New East Digital Archive

Letter from Herzegovina: daredevil diving and painful history in a modern Bosnia on the edge

Mostar’s Old Bridge is a world-famous symbol of reconciliation, but the country around it is under increasing strain. A trip to the province of Herzegovina reveals present-day travails and historical heritage

15 October 2018
Text and image Hannah Weber

It’s early morning. The bakers sweat behind a dusty counter and chat through long lines of people buying börek and bread. In the rare quiet moments, they drop heavily onto the front stoop in flour-stained aprons to read the tabloids. The sun has just breached the top of the Velež mountain and I’ve put on running shoes, navigating Mostar’s pot-holed sidewalk before the tourists wake up, passing the pharmacy, a betting agent (already occupied) and a hexagonal booth for buying cigarettes and magazines on the east bank of the Neretva river.

The joyful barking of dogs exchanging morning greetings competes with the growl of early traffic. An old Yugo is parked over the curb with its driver napping at the wheel, a crate of potatoes filling up most of the back seat. Crossing the Lučki bridge, I take a few rushed and requisite photos of the Stari Most (Old Bridge) further upstream in the softer light.

Bridges are a well-worn symbol in the region and always come with a wealth of associations — chiefly as a metaphor for closing the gap between cultures. Many iterations of the Stari Most exist: the bridge before the war, looking grave and stately; the gaping missing tooth in the face of the city after Croatian forces bombed it in 1993; the shiny new restoration, ever the symbol of hope and reconciliation. But on this weekend in particular, the historical aspects will go unnoticed as the bridge becomes a platform for revelry and athleticism. Dozens of professional cliff divers have arrived in the city to leap from its pinnacle into the icy water below.

Mostar has a long history of bridge diving. An annual diving competition has occurred for nearly 500 years, dating back to the beginning of the Ottoman period in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Since 2015, it’s been a tour stop on the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series, which sees elite athletes tumble from great heights around the globe, from Copenhagen to Texas.

It’s September and all the lampposts display banners with the faces of political candidates in the upcoming elections. Some tourists peer curiously up at them before their attention is brought back to the main event. The candidates all look remarkably alike — middle-aged men with cliché slogans like “One president for all of us”, a paradoxical notion after a particularly divisive campaign. As the faces blur together, I begin to think that political campaign posters are, by design, universally dull.

My host, Deny, is something of an amateur historian specialising in his own lifetime, during which enough history occurred in BiH to fill books, accords, courts and university departments for another century. He doesn’t like the posters of the “politikers,” he says while giving them a rude gesture. Years ago, I might have been optimistic about the prospect of a fresh election. Deny had been optimistic, too, a decade earlier when he first started renting rooms to tourists in the centre of his hometown. But political stagnancy and an exhausted civil society have shackled progress, and EU integration no longer seems like the promise it once did.

The Stari Most bears a heavy symbolic weight at a time when politikers ensure that bridging interethnic boundaries remains a distant dream

Since the 1995 Dayton Agreement, the Bosnian state has been divided into ethnic factions, each with its own president, parliament, police force and other governing institutions. Presiding over all of this is a federal government, whose president rotates between a Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim), Serb and Croat leader once every eight months. Naturally, each of these politicians endeavours to make reforms only for their own voter base. On the outside, the EU is far too occupied scrambling to keep up with its own chaotic few years to give much attention to those promises of EU expansion.

(A few weeks after my visit, the Serb population voted in Milorad Dodik for their shift of the presidency — a staunch separatist who promises to hold an independence referendum that would threaten to tear the country apart into ethno-national blocs once again. In his campaign, Dodik said that the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina was only “an arranged marriage,” and that he and his Serb voters want a divorce. The Stari Most bears a heavy symbolic weight at a time when, by allowing only the entrenched ethnonational parties to thrive in Bosnian politics, the politikers ensure that bridging interethnic boundaries remains a distant dream.)

Deny takes us to Pocitelj, a medieval town along the Neretva. Even for me, a German-Canadian with no real ties to BiH or the former Yugoslavia, discovering the Herzegovinian countryside is an archaeological labour of love. For Deny, the Bosniak repatriate, the visit allows him to unearth what people of his own generation, the post-communist generation, know about his heart-shaped nation.

Much of my search for the past is riddled with guesses: crumbling stone walls, the remains of vineyard terracing, the sunken roof of a farmhouse punctured by a triumphant fig tree all hint at the wealth of its history. “The first record of Pocitelj was in the mid-15th century, shortly before the Ottomans conquered it,” Deny says, suddenly sounding uncharacteristically academic. He rattles off dates and facts at a speed that ensures no one will remember them. Listening intently nonetheless, we sit on a set of modern stairs, clearly a product of the post-war reconstruction efforts. Behind us, a glossy unfinished viewing platform clashes exceptionally well with the 500-year-old stone fortress. “Do you want to stand up and look around?” Deny asks, pointing out the medieval castle, aging Turkish baths and other Ottoman buildings: a hamam, madrasa, imaret and mosque.

The people here wearily itemised the catalogues of their lives as subsequent and never-ending displacements

The pomegranates here are nearly ripe and a few that have been knocked to the ground by summer storms have begun to rot. We let their smell infect us and feel the dry, crumbling earth underfoot as we meander through the village. It is almost empty of people except at the base of the hill where a handful of women sell vegetables, paintings and thick wool socks. Other than the delicate sway of cypress trees, looking like plump green minarets, nothing moves.

Back in Deny’s car, the lecture recommences. In 1993, Pocitelj suffered heavy damages from the Croatian army as they advanced into Herzegovina. Much of the population was displaced and masterworks of Islamic art and architecture were systematically destroyed.

It seemed that everyone had an ethnic and geographic history: “My grandmother was born in… immigrated to Dalmatia when she married… her daughter grew up in Yugoslavia; she worked, she stayed. I was born in Yugoslavia, which became Serb-held territories, then Bosnia, now something the people surreptitiously call Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia… I left. I returned.” The people here wearily itemised the catalogues of their lives this way, as subsequent and never-ending displacements — but how did it feel to carry such a catalogue, I thought, and why did I feel too scared to ask?

Closer to Mostar is the village of Blagaj, home to a historic Dervish monastery. The Sufi building is nestled neatly under a towering cliff and guards the mouth of a karst spring. The spring feeds the Buna river, a tributary of the Neretva, which forms a sprawling delta as it winds towards the Adriatic Sea.

Blagaj takes its name from the local word for mild, probably for the weather, though its atmosphere reflects the same sensation. In the shadow of the mountain, the trees grow heavy with figs. The silvery leaves of olive branches catch the light reflected off the water. From the cavernous mouth of the spring pours icy water, which Deny encourages us to drink. I bend at the riverbank to fill my bottle, watching people pose on the monastery’s balcony on the opposite shore. Few people wander beyond this to see the Sufi guesthouse and mausoleum tucked into the landscape. Sitting in a café that hangs precariously over the river, I drink a Bosnian coffee and relish the slowness — tipping the coffee gingerly from its copper pot, dropping a full sugar cube into the tiny cup and nibbling on a Turkish delight before we make our way to the next destination.

A stone’s throw from the Croatian border is the biggest waterfall in the country. From above, Kravice Falls look like a sinkhole in the otherwise level earth. In the belly of the sinkhole — a small, cold lake — one can observe its myriad of cohabitating worlds. Lush, overgrown moss dangles over the crown of the falls, and within it swarm an enormous variety of winged insects. Following the river deeper into the forest, one finds a smaller “beach” with a population of two (an overzealous German couple) and a parking lot for campers.

Beyond the cultural centres of Sarajevo and Mostar, where guides use slogans like “where East meets West” and “Istanbul in miniature” to draw in tourists, a different kind of tourism is burgeoning. Here in the heartland of Herzegovina, people laud the untouched wilderness and the authenticity of the way of life. This is partly true — the natural protection mechanisms and long-since-waned strategic importance have helped the region remain one of the least explored in Europe. But while the privately owned Kravice waterfall is ecologically stunning, it is hardly untouched and faces its own anthropogenic pressures — entry fees, waterside restaurants and piles of trash.

We drive back to Mostar through a tapestry of rivers and lakes, the sun still high in the sky. Beyond being a place of natural beauty, Herzegovina bears a heavy cultural heritage. Like many places in the region, it is a palimpsest of people and empires. Although the heartland is quiet compared to the city, many locals are working hard to bring in the tourism money that is abundant just across the border in Croatia. Mostar is brimming with day-trippers, but a lack of public transport means that without a tour guide, many of the other villages in Herzegovina, such as Pocitelj and Blagaj, have a trickle of visitors in the summer to keep them afloat, but turn into ghost villages come winter.

In Mostar, hundreds of people gather under the Stari Most. The other tourists have come in from the Croatian coast, fresh from the beach, or else had flown in from further east — Budapest or Krakow or Vienna. They flip through English books from Deny’s collection and point out this or that famous cliff diver through droves of people in the old town.

Enormous speakers blast synth-pop into the air and a live “Balkan jazz” band occasionally chimes in. The Stari Most is cordoned off for divers and an entourage of photographers, coaches and burly security guards. Watching a photographer crouched on the top of the platform in the wind is enough to make me feel nauseous.

The dives are more complex than those done routinely for money during the tourist season. Ordinarily, they look like a falling maple seeds, arms outstretched slightly above their head and feet pointing toward the water. Today, divers do headstands before flipping backwards over the edge, or else fall in graceful spirals. The children are the most enthralled, practicing their diving poses later as the sun dips below Hum Hill on the other side of the river. The smell of shisha fills the air and pockets of music start up in all corners of the Old Town, ringing in a spirited evening in the otherwise quiet valley.

Deny prepares ćevapčići, a local specialty, on the grill in the outdoor kitchen, pushing Mostarsko beer, and occasionally stirring a large pot of onions and courgette for me, the lone vegetarian. In between seasoning, he tells me it’s unwise to wish for BiH to join the EU now, as it will only lead to an even greater exodus of young people to the healthier economies further north. He does not believe anything will change after the elections, either.

“What will you do?” I ask.

“I’ll probably move to Germany,” he says, smiling dryly.

Exhausted and sweating out the beer, I excuse myself to catch the remains of the light over the bridge.

Text and image: Hannah Weber