One war per country is usually enough, but in 1993 Bosnia had two on the go. Around Sarajevo and in the north and east, the Bosnian government was fighting the Serbs, who had pushed hundreds of thousands of Muslims out of their homes, killing tens of thousands in the process. The Serbs wanted to cut chunks off Bosnia to make their own ethnically pure Serb state. Sarajevo was under siege and so were a handful of other enclaves loyal to the Bosnian government.
Then the Bosnian Croats, in Herzegovina to the south and in the mountains and valleys of central Bosnia, decided that good ideas were worth copying. Aided and abetted by the Croatian government in Zagreb, they started dismembering the other half of Bosnia’s corpse, in the west and south, to make a Frankenstein state of their own, which would be ethnically pure. Mostar was going to be the capital. The Croats’ problem was that 30,000 people, mostly Muslims, were surrounded in the east of Mostar and were fighting like hell.
All sides in Bosnia’s wars claimed that they faced extinction. Some of the Croats and Serbs believed it, because their leaders told them it was true and pushed propaganda down their throats until they could not doubt it. But those who really did face genocide were the Bosnians who supported the Muslim-led government in Sarajevo. The 30,000 who were fighting in Mostar were fighting because they had a good idea what would happen to them if they didn’t. In the Balkan wars the losers lost everything – men had a strong chance of being shot; women, if they weren’t killed too, could be raped and then kicked over the front line to become refugees. The fighting in Mostar was hard, and the civilians were in a very bad way. They had almost no food and were getting sniper fire when they took water from the River Neretva that cut the town in two.
Mostar was effectively divided into a Muslim side to the east and a Croat side to the west.
Before even arriving in Mostar, one can see evidence of the hatred and fear that reigned supreme in this area represented by these burned-out Serbian homes:
Seen from a distance Mostar itself seems like a pleasant, if forgettable, medium-sized town:
And there is the lovely Neretva River running through Mostar:
The people are friendly too:
The reality, however, is that I’ve never seen a city so ravaged by war. And I’ve been through some pretty rough parts of Afghanistan.
The city was the most heavily bombed of any Bosnian city during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina following the break up of then-Yugoslavia. At the beginning of the war, the city lost many important buildings and structures through air strikes; later, once the formerly-aligned forces turned into enemies, a thorough destruction of this old city began:
A revealing building – On the left is the restored side and on the right, the still war-damaged side:
This used to be a city monument:
This is a common sight as well… A completely bombed-out house next to an intact structure:
My travel companion – Andy Drury – surveying war damage in Mostar:
Mostar is probably most famous for a bridge – the Old Bridge (Stari Most) – an historic Ottoman-style bridge, which spanned the Neretva river in what is considered the historic center of the city. The bridge was blown up by Croat forces during the war.
However, through combined efforts with the international community, the Old Bridge has been rebuilt (completed in 2004), using some of its original pieces recovered from the Neretva river.
Here is the bridge today:
And this is what it looked like before the bridge was restored:
This is the former headquarters for a bank – Osnovna Banka Mostar – which evolved into Mostarska Gospodarska Banka before its destruction:
Take a look at these beams inside – absolutely shot to hell:
Upstairs the offices have all been looted, but there are still a number of interesting things to find:
Looking out a broken window of the bank building:
Andy and I hiked up to the roof where I spotted this former office chair abandoned outside. I thought it was a good analogy for…something:
Another shot from the bank’s roof:
Long after Bosnia-Herzegovina gained its independence, it’s still a place of deep ethnic divisions, where calls from Croats in Mostar for independence are getting louder day by day.
Croats who call themselves an alternative government to the one that exists in Bosnia-Herzegovina, are openly planning a future state and it is common to hear comments like this if one speaks to a Croat in Mostar:
“We don’t have any kind of federal unit to protect our rights here in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We don’t even have media in our own language. The only way that we can protect ourselves is through a Croatian federal unit.”
“The main reason for all the problems now is that Bosniak Muslims are a majority. We don’t have any legal representatives at state levels of power in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The reason is we don’t have a legal framework, or any kind of opportunity to establish equality with the two other peoples.”
“At the beginning of the war, we were fighting for the liberation of all the people in Bosnia-Herzogovina. The Muslims had our support, there were many of them who were fighting in the Croatian defense council. But in the end, we were betrayed by them. Many ran away. I don’t believe we can live together. In principle, maybe, but in my soul – I don’t believe it.”
The city of Mostar showcases these ethnic divisions more clearly than anywhere else in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is the country’s fifth largest city, and political control there is equally shared between Croats and Bosniaks. But tensions are high, and the city is thoroughly divided.
Relations between both sides are so bad that when Croats cross the Old Bridge from the Croatian side of the city to the Muslim side, they come with a police escort.
So far, Croatian calls for independence have been overshadowed by events elsewhere in the Balkans. But should they one day win – their success could potentially have disastrous effects throughout the region.