Mostar: a Tale of Two Cities
Author: Jolyon Naegele
Uploaded: Friday, 22 December, 2000
For RFE/RL Balkan Report vol. 3, no. 90, 22 December 2000, Jolyon Naegele reports from the still divided town of Mostar, describing the distance that must still be covered in order to realize the goals symbolized, according to Mayor Orucevic, by the carving of the first stone block to be used in rebuilding the Old Bridge.
Stone-masons last week carved the first stone block to be used in rebuilding the Old Bridge in Herzegovina's capital, Mostar, The bridge was destroyed by Croat forces in 1993. Mostar Mayor Safet Orucevic told reporters the stone-cutting was a "symbol of the beginning of coexistence, reconstruction, and reconciliation" of Muslims and Croats. But on a recent visit to Mostar, RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele found those goals remain at best far off ideals in a city that remains shattered and divided long after the barricades have gone.
Mostar: a Tale of Two Cities
"The old poet is dead, Emina has also died, all that is
left is the abandoned garden of jasmine."
That's a turn-of-the-century Mostar lament by Serb writer Aleksa Santic about his Muslim love Emina, sung by Croat singer Ibrica Jusic. A walk through the city's picturesque Old Town today reveals an extraordinary amount of devastation from the 1992 to 1995 war -- and a near total absence of the ethnic coexistence embodied in Jusic's song.
The fighting in Mostar broke out in April 1992 between
Serbs on one side and Croats and Muslims on the other. A year
later, fighting erupted between Croats and Muslims when
Herzegovina's Croats established their own para-state, called
"Herceg-Bosna," with its capital in Mostar.
Mostar's Old Town suffered countless rounds of shelling
that tore apart its old bazaar and medieval fortress-like complexes on both sides of the Neretva river. But the most
recognizable architectural monument of Ottoman Turkish rule
in the Balkans -- the town's Old Bridge, built in 1556 for
Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent -- survived the fighting for
six months. Finally, in November 1993, Bosnian Croat forces shelled the bridge in a deliberate -- and successful -- attempt to destroy it. The single, graceful limestone arch, spanning 29 meters across a gorge, disintegrated and crashed into the Neretva River.
Shortly after fighting ended in 1995, workers began to
salvage blocks of stone from the river in preparation for
rebuilding the bridge. Now, dozens of large chunks of rock
lie on a raised platform on a sandbar just downstream from
the bridge site, undergoing examination, identification and
measuring for possible reuse. But there's still a gap where
the bridge once stood.
Zijad Demirovic is director of the Institute for the
Preservation of the Cultural, Historic, and Natural Heritage
of Mostar. He says it's better that the reconstruction of the
bridge has not yet begun because that means more of the
original stone can eventually be used in rebuilding the
structure: "Five years after the end of the war, the
reconstruction and revitalization of the whole Old Town is
remarkable, better than we expected -- because in these five
years none of the unique objects in the Old Town has been
rebuilt, including the Old Bridge."
The international community has repeatedly expressed
frustration with the lack of substantial progress in Mostar.
Ambassador Ralph Johnson of the U.S. is the first deputy to
the international community's high representative in Bosnia,
Austria's Wolfgang Petritsch. "Something like 400 million ECU [that is, euros] in EU assistance have gone into Mostar physically to reconstruct the place. Even though the bridge remains largely in the water, I think [that's] in part because of political divisions within the town rather than any lack of desire or support on the part of the international community to reconstruct it."
Demirovic, Mostar's cultural preservation chief,
acknowledges the considerable financial support from abroad
for reconstructing the bridge. But he insists that to
maintain the bridge's intrinsic value as a part of the world
heritage, maximum reliance must be made on using original
materials and technologies. And that, he says, takes time as
well as money. "When the Old Bridge was built, the
preparations took seven years and it was erected in a single
season. The [current] preparations for this bridge have
already taken three or four years. It is far more complicated
than building something all new. If we wanted to, we could
get that built in just one year."
Demirovic says he expects the bridge to be reassembled
within four years at a cost of about $8 million.
An expert team from UNESCO, with World Bank backing, is
assisting in preparing the reconstruction. And the New York-based World Monuments Fund has set up an architectural studio
in Mostar to work on a master plan for reconstructing the Old
The Old Bridge and the Old Town are not Demirovic's only
concerns. The town's postwar skyline is also a source of
growing frustration. Only a few hundred meters from the
bridge, on the Croatian side of the former front line, work
is nearing completion on a Franciscan monastery's new clock
tower to replace one damaged in the fighting. The old clock tower was some 30 meters high. The new clock tower is 106 meters tall and dwarfs everything in Mostar except for the giant cross the Croats recently erected on a mountain-top overlooking the town. Demirovic says the tower is out of proportion to all other buildings in Mostar, but he is powerless to stop it as his jurisdiction does not encompass the Croat side of Mostar.
Ambassador Johnson suggests that the cross and recently
reconstructed church buildings, mosques, and minarets
represent very much a continuation of the war by other means.
"The fact is that this is an area where all you have to do is
look. As you stand above Mostar and look on the one hand at
the cross, this enormous cross which has now been erected up
on the hill and at the minarets in the city -- [many] of
which have been reconstructed -- it [the cross] epitomizes
part of the problem. That is, that there are still hard-
liners on both sides who remember the violence of the
conflict. In this case, obviously the worst of it was betweenBosniaks [Muslims] and Croats, and the Serbs were sort of minor players in this episode. That's [all] taking a long
time to eradicate."
A leading commentator in Mostar is Alija Behram, who is
the general manager of state-owned Radio-Television Mostar.
He suggests that rebuilding the Old Bridge and the Old Town
is just of part of a large process of renewing Mostar's
ethnic diversity. "Mostar won't be Mostar until the Old
Bridge is completely rebuilt, with the complete
reconstruction of its environs -- that means the old Town.
Mostar won't be Mostar until the [Serbian] Orthodox Church
synod returns, without which Mostar's diversity will remain
weak. Mostar won't be Mostar until all those who want to
return home are able to do so. You have thousands of people
on the eastern [Muslim] side of town who are refugees in
their own home town."
Behram calls Mostar today a paradigm for the situation
throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina. He notes Mostar has two local
governments, two universities, two police forces, two water-
supply agencies, two electricity distributors, two chambers
of commerce, and two municipal bus companies.
RFE/RL Balkan Report, vol. 3, no. 90
22 December 2000