Bosnia-Herzegovina / Places We Go

Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina

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:

Burned Serbian homes in Bosnia

Burned Serbian homes in Bosnia

Burned Serbian homes in Bosnia

Seen from a distance Mostar itself seems like a pleasant, if forgettable, medium-sized town:

Mostar, Bosnia

Mostar, Bosnia

Mostar, Bosnia

And there is the lovely Neretva River running through Mostar:

Mostar, Bosnia

The people are friendly too:

Friendly Bosnian girl in Mostar

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:

Mostar, Bosnia

Mostar, Bosnia

Mostar, Bosnia War Damage

Mostar, Bosnia War Damage

A revealing building – On the left is the restored side and on the right, the still war-damaged side:

Mostar, Bosnia War Damage

This used to be a city monument:

Mostar, Bosnia War Damage

This is a common sight as well… A completely bombed-out house next to an intact structure:

Mostar, Bosnia War Damage

Mostar, Bosnia War Damage

Mostar, Bosnia War Damage

My travel companion – Andy Drury – surveying war damage in Mostar:

Andrew Drury surveying war damage in Mostar, Bosnia

Mostar, Bosnia War Damage

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:

Mostar Bridge

And this is what it looked like before the bridge was restored:

Mostar, Bosnia

This is the former headquarters for a bank – Osnovna Banka Mostar – which evolved into Mostarska Gospodarska Banka before its destruction:

Mostar, Bosnia War Damage

Take a look at these beams inside – absolutely shot to hell:

Mostar, Bosnia War Damage

Upstairs the offices have all been looted, but there are still a number of interesting things to find:

Mostar, Bosnia War Damage

Mostar, Bosnia War Damage

Looking out a broken window of the bank building:

Mostar, Bosnia War Damage

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:

Mostar, Bosnia War Damage

Another shot from the bank’s roof:

Mostar, Bosnia War Damage

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.”

or

“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.”

or

“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.

Mostar, Bosnia

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8 thoughts on “Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina

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  3. NATO troops raid bank to get evidence of Bosnian Croat separatists

    Wednesday, 18 April 2001

    NATO led troops raided a private bank believed to be the financial lifeline of Bosnian Croat separatist efforts and carried out boxes of documents.

    NATO led troops raided a private bank believed to be the financial lifeline of Bosnian Croat separatist efforts and carried out boxes of documents early today, in the second raid at the bank in less than two weeks.

    Witnesses who peeked through their windows said the NATO action began at 3am (0100 GMT). Troops were seen lying on the streets behind corners of buildings, protecting other soldiers who broke into Hercegovacka Banka and carried out boxes.

    Capt Lars Anderson, spokesman for the peacekeepers, said the operation was conducted to “collect evidentiary material necessary to complete an investigation of fraud and money laundering suspected to have been conducted by the Hercegovacka Banka.”

    The action was necessary, he said, because it appeared bank officers were trying to cover up the bank’s previous activities.

    Troops used explosives to enter the bank, created “chaos” in the building, and removed all documents and computers, bank workers said on condition of anonymity.

    Downtown Mostar was blocked by dozens of armoured vehicles, and Radio Mostar reported troops also had set up overnight patrols at all entrances to the city.

    By 6am (0400 GMT) the action had ended, radio said.

    International auditors, supported by NATO peacekeepers, raided the same building and 10 other branches of Hercegovacka Banka on April 6, after Bosnia’s top international official, Wolfgang Petritsch, ordered them to install provisional international administrators at the bank and allow government and international auditors to check the bank’s business procedures.

    But the raid prompted violent riots, which international officials said were organized by the hard-line nationalist Bosnian Croat party, the Croat Democratic Union, or HDZ. The party is leading nationalist efforts to break a part of Bosnia away from the Muslim-Croat federation and turn it into a Croat mini-state.

    Several foreign auditors and 21 NATO peacekeepers were injured during the riots. In the town of Grude, the mob took the auditors hostage and pressed a gun against the head of a US auditor, threatening him with execution.

    International officials said the bank has been involved in corruption and illegal money transfers, enriching the leadership of the HDZ party.

    The April 6, riots prevented the international administrator, Toby Robinson, from entering the bank and obtaining necessary documents to audit the bank so it can resume operation.

  4. Might I have permission to reprint the photo of the rebuilt Stari Most bridge in an academic book to be published by the University of Chicago Press? I would of course give you full credit for it.

    Many thanks
    Tracy B. Strong
    Distinguished Professor
    University of California, San Diego

  5. Had to replay because of one thing. Namely this: “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.”

    I assume you were told this by someone from the western part of the town. If you were to ask someone from the eastern part, they would say the same thing about Bosniaks crossing the bridge with police escort.

    I am not from Mostar, but I am from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and I can tell you that neither is true. As a Bosniak I’ve been to the so called “Croatian side” many times and no escort was needed. Even going out at night was no problem. Same thing with a friend, a Croat, coming to the eastern side.

    The town is divided in people’s heads, I grant you that, but it is no Hebron. It is just that everyone has their own truth, as is the case with all conflicts where there is no clear cut winner.

  6. Pingback: Mostar: The answers?

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