Within Bosnia Beats a Beautiful Heart

The iconic symbol of Mostar Stari Most or The Old Bridge is renovated after its destruction in 1992 by pro-Serbian forces.  The cross in the background sits atop Hum Mountain.

The iconic symbol of Mostar, Stari Most or The Old Bridge is renovated after its destruction in 1992 by pro-Croatian forces. The cross in the background sits atop Hum Mountain.

Before we set out on our weeklong visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina, our Croatian tour guide friend, Biljana, informed me that we would find the Bosnians to be among the warmest and kindest people we would ever meet.  That was encouraging because I had no idea what to expect.  Neither Florence nor I have spent time in strongly Muslim countries.  It felt strange and exotic and we quickly felt at ease.

The 16th century Dervish monastery, Tekija Bragaj, is built overlooking the largest natural spring in Europe.

The 16th century Dervish monastery, Tekija Bragaj, is built overlooking the largest natural spring in Europe.

In the United States, we have a perception that Muslims do not like us.  We hear words like The Great Satan and infidel attributed to people from nations we call enemies.  This is the insidious tool of media that helps formulate public opinion.  Our tour guide, Selmir, stated it best when he said, ‘The only thing real on television is Animal Planet.’  On our tour of beautiful sites, Selmir told me a marvelous story of how the true Muslim people accept all others.

Overlooking the Neretva River from the fortress tower in the 13th century town of Počitelj.

Overlooking the Neretva River from the fortress tower in the 13th century town of Počitelj.

When Yugoslavia was invaded by the Axis Powers led by Hitler’s German forces, the Jews living in Mostar knew their synagogue was going to be destroyed.  To preserve the building the Mostar Jews donated their synagogue to the City of Mostar to be used as a public theater which it remains to this day.  Since World War II the Jews in Mostar have not had their own synagogue.  In recognition of the sacrifice made by the Jews to preserve their holy site, the Muslims decided to build them a new synagogue.  This story is remarkable when you take into account that the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina are generally poor.*  I found this story all the more extraordinary when I was told that there are just 43 Jews still living in Mostar according to their most recent census.  When was the last time we heard a story of such respect between Muslims and Jews?

The Roman Villa Mogorjelo was built to provide agricultural goods to Narona, a 1st century Roman stronghold.

Villa Mogorjelo was built to provide agricultural goods to Narona, a 1st century Roman stronghold.

Overlooking the City of Mostar is Hum Mountain.  In 2000, the Catholic Diocese of Mostar had a 120 foot tall cross erected overlooking Mostar which is illuminated at night.  While the cross is said to represent the devotion of Christians to their savior and serve as a symbol of peace to the world, it is also seen by some as a symbol of triumphalism in Mostar by the Catholic Church due in part to the destruction inflicted on Mostar by artillery fire from Hum Mountain by pro-Croatian forces.  When I asked Selmir about the cross and what it might mean to non-Catholics in Mostar, he shared an anecdote:

A reporter asked a Muslim grandfather what he thought of the cross overlooking Mostar.  The old man replied, ‘I think it is a big plus (+).’  The reporter asked a Muslim grandmother the same question.  She replied, ‘It is nice, but the moon and stars are still higher.’  (The crescent moon and stars are symbols of Islam.)  The reporter then asked a young Muslim guy what he thought of the cross.  The young fellow replied, ‘There is a nice road leading to the top of the hill.  It is a nice spot for a picnic and a good place to meet Catholic chicks.’

Looking through the mist of Klavice Falls at its highest water level of the year.

Looking through the mist of Klavice Falls at its highest water level of the year.

It is sort of a funny story and it also provides a glimpse into the hearts of the local Muslims.  They are a loving and peaceful people.  They are tolerant of the views of others.  While young people will cross the river that divides Mostar mainly along Muslim and Catholic lines, the older generation will not cross the river. These are the people who are old enough to remember the war which ended less than 20 years ago. These people are also the victims of resentment by those who believed the media propaganda that originated with Serbian President Slobodan Milošević and his culture war against ‘The Turks’, his label for Muslims who have lived in Bosnia for 500 years. 

I asked our well-educated young tour guide in Sarajevo what she foresaw for the future of Bosnia.  She replied, ‘I don’t know.  The future looks too foggy.’

*Note: Unemployment rate: 44.8%, Youth unemployment rate: 57%, Average income: ~$850/month (Source: tradingeconomics.com)

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11 comments on “Within Bosnia Beats a Beautiful Heart

  1. “Good place the meet Catholic chicks.” lol Goes to show you that, no matter where you go, we are all alike, one way or another. Wonderful pictures, and I loved the answers.

  2. I love the story about the Muslims building a new synagogue – so touching!! And the anecdote about what the cross means to non-Catholics cracked me up. To quote a Disney song, “It’s a small world after all.” That’s what I think of when I read your posts Mike. :)

    • Mike Lince says:

      The story of Bosnia is both happy and sad. The happy part is the people and their unbending will to live free in a country they can call their own. The sad part is their history and the horrible price they have paid and continue to pay to attain their independence. It would be so easy for them to close themselves off and stoically face life’s daily challenges. However, they have done just the opposite. Their hearts are open. We even experienced one of those rare occasions when our waitress kissed us both after we dined just because she liked us. (Their food is wonderful, too!) – Mike

  3. Another wonderful story from your incredible travels, Mike! I love the story about the new synagogue! So meaningful and special!! This is a charming slice of life in Bosnia, along with some stunning images! Love it.

  4. Nice post and photos Mike. I love the story about the cross. From the comments on our post on Mostar, I can say there are definitely strong feelings about the cross on the hill. I guess that animosities will only last as long as personal memories, or as long as parents and grandparents pass on stories of the experience. ~James

    • Mike Lince says:

      Thanks, James. I think you are right that the sentiments of the people will last as long as the memories live on, and there is much to remind people of the destruction left in the wake of war. Nonetheless, I think the people’s greatest woe is the level of corruption in their government. If there is one thing that would sour me on Bosnia, that would be it. The begging was annoying, but I could live with it. Considering how relatively little we actually saw, I still have the desire to see more than we could fit into a one week trip. Mostly, I want to go skiing! :) – Mike

  5. reocochran says:

    I am always thankful that you comment about my being inclusive on my posts. I am and believe that you are very much so, too. I enjoyed this story of a small group that decided to rebuild for another religious group. I liked the way you captured this story and told it simply, so we could all come to the same conclusion about Muslims. Then, how each faith lives together in harmony… The anecdote was a sweet one that made sense to me. A big cross = a plus, the moon and stars are higher and then, the practical young man saying the road is good and leads to possibly meeting some young women!

    • Mike Lince says:

      There was so much more to say about Bosnia. I found the people to be open and warm. It did not hurt that the Bosnians remember that not only did the United States take a leadership role in the intervention of troops during the Balkan War, but also Bill Clinton visited Bosnia in 2003. It was quite pleasant to have people favorably predisposed to us just because we are Americans. It makes for a solid basis on which to build friendships. I would like to go back there to ski someday at the site of the 1984 Olympics. They have rebuilt from most of the war damage, and it is beautiful! – Mike

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