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Friday, July 16, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Mostar: bridging divided cultures
By Carol Pucci
MOSTAR, Bosnia-Herzegovina We arrived in the rain, clutching a scrap of paper with an address written out by a clerk in the tourist office.
I rang the bell and Tadzo Muslibegovic unlocked a heavy wooden door.
"Hotel?" I asked, glancing toward his white stucco house and a courtyard landscaped with palm trees and ivy archways.
"Si," he said, and in the second it took me to realize he didn't answer in his native language, he motioned for my husband and me to leave our shoes on the porch and come inside.
"Sit," he said, while he went to get another visitor, Mira, who spoke English. She explained how it was that we found ourselves sitting in the living room of an Ottoman-style Bosnian home, sipping mint tea and sampling squares of Turkish Delight with a Muslim family who spoke fluent Spanish.
Like herself and her husband, Mira told us, Tadzo and his wife, Zehra, became refugees in Spain during the Balkan war.
When the fighting ended, Mira and her family decided to stay in Spain, but Tadzo and Zehra returned to Mostar.
The historic home that had been in Tadzo's family for 150 years was mostly destroyed. For seven years, they made repairs, salvaging an original wooden carved ceiling on the top floor, and renovating and decorating guest rooms Turkish style, with couches along the wall that double as beds and floors covered with Persian carpets.
The Muslibegovic House, as we learned, was not a hotel, but a private guest house, and it became our home for the next three days as we explored Mostar, a medieval town surrounded by mountains and set in a lush valley, halfway between Dubrovnik and Sarajevo.
Like Mirad Zenic, a Muslim who fled to Calgary, Canada, and returned to reopen his once-thriving restaurant; and Marijo Vujevic, a Catholic Croat who spent 25 days in a Muslim jail, and now makes his living as a cab driver, the Muslibegovic family is pinning its future on the hope that travelers will rediscover a city once filled with visitors.
Spread out along two sides of the Neretva River, Mostar was known for its riverside restaurants and cafes and its ornate monuments and mosques, developed by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century. River rafters and outdoor enthusiasts were attracted to its warm, Mediterranean climate.
Mostar is 20 miles from the Croatian border in the heart of the former Yugoslavia, and so was considered strategically important during the Balkan war. The city was ravaged in two phases, first in spring 1992 as Muslims and Croats fought against Serbian invaders, and again in 1993 when Bosnian Croats and Muslims battled for control of the city.
The destruction by Croat forces in 1993 of Stari Most or "Old Bridge," a 90-foot-high stone bridge built by the Turks in 1566, was the most devastating blow.
The war deeply divided the city's residents, and the destruction of the bridge reinforced the separation. Catholic Croats live mainly on the newer, wealthier west side of the river and Muslims in the historical Ottoman town, on the east bank and also along a strip of land on the west that marked the former front line.
Temporary bridges were erected, but millions of dollars in foreign aid and years of work went into restoring the Old Bridge. For many, its reopening, set for Friday, symbolizes more than a physical reconnection.
"We live together now," said Alisa Guza, 28, who works in the Mostar tourist office. She was 17 when the war broke out, and remembers the day the bridge was blown up. "I cried when it was destroyed. ... Now we must try and forget."
City in transition
Mostar's compact historic center will change greatly in the next year as more monuments, hotels and mosques undergo restoration. For now, Mostar is still a city in transition. Visitors should expect to put up with the sounds of pounding jackhammers and dusty streets, but the city's spectacular natural setting, architecture and cafe culture make it a worthwhile stopover on the way to or from Dubrovnik or Sarajevo, or the nearby Catholic religious shrine of Medjugorje.
Most of the historical sites and best restaurants are on the east and west sides of the old town. Even with construction obstacles, it's easy walk from one side of the river to the other.
Casual ambling turns up pleasant surprises. One night we stepped over a plank board laid across a ditch to reach the Restaurant Taurus. We sat at a picnic table outside under a stone archway and talked over the sounds of a rushing waterfall as we dined on bowls of olives, ajvar, a roasted red pepper spread; veal brochettes and wine for about $20.
Another evening we walked along a torn-up street during a thunderstorm and detoured along a muddy path through an orchard to reach Konoba Bascine The cozy pub was decorated like a hunting lodge with a fireplace and a few wooden tables. Dinner was a platter of bell peppers stuffed with cabbage, bread, olives and steaming bowls of goulash. With wine, the bill came to about $17.
A more modern, less devastated Mostar lies west of the old town on the Croat side. Towering above the city on a hill is a large stone cross erected after the war. Well-dressed patrons sip ice coffees and banana smoothies at outdoor cafes, and shop for the latest fashions inside a large shopping mall near a reconstructed Catholic cathedral.
Streets are wide and tree-lined, but a few blocks away, along the former front line, rows of bombed and burned-out buildings remain, seemingly unclaimed by either side.
"Mostar was an attraction to people from all over the world," said Mirad Zenic, owner of the Restaurant Lido in the old town.
Zenic, a Muslim, ran a successful restaurant before the war. In 1994, he fled to Calgary as a refugee, and returned in 2002 find his business in ruins. With money he saved working two jobs in Canada, he reopened a year and a half ago. "I'm very optimistic that things are going to be even better."
Like nearly everyone in Mostar, he is looking forward to Friday "the day that the new Old Bridge will officially arise and show the world that the creation is always more powerful than the destruction."
Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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