I scanned the buildings across from me as I walked down Bulevar Revolucije in Mostar. This street, only 22 years earlier, had been the front-line. The buildings I was looking at were remnants of war. Like so many other houses and apartments here, the walls were riddled with bullet holes. But unlike so much of the city, these particular buildings had not been replaced or fixed in any way. Instead, nature was slowly taking over; trees and vines climbing up the walls and growing from the empty windows. It was hard to believe that these ruins were actually somebody’s home less than 25 years ago.
I passed by, trying to imagine what it might have been like, if any of those people survived and if they did, were they still in Bosnia? In Mostar? Had they fled to a safer part of the world? Or were their names carved on any of the hundreds of tombstones that filled what used to be the city’s parks? I wondered if someone who lived here was buried under one of stone slabs that I passed earlier in the day. I didn’t pay attention to names as I scanned the gravestones; instead I could only focus on the dates; ’93, ’93, ’93, ’93. Not that it would make a difference, I didn’t know anything about the people that once lived here and I never would. I could only hope.
I was shaken from my thoughts when a girl from our hostel, my guide for a couple of hours, pointed out another building.
“There.” she said, “that’s the sniper tower.”
We approached the tall, triangular building and walked to the back. I didn’t know much about the war, but I knew enough to remember that this building had once been a bank. It had been taken over by the Serbians and Croatians during the war; it’s height and location making it an ideal spot to shoot down the Bosnians. Today it’s a shell; a skeletal reminder of what happened here not so long ago.
As we approached the back of the building our guide starting stacking slabs of broken concrete; creating a small, but stable step. She used it to boost herself over the wall. I didn’t question her, and neither did the others. We all knew entering the sniper tower was considered trespassing but we weren’t the first, and certainly wouldn’t be the last. The thought of getting into trouble with the law didn’t bother me because I wanted to see it. I wanted to experience the destruction and the horror that no textbook would ever be able to show me. I wanted to understand, at least as much as a privileged Canadian girl who grew up in safety could, what it was like to be in Mostar during the war.
Inside the building is a war-zone of it’s own. Shattered glass litters the floor along with cables, wire, and jagged pieces of concrete. Empty elevator shafts are filled with trash and entire walls are missing. Aside from trash, the only new addition since the war is the graffiti on the walls; most of it powerfully reflecting what happened here.
We stopped talking as we walked around, taking it all in. We took photos and stared at the destruction; trying to digest what we were seeing. No words were needed to understand how we were all feeling. One girl had to leave, saying she would wait for us outside. Part of me wanted to follow her; to leave this eerie and ghostly place. But, knowing that it was important for me to see this, I pushed on and climbed the stairs up several floors until I reached the rooftop.
Being in the open air helped and the view was beautiful; hills in the distance and the streets and houses below. But I couldn’t think of it as just a beautiful view. The green hills were still mostly unsafe; full of land mines. And the fantastic views streets and houses below just made it even more apparent as to why this building in particular was picked as the sniper tower. I couldn’t help but think of how easy it would have been to pick off people from this vantage point, and although it was an obvious thought to have given the circumstances, I felt disgusted with myself for thinking it.
As the light faded we grouped together, finding concrete remnants to sit on as we watched the sun set. At first I struggled with the fact that I found beauty and enjoyment in the view from this nightmarish place. But as the sky changed colour and we broke out our snacks and beers we started talking. The depression and silence that had followed us inside the tower started to disappear and we laughed and joked as we got to know one another. As light started to disappear we packed up and left; carefully climbing down the stairs, pushing through the glass, and hoisting ourselves over the wall. We disassembled our little step and walked away; heading back to the hostel to a night of local cuisine, music, and dancing.
I turned back for a final look at the sniper tower against the night sky. There is no doubt that it’s an eyesore. But it’s also a powerful reminder of the terrifying events that occurred here 22 years ago. It serves a purpose and I hope that the fear and sadness that it instilled in our group is felt by all travellers. There is a lot of hate in this world and hopefully icons such as this will serve as warning to all of us so we can move towards a better, kinder, and more peaceful future.