Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina is all about its famous old bridge, Stari Most. This bridge served as a link between the two sections of the city of Mostar, Catholic and Muslim, for over 425 years. It was destroyed by the Serbs and Croats fighting the Siege of Mostar during the Bosnian War in 1993.
Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina War-Torn History
Mostar is a great stop for tourists intrigued by the prospect of Turkish coffee, bazaars selling hookahs, mortar shells, Persian carpets, and good local food dishes. Yet Mostar remains a very divided jewel with many visible scars from recent wars.
When visiting Disneyland or beautiful foreign locations such as Cinque Terre in Italy or the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland there is little need or even much curiosity for an in-depth look at their history. Upon viewing the many bullet riddled facades and bombed out buildings of Mostar and knowing on these very streets thousands fled their homeland, fought or died only 20 years earlier, I felt compelled to look into this city’s troubled past.
Destruction of the Stari Most Bridge of Mostar
The 425 year old foot bridge in the top photo was not of critical military importance during the Bosnian War in the 90’s. It served as a link between the Catholic Croatians on the east side of the river and the Muslims in the west. Destroying it was more a wartime act to demoralize the citizens, just as the Serbs and Croats did when they bombed the twisting, turning Olympic toboggan run in Sarajevo. It took over 50 direct hits by artillery shells from the adjacent hill, from the approximate location of the Christian cross, to bring the bridge down. The bridge was replaced temporarily by a simple cable structure for the remaining years of the war. Numerous European countries later contributed $15 million to have the bridge rebuilt in the same design as the original bridge. Some original stone blocks were recovered by divers from the frigid Neretva River below. The remaining stones were cut at a local stone quarry. Residents note the bridge appears too clean, but is looking more and more realistic with each passing year.
Prior to the war, an application was submitted to UNESCO to make the beautiful and historically significant Stari Most bridge a World Heritage site. The application was rejected. Numerous years and two wars later, after the old bridge was blown up and completely rebuilt, the new bridge was finally considered worthy for inclusion by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Tito, Yugoslav Communist President
As Communist dictators go, Tito would likely be considered the best of the lot, as long as you were not on the receiving end of the brutality of his secret police. His contemporaries, Slobodan Milošević and Nicolae Ceaușescu in adjacent Communist countries were far more brutal. The average Yugoslavian enjoyed more freedoms than any other Communist country in Eastern Europe. Tito commanded a great deal of respect from both the population he ruled and from foreign leaders for his role in liberating Yugoslavia from Germany during WWII. As a result, he remains quite popular in Bosnia. Tito’s rule began in 1953. He was re-elected a couple times then made President for life in 1963. Tensions between ethnic groups were kept in check under his control. Following his death, the distrust of opposing ethnic groups and land grabs led to years of civil war among Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). Yugoslavia has since been split into six countries, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia.
Mostar was the most bombed city in the 1992-1995 Bosnian war. The principal victims of the war were the Muslim Bosniaks. At first, Croats and Muslims joined together against the Bosnian Serbs. Croats later turned on the Muslims, driving them across the river via the Stari Most Bridge. Mostar was at one time considered the most ethnically diverse city in Bosnia and Herzegovina. After years of war, it has became a melting pot of hatred which has yet to heal. Today the distrust between religious groups living on opposite sides of the river requires that there be two of most everything out of fear of another war and losing control of critical services. The result is a power plant on each side of the river, two bus services, multiple hospitals and garbage collection companies. Duplication on each side of the river is bankrupting the city.
Other countries suffered from the Bosnian War and have been mostly rebuilt. Something holding back the rebuilding in Mostar is the lack of records for clear title. People do not wish to put money into fixing up a building if the ownership of the building is in doubt. Poor protection of property rights and widespread corruption has also discouraged rebuilding and entrepreneurial activity. The rule of law is weak, and local courts are subject to substantial political interference and corruption. The country also lacks the resources to prosecute complex organized crimes effectively. Intrusive government, costly bribes and heavy bureaucracy reflect the history of Communist central planning.
Brass Bullet Casings for Sale
Living in such a war-torn country with industry yet to regain much in the way of production, what can the vendors sell to the tourists? Old worthless inflated currency, bullet shell casings and bayonets were popular items. Immediately after the war, relatively large sums of money were had by collecting the discarded brass mortar shells and bullet casings.
Classic Runaway Inflation
In 1992 Bosnia broke away from the Yugoslavian Dinar and used the Bosnian Dinar. Under Tito, Yugoslavia ran large budget deficits, financed by printing money. The result was a rate of inflation of 15% to 25% per year. After Tito, the Communist Party pursued progressively more irrational economic policies. These practices eventually created severe hyperinflation. Inflation would soon exceed 100% a day. Due to such inflation, coins become totally worthless and bigger and bigger bank notes were required. The largest was a 5,000,000,000 Dinar bill.
Due to the artificially low fixed prices mandated by the government, farmers and ranchers eventually stopped selling their goods at the public markets. Food became very scarce in the government stores. The government irrationally used hard currency to buy food from foreign sources rather than remove the price controls. A lack of gasoline forced gas stations to close so people flocked to the public bus system. However, the government could not supply the buses with enough gasoline so the number of buses were cut in half.
Between October 1, 1993 and January 24, 1995, prices increased by 5 quadrillion percent. This number is a 5 with 15 zeroes after it. So the government created a new Dinar worth one million of the “old” Dinar. The government simply removed six zeroes from the paper money.
It was against the law to refuse personal checks. So people wrote personal checks with increasing frequency knowing that during the numerous days it took for checks to clear, inflation would wipe out much of the cost of covering the checks.
On January 24, 1994 the government introduced the “super” Dinar equal to 10 million of the new new Dinar.
(Source Thayer Watkins, Ph.D. Economics Department of SAN JOSÉ STATE UNIVERSITY)
Eventually the novi or new Dinar was introduced, loosely tied to the German Deutsche Mark. The exchange rate of the previous Dinar to the Deutsch Mark was approximately 1 DM = 13 million Dinar. This experience of severe inflation, ethnic wars and general distrust between the Eastern European countries has resulted in the adjacent countries’ banks and currency exchanges refusing to convert any left over currency for today’s travelers. I have many currency souvenirs.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is still a very poor country. Without the luxury of a daily newspaper and certainly no money for a computer and Internet, obituaries are displayed on lamp posts. They seemed to be fairly well maintained with old notices removed making room for the current ‘news’.
The war was particularly devastating in 1993. Entire cemeteries had to be created. It was very odd to walk into a cemetery and note every single grave marker having the same year of death, 1993.
A Walk Around Mostar
This vendor was selling food from inside the animal carcass, as well as cabbages. Initially, I had no idea what he was selling stuffed inside the animal skin. Through much pantomime from the both of us, he finally gave me a scoop of what was inside. Ah, fresh goat cheese from an old goat carcass. With such tiny legs and fat belly, it is no wonder why this particular goat was caught…
Stones and rocks are everywhere along the Neretva River. The rounded rock walkways make it nearly impossible for women to walk in high heels. Tennis shoes were not even very comfortable. Notice even the house shingles are made of shale-type rock.
Eking Out a Living
A popular activity in Mostar is watching kids jump from the Stari Most Bridge. It did not appear that the jumping was open to just anyone. Those jumping had official looking tags pinned to their shirts. There were many false starts, to try and get more people interested and to collect money from the tourists. Apparently the jumpers will not jump until enough Dinars have been collected. This photo is a blending of seven different high speed photos, showing the jumper splashing into the Neretva River.
Muslim Call to Prayer
At the top of the tall Muslim minarets are four loud speakers aimed in different directions. Five times each day religious chanting broadcast throughout the city call Muslims to prayer. There does not seem to be a big rush to the towers, as I watched numerous Muslims arrive well after the call to prayer. The times of the call to prayer change daily with the times of the sunrise and sunset. The crackling noise in the background of the recording is a nearby fountain in the Muslim confines. Notice the bullet holes in the mosque tower.
Next we explore Sarajevo, home of the 1984 Olympics.
I have very few words… The aftermath of any war is devastating, yet it would seem the art created from these tools of the destruction is imaginative. Bomb carving to make a few dinars is something I pray some day will no longer be necessary in any country.
Good insightful posting of their history Harold.
Language was not the only barrier. Since this population has only experienced living under communism, unimaginable torture and war how could they relate to any questions of the freedoms we take for granted?
Harold, thank you for sharing this story. Amazing!
Thank you for continuing to read of our adventures.
We should never ever complain!!! I learned so much from your blog and I feel so very fortunate to live in the US. The video was haunting and the cemetery very sad. Thank you for all of your research and fine photography skills!
I very much agree with you Dorothy. During my research I read of terrible acts of torture I which I had not. We do have it very good and too often we do not really appreciate it, it seems. Despite our ethnic and political tensions, I hope we are a long way from what developed here.