Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Mostar, part one: Tales of Teo

Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina (Mostar, Bosna i Hercegovina)
Our first experience of Bosnia and Herzegovina began the same as it did in every new country: with the hunt for an ATM so we could pay for things like food and accommodation. You know, luxuries. Little did we know that almost every store and eatery in Mostar accepted the euro! We could have been saved so much hassle. We searched for our booked apartment and were disappointed to find that Herzegovian street numbering was just as bad as Croatian! Yet once we located our host Teo, all was made right. Teo was excited to hear that we were from New Zealand, exclaiming "Oooh, kiwis!" and following up with a story of a New Zealand couple he had met who would always refer to themselves this way. As he hadn't heard people call themselves kiwis before, he eventually asked them "why do you call yourselves a fruit?" That cracked us up. It is after the bird, not the fruit that we derive our nickname.
He first scribbled all over a map of the city with valuable information, and then invited us out to eat with him. As we had already bought many ingredients for dinner that night and were looking forward to cooking in our very own kitchen, we declined but asked if we could accompany him on his way to the restaurant. 
We were in for a treat. The best way to explore a new place is to be shown around by a local, and Teo had lived in Mostar for most of his life. Our first stop was the Partisan Memorial Cemerary: a series of monuments paying homage to the unburied dead of the Second World War. Since its creation in 1965, it was badly damaged during the Bosnian War and fell into disrepair. A committee came together to return it to its former glory, and it was unveiled in 2005 like new. Yet it has again fallen into disuse and nature has begun to reclaim the memorial, turning it into a little jungle of weeds and trash. 
You could scrabble up to the top for a view of the memorial and the city beyond it. On hot summer nights locals climb up and sit dangling their legs over the edge, as this is one of the few places in the city to get a breeze. 
They bring beer, look out over the twinkling cityscape and when they've finished they throw their bottle to the ground far below. The area is now literally covered with shards of green glass. Our next stop was apparently the Bruce Lee statue. Teo saw our surprise and even though he told us the story, I didn't fully believe him until I saw it for myself. The walk there was spent listening to Teo and spotting graffiti art. 
To explain why there is a statue of Bruce Lee in Mostar's central park, I have to talk about the Bosnian war that erupted in 1992 when the former Yugoslavia was breaking apart. Slovenia and Croatia had declared their independence the year before, in 1991, which happens to be the year I was born (this really put into perspective just how fresh this war was - that people not much older than me were fighting and dying in countries I knew nothing about, and how crazy it was that I was given extensive education on the World Wars but not on the conflicts in the 90's). The city was divided by the Neretva River, with Muslim Bosniaks living on the east side and Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats living on the west. Though the war has ended, the city remains largely ethnically divided. The government tried to find a common link between these different groups of people, and one thing sprung to mind: Bruce Lee movies. 
Everyone loved the martial arts master, and flocked to the park when it was being unveiled. Teo was among the crowd as it had been promised that Bruce would attend the ceremony in person, but he was disappointed. (It should be noted here that Teo learnt to speak English "you will never guess it - from the movies!" Spending hours each day watching horror and action films when he should have been studying gave him the gift of a new language. He got a kick out of using new slang he had heard, and wasn't particular on the written side of the language (each time he spelt "restaurant" it was different). He was really fun to listen to, and regaled us with countless stories of Mostar and his life.)
One building that is located right at the crux of the divide was utilised by snipers to reign bullets down upon Bosniaks and is now referred to as the Glass Bank. 
As my family comprise the majority of my readership, I have to warn them that yes I entered a potentially dangerous building full of broken glass but we were in Teo's good hands and he informed us that if we followed the red line spraypainted on the ground that no harm could befall us.
With Teo's expert guidance we clambered over walls, climbed skeletal concrete stairs and peered down dizzying lift shaft drops until we reached the top. One floor was a sea of empty milk cartons, which Teo explained with one word: gypsies. With no security on the building, squatters are free to stay as they please. 
Artists paint on the walls, and even hold spraypainting events in which people travel to Mostar specifically to get a piece of the Glass Bank. 
No railings, no windows, no barriers. With extreme caution we sat by the edge and looked out over the city, with its overgrown monuments and huge new shopping centres, its mosques and tourist cafés.
It was getting dark by the time we descended, Mostar's lights flicking on like hundreds of shining watchful eyes. Exploring the building was exhilarating and a little terrifying. Walking down the stairs gave me tunnel vision as I kept my eyes trained on the red line. The way up was a cinch, but the way down made me start like a frightened mouse anytime I glanced out over the nothingness where wood, plaster or glass should have been.
To think that a sniper may have looked out this very window onto that very street gives me chills. What was once a financial institution is now a gutted husk covered in glass and milk cartons. Mostar is still being slowly rebuilt, but there are constant reminders of the atrocities of the Bosnian War.
Teo took us to a nearby bakery to purchase a few traditional cakes (and we almost accidentally bought nine of them) and then we parted ways for the night. Needing to cook dinner and rest, we decided to head back to the apartment and explore the old town in the morning. We made sure to watch our step, as Teo had informed us that gypsies often stole sewer grates and other useful metal objects to turn a small profit. Who buys these things?! Sure enough, I narrowly missed a gaping maw on the footpath in the dim streetlight, but we eventually settled in safe and sound.