Near the Old Town of Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina, lies a concrete shell of a building. Today, it is completely abandoned, with no sign that it was once a thriving, modern, Croat bank, with a shiny glass facade and eight floors full of workers and customers. Now the building is full mostly of broken glass and graffiti.
For a brief period during the tragic conflict in the Balkans during the 90s, this structure became a weapon, the the Mostar sniper tower, with its perfect, elevated views onto the streets of the Bosniak-controlled eastern Mostar.
Having spent the better part of a month in Balkans, we’ve learned so much about this conflict, one that I remember vividly. We’ve seen the damage and destruction in person, still apparent after more than twenty years, and talked to locals about their own struggles during the crisis.
Few places were hit as hard as Mostar, first encircled and shelled by the Yugoslav People’s Army after Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence in 1991, then the site of a violent struggle between the Bosniaks and the Bosnian Croats through 1993.
The bank building, located in the geographical center of the city, along the main boulevard that would become the front line between the opposing forces, was taken over and used as a strategic military position.
It became the Mostar sniper tower.
For most of 1993-94, Bosniaks (the community of Bosnian Muslims) in eastern Mostar were under constant threat of sniper fire from the Croats. It was said that if you could see a building on the western side of Mostar, across the Neretva River, a sniper could see you. Residents constructed sniper warning signs in the dangerous areas, but they were often ignored because people had to get to UN-supplied water and food.
I think that in the early 1990s, my biggest concern was making new friends in middle school, while children my same age in Mostar were camping out in basements, and being bombarded by morter shells and sniper fire, for almost three years.
The struggle comes to life when exploring Mostar in person, when even today many homes are covered in pock-marks from bullets and numerous buildings are still partially destroyed and abandoned.
When we arrived in Mostar, we heard about Mostar sniper tower and decided that it was an essential addition to our itinerary. There is no plaque, no museum, no acknowledgement about what occurred in this building in the early 1990s.
Instead, it has been left to rot.
Quick disclaimer: technically, we trespassed into this building, and of course, we do not advocate for breaking any laws when visiting a city. If you decide to see it, avoid going at night, for safety reasons.
There is no front door, because the former main entrance has been walled off. In order to enter, we had to head around back, hopping over a cement wall in the rear of the building (someone has piled up rocks to make the climb a little easier).
The ground floor, and the many floors above, are covered in broken glass, bottles, paraphanalia, and graffiti. It was eerily quiet, completely empty except for us. We whispered and crunched over piles of debris, our steps echoing in empty rooms and down corridors.
And then we started climbing, the main stairwell now completely open to the outside world.
We reached the seventh floor, and took a glance out from the jagged corner of the building, overlooking eastern Mostar, the Old Town visible just a few blocks away. Now all that remains is garbage and trash, but once soldiers sat day and night, looking for any moving target across the river.
The view is incredible, which unfortunately, is exactly the reason it was used in such a deadly way.
Julie and I always talk about how seeing a place in person always makes its history more vivid and real. Seeing the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, for instance, is more impactful than just reading about Roman history in a book.
The same applies to Mostar and the Balkans. Reading about the Balkan conflict is a challenge in and of itself due to the complex history of the region and subtle intricacies of the war. Being here, seeing the sites of the siege in person, and talking to people who experienced violence firsthand, has helped us understand the history so much better.
The struggle becomes real as you walk by building after building riddled with bullet holes.
Our visit to the Mostar sniper tower was both poignant and fascinating.
No one knows how much longer the building will stand there. There are no current plans to revitalize this corner, due to ongoing local conflicts about how best to memorialize the war. In the not too distant future, this building may be a thing of the past.