Building a bridge in Bosnia

April 26, 1995

By Frank Eckardt

MOSTAR — The city is divided between East and West, Muslim and Croat. A charred boulevard of ruins slices it in two. Broad roads run parallel to the Neretva River, just a few dozen metres from the right bank. On the left bank is the rubble of the Old Town. Across the boulevard on the right bank, stretching back to the hills, are high-rise office and apartment blocks, all virtually intact.

The boulevard is often called the front line — not much more than a stone's throw from the Neretva. It is here that the Muslims held their ground in face of the Bosnian Croatian army's effort to expel them. All seven of the town's bridges were destroyed during the fighting, but the Bosnians always held that line.

Barely a building in the east escaped damage. From May 1993 to March 1994, the Croatian Defence Council (HVO) bombarded the Muslim old town. Even the water and sewerage systems were blown to smithereens. Mosques were targeted and minarets holed or razed. The bridges carrying water, electricity and telephone lines were demolished.

Snipers from the other side of the city gunned down anyone emerging from their cellars during the day to collect food or water from the springs along the river bed.

Fifty-seven thousand people are sardined into the old part of the city, where before lived only 21,000. And 70% of the houses they share are severely damaged or destroyed. Many of the 36,000 refugees here come from West Mostar. Some fled as homes were ransacked and torched. Women and children were also dumped on the front line. Others escaped from other areas of Bosnia.

On the west side the picture is different. There are some 50,000 people, 20% less than before the war. Among these are 10,000 refugees from outside. There is little comparable destruction.

The Croatian Bosnian army's onslaught on Mostar was different from the Serbian siege of Sarajevo, which still continues. In Sarajevo the Serbian army's objective was to prevent the men from crossing the lines and driving back the Serbs who had seized 70% of Bosnia. In Mostar the aim was to drive the Muslims from the city, which has to become the capital of the Croatian Republic of Herceg-Bosna.

Within a year 1700 people were killed and 6000 injured on the east side, according to Dinka Jelin, a journalist with local Radio MM. More than 100,000 grenades rained down on the old city. "The HVO got a lot of help, even from the Croatian Army (in Zagreb)", she says.

No-one knows how many have been left severely traumatised by the fighting on both sides of the divide. This is already a serious problem in Mostar and will continue to be for years, perhaps generations.

"The consequences of the war in people's minds are just beginning to show", said Dr Vincente Rojo, a psychiatrist who has been working in the city for the last six months. Only now are people beginning to realise how much they have lost: members of their families, homes and all their possessions.

People sheltered in cellars for months on end as grenades killed or wounded, reducing the buildings above them to rubble. According to a UNICEF study, almost every child in the war zone has seen someone killed or wounded. UNHCR's Dr Rune Stuvland says: "They have not just witnessed this; they have been part of it, dragging the wounded out of the streets, staying close to them. And not just anyone, but a mother, a father, a brother, a neighbour."

It will also be a serious problem in the west. Neighbours saw friends marched out of their homes. For almost a year they endured the endless sound of grenades exploding and gunfire.

The fighting began in Mostar soon after the siege of Sarajevo, when the EC and United States recognised the independence of Bosnia-Hercegovina on April 6 and 7, 1992. Then the Yugoslav National Army battled from its garrisons in the city. Some weeks later it decided to withdraw, but not before destroying many public buildings and strategic services.

Many Serbs, who made up 19% of the city's population before the war, followed them north beyond the borders the Bosnian Serbs were holding or westwards, rather than cast their fate with the Serbian nationalists. Some stayed and suffered retaliation: there were reports of beatings and imprisonment; today one can see some Serbian property in ruins. Muslims and Croats were then in alliance until the spring of 1993, when Mostar became the focal point of a new conflict as Croats grabbed territory and engaged in "ethnic cleansing" of Muslims.

Mostar today is a city waiting for something to happen. The east is waiting for an end to the division; the numbers who can cross from one side to another each day are limited, and husbands cannot accompany their wives.

There is anxiety about venturing to the other side. The European Union has yet to oversee demilitarisation of the city, and the HVO still walk the streets and probably still squat in hundreds of apartments seized from Muslims.

An assassination attempt on Hans Koschnick, the EU administrator, at his hotel on the west side clearly demonstrated that extremists are still out to wreck the Croat-Muslim federation. A few days before, a memorial service was held on the east side for an Iranian journalist who never reached the Neretva. He was allegedly arrested on the west side, taken from his taxi and shot.

The city now has two municipal councils, two mayors, two sets of laws, two police forces and armed forces, two currencies. Though the Muslims stood their ground and feel they have won a moral victory, their suffering was immense. "We can forgive, but never forget. The politicians are guilty of it all", was a view repeated again and again. The fighting has reduced everyone to penury; they are kept alive only by the flour and macaroni from the UNHCR.

The opening of the schools in September was put off for a week. People were warned to take cover in their cellars as a Muslim offensive against the Serbs got under way a few kilometres to the north; the Serbs retaliated by firing mortars into the city centre. One mortar exploded virtually on the doorstep of a school.

In the west there is anxiety and fear. Just one step inside the local council building tells it all: the portrait of Mate Boban, the Bosnian Croatian politician at the helm when the mortars fell, still hangs in the entrance hall though he was long ago forced to resign. An HVO recruitment poster is still pinned to the wall. During the day women queue by the side entrance for permits to visit relations on the other side of the river. Virtually everyone is out of work. At night there is still the occasional sound of gunfire.

Mostar is crucially important to the EU. Around it hangs the future of the Croat-Bosnian Federation and peace for much of the Balkans; a success in Mostar could be duplicated in other municipalities. The EU aims to reunify Mostar and get it functioning again. By July 23, 1996, there should be one elected mayor for all the citizens, and one police force trained by the European Union in "international standards of policing".

The enterprise is more than just one of providing aid for new bridges, repairing war damage, building factories and roads.

One project working to realise the principles of humanity would be Madli Most. The idea is to have a centre where teenagers of all backgrounds can meet together under one roof. This represents a return to Mostar as children remember it. Before the fighting, Muslim, Croat and Serbian children attended the same schools, sitting in classes side by side and playing together.

The centre would bring them together again. There would be courses teaching a range of skills, such as languages, printing, photography and journalism. There would be music, social activities and a cafe. The overall objective would be to support efforts to build a liberal, democratic society.

It is also envisaged that the Mostar centre would have an additional function: it would support other organisations from the outside which might want to work with the youth in Mostar and build up experience for projects in other parts of the region. At this moment the city administrations on both sides of the Neretva support the project.

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