#39: Sarajevo & Mostar, Bosnia-Herzogovina: Paradise Lost and Recovering, Part II
12 July 2002
I hopped onto a bus for Mostar, the chief city in the south of BiH, known as Herzegovina. Mostar, meaning “Keeper of the Bridge”, used to be the second-most beautiful city of BiH, only after Sarajevo. The Old Bridge across the crystal clear waters of the Neretva River, built by the genius of a renowned Ottoman architect, was once the crown jewel of the south. Millions of tourists once traveled here to see its splendor, curving gracefully like the gentle silhouette of a classical beauty.
In November 1993, Bosnian Croat forces fighting against Bosnian Government forces in order to create their own Croat state in the south of BiH, destroyed this monument of all mankind. Today, tourists are coming back in small groups, looking at the empty space of where the bridge used to be. Archaeologists are carefully reassembling its pieces in a prolonged effort to rebuild this treasure. I had tasty Bosnian grill in a small restaurant facing the ruins of the Bridge and the surrounding old town. The ruined Old City is being rebuilt. Restaurants and souvenir shops are already opening amidst all the destruction, and groups of day-tripping tourists are arriving from the nearby Croatian tourist cities of Dubrovnik and Split. I wondered about the lost lives, families, time and opportunities. What a march of folly!
Mostar remains a divided city, a Berlin without walls. After chasing out the Serbs in a joint offensive, the Bosniaks and Croats fought each other over a few years, in an episode more ferocious than that fought in Sarajevo. The lack of media coverage here relative to Sarajevo meant more atrocities and greater destruction.
Today, you could see the incredible destruction along the old frontline cutting across what used to be city center Mostar. If you drive into town, you will be confused by signboards proclaiming two city centers, and both located in different areas and directions. One is the Bosniak center; the other, the Croat one. Even today, taxi drivers hesitate about crossing that invisible line of death. Bosniaks stay on the eastern side of town, Croats on the western side. If you buy a phone card on the Bosniak side (belonging to BiH Telecom), you can’t use it on phones on the western side of town. There you can only use cards sold by the HPT Bosnian Croat Telecom. Of course, forget about using that phone card you have bought in Banja Luka, issued by Republika Srpska’s (“RS”) Srpske Telecom. The same applies with stamps issued by the post offices of RS, BiH and that of the Bosnian Croat Post. A small nation divided into three parts.
I met Miro, my Bosnian contact who works for the EU planning development and reconstruction projects. We clicked it off immediately, and he drove me around the old battlefields of Mostar – where the war began, where the battles were fought, the ruins of the old Serbian Orthodox Church now being rebuilt, the brand new Catholic Church now deliberately rebuilt by the Croats to rise well above all Islamic monuments in the City, the offensive huge cross planted on the mountaintop by the Croats – and the beautiful countryside around Mostar. Bosnia – so beautiful, so wild and so tragic.
As we sped across the timeless countryside of Herzegovina, Miro recited the atrocities that had occurred in the settlements we passed. Town A, 2 massacres, 100 dead June 1992, 45 dead December 1993; Village B, 233 murdered May 1992; Hamlet C, only one small massacre 5 school children killed in a mortar attack. Only 5 dead in this beautiful village in the meadow. When too many were killed, the dead became mere statistics.
We visited the old village of Pocitelj, where the inhabitants were ethnically cleansed by the Croats during the war. A fairytale mediaeval Bosnian fortress perched on the mountaintop overlooks the village, which rests on the slopes. We walked into the ruins of the local mosque, a beautiful Ottoman structure whose bright blue flowery tiles still shone with glory, together with the fantasy strokes of the Arabic calligraphy on the inner walls. Outside were cottages once inhabited by artists from around the world, as the tolerant Muslim citizens of Pocitelj opened their village to the creative population of Mother Earth. This was once a famous artist colony and Islamic center – no contradiction about it, as most Bosnians would contend. Bosnians have always lived and died defending their multiethnic fabric. The grateful artists gave the village some of their works in return. All these were gone. The war has destroyed it all. I closed my eyes, and tried hard to imagine the old glories of this village. A few new restaurants have opened at the entrance to the village. The villagers are slowly returning. Perhaps one day, the artists would return too, and rebuild this village of eternal tolerance.
Bosnia, beautiful Bosnia, tragic Bosnia. When will its soul recover ? The state that is BiH today is a strange monster created by the international community on the ruins of the war. RS in the North refuses to acknowledge its presence in a joint state. The South is an uneasy alliance of convenience between the Bosniaks and the Croats. Besides a supposed federal state in the south (FBiH), that state is subdivided into 10 cantons, each with its own prime minister (“PM”) and cabinet of ministers. BiH today is a nation with 13 PMs and over 200 ministers. A PM for every 300,000 citizens. A bloated bureaucracy supported by the international community.
The RS is ready to defend its eternal hope for Serbian unity. The South is unhappy with what it sees as a North that got away too easily with its atrocities. Most Bosnians I spoke to are committed to building a multiethnic state. But saying is easier than reality. More than 200,000 Bosniaks and Croats, plus 70,000 Serbs died in this conflict. I choked with shock when I heard a Bosnian officer-guide at the Tunnel Museum said, “If the Serbs want to break away, they can if we kill at least 100,000 of them, and reduce their territory to only 30% of BiH.” So much for reconciliation. No wonder the Serbs are hesitating.
As the sun sets over the Neretva Valley, I set off for Split, the sunny city on the Croatian coast. May the Almighty bless this land.