Author: Eric Staples
It’s impossible to explore Mostar without marveling the damage caused by war. Everyday I observe the façades of the buildings I pass—many rendered into Swiss cheese after taking a beating of bullets. One building in particular is but a shell of what was once a chic restaurant. The front wall of the building has been blown away by a mortar, and the painted words and arrow on an interior wall indicating where the restroom used to be now points toward a wholly missing section of the building, to the vast expanse of land to the south.
This destruction is a testament to how chaotic and violent a period this city and its people went through less than twenty years ago. It is as if these buildings – nay, the whole city – took a trip to hell and back.
The vestige of war carries itself to the souvenir shops. There, fifty-caliber bullets are repurposed and sold as pens, their gunpowder replaced by ink cartridges. They are sold next to gas masks and various other wartime keepsakes. It seems war is a part of Mostar’s identity that the city embraces. A friend of mine remarked about a rather ordinary chess board for sale at the souvenir shop: “I wonder which pieces are the Croats and which the Bosniaks.”
His attempt at satire was his way of dealing with a city’s identity so alien to us.
My witty friend and I both hail from Seattle, Washington. There is no “war tourism” where we come from. There are no tours of popular sniper locations, no bullet-textured walls, and no fifty-caliber souvenirs. Never in Seattle would directions to a pub include the curious phrase, “walk towards the Snipers Nest”—the colloquial name for the tallest building in Mostar, which served a self-explanatory purpose.
I have been in the Balkans for eight months. I came to the region with my university, the University of Washington, to participate in a summer seminar, but I decided to stay in Mostar for an additional three months and conduct an independent study on ethnic segregation in Bosnia’s secondary schools; specifically, I’m studying how division is reproduced among students in Mostar’s Prva Gimnazija. The school is another place where war still lingers and perpetuates divides, in Mostar as well as the rest of Bosnia.
This city and its war tourism offer a reality with which I am still trying to grapple. I have never lived in a city with a past as unnerving as Mostar’s, and for that reason I feel disoriented during the moments I see it reflected in the city’s identity today, through its tourism, shelled-out buildings, and the people I meet who talk of their experiences during the war. My first reaction is to distance myself from the unsavory past and simply enjoy the parts of Bosnia’s identity that are positively delicious to me – mainly, the burek, music and the partying – and ignore the rest, as I feel uncomfortable doing so. But I reject that definition of tourism.
I’ve come to terms with the idea that being a tourist – or, in my case, a temporary resident – is not always going to be a theme park ride. It is to challenge the assumptions about ourselves and about others that we take with us to a new place, assumptions such as those that led to my friend’s unsavory joke. It is to negotiate with a country’s history through both its charming or violent points in time. That can be a scary thing indeed.