The Eastern Bloc is great for folks interested in urban exploration (see also here and here). As luck would have it (luck may be a bad word for it), the combination of poor economic conditions, relatively recent political turmoil, and communist history make for a wealth of abandoned, decaying structures that hold part of the key to understanding the rich, troubled history of the region.
Nowhere is the region’s troubled history more visible than in Mostar, the crown jewel of Herzegovina. And, as it happens, there’s great urban exploration opportunities in the city as well.
While Mostar is known for its Old Bridge, (or Stari Most – built in 1566, destroyed in the Bosnian War, and rebuilt in 2004) the remnants of the Bosnian War are still visible everywhere you go in the city. While Sarajevo was besieged mostly by Serbian forces, Mostar was held by a mix of Croats and Serbs. Built, like Sarajevo, in a deep river valley, Mostar’s geography lends itself to being surrounded – which is exactly what it was from 1993-1994.
While Sarajevo is largely rebuilt, innumerable shelled-out buildings remain in the still ethnically-divided city of Mostar, with Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Muslim Bosniaks largely keeping to themselves in this mostly invisibly divided town.
In the center of Mostar is the former Ljubljanska Banka Tower – completely hollowed and empty. It looms large over the towns Spanish Square, just a ten minute walk from the tourist hordes at Stari Most. We made our way there by dead reckoning. Dead reckoning, that is, until you see the building, taller than all others in the area, eerily hovering over the otherwise sleepy town like a giant corpse.
David and I approached the building cautiously, not wanting to attract attention to ourselves. I’d read accounts of people exploring the building, namely this one by Nate at Yomadic, and another at Guernica Magazine (I believe both of these reference the same person – a sort of guide to the building, who was notably absent when we visited – perhaps due to the building being walled in on the ground level?), but nothing about it more recently, and we were discouraged to see the building had been walled in with no easy access point. That said, we hadn’t come all this way to not get in and explore, so we found a place where we could hoist ourselves and our gear over the cinder block fence, and in we went!
The place was empty, but there was evidence around of human life in the form of needles, empty bottles, broken glass, and cigarette butts. There was also a wealth of fantastic graffiti art. We walked through the bottom floor but, deciding the main staircase was too exposed (we had jumped a rather imposing fence to get in, after all), opted to don our headlamps, and continue upward via the enclosed staircase toward the back.
Empty rakija and beer bottles, used needles, and broken glass were omnipresent throughout the structure, as was the graffiti art – I imagine mostly painted while the building was still relatively open to the outside. We made our way through the top, all the while being careful to remain out of sight from the apartment blocks and streets surrounding the building. The building was clearly home to seedier aspects of modern society in Herzegovina, unfortunately created by the turmoil of the recent past.
What was most haunting about the Mostar sniper den was knowing that only 20 years ago the building had been used as a strategic vantage point to pick off bystanders below. What’s more, it’s interesting to think about these places and their geographic significance. What made the building effective in its prior purpose also makes it a great place for tourists – there isn’t a better view in the whole of Mostar, if you ask me. From the top of the Mostar sniper den, we were afforded 360 degree views of the city and the Herzegovinan countryside. While Croat snipers used these vantage points to shoot and kill Bosniaks in the early 90s, we used them to take landscape photos and to gawk at the beauty of the country. Quite the contrast.
Exploring the Mostar sniper den ultimately gave us a fuller picture of life in the town. While we loved Mostar’s Old Town, Stari Most, and touristic core of the city, it did have an air (like many places with rapidly developing tourist infrastructure) of inauthenticity. Getting out of that part of town allowed us to see that Mostar is actually a typical city where everyday people live. And yes, while tourism does make up a large portion of the local economy, there is an underlying history that is important to understand if one is to leave with a complete picture of life in Herzegovina – including the less convenient historical details of BiH in the 1990s.
The Mostar sniper den is located about a ten minute walk north of Stari Most. It’s easy to spot from a distance, and is right across the street from the Spanish Square (with the yellow and red building resembling the National Library, Vijenica, in Sarajevo). The building was walled in when we arrived, but were able to hoist ourselves over the 8 foot wall around the back of it (if you’re approaching from the south, walk around the building to the left – as the path around the building veers off the sidewalk and onto a dirt path, there will be an easy spot with a makeshift step to hop over the wall a short distance in). The more discrete steps up the building are also in the back (or north) of the building. If you’re keen on exploring the building, definitely wear gloves and bring a headlamp. We also carried a few Bosnian Marks in our pockets in case we needed to grease any wheels in case of getting caught trespassing.