Mostar, the cultural capitol of the Herzegovina region of Bosnia-Herzegovina, was one of the most extraordinary cities I visited in Europe. Most tourists visit Mostar to see its famous Old Bridge, one of the country’s most recognizable landmarks, and the surrounding Old Town area. I was no different. However, what I discovered outside these touristy areas was profoundly emotional and chilling.
Yugoslavia was a Soviet conglomerate-country which was economically and culturally dominated by Serbia, the most influential of the six socialist republics which combined to form the country. After Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence in 1992, absolute chaos broke out as Yugoslavia rapidly disintegrated. The vicious war attracted worldwide attention, particularly when NATO and the USA joined the fray and reports of widespread Serbian genocide emerged.
Mostar became one of the war’s hardest-hit cities, and the site of many of its most violent battles.
In fact, ethnic tensions hit the traditionally multicultural city especially hard. Mostar soon became literally divided along ethnic lines, and turned into a virtual battlefield for a span of nearly two years. Thousands of people were killed and many historical landmarks destroyed during the brutal two-year siege, which mercifully came to an end in late 1994.
My Time in Mostar:
Around two decades later, I visited Mostar.
When I arrived on the bus, a group of elderly women were waiting at the station, offering space in their apartments for ‘home-stays’ to make a few extra bucks. I chose a kindly, gentle old lady who was less of a heckler than the rest. She led me to her nearby Soviet bloc-style flat and summoned me inside.
The first thing I noticed was a framed photograph above her living room sofa. A soldier, from the looks of it. Trying to break the ice and learn something about my host, I inquired who it was. The poor old lady immediately became emotional, but dutifully indulged my query. Chills ran down my spine as the woman explained it was her brother, who’d been killed during the war. He’d been shot through the head only a few blocks where the poor woman now lived, and where I now stood.
After settling in, I went for a walk. Shockingly, signs of the war were still abundant nearly everywhere you looked. Countless buildings, many of which were inhabited, were riddled with bullet and bomb holes. Buildings and even entire neighborhoods sat abandoned and rotting. I walked past vacant structures which still had sand-bags stacked around the entrances. Several had huge chunks of them missing, the victims of bombs. Keep in mind, this was two decades after the war had ended!!
A leisurely stroll around central Mostar was an emotional experience. I started playing Explosions in the Sky music on my headphones, it seemed appropriate. Meanwhile, I kept trying to picture scenes from the concluded but certainly not forgotten wartime days. Of course I visited the touristy bridge and old town, but it held little interest. What I’d noticed on the way over there, the bombed out buildings, the sandbags and bullet holes, resonated and I wanted to explore more. So I soon headed back into the central area.
The spooky skyscraper was easy enough to spot. It was ten stories high, making it one of the tallest buildings in the city. It was also clearly vacant. As I approached the building, I was surprised to find it wasn’t even remotely cordoned off. There were no fences or tin sheets blocking any ground-floor entrances, anyone could easily waltz right in. Which is exactly what I did, of course.
Just before I entered, I analyzed the exterior. What seemed like the entire building was scarred by thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of bullet holes. There was no glass remaining in any of the window or door openings. I fleetingly wondered what type of business may have operated there before it met its untimely demise. It seemed like it had probably been a bank.
How many people were murdered in this building? How many on the surrounding streets were shot down by the snipers hiding inside?
Inside the High Rise:
The ground floor was pretty much what you’d expect in an abandoned high-rise building. A few remarkable graffiti murals stood out; they provided pretty much the only color contrasting the gray concrete floors, walls and ceilings. The floor was littered with shards of broken glass, some areas the glass was in such abundance it was piled together. There wasn’t any sign of furniture, it had either been moved out or looted. However, some smaller side-rooms contained stacks and piles of decades old computer print-outs; documents and records of some sort.
As I cautiously ventured up the concrete stairways and onto the second and third floors, I encountered more of the same. Broken glass shards everywhere, complemented by the occasional collapsed ducts of AC units. A few piles of random discarded junk, most of which looked like it had been there for many years. When I hit the third floor I encountered a few hobos. I became a little nervous as I feared they might be crazy junkies, or at least pissed off I was invading their presumed squatting quarters. But the men paid me no mind and I continued on and upward.
It wasn’t until I reached the 5th or 6th floor that I noticed the bullets. They were scattered all around the floor, nearly as abundant as the glass shards. I still don’t know how I could have missed them on the lower floors I’d already explored. I bent over and picked a few up to investigate. Sure enough, they were actual bullets. More specifically, spent shells. The remnants of shots which had been fired, obviously during the Siege of Mostar. The bullets were badly rusted over; rust had eaten away entire sections of some. But it was unmistakable, they were indeed bullet shells. I put a few in my pocket for souvenirs and continued on.
As I explored the uppermost floors, the bullets stood out more now that I was aware of them. Shells were scattered everywhere throughout the abandoned building. There had to have been thousands of them. I was in complete disbelief; I couldn’t make sense of how so many scars could remain so long after the war’s conclusion. I wondered if the people themselves had similar scars, scars which tourists like me wouldn’t be able to spot so easily. Remembering my elderly home-stay host, I knew the sad answer to that question.
Although it was May, it was unseasonably cold. The wind was fierce and relentless that day, the the concrete pillars which surrounded the roof area provided little shelter due to the abundance of blown-up windows and bullet holes.
However, the graffiti around the roof area was incredible, some of it clearly had taken a good deal of time and effort to compose. There were also tiles covering certain sections of the rooftop, the only part of the entire building’s interior which wasn’t dull gray concrete.
The higher up you got, the better the views of the surroundings. By the time I hit the rooftop, I was awarded a panoramic, 360 degree view of the entire Mostar area, including the nearby Old Town and Old Bridge. It may just be the best bird’s-eye views in town!
As I retraced my steps back through the haunted building, I couldn’t help but imagine what it was like during the war. My best guess was the building served as a sniper tower. Its walls were relatively sturdy concrete. They rose a few feet off the ground, to where the windows had once been. It was a picture-perfect sniper tower; the concrete could serve to shield them from incoming fire, while the strategic viewpoints could present good opportunities to scout and spot enemies outside.
As I neared the lower floors, I looked out for the shells I’d missed; sure enough, there were rusting spent shells all the way down to the ground floor. They’d been produced during the heat of a terrible, tragic, bloody battle, and had been lying here rusting for decades. I just couldn’t believe it.
After exiting the building, I found a nearby park, sat down and lit up a smoke, and gazed at the spooky sniper building for an interment period. I later found out the building was indeed a Serbian stronghold, one of the main sniper points during the Siege of Mostar.
The building is not hard to find. Mostar isn’t a large city and its one of the tallest and most easily recognizable landmarks in town, less than a ten-minute walk from the Old Town area. If you happen to be in Mostar, chances are you won’t see any tourists around there, but I highly recommend exploring the place. It was easily my most moving experience during my stay.
Thanks for reading! Feel free to leave any comments or suggestions, or your own impressions…