Articles on the Bosnia Conflict



Report #5 – Mostar
By Peter Lippman
July, 2013

2013 Report index

Report 1:  Kosovo, mid-July, 2013
Report 2Sarajevo, July 2013
Report 3Sarajevo, continued July 2013
Report 4Tuzla, July 2013
Report 5Mostar, July 2013
Report 6Srebrenica, August 2013
Report 7Srebrenica, continued, August 2013
Report 8:  Prijedor and vicinity, August 2013
Report 9:  Prijedor and vicinity, part two, August 2013
Report 10: Tomašica, December 2013

Previous journals and articles

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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 writing here.

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 Celsius.
I felt sorry for the tourists who had to stand around in the sun all day and look at things.

hot weather in Mostar

I met 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. Louis.

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 before.

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 their Facebook page

View of the Old Bridge at Mostar


I had the fortune to meet and talk to Aleksandra Savić, 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 “Bosnia
” 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 person.”

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 completely foolish.”

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 independence.”

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 here.

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.

I was 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 Bosnia-Herzegovina.”)

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 steal.

“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 interest.”

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 population.”

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 arrogant behavior.

“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 opposition.

“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 number.”

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, Trebinje, Stolac.

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 here, and there is a seven-minute trailer (with subtitles) here.


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 war.

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 here.

View 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 the Syrians, July 2013.


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.

Next report: Srebrenica

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