I REMEMBER THE DAY IT COLLAPSED.
WE WERE WATCHING IT ON TELEVISION.
There was shooting everywhere. People were weeping. It was devastating.
Our guide paused, looking away, directing her gaze out the window as we bumped along the Adriatic highway, passing some of the most beautiful scenery the Adriatic coast had to offer. My partner and I shared a silent glance, acknowledging another war story. We had heard many since arriving in the Balkans.
Bosnia and Herzegovina command a small piece of the coastline, so our trip into the country swiftly took us inland, to wide valleys guarded by steep hills and a single, winding river.
It was this river, called Neretva, that we were following deep into the country, to its cultural capital – Mostar. A city still recovering from the ravages of a war that ended two decades previously. Everyone here has a story.
When the van finally reaches city limits my initial impression is of Cleveland or Chicago, a city with a river cutting it in half. The similarities fade quickly as we park.
In my hometown of Cleveland, the river provides a light-hearted rivalry between East Siders and West Siders. People are proud of where they come from, but they mingle and move between the two sides, the antagonism watered down by a united sense of what it is to be a Clevelander.
We were not in Ohio anymore.
IN MOSTAR, THE SPLIT BETWEEN EAST AND WEST WAS NOT JUST STARK, IT WAS INTIMIDATING.
Once one of the most ethnically integrated cities in Bosnia, the wars of the 90s have left it one of the most segregated. To the west of the river’s banks, Croatian Catholics. To the east, Bosnian Muslims. And stretching between them, Stari Most. The Old Bridge.
A symbol of the crossroads between the Eastern world and the Western world, the bridge stood proudly for centuries. Then, in 1993, it became one of the many victims of war. The icon of unity in the Balkans was reduced to crumbled bits of rubble, and the chasm left behind was much wider than what the river banks allowed. In the wake of the war it left behind segregated schools and medical facilities, religious practices, and even cell phones.
Eating lunch at a restaurant on the west side of the river, you can feel the power of this place. It is still lost in its tumult, still trying to find its footing after decades of unease. But it is recovering, thanks in large part to the reconstruction of Stari Most. As we eat, we are interrupted by loudspeakers, which crackle to life on the east bank. Situated at the top of mosque turrets, the unfamiliar sound of Muslim prayer wafts across the river. No one on the west side bats an eye.
After lunch, we trek across the bridge, pushing through an overwhelming throng of tourists to the east side. Here we are met with a bazaar-like atmosphere, shops open to the street, shopkeepers urging us to examine their wares. As we travel deeper into the city, my perspective begins to shift once more. Instead of noticing the stark differences between two sides of an ongoing crisis, I begin to notice the many similarities. Dark eyes and ready smiles, kind words and kisses delivered to the cheeks of friends and family. Residents trying to eek as much as they can out of the tourists that are visiting their city.
Making our way down the streets and alleyways, the beauty of the city begins to come to life. Yes, there are still signs of artillery fire, tattooing buildings with reminders of unspeakable horrors. But the people here have begun to bandage their wounds, replacing rubble with brightly colored fabrics, destruction with knick-knacks that represent their heritage.
When we finally return to the bridge we stop to watch as a man collects tips in a battered hat. Periodically, he shakes it, listening to the jingling sound the coins make, then shaking his head. Only when he has collected enough does he hand the hat off to a friend and climb to the top of the bridge’s limestone rail.
In awe, we watch as he jumps, diving into the clear green waters of the Neretva River.
It is a tradition that was halted in its tracks with the destruction of the bridge, but it seems to have picked up without a problem, regardless of ethnicity or religion.
This, I realize, is why I travel. Not to sit on the beach sipping cocktails, or climb mountains, or count countries. True beauty, after all, is not found in clear waters or soaring bridges.
I travel to stand on the precipice of change, to observe the struggles and triumphs of people I have never known, and of conflicts I have never seen. To find the universality in life, existing just beneath the surface, heedless to skin color, religion, or ethnicity. To witness small acts of kindness and culture that allow us to acknowledge our differences while embracing our humanity.
Most of all, I travel to see how far the human race has come, and how long the road stretches still. We are still often overwhelmed by greed, violence, pride, ego, and ignorance. Far too often, chasms of intolerance separate us, and valleys of misinformation guide us.
Luckily, we can build bridges.