Unlike in Sarajevo, there are no buildings marked with bullet holes in Mostar, Herzegovina. No dents in sidewalks from long-ago shells filled in with red paint to cause an emotion filled memory as one walks past. No signs on walls pointing to long-forgotten shelters, no pieces of UNHCR reusable bags left clinging to remnants of barbed wire fences. Unlike in Sarajevo, there are no faults in the concrete outside third floor windows that look like pigeon holes until you remember bullets used to fly here more often than pigeons. But in Mostar, this absence could almost lead someone to wonder whether the civil war of the 1990’s even touched the city at all.
No, Mostar has no pock-marked buildings left from the war because the war left no buildings to be pock-marked. In Mostar, nothing was left.
In Mostar, there are shells of buildings that used to be. More bullet hole than wall, more empty space than building. Trees growing around cement and rebar that resembles in no way the structure that used to stand there. In Mostar, even almost 20 years later, the buildings that were built before the war almost camouflage into the rubble rock that tumbles down the mountains behind them. There are no innocent bullet holes here.
In Sarajevo, the old town has parts where if you look closely, you can see the areas that had to be repaired. The town hall looks almost new, as it’s burning (along with the burning of a priceless library collection) was done as an act of war. But in Sarajevo, the bridges still stand and the majority of the ancient buildings stand, now holding stories of their resilience throughout the siege.
In Mostar, nothing was left to hold onto stories of resilience. Every building and every bridge in the old town has another country’s name on a plaque beside in. UNESCO, Luxembourg, Turkey, Italy, European Union, The World Bank, the list of nations and organizations that provided funds for the reconstruction of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s cultural heritage goes on and on. Because everything in Mostar had to be reconstructed — everything from the bazaar in the old town to the Ottoman bridge crossing the river Neretva to the most basic of buildings on the sides of the streets. The war leveled Mostar and while it looks like the ancient structures remain, they are in fact reconstructions of their prior glory, funded by countries other than the one so wracked by conflict that it could not prevent the atrocity in the first place.
And it seems so right then, that as I sit writing this on a bench beside yet another reconstructed building, the sniper tower looms in the distance in front of me. Once a bank and apartment complex, the height of this structure and its location on the front lines gave it a deadly purpose in the 90’s. For while every ounce of cultural heritage was destroyed by war, the symbol of the war itself remains standing, so much stronger and more imposing than the buildings that now crumble across the street from it. I dare not trespass alone to climb it, but if I did, I know the views would be incredible. Because while the tower hasn’t changed since 1995, the reconstruction of the town has been fast and complete.
Even now, construction is everywhere: bulldozers filling the streets between two hollowed out former-buildings. Men with heavy gloves and neon vests hanging from ropes on bridges that cross the river that moves faster than my eyes can follow. Mostar moves on, but don’t come here looking for bullet holes in buildings and stories of wartime resilience. Those are in Sarajevo. In Mostar, there are no original buildings left for those bullet holes and stories to find themselves in.