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A Tale of One City Divided
March 29, 2000

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Stone shingles are part of the uniqueness of the architecture of the area.  See the minaret in the background?
The other Trekkers are off on their flying carpets seeking adventure in Iran. Parting from them was tough. Tears flowed (especially Monica, she cried a river) but somehow I managed to drag myself away from the utopian lifestyle I had grown accustomed to, and brought myself back to my other life in Mostar. And now I hear you asking, "where is Mostar and what is it like?"

Mostar is in the southern part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the Balkans area of Europe. It is a city of poetry, cobblestone streets, open-air markets and endless outdoor cafes; a city of immense beauty, culture, heritage, and history. During the Ottoman Empire, Mostar was the cultural center of the Balkans, under the Turkish rule. Mostar is (or was) the town of bridges. The name Mostar originates from the bridge keepers who were called mostari.

More recently it has also been a place of intense sorrow. This area of the world was involved in a war just a few years ago. Mostar suffered particularly heavy fighting. The city itself is now divided into two parts, east and west, also known as the Bosnian and Croatian sides. Mostar has a beautiful but dangerous and swift river running through it, called the Neretva. It's west bank is just a few meters from the dividing line that separates the east from the west. The Bosnian side, where I live, is predominantly Muslim, while the Croatian side is mostly Catholic.

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Many new cemeteries sprung up all over Mostar during the war.  The ruined house in the middleground was shelled from the hills just behind
Mostar is Europe's only city living under apartheid. It is eerie to live in a divided city. There is a line that many people do not cross. And it is very visible. The ruined buildings that line both sides of the former front line look as if they were taken right off the set of some World War II film, like Saving Private Ryan, as does much of the city. There are shells of burned out buildings everywhere, heaps of rubble, and constant reminders of what happened here just a few years ago. Even now, many people stay either on the east or the west side, and there is very little official activity betwixt the two. Thus, Mostar is now in practice two cities, with separate banks, postal systems, monies, hospitals, universities, taxes, et cetera. Mostar was once a city that was very cosmopolitan, in that intermarriage between Serbs (usually Orthodox) and Croats (usually Catholics) and Bosnians (usually Muslims) was so commonplace as to never be noted. This was the case for hundreds of years. It was not until the blind nationalism that arose in the early 1990s, that things changed, horribly and permanently, that the religious lines began to be drawn and people separated.

The old town, the east side, is beautiful. Until recently, it had a gorgeous bridge see the Old Bridge before its ruin that was over 400 years old. It was the symbol of Mostar. It was not a strategic target, but a pedestrian bridge built in 1566 CE. After a glorious history, the magnificent bridge was destroyed during the recent war. There is a diving competition held near the ruins of the Old Bridge during which divers leap into the ice cold water of the Neretva some considerable distance below, using a special dive called a "swallow." They have resumed the yearly summer diving competition, except that now in the place of the bridge, they dive from a platform.

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Where the Old Bridge spanned the Neretva for over 400 years
The Old Bridge may be physically absent at the moment, but there are plans to rebuild it and some say it will be accomplished by 2002. I hope so. Bono (from pop group U2) said that he will come to Mostar when the bridge is finished. Now, they are busy pulling the original stones out of the river beneath, laying them on the banks to dry and will attempt to reconstruct the bridge with as many of the original stones as possible.

One of the many problems in Bosnia-Herzegovina is that much of the billions of dollars in aid money that flooded the country in the last few years following the war has vanished into private accounts abroad. And, the "good old boys" network of secret police has developed into modern mafioso-type crime groups. The entire country is run by one big mob which oversees several smaller mobs. Worse, many of the international groups are now pulling out, leaving a country that is still destitute and in need of assistance. Those who hoarded the money will probably leave for good, going to Germany, Norway, the United States, or wherever else they have established themselves under refugee status. But the overwhelming majority of the people in Bosnia-Herzegovina are sure to have a bleak future for a long time yet to come, since the many of the people in charge are not as interested in rebuilding the country as they are in benefiting themselves.

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larger view
Another destroyed bridge, this one decorated by art students
Don't get me wrong- the streets of Mostar are safe, one is not harassed or bothered, theft is virtually unknown, and women may walk confidently at night. It is, in fact, one of the safest places I have ever lived, where everyone knows everyone and there are few secrets for long. But there are problems, like everywhere.

But I was glad to return, because I missed the place something fierce. Why do I love Mostar so much? Well, it is simple: My students.

My students are the best I have ever had. (Apologies to my former students elsewhere! You are all very special to me too!) In my eight years of teaching thousands of students all over the world, I have never had such a great group of students, who have made as much effort as these students do. I am extremely proud of them. But you should know that there are good and sad sides to this tale. (Warning to younger students: some of this is very unpleasant to read.)

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The old city, still being rebuilt.  Also, the site of the now destroyed Old Bridge
My students taught me about Mostar during the war when they had an assignment to write about their lives. I did not expect what I got from them. I was horrified and astonished at some of the things I read. First of all, they told me about their boyfriends (most of my students are women--and you will soon find out why) and their families. They told me about their pets and their favorite music, their favorite soccer team, and such things.

Some did not go beyond that. Some did--some told me about the concentration camps where they had lived, and others told me about watching their fathers being killed right in front of their eyes. One told me that while trying to protect his grandfather from a man with a gun, he ended up covered in his grandfather's blood. Some recalled tales of gang rapes, killings, ethnic cleansing, forced evacuations, beatings, murders, humiliations, and things even worse than these.

Before I arrived, I read books about all of this, as well as books about what the Japanese did in China, What the Nazis did in their concentration camps, what happened in South African jails and in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and so on. I even read a few first hand accounts of what happened recently in this area of Europe, and have spoken with survivors from Nazi death camps. But I did not know those people. I did not have any connection to them, and it was something that, mercifully, I could put out of my mind after a time. But I was completely taken aback by the fact that these sweet, little teenagers and young adults were the ones who had endured that, and that they had told me, and that really, I never would have guessed it before, from their often silly demeanor and completely 'normal' behavior. Well, I don't know how to explain it, but I am just so inspired by them. They are looking to the future, and moving forward with their lives. How do they do it? Could you? I doubt I could.


betwixt - between
cosmopolitan - worldly, sophisticated
demeanor - the way in which a person behaves
exuberance - unrestrained enthusiasm or joy
jaunt - a short trip or excursion, usually for pleasure

And about having more girls than boys--for every one man there are 19 women in this town. This is simply because, during the war, any boy over 14 years old was fighting. Many of them died and so there are simply far fewer boys and young men in the city. Gruesomely simple, isn't it?

The fact that these students have had so much pain and that they are trying to do something with their lives after having suffered so much is amazing, and I am so motivated by them. By no means have they forgotten where they come from, but they are very much looking to the future and thinking in a positive manner. This is what I respect and admire so much. Their problems did not go away when the war ended, but their determination to move ahead is remarkable. And when I look at them, I see their smiles, their youthful exuberance, and it is hard for me to believe that they grew up so fast in such a painful way. I will never know what that is like and I hope none of you ever find out. There are so many examples I could give you about them…

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The noisier of my two groups of students
One example is my student and friend, Sule. Despite the fact that perhaps I should not become chummy with my students, in such a small town, it is hard not to be. Since my whole life revolves around the school and I am the only North American here, it has just worked out that way. Sule has turned into a good friend. He was a soldier fighting here in Mostar. The Croats captured him, and along with many others, and made him form part of a so-called human shield. That is, he carried a sandbag in front of him, and blocked incoming fire for the Croat soldier behind him. If he dropped the bag, or refused, he would be shot from behind. He did this for some time, and he looked straight into the faces of his brothers, cousins, uncles, and neighbors as they aimed their guns at him and the Croats.

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I am on the far right, disguised as a professor, with one group of my students
At first, the Bosnians pulled back and would not fire, but when they reached the river and could no longer retreat, those friends and relatives had to shoot him to get at the enemy behind. If they were to have simply thrown down their guns and given up, they would have certainly been placed in the soccer stadium on the west side, which was the first in a series of concentration camps and probable death. So they had little choice. Sule does not know who shot him and he does not care. He is sad that he lost so many in his family, that his beloved city is divided in two for the first time ever, and that his future is not as optimistic as it once was. But he is not angry and has no hate. He studies hard and works hard with his father, who is the architect in charge of the plan to reconstruct the old city, which should be completed in 2004. So life goes on in a positive light for him and for many others who prefer to look to the future than dwell on the past, though it is beyond me how he and others like him can manage it.

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The last remaining pedestrian bridge in Mostar is always full of people coming and going
Whatever has happened, Mostar is a gorgeous place and springtime has everyone in outdoor cafes, enjoying cup after cup of thick, strong coffee, and chatting with friends for hours. There are bakeries on every corner with fresh baked bread. You cannot walk down the street without seeing many of your friends. It is a very pleasant and comfortable place to live. All cities have their problems and Mostar is no exception, but it is one of the friendliest and most accepting places I have ever lived. It is one of my favorite places on the planet for so many reasons. I would strongly urge you to visit there and see for yourself.

Would you like to e-mail some of my students in Mostar? If you would, e-mail me at, and I will put you in touch with one of them. They all speak English well and they're very cool. They would love to get to know you and to tell you about themselves and their lives.

In closing this final dispatch from me (for awhile), I hope that you have enjoyed our jaunt through Turkey, this mild sojourn to Bosnia-Herzegovina, and I hope that you will enjoy the trip that you will take across Iran. I will see you in India!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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