Sunday, May 21, 2006

Mostar and Nevesinje photos

Mostar and Nevesinje

This past weekend I was invited to go to Bosnia-Herzegovina with Tanja, a native of the region now living in Belgrade. At around 11pm on Friday, we boarded the bus. Thankfully not all the seats were occupied, so most were able to stretch out a bit. I tried to sleep but it wasn’t easy, since the lights went on frequently (dropping off or picking up people, rest stops) and we had to show our passports at the border. At dawn, the beauty of the region was unveiled. Low white clouds shrouded parts of the mountains, giving a sense of tranquility. The emerging pinks and blues of the sunrise contrasted beautifully with the still-silhouetted mountains and valleys. Trees in various stages of foliage became quite dense at times. The bus moved slowly up the narrow winding mountain road which at some parts was simply a gravel road.

At around 8am, we arrived in the mountain valley town of Nevesinje. Tanja and her family had lived here for about a year during the war, fleeing from Mostar, site of intense fighting between Muslims and Croats. Tanja’s friend Anica and her sister Gordana were now living here and had invited us to stay with them for the weekend. They lived in the upper part of an old farmhouse out in the country. All the buildings in her small farm community were created out of rough stone. As soon as we arrived, the petite old woman who lived downstairs greeted us, introducing herself to me very loudly and excitedly. In no time the entire community knew that the visitors had arrived, including an American. After a breakfast of yogurt, local bacon, boiled eggs, bread, and the mandatory cup of strong Turkish coffee, it was suggested that a quick nap might be in order. Knowing that I didn’t have much time here, I declined.

While Anica went off to plant potatoes in the fields, Tanja and I went walking through the fields and area once quite familiar to her. She showed me the small house where her family had lived – now just a shell and rubble. An abandoned unfinished house belonged to a Muslim family who had yet to return. Wildflowers in yellow, purple and white colors dotted the grassy areas and meadows. In one direction was a mountain whose name means “worm mountain”, which keeps some snow all year round. In the fields one could see people hunched over, also planting potatoes by hand.

In the afternoon, we stopped at the nearby Nevesenje Lake, framed by trees and mountains. The frogs’ loud croaking broke the otherwise silent surroundings. In the shores of the cold lake, one could see scores of tadpoles just waiting for the chance to join the chorus. In the town of Nevesinje, we drove around the main parts and stopped for a few minutes in the old Serbian Orthodox Church. When we arrived back at the farm, I decided to take advantage of the lighting of the late afternoon sun and took some more photos of the local architecture. Most of the homes had a small connected structure called a summer kitchen. The barns all had a small wooden-shuttered window in the upper portion, providing beautiful textural contrast to the stone. Inside Anica’s barn was a solitary cow, mooing to be pastured outside. Some of the fencing was made from vine branches, interwoven like the sides of a basket. Sheep were now being herded back into their fenced-in areas for the night after grazing in more open areas during the day. Next to the sheep pen, Anica’s downstairs neighbor drew some water from the well for use in the home. After Anica finished the evening milking, we headed out in the star-filled sky to enjoy a drink (coffee) at a café in town.

Region of Mostar

The next morning we began our journey towards Mostar, stopping in Nevesinje to pick up Danka, a friend of Anica’s and in a tiny mountain village to visit Anica’s ailing grandmother. Her home had been destroyed in the conflict but had been rebuilt by the UN. We then stopped at Blagaj. Here we saw 200 meter cliff wall from which an underground karst river flows and single-handedly creates the Buna River. Right next it a tekija (Turkish monastery) was built for the Dervish cults in the 16th century. I was amazed at how quickly the river picked up in speed. Knowing we had a lot to see and do that day, we skipped entering the building (and all the tourists) and walked back to the car. Along the riverbank we could see a trout farm (didn’t look that active though) and a restaurant specializing in fish.

Moving onward, our next destination was Pocitelj, a UNESCO World Heritage site. High on a hill stood the fortress Sahat-kula, visible from a distance. Pocitelj is a picturesque Turkish village, built up the steep hill and overlooking the Neretva River. It was partially destroyed in August 1993 by Croat forces, followed by ethnic cleansing. Recent reconstruction has restored the village. As soon as we parked the car, children and adults descended upon us, offering their cherries, oranges, and dried fruits for sale. Entering through an arched gate, we began walking up the stone-covered walkways. Reaching the large mosque built in 1563, we turned right and continued up the path towards the fortress. The original fortress was built by the Hungarians in 1444 and was taken over by the Ottoman Empire in 1471. At that time the castle was fortified and the town was built in the valley below. I climbed up the tower, slowly ascending the short, steep steps in darkness. Once at the top, I was welcomed to a panoramic view of the city, river, and rugged mountains. It was easy to see why Pocitelj was of strategic importance to the Turks, who used the position to extract tolls on travelers using the Nereteva River as one of the few easy routes through the mountains.

On the way to Mostar, we stopped at a small church and monastery. Like other religious institutions, this one was destroyed to the ground during the bloody conflict in the area. A wedding had just occurred, with everyone socializing outside the church. A local band played its bright music, with brass instruments, an accordion, and bass string instrument dominating. Not wanting to disturb the celebration, we quickly slipped inside the church. Inside, you could still smell the incense. The walls were very bare and white. Did the original structure have frescoes? The altar had paintings that looked fairly old. Perhaps they were able to rescue it before the fire consumed the building. As we left the church, I stopped to admire the new doors, elaborately carved with crosses and floral designs.

We now arrived in Mostar, parking in a newer section of the city. It was starting to sprinkle, so I was glad that I brought along my umbrella. A short distance away was the Turkish quarter. Small shops in traditional buildings lined the cobblestone walkway, displaying Turkish-looking crafts and souvenirs for sale. The street was filled with tourists, a positive sign for this formerly besieged city. While we paused for Tanja to get some film for her camera, I looked more closely at the buildings. Even here, many bore the pockmarked signs of bullets and fighting. Up one street, I could see that one was just a shell, with weeds and vines overtaking most of it.

A bit further, we stopped to take some photos of the famous bridge up ahead. Built over 400 years ago, the Stari Most bridge, the longest single stone span in the world, connected the Old Town (mostly Muslim) and largely newer town on the west bank (mostly Catholic). The bridge had symbolized the bond that the multi-ethnic and religious connections (Muslim, Catholic, Jewish, Serbian Orthodox) that the citizens of Mostar had espoused for over 500 years. In 1995, Croats bombed the footbridge, with the citizens staring in disbelief and shock. A few years later, a multinational force began reconstructing the bridge, pulling up the stones out of the river and using building techniques as close as possible to that of the original Ottoman structure. (see for a good article).

We now stopped for lunch at a restaurant just past the bridge. We all ordered cevapci, a mildly seasoned skinless beef sausage and specialty of the region. Served in a pocket of flat bread, the portion was enough for two people. Next to us was a fountain, with the water trickling out of old Turkish pots. A few cats wandered around the courtyard, hoping for handouts. Other tourists opened their guidebooks and discussed their next moves.

After lunch, we walked down some stairs near the restaurant to get a view of the bridge from the other side. A lot of people were now at the top of the bridge. At the peak of the bridge, a young man climbed over the rail and prepared to dive. Although gesturing as if to dive, he did not follow through with the dive. Tanja explained that he was waiting for more “dare money” before going through with the dive – something she had witnessed many times when living here. Realizing that it might take a few minutes before enough money was collected, we decided to head back and move onward. Before leaving Mostar, we drove through the western part of town. Here entire areas were destroyed, blocks of rubble, shells of buildings, or heavily pockmarked. Many of the business and homes in use also bore signs of attack. It would take a long time before all of this would be restored. Up a steep road outside of the city center, we drove to the home of Tanja’s father, which also was being rebuilt. Expecting us for lunch, she had prepared a large bowl of cevapcis for us as well, but we all were too full to eat any. After Tanja had some time with her family, we drove back to Nevesinje, about a 50-minute drive through the Velež Mountains.

Before we boarded the bus that night, we thanked our hosts for their generosity and hospitality. My new friends from Bosnia-Herzegovina wanted me to come back to visit them, and already had planned out some places we could visit. It is such experiences in being with the local people that makes living overseas so much richer than simply being a tourist.