Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Balkan Berlin Remains Divided

Four years after the end of the war in Bosnia, Mostar remains as divided as Belfast or Cold War Berlin.
By Mirsad Behran

Mostar's rival Croat and Bosniak soccer teams recently played their first derby match, a deeply symbolic game on "neutral" ground in Sarajevo.


The two communities have also reached an agreement to build offices for the municipality's joint institutions after years of negotiations. The site chosen used to mark the boundary between east and west, between Bosniak and Croat.


The towns Croats have been pressured into being more accommodating towards their Bosniak neighbours following the electoral defeat of their nationalist patrons in neighbouring Croatia.


The new government in Zagreb vowed to halt the financial and military aid lavished on their ethnic kin during the era of late President Franjo Tudjman.


Croatia's new president, Stipe Mesic, was swift to make clear his government's new policy. Mesic said he considered Bosnia a separate, neighbouring country and urged the Croats there to "turn towards Sarajevo".


But the fragile rapprochement in Mostar has recently been dealt a cruel blow by the Hague Tribunal's sentencing of Croatian General Tihomir Blaskic to 45 years in prison. His conviction has provoked a hostile response from Croats and Bosnian Croats alike, and threatened to reinforce ethnic divisions in the town.


Nearly 5,000 people gathered March 8 in western Mostar to protest against the sentence. The demonstrators called for the severing of links with the international community and the Tribunal and, ominously for Mostar, a referendum on the creation of a Bosnian entity for Croats, similar to Republika Srpska.


Before the war Mostar was one of Yugoslavia's principal tourist destinations, a popular stopping off point on the way to the Adriatic coast. The town's old bridge across the Neretva river was a famous picture postcard image. Boys would jump from the bridge to entertain visitors.


The town was home to around 100,000 people, about one-third Bosniak, Serb and Croat. But several months after the beginning of the Bosnian war in 1992, the former Yugoslav People's Army withdrew from the town and with them went almost the entire Serb population.


Then in the spring of 1993, war erupted between Bosniaks and Croats. Mostar was the scene of fierce fighting and the town was divided into two parts. The western part of the town - the predominantly Croat area - survived almost intact, but in the east almost 80 per cent of houses and flats were destroyed. Bosniaks expelled from west Mostar were forced to set up home in the shattered ruins.


Although no physical barriers separate the town, fear and distrust keep the communities apart. "Somebody can kill you, beat you up, humiliate you, without being brought to justice. No perpetrator has been arrested or punished so far, and therefore I do not believe I would dare to live in west Mostar," said one Bosniak.


Officially the town's institutions are unified. But in practice they work separately. There are joint meetings, but they are rare. The two communities have organised separate health care systems and schools. Representatives from the international community express dissatisfaction with the slow progress of integration, but insist significant advances have been made since the end of the war.


Nowadays people can generally move around the town freely. Old friends and acquaintances are meeting again. Incidents of intimidation have become increasingly rare. But the memories of such violence are still fresh. Over the past two years, 80 attacks on returnees - including assault, arson and the mining of homes - have been reported to the authorities.


In October 1998, one Bosniak returnee was killed near the town of Capljina. In the autumn of 1999, unknown assailants fired six mortar shells at Bosniak returnees near Gacko, perhaps the worst such attack since the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement.


Fear is ever present and people have grown accustomed to the idea of living in ethnically separate communities. For that reason the rate of refugees going back to their pre-war homes remains woefully slow. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, says around 2,000 families have returned across the entire Mostar region, out of an estimated 30,000 people driven out of their homes by the war.


Slobodanka Jakupovic, a refugee from the western part of Mostar, who has been waiting to return to her pre war home for several years now is not optimistic about the future, "The situation here has more or less remained the same. I don't believe I will be able to go back to my house."


Mirsad Behran, a former visiting journalist with IWPR, is a journalist at Mostar Radio and TV.


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