Drawing Connections in Mostar
Travel Stories: Candace Rose Rardon began sketching in Bosnia to better remember the place. But something else happened along the way.
05.30.14 | 9:12 AM ET
To the horror of #selfiholics everywhere, I started doing watercolor travel sketches three years ago to move at a slower pace and create richer memories of the places I visited. I found that interpreting a scene through my sketchbook opened my senses more than seeing it through the lens of my camera. I paid more attention.
And so it was that I arrived in Mostar, a small city in southern Bosnia and Herzegovina, with the sole purpose of sketching. One bright Wednesday morning, I was sitting on a sidewalk along Adema Buća Street, drawing the scene before me, when a woman stopped and asked if I was a student—a question I get often while sketching on location.
She had a bob of frosted blond hair, was smoking a cigarette, and introduced herself as “Dalila, like in the Bible” (a local variation on Delilah). She asked where I was from, and when I told her I’d grown up in Virginia, she said, “You’re joking. You must come and have a coffee.”
I politely declined, motioning to the mess of pens and pencils and paints spread out on the sidewalk, but soon realized Dalila was not the kind of woman who gives up easily. So I packed up my supplies and sketchbook and followed her to a nearby café, where we ordered Bosnian coffees and slices of cheesy burek.
She told me that her daughter Alma and niece Lejla, both 17 years old, had gone to Virginia just that summer through an NGO called Bridging Boundaries International.
“They are removing the boundaries from the kids,” Dalila explained. “For a long time they were separated, you know.”
The thing was, I didn’t know. I was embarrassingly ignorant about the Bosnian War before I arrived in Mostar. I didn’t know that the city had been split in two during the war—Bosnians on the east, Croats on the west—and that depending on which side you called home, you were or were not eligible to leave the country as a refugee. It was for this reason that Dalila could take Alma and her two other children to live in Bergen, Norway, while extended family members stayed behind.
We chatted a bit more until Dalila had to return to work. I went back to sketching, but not before she asked if I would meet with Alma and Lejla later that week. Having learned my lesson, I readily agreed.
Four days later, Alma, Lejla and I made our way to the old part of town. Dalila had told me that they were both interested in art and had suggested the three of us sketch together. So we got comfortable on a wide stone wall behind the Koski Mehmed-Paina mosque and began sketching the city’s famous bridge.
A Turkish sultan named Suleiman the Magnificent decreed the construction of Stari Most in 1557. Over the next four centuries, the bridge came to be something of a symbol for the city—so much so that when it collapsed into the Neretva River in November 1993, no longer able to withstand the onslaught of shells from Croatian tanks, its destruction seemed to represent all that was at stake in the war.
The reconstructed bridge we were sketching opened on July 23, 2004. Alma poured a great amount of detail into her sketch. She rendered every windowpane and roof tile of the houses along Stari Most. Her lines were straight and precise, which I attributed to her scientist’s mind. Lejla’s style was looser, giving the scene a whimsical feel. I aimed for something in between.
As we each brought the bridge to life in our own way, we talked about Virginia and Bosnia and the places we had all yet to go. I pictured the girls in my hometown, as I sat with them in theirs, and pondered the chances of us meeting as we had. While I’d come to this city to sketch one bridge, I kept drawing other less tangible connections.
On my final morning in Mostar, I was planning to sketch the Gymnasium—a historic building that housed both Alma and Lejla’s high schools—when I came to the Bulevar, or what had served as the fire line during the war. To now be standing in the middle of the street, without fear or fierce conflict around me, felt like a moment worth remembering.
Sitting on the grassy median that ran down the Bulevar, I sketched two adjacent buildings. One had been reduced to rubble, its exposed interior overgrown with trees. The other, like Stari Most, had been rebuilt, and its smooth walls were painted a soft shade of orange. Together, the buildings seemed like a new symbol of Mostar—a city still healing from the past even as it pressed into the future.
As I sketched, I thought of passing this spot the night before with Dalila, on our way to a central square called Zrinjevac Park. Looping her arm through mine, she had talked of her family and of life after the war.
“When I came back from Norway, the east side was like Hiroshima. They had no electricity or water. They were drinking the Neretva. Before the war, Mostar was one of the most beautiful cities in Yugoslavia.”
“Now we are walking to the other side,” she said as we crossed the Bulevar, “but I have never accepted that there are two sides to this city. I believe we are one.”
Through the pages of my sketchbook, and the doors it had opened for me here, I now believed the same.
Until that moment, sketching had been a way of remembering places. Only in Mostar did it begin to create the very moments I hoped to remember.