Mostar, Yugoslav Banks, and War Damage

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To commemorate the Smithsonian Presents Travels with Rick Steves magazine — now on sale online, and at newsstands nationwide — Rick is blogging about the 20 top destinations featured in that issue. One of those destinations is Mostar, in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Whether in Mostar or elsewhere, former war zones offer powerful sightseeing. Thankfully, in Europe, they are rare.

I remember that in the 1970s, lots of World War II damage still awaited repair throughout Germany. With the disparity of wealth between Eastern and Western Europe during the Cold War, in the 1980s it was striking to see how the West had bulldozed and rebuilt virtually every bit of damage, while the East was still pockmarked with dreary WWII souvenirs. Of course, the town centers of the East were dolled up for visitors. Back then, the tourists didn’t see the reality of a society without the economic wherewithal to entirely rebuild 40 years after the war unless they ventured out into the suburbs, where strafed plaster and broken concrete were still commonplace.

Traveling in Northern Ireland a few years ago, you’d see little actual destruction, but you would see the poverty resulting from the Troubles, and angry political murals. And even those are much less commonplace these days.

And, of course, the only actual war fought on European soil since World War II was the war precipitated by the break-up of Yugoslavia. Driving through the interior of Croatia, you can still see damage from the war in the early 1990s. Touristy places along the Dalmatian Coast were generally unscathed. The glaring exception, Dubrovnik, has already been thoroughly rebuilt — a prerequisite for it to regain its happy-go-lucky position as the former Yugoslavia’s top tourist attraction.

For many travelers, the European destination where they’re most likely to see war damage on a massive scale is Mostar, in Bosnia-Herzegovina. A major reason why the city has been slow to rebuild is that most property owners had big mortgages on their buildings…so the actual “owners” were the banks. With the outbreak of war, people obviously stopped making payments on evacuated and bombed-out buildings. The bank assumed ownership. And, as Yugoslavia fell apart, so did its national bank. It costs a lot of money to rebuild, and — with ownership not being clearly established — there’s little incentive for anyone to spearhead the rebuilding efforts. Consequently, the bullet-speckled facades fester unrepaired.

But on my last visit to Mostar, I noticed that several formerly damaged buildings had been fixed. As these perplexing ownership issues are cleared up, physical reminders of 1993 are being plastered over — just as the literal and psychological scars of war among the people of Mostar are fading. That’s why traveling to Mostar — especially over time — is particularly powerful…at once tragic and uplifting.


4 Replies to “Mostar, Yugoslav Banks, and War Damage”

  1. While touring the Residenz in Munich a couple of years ago, I was struck by the ‘lack of acknowledgment’ that many of the rooms lacking artwork were the result of WWII. It was simply noted that they were destroyed in 194x. Sure I knew what it meant, but found it to be an attempt to water down the truth.

  2. When I was traveling in Europe as a student we saw quite a bit of war damage. As 19 year-olds we were startled by this as we thought of WWII as old history and here it was staring us in the face. We noticed how much worse it was in East Berlin, but I also remember going to look at the Koln Cathedral and finding it completely covered with scaffolding. Of course, we can still find scaffolding at historic sights today, but it generally not due to bomb damage. Returning to Berlin a few ago was striking. It was the color, the new buildings and the construction that was everywhere in the East. In some ways, it’s like West Berlin in the 1970’s.

  3. Tragic and uplifting. I wonder what European visitors thought as they viewed the site of the NYC world trade center devastation. Were they curious, appalled, inspired by the re-building, thinking about their own country’s vulnerability, wondering if we reap what we sow?

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