IT’S EASY for us in Western Europe to feel somewhat guilty about Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country still riven by ethno-religious division. In the 1990s, the country went through unimaginable suffering during the civil war, with genocide, concentration, mass-mining and brutal sieges marring a land that, for much of the 20th century, had seen its fair share of anxiety. The West did little to remedy the conflict, and today Bosnia and Herzegovina is still thought of as Europe’s problem child, suffering from 40% unemployment and an exodus of skilled workers.
Still, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a very old country, with a fascinating and varied past. Although its tourism industry is underdeveloped, there is plenty in the country to attract visitors – anyone who has been to the capital Sarajevo will heap praise on the city – and there is a growing winter sports industry in the Dinaric Alps that extend their way down the spine of the country. Some of the country’s most visited destinations are in Herzegovina, the mountainous southern corner that is still uneasily divided between Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosniaks.
In 2013, I took a day trip to Herzegovina, taking a coach from Dubrovnik in neighbouring Croatia. Though there are few tourists to the region, most – other than the religious – can be found in Mostar. Its winding streets, lofty minarets, and backdrop of grey-green mountains make it one of the most picturesque cities in the Balkans. A pleasant summer’s afternoon can be had roaming the old town, before settling down at a pavement café overlooking the Neretva River for a plate of Ćevapi.
Walking across the bridge you can watch brave – or foolhardy – divers jump the 20 metre drop into the shallow waters of the Neretva.
Mostar is the largest city in Herzegovina – in many ways its unofficial capital – and is home to the region’s defining sight, the tall, arched Stari Most, or old bridge. Walking across the bridge you can watch brave – or foolhardy – divers jump the 20 metre drop into the shallow waters of the Neretva. The destruction of the bridge by Croat forces in 1993 was one of the war’s greatest and most tragic acts of cultural vandalism, designed to impress Catholic authority over what the Serbs saw as a symbol of Ottoman – and therefore Muslim Bosniak – identity. After the conflict it was rebuilt using the original stonework recovered from the bottom of the river. Today it stands as a reminder that Islam is as much a part of European history as any other religion.
The division of the city is now absolute, and the effects of the war seep out of the stones: aside from the overgrown shells of bombed buildings, and we were warned by our tour guide that to park our Croatian-registered coach on the right, Muslim bank of the city would be far too risky. The modern monastery we eventually stopped by was deliberately designed to stand taller than any of the minarets on the opposite side of the river. This kind of ethno-religious provocation is all too common in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The main draw for tourists to the region is something quite different. Međugorje is a small town nestled between the mountains close to the Croatian border, just 25km from Mostar. Once one of the poorest areas of the country, it received worldwide attention in 1981 when a group of teenagers descended from the hills claiming to have received a visitation from the Virgin Mary. True or not, these teenagers inadvertently brought fame and wealth to their home, and now it boasts a cornucopia of religious-themed tours and shops. It has become a pilgrimage destination for millions of Catholics – albeit one unsanctioned by the Vatican.
The apparitions have a political dimension, coming at a time of state-sponsored atheism under the Yugoslav government.
Other than the pilgrims – including what seemed to be thousands of Irish tourists – the town is unremarkable, and, frankly, the glut of Virgin Mary key rings and fridge magnets available in a hundred souvenir shops seems to be an obscene mockery of sincerely held beliefs. The apparitions have a political dimension: they came at a time of state-sponsored atheism under the Yugoslav government, and later they served to stress the Catholic character of a country with a large Muslim and Orthodox population.
Our tour guide, a fiercely patriotic ethnic Croat who had lived through the war, suggested that the most hopeful future for Bosnia and Herzegovina would be division between Croatia and Serbia – totally ignoring, of course, the Muslim Bosniaks. Some days later in Dubrovnik, the Muslim driver taxiing us to the airport shared a few choice words about the woman, the kindest of which was ‘ignorant.’ He spoke mournfully of his homeland, of its poverty and its divisions. For Bosnia, he said, the best course was peace and reconciliation – but that, he added, was a long way off.
It’s my ambition to one day see more of the country, hopefully in happier times. Bosnia-Herzegovina has a lot to offer, and with EU membership appearing on the horizon, I suspect that within 25 years, we’ll see a wealthier country, more at ease with its diversity. Sarajevo and Mostar may never be regular items on the tourist’s itinerary, but with a location only a stone’s throw away from growing destinations in Croatia and Montenegro, they surely can’t go unnoticed forever. For now, it is a terrible shame that Bosnia and Herzegovina’s reputation means many thousands of travellers are missing out on the mountains and minarets of this venerable land.