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

Stolac: A Town Deeply Divided

A decade after the war, this once prosperous town in Hercegovina still fights demons from its not-so-distant past.
By Simon Jennings, Denis Dzidzic

Nearly 13 years after the Dayton peace agreement put an end to the war in Bosnia and Hercegovina, non-government groups in the municipality of Stolac are struggling to combat segregation.

They argue that it is in the political interests of the same Croat and Bosniak authorities who went to war in the early Nineties to perpetuate the divide in peacetime.

“Before every election [the politicians] have this system of scaring each other – ‘They’re going to attack us’, ‘They’re going to take the entity from us’,” said Dalida Demirovic, project manager at the Centre for Civic Initiatives in nearby Mostar.

“It’s like some kind of imaginary fear of each other that is based on nothing.”

She added, “It’s much easier for politicians to [talk about] how we cannot live together and how we are afraid of each other than to do their job and make real plans for the future of this country.”

Before the 1992-95 war in Bosnia, Stolac was one of the prettiest towns in the former Yugoslavia. Lying in the narrow valley of the crystal-clear Bregava river and enjoying a hot Mediterranean climate, it once boasted striking examples of Ottoman architecture which drew crowds of tourists every year.

However, most of these buildings, including the mosques, were destroyed during the war, and only a few of them have been rebuilt.

Today, Stolac is almost a ghost town. The marks of war are visible everywhere - burned-down buildings and houses heavily scarred by shelling.

But what strikes the visitor most is the deep division between the Bosniak and Croat communities who live here.

The pre-war population of some 19,000 was just than less than half Bosniak, one-third Croat, and a fifth Serb. But in 1993, the Bosniak population of Stolac was driven out by Bosnian Croat extremists trying to carve out a mono-ethnic state dubbed Herceg Bosna

Thousands of Bosniaks were rounded up and taken to Croat-run prison camps, while others fled to other parts of Bosnia or abroad.

The local government in Stolac is run by a coalition of the HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union) party and the Bosniak SDA (Party of Democratic Action), which were bitter enemies in the war. Some observers say their continued hold on power encourages tension between the Croat and Bosniak communities in Stolac, and does nothing to encourage reconciliation.

Demirovic believes that some of these politicians could face war crimes charges once their time in public office is over.

The division between Croat and Bosniak is all too apparent. For instance, while Croat children enter the town’s secondary school by the front entrance, their Bosniak peers are only allowed to enter at the back.

Even the school day is divided up by ethnicity, with Croats attending classes in the morning and Bosniaks in the afternoon. There are also two separate medical centres in the town, one Croat and one Bosniak.

“Stolac is a place where you have massive segregation, discrimination and apartheid,” Nerim Dizdar, head of the Stolac Youth Forum, told IWPR.

“Everything is established to preserve the situation, political and otherwise, that was established here during the war.”

Before the war, some 8,000 people worked in Stolac, a town with a strong industrial base in steelmaking, agriculture and wine production. According to Privrednik, a non-government group which assists with small business start-ups, that figure now stands at a mere around 900, and 70 per cent of those jobs are in the public sector.

The continued existence of displaced communities in Bosnia and Hercegovina means there has been no official census in the country since 1991.

According to Dizdar, the Bosniaks of Stolac are greatly discriminated against by Croat-run industries. Today, under the HDZ-led coalition, he estimates that 12 Bosniaks are employed in the town, he says.

“You don’t have a single Bosniak employed in the municipality-controlled factories, it’s all Croats,” he said. “As a young person, I cannot get a job in my municipality because of my [Bosniak] name.”

Since the war, there has also been a tendency for Croats to set up business monopolies with links to the Croat-dominated municipal administration.

“There are very strong networks to protect areas of [Croat] business,” said Gunnar Ekelove-Slydal, deputy secretary-general of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, which works on youth, human rights and reconciliation issues in Bosnia. “They have very good contacts with the political leadership and pay very little tax.”

Under the Dayton agreement which set out the post-war framework, employment levels in local government should reflect the pre-war ethnic composition of the municipality, but this stipulation is not enforced here. Before the war, the proportions in Stolac stood at 43 per cent Bosniak, 33 per cent Croat and 20 per cent Serb.

According to Enver Juliman, head of education and human rights at the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, many public-sector institutions are simply not acknowledged as such by the municipality.

“Post offices, hospitals and schools are also public institutions, but are not recognised as such, so there is no obligation to give [Bosniaks] jobs [in them],” he told IWPR.

Non-government organistions, NGOs, here say the local authorities are also hostile to private enterprise – by either Croats or Bosniaks – because this would threaten people’s economic dependence on them, and thus also their political loyalty.

Ragib Dizdar, the head of Privrednik, says the SDA and HDZ “are doing everything in their power to stop economic development and small businesses because they want to keep the people economically dependent”.

He explained, “An economically independent person doesn’t think about nationalism, doesn’t think about prejudice, doesn’t think about hatred. They think about change, about prosperity, and not this pond of filth that is now Stolac.”

Nerim Dizdar argues that people in Stolac mostly want to mix together freely, despite the bloodshed of the past – if only the politicians would let them.

“[People say] they just want to live in peace with our neighbours but they can’t say it publicly because just as Croat policy is controlling the Croats, so the SDA policy is controlling the Bosniaks,” said Nerim Dizdar.

Local government provides donations such as building materials for Bosniaks returning to the area, but Dizdar said these are withdrawn if people are seen to be taking part in undesirable activities like joining local NGOs.

Even the minority Bosniak SDA party is opposed to organisations like the Youth Forum because they do not have a nationalist focus, he said, explaining, “If you are non-government you are [seen as] anti-government, that’s the general view… The local governing bodies see everybody else who does something as a threat to them.”

Jasminko Medar, 45, is one of nearly 5,000 Bosniak refugees who have returned to the Stolac municipality, having fled to Germany when hostilities broke out in 1993.

Before the war, he worked for a steel company which employed more than 1,500 people and afforded him a steady income, health insurance and a pension.

The war forced the firm to close, so when Medar returned to Stolac in 2001, he set up his own steel business.

Privrednik helped Medar get started, providing him with funds for his first tools. However, local government put a stop to his plans by refusing to sanction a Privrednik project to provide premises for new firms.

The international community had offered funding for the acquisition of business premises of this kind, but this was turned down by the local government. The project required the use of municipal land and the authorities refused to give their approval.

“When [the local government office] realised that this would lead to economically independent people… they stopped the project,” said Ragib Dizdar.

In 2004 the United Nation Development Programme, UNDP, drew up a strategy to address the issue of parallel schooling and healthcare in Stolac, but this too was rejected by the municipality.

As UNDP spokesperson Asja Cengic put it, there was a “lack of interest on the part of the municipal administration”.

“The UNDP has never received an official response on why the strategy was not adopted,” added Cengic.

In a further bid to create employment, the federal government of Bosnia and Hercegovina proposed setting up a young offenders’ centre in the town. However, Stolac municipality turned down this opportunity, too, saying it would create a security problem.

According to Nerim Dizdar, the centre would have been a vital source of employment, as it would require food which could be supplied by local farmers, and would bring in visitors who would need hotels and hospitality.

“There is no obvious reason for rejecting it because it would mean employing over 200 people in this municipality, in which some 30 or 40 per cent of people [now] work,” said Dizdar.

IWPR contacted the Stolac municipality to discuss the young offenders’ centre as well as issues of employment and segregation, but officials declined to comment.

"The municipality does not wish to comment on any of these questions," said spokesperson Danijel Babic. "That is all we have to say about these matters.”

It is not just returning Bosniaks who have suffered, either.

Mirko Maric, formerly an office-holder in the Croat party HDZ, told IWPR how the local government closed the Stolac library, which was run by his wife, after he spoke out against segregation at a public meeting attended by the High Representative for Bosnia, Miroslav Lajcak.

Maric’s wife, who was not willing to be interviewed, is currently bringing a lawsuit against the local authorities because of her dismissal. She asked a former colleague to testify on her behalf but the woman refused, out of fear of losing her own job.

Maric said this reaction was typical of Stolac, where people are scared they will be sacked if they criticise local government.

“We have now reached a point where if someone is against the SDA, he is an enemy of the state; if someone is against the HDZ, he is an enemy of the state. So now there are bigger divisions between these inner circles than between ethnic groups,” said Maric.

Segregation in Stolac is enforced politically rather than by animosity between Bosniaks and Croats on the ground, Maric says.

He described how he received a standing ovation from both Bosniaks and Croats for speaking out at the meeting with Lajcak.

“People came to congratulate me, but they were looking over their shoulder to see if they were being observed,” he said. “This is where the problem lies – the fear is real.”

NGOs such as the Youth Forum seek to bridge the ethnic divide by bringing young Croats and Bosniaks together through leisure activities.

“We organise sports events which are good for getting kids together and making them realise that the other is not a demon, as they are taught,” said Nerim Dizdar.

Indeed, young people appear to offer a source of optimism – both Bosniak and Croat children have accused the school’s headmaster of deliberately segregating them, and young Croats have asked for Bosniaks to be allowed to attend school together with them.

Yet even the Youth Forum events are marred by the hand of officialdom. Some people are reluctant to let their children attend because local government sees the NGO as an opposition group and accordingly withholds benefits from parents.

According to Maric, if the administration in Stolac ran such events itself, attendance levels would soar because it would be seen to be permissible to mix with the other ethnic group.

“These NGOs start a [football] competition, but if the SDA and HDZ started competitions there would be hundreds of teams willing to play,” he said. “Peace between these people would come instantly.”

As well as demanding joint schooling, Croat and Bosniak children are to play together at this year’s anti-racism world cup event in Italy.

“You can’t maintain this situation forever,” Dizdar said. “Kids eventually meet. It’s very hard to sell them this story of a national need for unification against the enemy.”

Juliman of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee notes that the prominence of religion makes it hard to bring young Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats together.

“I do not think it would be very difficult if Croat and Bosniak children meet each other, but most of them do not do that. They are not encouraged to do that,” he said.

Ragib Dizdar says the constitution of Bosnia and Hercegovina needs to be changed if real progress is to be made. He believes the current arrangement gives too much autonomy to local government, whereas what is needed is a stronger federal presence in decision-making on the ground.

Stronger federal law, Dizdar says, would make it easier to pursue those accused of war crimes, depriving them of any aura of legitimacy they still enjoy.

“That would allow these ‘nationalist heroes’ not to be viewed as heroes any more, but as criminals,” he said. “That will show people that the rule of law is actually a reality here.”

Simon Jennings is an IWPR reporter in The Hague. Denis Dzidic is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo.

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