daily message from the Virgin.
Whilst the rest of the Group stood near the tacky souvenir shops that crowd the foot of the steep and rocky hill being told all about the miracles I decided I'd had enough dogma and would walk up the Hill on my own.
It was quite a trek, the ground is extremely uneven and rough and the Hill is very steep. Scattered up and down the path are various sculptures and several crosses. Good views can be had down to the distant town and the neighbouring "Cross Hill" - the more determined pilgrims also walk up to the top of that hill, but it takes about four hours and we certainly didn't have that long.
Incredibly there were people walking over the rough stones in bare feet in order to reach the scattering of wooden crosses which crown the Hill, including one which marks the spot where the six children saw the first Apparation. There were also a number of old and infirm people struggling upwards in the blistering heat which was reflected off the pinky-coloured stone as surely as if it had been metal.
When I reached the top I admit to feeling a little out of place, these people were strong believers and had undertaken the ardous climb not as tourists but as pilgrims and now were praying. I decided not to disturb their reveries with taking photographs and to be satisfied with the pictures of the ascent and descent.
Descent being the next item on my agenda. Near the bottom of the Hill I passed the rest of the tour party heading upwards. This gave me time to get a drink and have a nose around the souvenir shops. Having never visited Lourdes I have never seen quite so much religious tat before, plastic Virgin Mary's (in which to deposit your holy water), Virgin Mary's that light up and dreadful plaster Madonnas were amongst the least palatable of the items on sale (at very cheap rates it has to be said). More tasteful were the large variety of rosaries and smaller nick-nacks such as keyfobs, pins, pendants etc.
Whilst I waited for the tour group to come back I got speaking to an elderly French woman who was too old now to go up the Hill but had come with her daughter who was up there slogging away with the rest of them. The woman had visited before the war when this was still Yugoslavia and at that time there was apparently one small café and nothing else but pilgrims. She was appalled and sorry to see the commercialisation that had occurred since. She was certainly not going to enjoy the town then!
Eventually the tour group returned and we all piled back into the coach and headed into town, although we had lost two members of the group somewhere on the Hill, they would have to walk back into town.
The town, which is not very large, is dominated by the twin towered massive bulk of St. James' Church (which sometimes seems to be called St. Jacob's). Initially you think this is another piece of religious exploitation until you realise that (a) there was an even bigger church here which fell down during the Turkish period, (b) that St. James' was built in 1969 long before the Apparations began and (c) that it is nowhere near big enough today, as demonstrated by the rows and rows of benches behind the church.
This makes the church quite remarkable for it's size, and it's quite an attractive building too, following traditional church design rather than some horrid "modern" amalgam. Whilst the devout went inside to attend Mass (for which they were slightly late due to our delay at arriving here) I decided to stop outside and have a look around. The size of the church is generally held, by the faithful, as an indication that Međugorje was already chosen to be a site of pilgrimage many years before the Apparations began. Another, more recent, sign of divinity is that whilst all the villages and towns around Međugorje were devastated by the war not a single shot was fired in this town. My slightly more cynical mind would say that if there was any divinity at all then the war would not have occurred at all.
Most visitors are drawn immediately to the statue of the Virgin Mary which stands outside the church which visitors pray before and often crawl around on their knees reciting the rosary as an act of devotion. It's actually a rather emotive and effective statue, not at all mawkish nor particularly exploitative (unlike most of the town unfortunately).
From here I wandered around the outside of St. James'. Behind the church proper there is a large covered structure which in England would be called a bandstand. Ranged around it are many hundreds of benches put there to take the overspill from the church when special services are held, the largest being the anniversary of the original apparation.
To the left of the church is a long long row of confessionaries, which state the language spoken on the door. All of this conveys the scale of the activities here at certain times and I began to realise that despite the large number of pilgrims and tourists here today I had arrived on what was essentially a quiet day.
We had been given almost three hours to spend in Međugorje as we pleased. This meant that even if you attended Mass you were going to have a lot of spare time and, frankly, once you have walked around and been inside St. James' there isn't a good deal else to do here unless you get very very excited by tacky souvenir shops.
The faithful came out of Mass and I was disappointed to hear no bells. After a period of milling around they dispersed to find food or plastic Madonnas to take home with them. Like a kind of anti-pilgrim I now went inside the church to have a look around. It was rather uninspiring inside, plain and white and very un-Catholic. I had hoped for masses of imagery and spectacular decoration. I guess Međugorje is still quite a poor place despite the mobs descending on it every day - interesting fact; Međugorje has more accommodation rooms than the rest of Bosnia and Hercegovina put together!
Having exhausted the attractions of St. James' I went for a wander along the main street looking for something other than plastic Madonnas to take home with me. I found some nice bits and pieces, but began to get thoroughly bored with the identical and overwhelmingly crap items on sale in the thirty or so shops which line the street. I went to eat and then decided to find a shady spot and have a read to try and pass the rest of the hour and a half or so left to me.
It was during this period that I began to get the first twinges of a familiar sick feeling that has plagued me for some time (it made me leave Barcelona two days early and hospitalised me for a week in January 2001). I don't know if it was the heat, the food, or just a resurgence of whatever the problem is but I found myself heading for the nearest toilet and disgorging what I had just eaten.
By the time the coach turned up again I was feeling very ill indeed and had two hours or so of coach journey to endure before I could curl up in bed and sleep it off. This turned out to be the longest coach journey I've ever taken in my life. Having to stop every now and again for me to dispose of bags which I had kindly filled must have really worn on the patience of my fellow travellers, although I was offered sickness tablets and many more plastic bags.
During the journey we were handed little slips of paper. At the time I didn't pay it much attention as I had other things on my mind, but it turned out to be today's Message from the Virgin, as given to Maria. This had been translated into the languages of the various people on the coach. The message for July 25 2001 was not, as you might have thought "Don't undertake long coach journeys when you're feeling sick" but the far more esoteric and religiously-oriented "Dear Children! I am with you and I bless you all with my motherly blessing. Especially today when God gives you abundant graces, pray and seek God through me. God gives you great graces, that is why, little children make good use of this time of grace and come closer to my heart so that I can lead you to my Son Jesus. Thank you for having responded to my call." Quite a long message all told, although I would probably have preferred some kind of sickness cure at that precise moment in time.
We stopped off in Neum on the way back and whilst the others went to have a drink I sat in the shade of the coach cradling a plastic bag, these were my last few moments on Bosnian soil and although I'd already seen Neum once (which is frankly enough anyhow) it wasn't really how I had intended my last footsteps in this fascinating country to be spent. Eventually the coach arrived back in Dubrovnik and I, by now dizzy with repeated vomitting, made it back to my hotel and collapsed into bed to begin an unpleasant night.
All in all I am very glad I visited Bosnia and Hercegovina now, before it has completely rebuilt itself, the remains of a very beautiful country are slowly dragging themselves from the ruins and you get an overwhelming feeling of hope from the people that recovery is possible. Let us hope that the future is kinder to this country than the recent past has been.
To read about my time in Croatia, see Travel Pages:
To read about my trip to Montenegro, see Travel Pages: Montenegro.
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Andrew J. Müller
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