Saturday, July 20, 2013

Mostar's Ghosts

Mostar is best known for its high-arched bridge over the Neretva River, built by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century, destroyed by Croat forces in the 1993 war, and rebuilt with international aid in 2004.


Mostar has a beautiful setting, and must have been a lovely city before the war.  The few blocks of restored buildings in the Old Town, including the impressively rebuilt bridge, suggest that it may one day be again. 

Of course, the most striking change for the visitor from the Adriatic coast was the sudden appearance of minarets, mosques, Arabic (purely decorative, as the Bosniacs speak Serbo-Croatian and write it with the Latin alphabet), and the occasional headscarf.



Bosnian food wasn't radically different from the Croatian fare we'd become accustomed to, but there was a welcome dash of Turkish flavors added to the mix.

The eastern half of the city is solidly Bosniak (i.e., Muslim) while the west bank (with the exception of the Old Town is predominantly Croat (i.e., Catholic).   There used to be a sizable Serb population, too, but they were driven out by (or fled, depending on who you listen to) the Bosniak-Croat alliance that favored Bosnia's independence from Yugoslavia.   Of course, the Bosniaks and Croats felt that the Serbs were trying to drive them out.  So far, are you with me?

According to the script that was written in Dubrovnik, the Bosniaks and Croats were supposed to be the good guys, and the Serbs the aggressors, so what happened next was hard to process.  The Croats decided that they wanted to secede from Bosnia and set up their own little statelet (based in Mostar) for eventual incorporation into a Greater Croatia.   This required driving their Bosniak allies out of their homes in Mostar, which they proceeded to try to do.

But why blow up that lovely bridge?   Admittedly, it had some token military significance, as the Bosniaks were using it to carry essential supplies by foot to their surviving enclave on the west bank of the Neretva.  Or maybe the Croats didn't care about a landmark that attested to the longevity of the Muslim presence in Mostar.   In any event, it wasn't a stray shot -- it took a sustained battering to take the bridge down.

Still, the bridge has been rebuilt precisely to the original Ottoman specs and looks marvelous.  The rest of the city shows its scars more readily.


Entire blocks of buildings remain in ruins, and it was more notable when a structure showed no evidence of bullet holes than when it did.


Other than the dramatic destruction of the Old Bridge, the fighting in Mostar was overshadowed by events in Sarajevo and elsewhere that better fit the established narrative.   Before this trip, we had little idea how long and brutal the siege had been or the extent of the lingering damage.


In this context, perhaps it was not surprising to find some nostalgia for the Tito Era, when the dictator kept a tight grip on ethnic divisions in Yugoslavia.

Still, as sad as Mostar's recent history may be, it was a comfortable place to visit, with no sense of menace or danger to the traveler.

One hopes that someday the same can be said for the local inhabitants.

The following day, we would return to mountainous inland Croatia, passing through beautiful countryside that also showed signs of war -- ruined buildings and churches alongside prosperous farms and new construction.  This was the Krajina, a region of Croatia with a large Serb population that tried to secede from Croatia's secession in the '90s.   Depending, again, on your point of view, the Serbs either kicked off the Yugoslav civil war by doing this, or were just exercising the same right of self-determination that the Croats were asserting.   But it is clear that the Serb population was driven out by a Croatian counter-offensive in 1995, and it is their homes and churches, presumably, that remain in ashes while the Croats rebuild around and over them.  A number of the Croat generals who led this operation are on trial for war crimes; you can see posters and bumper stickers calling them heroes throughout the country, but especially in this region.   Much depends on it being so.

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