Trouble in the Balkans
Sumantra Bose

Session 5 Building Bridges in Mostar: Microcosm of a Conflict

Intro Session 1 Session 2 Session 3 Session 4

Bosnia five years after Dayton

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Shifting alliances: Muslim Izedin Spago and Catholic-Croat Vlado Bogicevic buried side by side in a cemetary on Liska Street in Croat-controlled west Mostar.
In November 1995, the Dayton Peace Agreement ended a three-cornered civil war that had ravaged Bosnia and Herzegovina since April 1992. It was hoped at the time that the end of hostilities would presage the reconstruction of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a united, multi-ethnic and economically viable state of all its citizens and all three of its constituent peoples--Muslims, Serbs and Croats.

Five years on, much of that optimism has faded. Thanks to international recognition of its borders, Bosnia is nominally a single state. But in practice the country is divided into three statelets, with the Serbs, Muslims and Croats controlling roughly 50 percent, 30 percent and 20 percent of the territory, respectively. Despite a massive investment of personnel and finances by a consortium of international organisations, refugee returns have not occurred at a level sufficient to restore the prewar population diversity.

Cooperation between the elites of the three groups is still the exception rather than the norm, and the economic situation is dire, with the majority of citizens unemployed. Bosnians can now generally travel freely throughout the country. But even as neighbouring Serbia and Croatia struggle to leave the past behind and build democratic institutions and viable economies, Bosnia continues to be plagued by the de facto division of its territory. The common state exists more on paper than in reality. The post-conflict international intervention has stabilized the security situation but achieved few of its longer-term goals.

The city that was

The tragedy of Bosnia, and the extent of the challenge for international reconciliation and reconstruction initiatives, is nowhere more stark than in the city of Mostar, the largest town in the historical region of Herzegovina, the southern part of the country. Mostar was famed as the one of the most beautiful and cosmopolitan towns in the Balkans, a captivating blend of south Slavic, Ottoman Turkish and Mediterranean cultural traditions.

Situated two hours south of Sarajevo, Mostar is built on both banks of an emerald-green river called the Neretva. The town's heritage was symbolized by its greatest architectural treasure-the Stari Most (Old Bridge) across the Neretva, a wondrously graceful arched structure constructed on the orders of the Ottoman emperor Suleiman the Magnificent in 1566. Until a decade ago, Mostar was a mini-Yugoslavia, its 80,000 people a model of coexistence between Bosnia's three communities. Thirty-four percent of the population was Muslim, 29 percent Croat and 19 percent Serb. In the last census (1991), the remaining 18 percent chose to describe themselves as "Yugoslav" rather than adopt one of the "national" identity categories.

War and partition

Osama video
Sumantra Bose
Graffiti in a wartime Bosnian Army bunker, east Mostar.
By early 1994, this vibrant, cosmopolitan city had become history. The town was heavily damaged in a Serb artillery and tank barrage from the surrounding hills in April-May 1992, as a section of local Serbs took up arms against Bosnia-Herzegovina's declaration of independence from the disintegrating Yugoslav federation. The Serbs were defeated and driven away in June by a joint Muslim-Croat counterattack. But peace was not to be. Extreme nationalists among the local Croats, in connivance with the far-right government in Zagreb, attempted a total takeover of the city's institutions and facilities. They aimed to make Mostar the capital of a Croatian statelet called Herceg-Bosna, which was to be carved out of Croat-populated areas of Bosnia and Herzegovina and eventually joined to Croatia proper.

In May 1993, simmering tension in the city exploded into violence. The Bosnian Croat militia, assisted by soldiers and equipment supplied by the armed forces of Croatia, began a merciless shelling of predominantly Muslim sectors of the city. The Muslims, although heavily outgunned, fought back with great courage. That ferocious conflict, which continued for 10 months until an American-brokered truce ended Muslim-Croat fighting across Bosnia and Herzegovina in March 1994, destroyed what remained of Mostar's tolerant, multicultural traditions.

From being a symbol of Yugoslavia's diversity, Mostar was reduced to the ultimate symbol of the division and destruction wrought by the Bosnian war. In November 1993, in the single most notorious act of vandalism of the Yugoslav wars, Croat forces deliberately targeted and destroyed the bridge across the Neretva. When the truce froze Croat-Muslim hostilities on the ground in 1994, Mostar was a city divided, literally as well as figuratively. Muslim forces, battling against heavy odds, had managed to retain the east bank of the Neretva, as well as a slice of the west bank. But the Muslim sector of the city was largely a pile of rubble, its shell-shocked citizens reduced to surviving on food handouts from international humanitarian agencies. The Croats retained control over most of the west bank, where much of the city's public housing and utilities are concentrated.

Bombed homes
Sumantra Bose
The frontline dividing Mostar: The Boulevard in the town centre. The near side is Muslim and the far side is Croat.
The city was unrecognizable in yet other dimensions. Only 35 Croats remained on the east bank, of the 6,000 who had once lived there. Of the west bank's 15,000 Muslim residents, all but 2,000 were expelled by 1994, and further evictions occurred as late as 1996 and 1997. Very few Serbs remained on either side of this partitioned city. During and after the war years, the vast majority of Mostar's professional and intelligentsia class left the city to seek a life--and livelihood--abroad. As a result, Mostar's current population (especially but not only on the east side) overwhelmingly consists of displaced families who have fled or been expelled from their homes in other parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The two enclaves are separated from each other by a no-man's-land along one stretch of the Boulevard, formerly Mostar's main north-south artery running immediately parallel to the Neretva on the west bank. Since the war, the Boulevard has been an eerie landscape of bombed-out, bullet-pocked buildings, the surrounding streets decorated with the "flowers of Mostar"--imprints of impacts from mortar shells.

A tenuous bridge: international intervention in Mostar, 1994-2000

The legacy of brutal fratricide casts a profound pall over Mostar, as it does over Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole. Croat politics in Mostar and its hinterland is dominated by hard-liners who are still fundamentally unreconciled to the failure of their project to create a Greater Croatia. Although thwarted in their fundamental purpose, these elements still command sufficient clout to dominate the areas they control. They exploit fears among ordinary Croats about "reintegrating" with the Muslims, who outnumber them by about five to one in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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Copyright Getty images
 East Mostar. 1994.

A Bosnian runs the gauntlet of sniper fire across the makeshift bridge to collect water in East Mostar. The old Stan Mort Bridge was destroyed by the Croatians during civil war, the watchtowers are still standing.

In the considerably poorer Muslim zone of the city, too, the public mood continues to be defined by the wartime experience. Citizens are defiantly proud that they survived the Croat attempt to drive them from their city. Many are survivors of wartime Croat detention camps. The cemeteries of east Mostar are full of graves of young war martyrs, and the walls of its public buildings are dotted with plaques honouring commanders who fell resisting the Croat onslaught. Unlike most Croats, Muslim Mostarians almost unanimously favour the city's reunification, although they are sceptical of the prospects of a genuinely shared life with the Croats. But the formula for implementing such a modus vivendi remains elusive five years after Dayton.

Mostar has been a site of intense international engagement and activity since July 1994, when the town was placed under the supervision of an interim European Union Administration of Mostar (EUAM). Since the EUAM's term expired, in January 1997, its mandate of fostering reconciliation and reintegration has been taken over by the consortium of international agencies--NATO, UN, USAID, the World Bank and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe--who entered the picture after the Dayton peace.

The international presence in Mostar can claim some credit for two successes. Huge injections of international aid restored public utilities--albeit with separate water, electricity, gas and telephone systems for the two zones. Most damaged buildings have gradually been repaired as well, including the charming Ottoman-era quarter in the Muslim sector. The international presence has also facilitated a relative freedom of movement between the two sectors. The crucial breakthrough happened after mid-1998, when common license plates were introduced for all cars in Bosnia and Herzegovina, meaning that the national identity of the owners could no longer be easily identified. The other international innovation, also since 1998, has been a common Bosnian currency called the convertible mark (KM). The KM has gradually come to be accepted in the Croat sector, although Croatian money, the kuna, continues to be the currency of choice for the super-patriotic.

This progress, although not insignificant, is also not satisfactory. Superficial reconstruction and the proliferation of cafés, bars, restaurants and designer shops across town obscure the grim reality that the local economy is still a gutted wreck. Few factories function, and local unemployment is at least 70 percent. In the crucial arena of politics, the city remains segmented into two distinct halves. Despite strenuous international efforts to breathe life into a joint city administration, most effective authority still rests with municipal officials and local power brokers in the two enclaves. The city's social and cultural life--including, critically, the school system--continues to be largely segregated. Under intense international pressure, modest advances have recently been made towards strengthening the joint city administration. But the ultimate sustainability of internationally imposed schemes remains an open question. Years of hard work by international officials have only recently led to the "formal" (as distinguished from "effective") unification of the police force in the city and its surrounding region. Since the Dayton Peace Agreement, relatively few Muslims have returned to their homes in the western part of Mostar, and fewer Croats to theirs in the east, although several thousand Serbs, mostly the elderly, have returned to both parts of the city, especially the east. The division of the town is striking even at symbolic level. The periphery of Muslim territory off the Boulevard is marked by a line of slender minarets of newly erected mosques. On the other side of the Boulevard, the beginning of Croat turf is signalled by an enormous Catholic cathedral under construction, its spire rising into the sky.

Thinking Point
What does the example of Mostar reveal about the divisions in Bosnian society?
The balance sheet of five years of international engagement in Mostar--and Bosnia as a whole--is clear. Economic reconstruction has been superficial rather than structural. Moral and psychological reconciliation remains a long-term objective. In the short run, political reintegration of Bosnia's fragments, in the way the international community would prefer, is simply unfeasible. A more effective strategy would explicitly emphasize limited, incremental cooperation across the divide, rather than seek to abolish the divide altogether. This is especially so since international investment in Bosnia is in the process of winding down, and most agencies will effectively end their operations by 2002 or 2003. A more modest approach and set of goals may leave a more usable and less divisive legacy for Bosnians themselves to build on in the future.

When the international community arrived in Mostar, its soldiers constructed a temporary footbridge across the Neretva at the point which used to be spanned by the Old Bridge. That footbridge was washed away by sudden floods which caused the river to rise in late 1999. In the less literal sense, the internationally sponsored bridge across the Neretva is equally tenuous. Meanwhile, a World Bank-UNESCO project to reconstruct the real bridge is under way. It is scheduled for completion by 2004.