Our visit to Mostar’s infamous Sniper Tower
The first time we visited Mostar we didn’t manage to get inside the Sniper Tower. That was the summer of 2014 and while standing outside the abandoned building pondering our options, we were hassled by a couple of drunk guys who wanted money from us to buy yet more booze. It was nowhere near the scale of grief we got when we were hassled and eventually robbed in Abkhazia four years later but it was enough to put us off and we gave up trying to gain entry that time around.
At the time, I just considered the two guys to be a nuisance. I had some knowledge of what happened in Mostar during the Bosnian War (April 1992-December 1995) back then but not as much as I know now and, on reflection, I should have been more respectful to these two men who both appeared to be in their mid-thirties and so would have only been twelve or thirteen years old during the conflict. I can only imagine what they had to endure and if alcohol was their way of blocking out the horrors of war then who am I to judge?
Unravelling the history behind the Sniper Tower
Along with the Siege of Dubrovnik (October 1991 – May 1992) and the Siege of Sarajevo (April 1992 -1996), the siege that took place in the southern Bosnian city of Mostar is probably one of the most-remembered blockades of the Yugoslav Wars.
A city predominantly divided into Bosnian Croats and Muslim Bosniaks, plus a smaller percentage of Bosnian Serbs, there were actually two sieges in Mostar; one in 1992 and then another more or less a year later. The first one took place between April and June of 1992. Prior to Bosnia declaring its independence from Yugoslavia in March of the same year, Bosnian Serbs had proclaimed parts of the territory to be Serb Autonomous Regions and this included Herzegovina, in which Mostar is the most prominent city. As tension escalated, Croat and Bosniak forces in Mostar, the Croatian Defence Council and the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina respectively, united to defend the city against the almost disbanded and Serb-dominated Yugoslav People’s Army and the newly formed Army of Republika Srpska, aka the Bosnian Serb Army.
The siege ended favourably for the Croats and Bosniaks, who were assisted by the Croatian Army (not to be confused with the Croatian Defence Council) and the success of a military offensive known as Operation Jackal (7 -26 June 1992). Mostar was heavily damaged during the siege, however, and three-quarters of the city’s residence (90,000 out of a population of 120,000) left during this time.
When many thousands of Mostar’s Bosniak population returned to the city soon after the 1992 blockage was over, they were accompanied by other Bosniak refugees from other regions of the newly formed country who had also been caught up in the conflict. This, along with other contributing factors, which included double-crossing and political power games, meant that, by the latter half of 1992, relations between the two former allies were in a dire state, and this culminated in the second Siege of Mostar which began in June 1993 and lasted until April 1994.
More deadly and devastating in many ways than the previous fighting, broadly-speaking, the Croats had control of the west of the city, while the Bosniaks were situated in the east. To begin with, there was fierce battling and regular attacks from both sides but as time progressed, the fighting settled down and turned into more of a siege-like conflict, with the more superior Croat forces having the upper hand and ultimately blockading the eastern, Bosniak held, side of the city.
In any drawn-out, long-lasting campaign in urban areas, sniping is an important part of military tactics. Just a handful of strategically placed snipers can cause havoc during a siege and put the fear of God into those who are potentially in the firing line. This is especially true for civilians who are deprived of food and other basic necessities. They often have no option but to enter into a danger zone and risk their lives in order to simply survive and this, sadly, was the case for many of those trapped in the eastern part of Mostar.
I’ve often thought what hell it must’ve been to run the gauntlet in an area that is a known target area for these deadly marksmen. I’ve also wondered about the snipers themselves and whether they are totally ruthless human beings who enjoy killing in cold blood or whether they are normal guys who are simply obeying orders and despise the job they have been given purely because they are an excellent shot with a gun. I’ve never met, and am unlikely to ever meet one so I guess I’ll never know.
The former Ljubljanska Bank, to give the Sniper Tower in Mostar its official name, was the tallest building in the city at the time of the war and it was positioned in Croat held territory. Just 300 metres from the Neretva River and with an uninterrupted view across to the eastern side of the city, the war-torn bank was an excellent vantage point for the Croat marksmen.
The terror that those living in Mostar must have endured during this period in the city’s history is unimaginable to me and there isn’t really much more I can say. Eventually, the conflict came to an end (part of the Washington Agreement, a ceasefire accordance that came into effect on 18th March 1994) but there were plenty of atrocities and accusations on both sides, including human rights violations, the use of unofficial detention camps and sexual assault. Much of Mostar’s infrastructure was razed to the ground and the city was left in a desolate state. It was during this conflict, for example, that the Ottoman-period Stari Most (Mostar Bridge) in the Old City, which was under the control of the Bosniaks, was famously destroyed by Croat forces after a shelling campaign culminated in the bridge crumbling into the Neretva River in the early part of November 1993.
Close-up of the Stari Most, which shows the renovation work on the bridge
The Sniper Tower today
Today, the city is faring much better. As I’m sure many are aware, the now world-famous bridge has been meticulously restored to its former glory and in 2005, was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status under the official title of Old Bridge Area of the Old City of Mostar.
This, in turn, has brought back the tourists. These days, Mostar is one of the most popular places for visitors in the entire Balkans and tourists arrive in their droves to photograph the bridge and explore the rest of the Ottoman-era Old City.
This is a good thing as Mostar needs this to aid its recovery but most of the city’s visitors don’t venture much further than this relatively compact area and in many other parts of the city there are still (very) visible scars of a war that ended twenty-five years ago.
Because of its unusual design and height, the Sniper Tower is the most striking structural casualty of the war but there are numerous other examples. Take the Razvitak Shopping Centre, for example, which has such a wretched interior that we stopped short of going inside for a look around even though it was very easy to access. Then there are the buildings, some in use, some not, that are still riddled with bullet holes and shell marks. In fact, you only need to venture a short distance from the Old City and you will soon notice evidence of this without having to look too hard.
Razvitak Shopping Centre
An example of a war-torn building in Mostar. Some of the floors are still occupied while others are not
Some of these war-torn buildings have been left as purposeful reminders of the war, a kind of memorial if you will. I’m fact, I’m pretty sure this is the case with the Sniper Tower. If you search for the Sniper Tower on the Internet, most articles describe it as being squalid inside: dank and horrible and full of crap, but this no longer the case. Somebody, presumably the authorities, have gone in and given it a damn good clean. As the saying goes, you still wouldn’t eat your dinner off the floor but each of the building’s levels was devoid of any sort of debris or sprouting foliage when we visited in October 2018, and from an abandoned building perspective it was probably one of the cleanest ones we’ve been inside. I asked the owner of our mini-apartment who, incidentally had no hesitation in talking to us about the war, even though he still had strong memories of his own bad experiences, when the building was cleaned out but he couldn’t tell me as he hadn’t been inside it for as long as he could remember.
The street art that adorns most of the exterior of the premises and quite a few of the walls in the interior as well, wasn’t removed in the cleanup operation. This, combined with the fact that nobody really knows what to do with the building (there is zero information online about its fate and nobody we spoke to locally could give any us any indication about any future plans for it) makes me assume that, for the time being anyway, the Sniper Tower has intentionally been left in situ as a saddening reminder of the Siege of Mostar.