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Here are some notes about my visit to Mostar. I'm not reviewing the
general situation there, as not much has changed since I was there
in the fall. There is still a near-complete roadblock in the
political process. Last fall's nationwide municipal elections were
not held in Mostar, because of the failure of local leaders to agree
on a reform in power-sharing and the electoral arrangement in this
divided city. For background on that situation, see my previous
There was a hot spell throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina, as often
happens in July. Towards the end of that month I took a bus to
Mostar, one of the hottest places in the country. As I was walking
into town from the bus station, down the main drag on the east side
of the city, I saw a cop and another man taking a photo of a
thermometer on the outside wall of a hotel. It read 40 degrees
felt sorry for the tourists who had to stand around in the sun all
day and look at things.
hot weather in Mostar
up with my friend Sandro, a native of Mostar whom I had met in the
United States. We visited his father Boba’s restaurant at a prime
spot overlooking the River Neretva, just before the Old Bridge. Boba
cooked us a big plate of chicken. I sat with Boba and Sandro, as
some of Sandro’s friends arrived to socialize. Typically, the
gathering swelled with friends and friends of friends until there
were people from four continents present. Sandro’s friend Damir was
there, dark and bearded, looking like a Cuban guerrilla. He brought
his Venezuelan friend Juan, who was visiting from Novi Sad, where he
was studying French. Juan’s friend Jennifer was there from England.
Sandro’s friend Adi showed up as well. He is a local English
professor who had spent some time studying in Mississippi and in St.
Sandro came from “mixed” ancestry, with representatives of various
illustrious backgrounds in his family tree. All of his grandparents
were Partisans, involved in the anti-fascist movement during World
War II. He grew up in Mostar and, because of having the wrong
combination of blood cells and living in the wrong neighborhood, he
lost his home for some years during and after the war, and had to
struggle to return and rebuild his young life afterwards.
I do not want to go into detail about Sandro’s private matters, but
I do want to say that we hit it off the moment we met in the US, and
he offered me the best of hospitality in Mostar, introducing me to
his friends, sharing lodgings with me, and showing me around.
Although I have been to Mostar many times before, after this visit I
felt that I had more of a connection with the city than any time
Sandro has a degree in physical education. He brims with vitality
and has distinguished himself in various physical pursuits. In
Mostar he used to work for a company that washed windows in
high-rise buildings. And he once biked all the way from Port
Angeles, Washington, to San Diego.
At the chicken dinner we talked about life and politics. Adi told me
that “before the war, you didn’t need many policemen here. You could
have a national football match and only five policemen would be
there to maintain order. There were no murders in Mostar back then.”
I mentioned to Adi some things I’d heard about the time during and
after the war. I was told that the Serbs in Gacko, where the mosques
had been destroyed, still heard the muezzin after the war. Adi said,
“You never know what to believe with some of these things. I know
that unbelievable things happened to me. Two different times, a bomb
fell in front of me and didn’t explode.”
Jennifer met Juan in Granada, before they both moved to Novi Sad. We
talked about the best way to make gazpacho, the refreshing cold soup
that is a specialty in Andalucía. You have to include cucumbers. You
soak some bread and then squeeze it into the gazpacho; the drippings
work to thicken the soup.
The next morning Sandro and I got up and went to have coffee with
more of his friends. We discussed Bosnian folk music thoroughly, and
Sandro brought up the name of a Balkan band from Seattle that he had
heard, “Kafana Republik.” We looked up that band on someone’s iPad
and listened to a few numbers. I had to admit that they weren’t bad.
(For information about this band see
of the Old Bridge at Mostar
ALEKSANDRA SAVIĆ, MOSTAR
the fortune to meet and talk to
native of Mostar, cultural activist, political activist, and a woman
of endless creativity and ideas.
Ms. Savić, of Serb ethnicity, was displaced from her home town
during the war, and returned in 1999. More recently she founded the
restaurant, music club, and cultural center “Club Aleksa, ”
named after another Mostar native, Aleksa Šantić.
One of the most famous poets of Herzegovina, Šantić lived from 1868
to 1924, and is revered for having captured the beauty of his
multi-cultural city in his poetry. His most famous poem, the
unrequited love poem “Emina,” was eventually set to music and became
one of the most beloved Sevdalinka songs of all time. Aleksandra
Savić called Šantić the “true paradigm of Bosnia-Herzegovina.”
I am augmenting this section about Ms.
Savić with some
of her words from various interviews with her that were done by
other writers. In one interview, Ms. Savić said, “In
Aleksa Šantić there were all the values that are systematically
being destroyed today; Aleksa is the paradigm of life in Mostar. I
have tried to combine culture with hospitality, to create an oasis
for all of us who still feel like Mostarans – because to be a
Mostaran involves an entire life philosophy and spirit full of
intimacy, openness and broadness.”
An old friend, by ancestry from Herzegovina, made it clear to me
some years ago that in her country, it's not appropriate to speak of
when you are speaking of the entire country of Bosnia and
Herzegovina. Herzegovinans are proud of their corner of the country,
their magnificent geography, and their regional culture. They reject
a “Sarajevo-centrism;” both foreigners and Sarajevans alike often
think that Bosnia-Herzegovina begins and ends in Sarajevo.
When I wanted to find out whether Ms. Savić was a native of Mostar,
I asked her, “are
you a Mostarka?” (woman from Mostar) She answered, “Thank you for
asking it that way. I am a Mostarka and a Herzegovinan. It bothers
me when people ask if I’m a Bosnian.
“There is another word that bothers me, ‘povratnik’ (returnee). I
was a Mostarka in 1992, and I was also that when I returned in 1999.
I am a Serb, and I have no problem with that, but it is not the
first thing that I think of. Emir Hodžić (the activist from Prijedor)
is a Muslim, but he’s much closer to me than some ‘professional
Serbs.’ It is not my profession to be a Serb, although things would
be easier if I were.”
In a separate interview Ms. Savić says: “I left Mostar in 1992 as a
young woman, as a Mostarka, and I returned as a Mostarka. However,
the system tells me that I am a ‘returnee’ and insists that I
declare my identity according to my ethnicity. I do not have an
identity crisis concerning my identity, but it is not my primary and
only identity. …The deep divisions here frustrate me and they hurt
me emotionally... I was born in the city, and now, in the same place
which is called Mostar, I live in a provincial outpost. Shepherds
and sheep. In the twenty-first century, no one is employed, there
are sickness, hunger, bitterness, poverty, and tycoons and glamorous
shopping centers?! The concern for culture is zero. It is as if
culture is some kind of luxury, and not a basic need of every
I understood that Ms. Savić was involved in musical productions, so
I asked her about this. She said, “I am involved in culture. We
created an independent cultural center here, the World Music Center.
We use culture to get people to think. We are trying to send a clear
message that people need to be involved in things that are more
essential than nationalism. We are trying to support young people to
build a cultural identity. Something with richness, not something
negative. The World Music Center is involved in that.”
From another interview: “Listening to all three ethnicities you can
only hear that all think they have it the hardest, that they went
through the worst of everything in the war, and so on. My personal
opinion is that we have all lost and that we have confirmed that
human stupidity is eternal. Through my work I use culture as a
universal mechanism to connect people, to regenerate broken ties and
to create new ones, with a focus on young people, supporting them in
the construction of a cultural identity, because here only the
national and the religious identity is cultivated, which is
The Center ran a music festival in Mostar, the Mostar World Music
Festival, for six years, up through 2012. In addition to music, the
festival featured art and photo exhibits, local wine tasting, film
screenings, creative workshops for children, literary readings, and
culinary presentations. At various times the festival featured
Argentine tango, local Sevdalinka, Belgian jazz, ska, tarantella,
and many other genres. Ms. Savić’s vision of the festival and its
place in her city was thus: “Mostar should be the center of the
region during our festival, as Sarajevo is during the film festival.
Let people come down from Sarajevo after that festival.”
The Mostar World Music Festival began as a three-day event, and by
2011 it lasted three weeks. In years of cooperative weather,
concerts were held on a plateau in the Neretva riverbank, right
under the Old Bridge. But public financial support dwindled after
that year, and in 2013, the festival did not take place. “I became
aware that I could no longer get financial credit,” Ms. Savić said.
“And if you want to work for the public good, it can’t be free. But
if you’re not a member of a political party, then there is no
financial support. If you’re not in nationalist circles, then you
can’t get work done. There is no development that’s not in the
“national interest.” But the World Music Center is independent, and
we have only what we make ourselves. And if you are independent,
then you can’t be free. The only real freedom is economic
Ms. Savić is fond of saying, “The only failure is not to try.” “The
positive thing of this story,” she said, “is that I have no regrets;
I came and I tried.” You can learn more about the Mostar World Music Festival
Popular t-shirt which reads, “Comrade Tito, come back to us,
Muslims, Serbs, and Croats love you. You stole, and gave to us.
These guys steal, and don't give anything.”
introduced to Aleksandra Savić by the Sarajevo activist, Darjan
Bilić. Like Darjan, Ms. Savić was very actively involved in Mostar
events related to the “Bebolucija,” the Baby Revolution. (For a full
description of the Bebolucija, including an interview with Darjan,
see my earlier report in this series, “Report #2: Sarajevo and
I asked her to describe those events.
“It was definitely not a revolution, but it was the beginning of an
evolution, leading towards the citizens’ option, for civil rights,”
Ms. Savić told me. “People had simply forgotten about that, that
they were citizens, not just members of a herd. The Bebolucija
spurred this awareness. Now with the identification number movement,
activism is functioning. In the Bebolucija there was one big
success, and that is that there was solidarity. This was the first
time since the war that people lived solidarity. We were just
people, not the members of one ethnicity or another. And that
doesn’t suit the government nor the nationalists.
“This system has been in place for many long years now, and it is
not giving people a reason to stay in the country. Only the
politically acceptable have a place here. These are the people who
nurture the nationalist identity. Only their religion is valued. But
this is not true. We need honest and sincere leaders who do not
“As it is now, religion is mixed with politics, and social functions
are based on hypocrisy. It is of the utmost importance to people
that Croats are Croats, Serbs are Serbs, etc. And on that basis,
people work not in the interest of the country, but in their own
In a July interview in Start magazine, Ms. Savić said, “My support
for a healthy, unfettered and ethnically uncolored law about the
identity number is unconditional, because these protests are a
long-awaited voice of reason and a civil initiative, the beginning
of a process of evolution and true freedom in Bosnia-Herzegovina;
and for me personally they mean finally a feeling of belonging to a
community. I consider that the majority of the population carries a
huge part of the responsibility for all that has been happening for
years, because they always elect the same [politicians], they always
vote as part of the herd, they feed on masochism while the
government whips them, taking away their money and their dignity. I
do not wish to be a participant in the systematic destruction of all
that is of value here, I do not wish to be a participant in the
urbicide, the murder of culture, and at the end of the day, I do not
wish to be a participant in the murder of babies [referring to the
infants who were deprived of their passports and thus unable to
travel for urgent medical care] and the de-motivation of people to
stay in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The identity number protests have shown
that in this country there in fact exists a healthy segment of the
Ms. Savić says to me, “It was an effective movement, considering
that there were 15,000 people involved. But I am not sure of the
success, because of the small minority of people with a healthy
mindset. The war is still ongoing in BiH; they are just not
shooting, but it continues in all its other forms.
“It is very essential and good that a 21-year-old Croat from
Ljubuški played an important part in the organizing of the
activities. There were banners from Široki Brijeg, Ljubuški, all of
western Herzegovina. It is proof that the protest was one of the
citizens of BiH. There were four or five protests held in Mostar,
without incident. At the most, there were around 500, on June 30th,
and that’s a good number for this area.
“The students were here, and union activists. But now there has
begun a time of frightening the activists. The government will use
the upcoming period to try to scare people.
“We don’t wish to change the government, because another government
will be the same. We wish to pressure the government to do its work;
we wish to direct attention to the needs of the people. The people
are, after all, the employers of the government. The politicians get
great sums of money from the budget. We are opposed to their
“This system has lasted a long time. Poor people have become members
of the parties with only one wish, to be well paid. There is no true
vision or ideology associated with these parties, and there is no
“In essence what we want is very simple: we want them to know that
we exist. The Bebolucija was a pure idea, and a spontaneous event.
But time, the present inaction, works in favor of the government.
People are under pressure, in fear of losing their jobs. I had to
leave all my work aside during the Bebolucija, and that led to
problems. Few people did that. Here is a big problem: people are not
prepared to go to jail. And there is only a small number of people
who are thinking about more long-term goals than just the identity
Q: More long-term organizing is needed, isn’t it?
A: “Nothing big can happen overnight, after such a long period of
all this nationalist rhetoric. But continued work can lead to
certain results. There has been a twenty-year process of dulling
people’s sense of right and wrong, so that they have blinders on,
like a horse. So this is difficult, but we need to try.”
Ms. Savić mentioned that her organization had created a promotional
film about Herzegovina: “Srce Hercegovine, na tromeđe tradicije,
sadašnjosti, budućnosti” (Heart of Herzegovina, at the boundary
of tradition, the present, and the future). She called the film “a
collage of verses with a synergy of frames, music, and poetry.” I
watched the unnarrated 50-minute film, which celebrates the land and
the culture of Herzegovina by depicting its natural beauty and its
people, and through recitation of poetry written by Aleksa Šantić
and other Herzegovinan greats.
The film is a thoughtful work of art, not a crass tourist promotion.
It shows the Ottoman stone bridges and stone houses, the hills, the
woods, and waters of the Neretva and other Herzegovinan rivers. You
see the majestic stone towers in the hillside town of Počitelj, the
seductive brook the Bregava at Stolac, and sunny Mostar. There’s
Blagaj where a full-fledged river comes out of the bottom of a stone
cliff. You hear the poetry of Šantić, Zuko Džumhur, Skender
Kulenović, and many others, and see scenes from Konjic, Čapljina,
You come away thinking that Herzegovina is a place of poetry carved
in stone. And that Aleksandra Savić is a formidable pozitivka,
someone who translates her positive attitude into constructive work.
Herzegovina is seen as a tough and demanding land, not an easy place
to survive. Herzegovinans are known to be sturdy, honest, and
sometimes fierce. I told Ms. Savić that a Herzegovinan friend of
mine said to me, “Herzegovinans have to be smart, because otherwise
they cannot survive in that land.” She replied, “Herzegovina has
shown that water can come from stone.”
You can see photos and information about the film
and there is a seven-minute trailer (with subtitles)
NERIN DIZDAR, STOLAC
Stolac, an hour south of Mostar, is a lovely and tormented town and
one of the longest continuously inhabited in the Balkans. In 1993,
when the conflict between the Bosniaks and Croats broke out, the
Bosniaks were driven out of their ancestral homes, which were
demolished. Many of the Bosniaks were held in Croat-run
concentration camps for months, while the conflict played out.
Return to Stolac did not get underway for several years after the
I have written before about Stolac and the struggle of the returning
Bosniaks for equal rights in a town now dominated by Croat
nationalists. Because of time limitations I have not been able to
visit Stolac for a few years. But while I was in Mostar, Stolac came
to me. Nerin Dizdar, a Stolac human rights activist whom I’ve talked
with many times before, was in town for a conference. Nerin had for
years been president of the Youth Forum of Stolac, but he has gone
into politics and turned the leadership over to younger activists in
the town. He brought me up to date on some of the activities of his
colleagues in Stolac.
“The mosques in Stolac that were destroyed during the war have been
rebuilt. But in the town center, opposite the mosque, the Croats
built a big Catholic church with a large tower. This was illegal;
there had been a shopping center there before. The land there was
sold to the Church. This construction took place within what was
supposed to be a historically protected zone. The new church, opened
this year, is a triumphalist monument built in a predominantly
Bosniak area, showing who dominates in Stolac.”
Discussing the problem of segregated Croat-Bosniak schools in areas
where the two communities live near each other, Nerin said, “There
are ‘two schools under one roof’ in Mostar, Prozor, Čapljina, Stolac,
Jablanica, Konjic, and Neum. There is an organization that is suing
the Herceg-Neretva Canton because of segregation.
“In Konjic, officially there is one school, but the Croat teachers
teach the Croat children and the Bosniak teachers teach the Bosniak
children. The teachers’ lounges are separate, too. The school is
registered as one institution but it functions as two.
“The State Court abolished this system in April of 2012, but then
that decision was reversed upon appeal, one month ago. Their
decision was based on the idea that the deadline for filing a
complaint about the schools had expired. But the school season
starts again each fall, so there should be no expiration to this
complaint. The violation starts again every year, and it is legal to
prosecute this violation within two months. This whole process
started at the municipal court level, and then it went to the
Cantonal court. Next it will go to the Federal court.
“Among other activities of the Forum, we had an action where we gave
children pears and apples. That was prompted by the statement of a
former minister of education in Central Bosnia Canton, to the effect
that putting Croat and Bosniak pupils together would be like ‘mixing
pears and apples.’
I asked Nerin whether there had been manifestation of the Bebolucija
in Stolac. He said, “There was nothing. The reaction to that issue
was sarcastic; people said, ‘If only that (the standardized personal
identification number) were the biggest problem we had.”
(For some of my previous writings about Stolac, click
here, here, and
DIVING FROM THE OLD BRIDGE
Just the day before I arrived in Mostar, an annual spectacle took
place at the Old Bridge.
A little history: the stone bridge for which Mostar was named was
completed by the Ottomans in 1566 on the site of an earlier bridge
built of wood. It stood there, the most special place in the region,
causing people's jaws to drop, until November 9, 1993. Then, during
the conflict between Bosnian Croats and Muslims, Croat forces
succeeded in knocking it down into the rushing Neretva below. With
massive international assistance, reconstruction began in late 1997
and the Stari Most (Old Bridge – now sometimes called the
“New Old Bridge) – was reopened in July 2004.
The Old Bridge is one of the most special places in the hearts of
the local people. And every year, there has been an international
competition there, when brave and talented young people dive from
the bridge into the river below.
This year, local athlete Lorens Listo, 34, won the competition
against 35 or 40 other divers, receiving the highest possible score,
ten out of ten, for two perfect swan
dives. Listo is well on the way to becoming a legend, as this is the
seventh time that he has won first prize.
The official competition was established in 1968, and then
interrupted during the war. Diving resumed even before the Old
Bridge was rebuilt, however, as people started diving in 1996 from a
temporary suspension bridge.
Diving from the bridge is not a new thing. In 1664 the oft-quoted
Turkish travel writer Evlija Čelebi described at length the bridge
and the kids diving from. And the diving is not limited to the
annual competitions; just last year in October I saw people jumping
from the bridge for spare change from the tourists.
People of all ethnicities participate in the diving competition.
Second and third place in this year's dive went to a diver from
Zenica and one from Kragujevac, Serbia. Besides the swan dive,
there's a feet-first dive. This year all three winners in that dive
were from Mostar.
Lorens Listo has been competing since 2000 and he won his first
medal in 2003. There were three years in a row in which he won first
prize; only two other divers have done that. Listo trains all year
'round. He says that the first time he dove from the Old Bridge, he
was surprised at how hard the impact was. But the drop is between 23
and 27 meters (75' to 88'), depending on the height of the river,
and divers reach a speed of 100-110 kilometers per hour. Listo says
that his second dive was scarier than the first, because he knew
what to expect.
The dive can be dangerous. Amateurs have been seriously injured or,
on occasion, even killed. Listo says that he would not be happy if
his daughter were to become a diver.
Poster seen in Mostar, calling for humanitarian aid for
Syrians, July 2013.
ONE STEP CLOSER TO BRAZIL!
While we're on sports, this just in: The Zmajevi –
Bosnia-Herzegovina's national team vying for participation in next
year's World Cup in Brazil – have defeated Liechtenstein four to one
as I wrote these lines. That leaves one more match, an away game
next Tuesday with Lithuania, before the end of the season.