Some of you will know that recently I was lucky enough to spend ten days in the Balkans, first as a tourist in Dubrovnik, then working with Novi Most International, a CCN Partner which leads youth projects in three cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have been extremely lucky to get to visit some amazing places this year, largely through my internship with the fabulous Reconciliation Ministry Team at Coventry Cathedral, but this trip has been the standout. So I hope this helps give a sense of what I experienced.
DISCLAIMER: I hope my new friends in Mostar will forgive me for what follows. I hope no-one will be offended by the reflections of someone who has spent barely any time in BiH. I have not lived in Mostar, and these are, at best, my moderately informed attempts to get my head around everything I experienced in an amazing city. I am always happy to be corrected.
For the medievalist in me, Dubrovnik was an amazing city. It has possibly bumped Prague off the top spot as my favourite tourist destination. In contrast to the bizarre mix of eras which is Prague, Dubrovnik feels like a set piece, fallen straight out of history – something I have only ever seen mastered by parts of Cambridge Colleges. To exist as a piece of living history on such a grand scale is unprecedented in my experience. The old city is unlike anything I have seen before – it is no surprise that it has been used extensively for filming Game of Thrones – and I loved spending time there.
But that love was completely overshadowed by visiting Mostar, a city about three hours’ drive inland.
Walking through the east side of the city, I found it easy to forget that the war in Bosnia Herzegovina ended twenty years ago. Unlike my co-interns, who visited Israel and Palestine earlier in the year, I have never been to an active war zone – I imagine the same is true for most people. It was, therefore very unnerving to walk past buildings which routinely show shell damage, through streets where bombed-out buildings have simply been abandoned. Perhaps even more disturbingly, it was easy to stop noticing the destruction. We arrived on Sunday afternoon, and by Thursday I was reminding myself to notice it. When signs of conflict become ‘normal’, it must surely normalise the underlying conflict, even if the war ended a generation ago.
Yet, to focus on destruction would be to do Mostar an injustice; there is another side to this beautiful city. For every damaged building, there is another showing no sign of conflict, which wouldn’t look out of place in any European city. Trees grow out of the holes where roofs and windows ought to be, a sign of new life amidst the destruction, while other empty buildings have become home to some of the most vibrant street art I have seen – flowers blooming on cold concrete, ‘hidden ambitions’ among the rubble.
We were provided with accommodation in the evangelical bible school on the east side, and the view from the widow is something I will never forget. Looking out, you see first the mix of new and ruined buildings, beyond them, running roughly north-south, is a line of minarets. Then, hidden by buildings, there is the river Neretva and the main road, which divides the two sides of the city. At the central point of the city is a building which, when the war broke out, was a part-finished, glass fronted tower block. There is no glass now, only a concrete shell. After that then the view shifts. On the other side of the square is the main civic building in the city, a bright, orange building, the style of which has given the square the name ‘Spanish Square’. Instead of minarets, you see the far taller tower of the Franciscan Cathedral, instead of ruined civic buildings, you see the shiny new, glass fronted ‘Mepas Mall’. It could almost be another city.
In fact, in some ways it is. BiH is a country which is hugely divided. Unlike in the rest of the Former Yugoslavia, the war in Bosnia ended without one side securing a clear victory. Only through international intervention were the ‘Dayton Accords’ reached. They established a hugely complex system which split BiH into two, essentially independent entities; Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This meant that Bosniaks (generally Muslim – and identified as such on their passports, irrespective of actual religion) could claim they had maintained the structural integrity of their homeland, while ethnic Serbs (identified with Orthodox Christianity) could claim they had succeeded is forming a Serb republic, and look to the ideological leadership of Serbia. My understanding is that both groups sought a homeland of their own, and splitting the country seemed to be the only solution. I say both groups, but the war was further complicated by the Croat population (mainly catholic), who were initially allied to the Bosniaks, but who soon split into a third force. The result is a patchwork of governments formed by ethnic quotas, with a rotating presidency and some 14 Prime Ministers, all overseen by the High Representative, an externally appointed official who has final executive power (a post once held by the former Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown).
Mostar as a city is primarily Bosniak and Croat. Before the war, it had reasonably healthy relations between the groups, though the east side was predominantly Bosniak, and the west Croat. However, as the war progressed, the two sides turned on each other, both trying to oust the other side from their positions, and expelling those civilians who did not meet the ethnic norm. The east became more uniformly Bosniak, the west more Croat and the city, isolated from the war as a whole, and especially from aid and medical evacuation, tore itself apart. With the exception of the old town on the east side, a UNESCO World Heritage site which received a lot of investment after the war, most redevelopment has focused on the west side – a fact which can have done little to ease tensions.
These divisions are still there. At a national level, ethnic identity is made more prominent by streamed schooling and different passports. What was once seen as a single local language (Serbo-Croat) is now seen as numerous distinct languages. Dayton, far from seeking to bring the sides together, tried to isolate them from one another, in order to prevent further bloodshed. One person I spoke to suggested that the situation is one of constant vigilance – the sides do not even ignore each other. In the Old Town is a stone, carved with the words ‘Never Forget’ – tourist shops sell military surplus and models made from spent cartridges. Just off the main road is a building, the top floor of which is a bombed out shell, but below which is a gun shop. I can think of few stronger illustrations of the failure of the Dayton Accords to solve the underlying conflict.
It is not only the east side which has such an attitude. On the south-west of the city there is a hill, which overlooks not only the heart of the city, but also the main road south. During the war, this was a key strategic point. Control of access to the city depended on this hill. There now stands atop it a large cross, illuminated at night. Such crosses, with stations going up to them, are not uncommon – there is one above Dubrovnik – but here it feels quite different. I have never felt actively uncomfortable about a cross; I would never be able to follow those stations devotionally. It feels like a statement of superiority, of victory even. It was pointed out to me that, to the Croats, it might be a symbol of comfort and reassurance in the face of real fears. It points over the west not the east, and it is just as obvious as hearing the call to prayer on a daily basis, all of which does something to make it less aggressive than defensive. But the difference is that, unlike the call to prayer, a bloody great cross on the hill is not an essential part of catholic devotion. That cross is something which will haunt me.
So I have fallen in love with a place which has been deeply hurt, and which still bears the scars, both physically and emotionally (I know that many people continue to suffer with the legacy of the war on a personal level). Partly that loves stems from the beauty of the city – even the destruction is beautiful – but it is the people who have breathed life into those bones. The same people who could look across the river with mistrust as a whole, can be deeply open trusting as individuals. Put people into groups and they will divide themselves into us and them. That is a sad story which has been true the world over. But people on their own? They have amazing potential to be united, to create, to love, to give.
This is where Novi Most comes in. Its name literally translates as ‘new bridge’ and that is what it aims to provide – a bridge across the divisions which fracture BiH. It works out of two centres in Mostar – Klub, on the east and OC on the west – along with centres in Jajce and Čapljina. I must admit, knowing that Novi Most is affiliated with the Evangelical Alliance, and being about as far from that as is possible, I was rather apprehensive about working with them. I was worried that I would feel uncomfortable, or that their work might be driven by a theology which had little space for the kind of universal love I ascribe to (see previous posts on why I am a Universalist). But my fears were unfounded. BiH law forbids proselytising anyone under-16, which meant the leaders were very careful to ensure we would not go too far (unlikely given our group consisted of two Catholics, an Anglo-Catholic and an agnostic Lutheran), but more than that, everyone working there is aware of the damage ethno-religious ideology has done. Yes they are motivated by an evangelical faith, but their primary focus is on that which unites, not that which divides. They do what they do, where they do it, because they know that the love of God is bigger than the divisions we create, and they want to share something of that love.
The two centres are rather different. Klub takes a structured approach – on the day I spent there, we made pizza and did a craft activity – whereas OC is more ad hoc, and involved a lot of playing cards and chatting. But their aims are the same; giving local young people, in one of the poorest countries in Europe, a space where they can be comfortable and have fun. And it works. One conversation I shared focused on the plans of one of the boys to move to Greece to play basket-ball. This was something he thought the youth leader ought to know; the Novi Most teams clearly play a big role in the lives of the young people who come to them. They provide a place of care and support.
Through the welcoming support Novi Most provides, the leaders are able to build relationships with the young people, and in turn help them see what they have in common with their neighbours. The real strength of their work comes in weekly joint meetings, where the two communities, which might otherwise never meet (due to cultural divisions and streamed education), get to spend time together and build relationships. We went on one such visit to McDonalds, and it was clear that the young people looked forward to them. Even more exciting was the prospect of a joint swimming trip, sadly scheduled for the day we left, and beyond that, Novi Most Camp, drawing together people from both Mostar centres, as well as groups from Jajce and Čapljina.
For me, however, the highlight was the relationships I began to form, with leaders and young people alike. It is easy to see how people end up getting drawn in to the work of Novi Most. Over the course of a couple of days, Hannah and I had several long conversations with one girl, about to spend ten months studying abroad. We began with the joys of wanderlust, and ranged over European and American political systems, local culture and all the things we could do with our lives. Those conversations are for me the stand out moments of the trip. Rather different was an evening spent getting an insight into local politics from some of the ex-pats over a drink. This was where I really began to see how far Dayton had failed the people of BiH – I had come wondering if the federal system might be a blueprint for a alternative solution in Israel Palestine. It is safe to say I abandoned that idea.
Of course, the evening also involved a fair amount of encouragement for me to return for longer, a prospect I will say is not off the cards. In fact, it is a very appealing prospect. My great sadness is that, just as I was beginning to scratch the surface of Mostar, it was time to leave. One week is certainly not long enough to spend in a city which gets into your bones. Thank you to everyone who made the trip possible, journeyed with me, and me feel so hugely welcome.