It was the first time we had been back alone—without any other family members to join us. I had begged my father for the opportunity to travel with him, given his position in my mind as our nostalgic hobby historian.
“Let’s go to Bosnia without interruptions,” I proposed several times over the phone. At the time, I was studying abroad in Oslo. He was working behind a desk for some military-run company in California, a pacifist who somehow ended up in the war industry. It was the ultimate irony given our experience as refugees. Since we had left our hometown of Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, due to the war, trips back to the motherland had been sparse. We would instead visit our family members, scattered like shell fragments across the globe.
Before that autumn of 2017, I had never encouraged the visits. My eyes had adjusted to the sights of the west, and were used to the constant stimulation of shopping malls and restaurants. I saw little more than ruins when we went to Mostar. Unlike the place that my parents described with melancholy tugging at their lips, it felt unruly and dirty, like a sagging city. But in my later years, something shifted. And this particular year, I wanted to switch things up, to go back together.
A forced decision
In 1993, I was a three-year-old girl. I knew something was wrong, but I also felt like everything was normal. The aggression on our town had reached its peak. Members of the Bosnian Croat army entered our apartments on what is now known as the west side of the city, armed, masked, uninvited. The decision we had to make wasn’t just whether to stay or to leave, but how we would, moving forward, exist at all. Some days later, we began our journey westwards—where after the long road of visas and passports and applications and border crossings and interviews with officials, we would find new grounds in a place polished with palm trees and golf courses: Palm Desert, California.
We would spend Saturday evenings with other members of the diaspora, singing along to old Yugoslavian hits until three in the morning. We had each brought with us enough details of our past to paint a nearly complete scene of what it looked like, tasted like, sounded like, felt like—thousands of miles away from the place we had been forced to flee.
Mostar had become what the French historian Pierre Nora defines as a “site of memory”: a place which carries special significance to a particular group, a site conceived to anchor the memory of something that no longer exists outside of that collective remembrance.
I was uprooted too early to tell you with confidence how my country was before the war. That is why I felt a strong need to have my father pilot me through our hometown, to redesign the current landscape using his knowledge of how it once was. The only thing I could gather as a child, listening in on conversations with the elders from our community, was that nothing had stayed the same. The stories of those who resettled around us felt like constructions of the imagination. There was nothing I could confirm, nothing tangible. Every place they mentioned, every street corner they used to meet each other on. There was no documentation for comparison, to see if I had gotten it right, if the details checked out.
Pictures were of no use—archives were burnt, museums destroyed, houses looted and vandalised, devoid of their residents’ belongings. Having left everything behind that could not fit in my mother’s two arms the night we were picked up and carried across the border, my adult years were spent mourning the physical belongings I had never had the opportunity to touch. My mother’s coat, the toys I had confided in as a child, books read to me before bed. Somehow, their absence made our former life feel further away—abstract, even. I was eager for the specifics, to reconstruct it in my mind.
Redrawing the map
I had visited as an adult prior to that time. I had consulted family friends for recommendations on what to visit, where to eat, what to see. Most seemed unsure their answers would support me in any way. Everything is different, they would stress, adding that I couldn’t possibly understand the velocity of the change. They would provide directions and pause, when reminded of Mostar’s new normality—their own city, barely recognisable. It was not that they had forgotten the map, but rather, that the whole map had changed. Streets donned new names—mostly those of war heroes, Croatian royalty, or events that had taken place during battle. They would direct me to their favourite cafés or restaurants by the names of their owners. They still identified most public places by their nadimak—the nickname given to them by the locals that frequented them all that time ago.
During the war, Mostar was divided into east and west sides—a division that did not exist prior. Between 1992 and 1995, people with different ethno-national identities, who had previously mixed and lived together, were segregated into different parts of the town: Croats in the west, Bosnians in the east, and Serbs in several enclaves surrounding the city. While we were, for national unity’s concern, all Bosnians, the war divided us in such a way that we retreated to identities formed generations in the past. The places where our family names reigned, where the religions we had inherited held the greatest weight. We became less “Bosnians”, and more Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Catholics, and Bosnian Orthodox Christians—or rather, Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs. Like the streets in our town, we had stayed the same, but our names had taken on new meaning.
The war in Bosnia was one of the conflicts arising from the breakdown of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992. One by one, the six republics of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia, and Macedonia began to claim independence. Nationalist leaders rose in the wake of this collapse and highlighted ethnic purity and borders in areas that were previously inhabited by several groups and religions living peacefully together. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s diversity made its claim for independence a highly contested move. In Mostar, known for its highly mixed population of Bosnian Croats, Bosnian Muslims, and Bosnian Serbs, this division was highlighted even more. It was a place where one could see, at the same time, a synagogue, the minaret of a mosque, the Serbian Orthodox church and the Catholic cross. Mixed marriages were the norm. We shared meals on one another’s holy days. This harmony is what made Mostar the most heavily destroyed city during the conflict.
After the war, it was not as if the smoke cleared and everyone went back to where they once were. Lines had been drawn, neighbourhoods remapped, a city of displaced people. Three quarters of Mostar’s 120,000 citizens had fled the city and approximately 70% of its buildings had been damaged. Ethnic lines strengthened, divisions became clearer, and corrupt politicians—who built their followings based on old war rhetoric about national unity—used their positions to further separate the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The altered relations amongst people were solidified by the division of space in the post-war reconstruction.
The ruins of memory
As we drove towards Mostar in a rented car, my father began reconstructing the town through his memories; of old partners, friends lost in the war, cafes and disko klubs. He wanted to paint every skeletal building in such a way that I could smell the fresh coat he had slathered on it with his retelling of events and those who had been present. I became increasingly aware of the privilege I had in seeing things as they were, not for what they once represented. To not have to carry around two realities. It was as if I, unburdened by painful memories of the past, had been given a mental colouring book, waiting to be filled in by the colours and lines of my father’s recollections.
We drove past places that had disappeared, lay in ruin, or were still standing, now with different names and functions. Among the dirt ground, piles of beams, bullet holes and slabs of concrete scattered like rocks, covered in graffiti and used as dumping grounds, the people of this city once came together. No one asked what name you held or what god you prayed to, but rather, “do you want to have this dance?” Or, “can I buy you a rakija?” The sites of my father’s youth, the work places of his parents, the college and high school his neighbours had attended alongside students from nearby Sarajevo, Tuzla, Konjic. These were the buildings that I had heard about from the elders of the diaspora, but that I had not been able to track down—not without knowledge of what they had been converted into, what vernacular was now being used to refer to them.
As we strolled down Lenin’s Šetalište—“walkway”—a name reminiscent of Yugoslavia’s communist era, I learned that it had been renamed Nikole Šubića Zrinskog, after the 16th-century Croatian nobleman and general. My father would always refer to buildings, streets, and places with their former, pre-war names. Then, he would mention the renamings half-heartedly, with less enthusiasm in his voice. For him, and I assume for most of Mostar’s diaspora, the changes which took place during and after the war symbolised the success of those who sought to change the city. Specifically here, where public spaces were inherently part of daily life, street names, parks, football pitches and cafés were like extensions of one’s home. It wasn’t your neighbourhood Starbucks, it was coffee and gossip on Korzo. Places were personified—they were like beings in themselves. Changing their names made them ghosts, locations that those who knew them prior to the war could hardly recognise, or rather, struggled to accept.
I stopped at one particular site that caught my attention. No one had mentioned it to me before. It stood surrounded by the renovated buildings of various administrations and organisations. Yet it looked like this particular one had been left behind, bypassed by the town’s post-war reconstruction.
Just across the way, the local office of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe was nestled behind a gated fortress lined with cars donning blue licence plates. To the left of it was the Old Gymnasium, a prestigious school originally built under Austro-Hungarian rule. It had been rebuilt after the war to become the first school in the region to educate youth of all ethno-national identities under one roof. The implications of this project were monumental, but the institution only ended up meeting its goal halfway. It did educate both groups, but during different sessions in the day. Everything around us had been rebuilt. But this ruin where we stood—it was just bones, no skin. When I asked my father what it used to be, I saw a chapter of his life open up before him. Through overgrown bushes and heaps of trash, he walked into the derelict building like it was the entrance to an open-air museum. We trailed off into the backyard, where a large sycamore tree stood in the centre, seemingly centuries old.
We were standing in the summer garden of the Dom Omladine (“youth centre”), my father told me. Concerts would be held here, whilst downstairs, he pointed out, Mostar’s first disko klub opened in 1969. The front steps would be buzzing with hippies—long-haired, bell-bottomed, high-heeled Marlboro-smokers, looking for love on the walkway that opened out right in front of them. I could see the space so clearly, yet I was starving for the real thing. Why hadn’t this place been rebuilt?
I had begun to learn about present-day Mostar. I had seen students in smokey cafes, wearing headphones to drown out the background music pulsating through the speakers. I had visited both—separate—libraries, where I had run my fingers along the back of the dusty book spines. I had seen the lack of places where young people could not only be, but be together. Because the division had so strongly defined the reconstructed city’s landscape, most, if not all, public spaces were duplicated—two colleges, several schools on either side, two libraries, two cultural centres, two public theatres, post offices, hospitals, even double children’s puppet theatres. All for a city with a little over 100,000 residents. This presents them with the constant choice of which side to be on, which space to occupy. This duplication gives rise to constant comparison—who has it better?
The post-war reconstruction of Mostar was entrusted to public officials, whose only credentials were their ties to nationalist politicians. They not only allowed, but rather encouraged, the further division of Mostar’s ethnic groups. Surrounded by the ruins of this place of leisure, of community, the goal of separate spaces felt so clear, so unmovable.
Gone were the days of Tito’s unified dream, the leader of pre-war Bosnia, when it was still a puzzle piece in Yugoslavia. Tito’s ability to create a sense of camaraderie and solidarity through the negotiation of space is one the things he is most remembered for. Neighbourhoods had designated parks, cafes, bakeries, hair salons—community spaces which brought forth a sense of unity. The space surrounding one’s home was designed in such a way that one had their built-in community amongst a larger sphere that was Mostar, the bigger, albeit tiny world.
When the war started, when lines were drawn and sides defined, and citizens were told where to live, that dream died. So did the idea of shared public space, encouraging diversity and communion, through which that dream had been sustained. The communal life, supported by the architecture, fell to pieces. The duplication of everything created busier landscapes, ate up green space, and depleted our chances for having a susret—a serendipitous meeting around town.
Had the war resulted in a winner-loser situation, perhaps someone might feel proud of or fulfilled by the new landscape. But when nothing and everything changed, to the discontent of most citizens in Mostar, the question arises: Who does this serve? Despite one’s ethno-national identity, all continue to suffer the consequences of poor public administration, nepotism, and an economy not built to serve the needs of everyday people. As reported by Trading Economics, in October 2021 the unemployment rate in Bosnia and Herzegovina was registered at 31.63%. According to the International Finance Corporation, this rose to 40% amongst people aged 18-30. It’s common knowledge in Mostar: if you’re unwilling to register with one of the three major nationalist-oriented political parties, finding a job in the public sector is near impossible. A 2021 survey by the United Nations Population Fund found that 70% of young people believe that Bosnian society is “systemically corrupt,” and nearly half of 18 to 29-year-olds would like to leave the country either temporarily or permanently over the next 12 months.
Inside the yard of the city’s old youth centre, filled with the distant echoes of its concerts, its smoking hippies, its underground disco club, and looking at the reconstructed buildings around it, I couldn’t help but wonder. How could such a promising space have missed the train of reconstruction after €3 billion of EU funds had been funnelled through Bosnia and Herzegovina since 1995?
I could tell by the tone of my father’s voice, his vivid descriptions of the events he had witnessed there, the way he described the exact location of the stage in the yard, that he was emotionally tied to this building. This particular space had to have significance in the collective memory of more Mostarians. It consisted of too much history to simply be another forgotten relic of wartime. I would talk to taxi drivers and waiters about it, slowly redirecting the conversation towards my curiosity. Mirroring each other, their responses referred to a place now tucked into their nostalgia, where they would spend their younger years listening and dancing to music. The older generations remembered it instead as the place for prosvjetnih radnika or “educators,” to gather and philosophise, share ideas, and eat lunch together in the ground-floor cafeteria. Others recalled it as the university library or čitaonica, “reading room,” where one could spend hours sitting and reading in the quiet, surrounded by books. In its earliest life, it was the home of Mujaga Komadina, Mostar’s first mayor (1909-1918). After World War II, when private buildings were nationalised through the introduction of socialism, Komadina’s villa went to the city. He, too, was a proponent of books, libraries, and community.
No one smiled as they told me about the place. Melancholy trickled through their recollections, as they mourned the loss of a space that once played such an important part in the lives of the people of this town. I would look for some sign in their eyes that my hope transferred onto them—that they also believed that the building’s revival might restore some of Mostar’s former glory. But most locals were disillusioned, and dismissed the idea that anything would go back to what it once was.
A harsh reality
I would later discover that this building, like many others, is trapped in a political vortex. Two universities are claiming rights on the land, and the family of Mujaga Komadina is simultaneously hoping to regain possession of what once belonged to them. It is a seemingly no-way-out dimension where opposing forces engage in a never-ending game of rhetorical ping-pong about what belongs to who and why. In the meantime, locals, having become exhausted by the dead-end discussions, have stopped noticing. It’s a harsh remnant of Mostar’s public planning collapse which began after the war, when public institutions began to disintegrate in the 1990s. Along with them, so did Mostar’s bureaucratic governance around land-zoning, roads and infrastructure, and cultural development. In its place, private construction projects flourished.
An example is that of the former Hotel Ruža, “Hotel Rose.” It highlights how specific spaces that are prominent in the collective memory have been transformed into symbols of Mostar’s economic reliance on tourism—an unsustainable activity. Hotel Ruža was a small, two-storey building located just outside of the Old Town. When it was completed in the mid-1970s, it was an architectural sight to behold. It was modern, sophisticated, and intimate, a place for honeymoon retreats, staycations and gatherings. After its destruction in the war, its ruins were bought out by an investor to transform it into a Marriott hotel. Several months later, giant pillars went up, walls were filled, and 182 rooms slowly added. It was like an entire doll’s house was built on top of a single lego piece. Once the glowing Marriott sign was lit up, a kick to the gut was felt by all those who knew Ruža—of its intimacy, of how close it felt to the community.
It is a harsh new reality, watching what was once a small establishment return as a giant hotel conglomerate, positioned where it can not be avoided. It serves as a stark reminder of Mostar’s crushed economy, and its attempts to save itself by focusing on tourism and attracting foreign private investment. The Marriot building site was at the centre of a growing public discussion about how such a lengthy project could manage to usurp a public road which leads into our most prized area. The city’s historic heart, where cobblestone streets and copper workers reign supreme; where history and authenticity are meant to be protected—as stated in its establishment as a UNESCO world heritage site.
Corruption follows on the heels of conflict. Mostar is not the only place where we see this unfold. In post-war contexts worldwide, disputes over land, reconstruction, and zoning rights are exactly what is being negotiated when talks of revival arise. With weakened economies, it is common for outside influence to step in, and for geopolitical competition to take place. In post-war Syria, as reported by the European Council on Foreign Relations, reconstruction is being used as a way of “consolidating the regime’s victory,” and the sale of privately owned land to regime-affiliated businessmen is taking precedence over a “needs-driven” approach. Meanwhile, Russia’s restoration of the Arch of Triumph in the city of Palmyra shows the important role foreign countries often play in the reconstruction of historical artefacts. According to the Middle-Eastern outlet Al-Monitor, many look to Russia’s involvement with suspicion, seeing it as a move to increase its influence in the area and to show off worldwide. As the Syrian example shows, the economic and political vulnerability of post-war contexts present outside investors with easy opportunities to pursue their interests. The interests of citizens, meanwhile, often get lost in this process.
Reclaiming the city
Look, here is where I had my first kiss. That building, that’s where you were born. There, right where you’re standing, used to be a train station. Our personal histories are defined by our physical surroundings, and changes in the landscape can be felt by us all. But for a diaspora, it is a particular situation. War erases the visible markers of our identity. Upon returning to the place we left, we are confronted with a rearranged version of what once represented familiarity. No longer a repository of memories, the physical space—or what is left of it—becomes an open wound, a source of melancholy. It is an alienating experience, like returning home to find that someone has moved the furniture around without you knowing. From the outside, as spectators, it is hard to grasp such loss: of homes, of sense of space, to outside circumstances—to war.
Standing in the backyard of the old youth centre, I asked my father about the sycamore tree in the middle. Here stood a symbol, something that had made it through, that had not died or been destroyed. Something stronger than anything the war could touch. A symbol of resilience in the face of destruction, the hope that life can continue amidst the ruins. We did not know in that moment how our lives would unfold: that some months later, upon finishing my studies in Oslo, I would return to learn about our town on my own terms. I would “attend,” as a local described it, the priceless Mostarska škola—the Mostar school of life. We did not know that I would stay, find love, or become pregnant. I did not know that these places dear to my father would begin to carry weight in my own life, as I drew my own path through our hometown. The bench on the Setalište—the walkway—where I would meet my partner for our first date, the cultural centre where I would hold workshops and attend concerts, the children’s puppet theatre where I would beg my friends to see plays with me. We did not know that three years later, my father would retire in the United States, and that he would return to Mostar, too.
He began the slow process of consolidating the place that lives on in his memory and the current state of our surroundings. Now, it is me who is illustrating the landscape, painting for him the changes I have noticed. Without being burdened by the memories of the past, but with an imagination open to how the future could be.