Articles on the Bosnia Conflict
Bosnia-Herzegovina Journal # 9: Stolac and Mostar
By Peter Lippman
Journal index (all include photos)
Journal 1: Sarajevo and Bosnia, early September 2008
Journal 2: Sarajevo and Bosnia, early September 2008 (continued)
Journal 3: Srebrenica, September 2008 Srebrenica memorial photos
Journal 4: Bratunac, September 2008
Journal 5: End of the Queer Festival, late September 2008
Journal 6: Tuzla, early October 2008
Journal 7: Kozluk & Bijeljina, October 2008
Journal 8: Prijedor and Kozarac, mid-October 2008
Journal 9: Stolac and Mostar, October 2008
Journal 10: Elections wrap up; more crime and scandals; politics, late October 2008
To contact Peter in response to these journals or any of his articles,
I took the bus from Prijedor through Banja Luka down to Mostar, passing through some of the most beautiful territory in central Bosnia: Jajce, the magnificent pass above Travnik, and the high road above Prozor/Rama. Stopping in Mostar overnight, I moved south to Stolac to visit friends and make new acquaintances in the ancient and lovely, but traumatized, place.
Like Mostar, at the beginning of the war Stolac was first attacked by Serb forces, but not taken over. A year later, when the conflict between the Bosniaks and nationalist Croats broke out, Croat forces quickly took over the town, driving out the Bosniaks by mid-1993. They placed many of the men in concentration camps throughout the region, including Dretelj, Gabela, and several around Mostar. Refugee return to Stolac began a couple of years after the war in the face of fierce obstruction, including much violence, by the new Croat authorities. The town of Stolac had been majority-Bosniak before the war. Many of Stolac's venerable Bosniak-owned homes were destroyed after the war to discourage return; rebuilt houses were routinely bombed, and returnees were attacked. Nevertheless, some thousands of Bosniaks returned to rebuild their community. Today they live under the political and economic domination of the Croats.
At the entrance to the town there is a faded proclamation on the side of a barn: "Welcome to Croatian Stolac."
"Welcome to Croatian Stolac."
It feels like water is flowing everywhere in Stolac. The lovely Bregava River runs brookishly through the center of town, crossed by a dozen-odd ancient stone bridges. Tributaries course down to the Bregava from all the surrounding hills. Every bridge and every confluence is a place for a pleasant restaurant or kafana, several of which served as meeting places for me and my acquaintances.
The Bregava River in Stolac.
The person I most wanted to see was the remarkable Mehmet Dizdar, a retired high school literature professor who was a leader of his community during the war. He had spent time in more than one concentration camp, and upon his release he continued to lead his people until they were able to return home. I had spoken with him a couple of years ago and later read his two books: Sudjeni Stolac (Stolac the Condemned) and Stolac, Virtualni Zavicaj (Stolac, the Virtual Homeland). In these books Mehmed vividly told the story of his idyllic childhood in Stolac, memories of his famous uncle Mak Dizdar, who was one of Bosnia-Herzegovina's most revered poets, and the onset of the war. The books go on to tell of Mehmed's captivity during the war and the struggle to return home.
I sat at a restored kafana by the main mosque and talked with Mehmed. He was not very happy and didn't have much to say. He is retired. I told him that I had been quite moved by his two books about Stolac. When I first met him he had told me that he was not a writer. I disagreed with that.
Mehmed reiterated everything that he and his nephew Nerin Dizdar had told me last time I met them: that the SDA and the HDZ (ruling Bosniak and Croat nationalist parties) collaborate, that there is negative population growth, that the "city is failing," and that there are only cosmetic changes.
Mehmed told me that of 700 people employed in the Stolac municipality, only 60 are Bosniaks. There may be another 20 employed in private jobs. There are around 4,000 Bosniaks in the municipality, and around 7,000 Croats, though these are just informal estimates. There may be around 200 Serbs.
The elections had just passed. Mehmed said, "The HDZ won the elections, and they are collaborating with the SDA. For them (the SDA), everything is fine. It is mostly the villagers who are voting, not the city people. And those who are voting here are mostly voting for the opposition parties. The largest number of refugee returns are to the villages, because people can live from something there, the land, and cattle."
During the campaign period RS Prime Minister Dodik had revived his scenario for RS secession from Bosnia. Around this time Dodik announced that if rumors that the international community may remove him from office were to come true, he would annul all Bosnian laws in the RS and declare secession. Mehmed believes this is a serious plan: "Dodik will try to secede, because he's up to his ears in crime, and if he doesn't secede, he will be tried."
Discussing various corruption scandals, Mehmed said, "All the politicians are criminals -- maybe almost all of them. They are religious, but still they are thieves. This apparently is perceived among the voters as a positive thing, because the people know that they are criminals, and still they vote for them." Mehmed concluded that "this is a strange land, Alice (of Alice in Wonderland) should live here."
I met with Nerin Dizdar at the Behar restaurant, further down the Bregava. Nerin is a dynamic young man who leads the Stolac Youth Forum. The Forum is constantly engaged in struggles with the Croat authorities over the local version of apartheid. Among other points of contention, the authorities have mounted a series of crosses on the hills above the town, placing their clerical-nationalist message at various historical monuments that previously had nothing to do with Croat extremism. They have also persistently posted the flag of Herceg Bosna, the defunct and illegal wartime Croat secessionist para-state. The Forum has fought against these overt expressions ethnic domination, as well as against the widespread employment discrimination.
A classic Ottoman-style house on the Bregava, reclaimed and now used by the Stolac Youth Forum.
Nerin told me that not much has changed in Stolac. The Forum continues to focus on several projects, including protesting against the continued presence of noxious nationalist symbols. He said, "The Herceg-Bosna flag is to us as the swastika is to the Jews, because atrocities were committed under that flag." And on the Croat nationalist exploitation of symbols, he commented, "The symbols are emptied of their original meaning. They have been erected because the Muslims are there -- this actually happened in the year of our return, not before."
There is an ancient necropolis of stecaks (the characteristic medieval Bosnian-Herzegovinan gravestone monuments) by the main road, and it is completely overgrown and neglected. The Forum wants to see this site preserved.
A neglected ancient necropolis
Nerin's organization also protests against apartheid in the schools. The Stolac high school currently operates under the "two schools under one roof" system, where Croat and Bosniak pupils study in separate classes held in two separate shifts, and even enter the school building through two separate doors -- the Bosniaks use the back door. Recently an interim director of the high school refused to sign the Bosniak pupils' diplomas, because he did not approve of the fact that the Bosniaks were studying under the Federation curriculum. The Croat pupils are using the curriculum of neighboring Croatia.
Nerin said that the new director of the high school, Ivo Raguz, was a war criminal. Mehmed had told me that Raguz torched Serb houses during the war. The Cantonal director of the educational system has exerted pressure on Stolac to unite the school administrations. But Tihic and Covic (heads of the Bosniak and Croat nationalist parties) agreed on the appointment of Raguz, Nerin said. He added that nothing has been resolved regarding last year's high school diplomas, but that the students are allowed to go on to study in the universities, regardless.
The Youth Forum has secured donations from the Slovenian government for the school, and the school authorities accepted these donations only under pressure. The problem of resistance to unification does not only come from the Croat authorities. Nerin added, "We offered to organize a two-week trip to Slovenia, to Maribor, for high school students. The Bosniak part of the high school rejected this idea. They don't want Croats and Bosniaks to study together. Independently, we sent eleven elementary school children, from fourth to eighth grade, in 2007. They even got to meet the Prime Minister of Slovenia."
Discussing the unemployment problem, Nerin said, "Saying we need to fix the economy is backwards. The bad economy is the result, not the cause, of the problem. Here, there is poor investment, because it is not a stable environment. But the poverty suits the authorities, because only under the present conditions can they stay in power. They can pay someone 50 KM for a vote. They can extort support. People will do anything for some material security under these conditions."
I have heard people call Nerin an "extremist." I asked him why. He said, "If it's 'extremist' to demand that people address the crimes that happened in the war, then it's necessary to be extremist. I want to talk about the war. This is the only solution. I am doing what I must do, and this is considered provocative. There were 7,600 civilians killed [in the Stolac region], and the height of illusion is to try to hide the obvious. To be on good relations with everyone means to cover up the past."
Nerin set up an overnight stay for me with a returnee family: Senad, Alma, and their two sons. Like many Bosniaks, Senad and Alma are employed in Mostar. One son runs a DVD shop in Stolac. Senad told me that he had been a prisoner in Dretelj. Their house was devastated during the war. They came back to Stolac and rebuilt it in 2003.
We talked about the US elections; everyone wanted to know more about them, who was the best candidate, and who was going to win. Many Bosniaks wished that Hillary had won the nomination. Senad said that he thought that Clinton was the best president that the US ever had. He asked me whether 9/11 was a plot by the US government. I said I didn't believe that, but that they made the best use of it when the time came. Senad and his son asked me why the US was so inclined to make war, when war was such a useless and horrible thing. They were under the impression that Americans love war.
Senad told me that no one can get work in Stolac, that people have to work in Mostar, and that he works for 500 KM a month, which is very little. He added that people here are hard-working, and that if they could work, they could get rich and rebuild their town.
I met Fahro, who had been displaced to Sarajevo. He has rebuilt his house and comes to Stolac every weekend. Fahro picked me up at the bus stop and took me to his house. His back yard reaches down to the bank of the Bregava, and from there you can see the Inat Cuprija, one of Stolac's most lovely bridges.
The view from Fahro's back yard: the Inat Cuprija and a mosque, on the Bregava.
We walked upriver to a kafana on the bank, passing a number of newly-repaired houses, and some that are still gutted. Fahro spoke of the problems for Bosniaks in Stolac and mentioned that there were a couple of factories that are running, but not at full steam. I asked him if Sarajevo didn't care about the outlying centers of Bosniak population. He said, "It's more complicated than that. Sarajevo had offered to help restore the orthopedic hospital that used to exist here, but the local government rejected this help, because they didn't want to have to employ local Bosniaks."
A wrecked house in Stolac
I called Miro Raguz, whose name I had gotten from a friend in Mostar. Miro, an artist, is building a house of timber and stone in a little village outside of Stolac. He works as the head of a publishing company. He also helped to found a local brass band for young people in Stolac.
Miro's house was not finished yet, but it was quite beautiful, all stone, tile, and natural wood. It has a brick fireplace, and a fire was burning in it. I asked Miro whether he was going to plaster over the bricks, and he said, "Never!" It was clear that he had very a strong aesthetic sense and that this building project was very much his personal expression.
We talked about design and taste. Miro was commenting on someone who came and tore down a beautiful old house nearby, to build a new one. He said, "We have a saying, 'There are two things you can't hide: money, and a cough.'" I commented that maybe there was a third thing that you couldn't hide: bad taste.
The surname Raguz is common among Bosnian Croats, and there are a number of prominent Croat politicians with that name. I asked Miro about the name. He said that it stems from someone who came from Dubrovnik, which used to be called "Ragusa." That ancestor was taken captive by a family from Naples but eventually escaped. This happened around 400 years ago. Miro listed off his ancestors in reverse order: "My father was named Pero, and his father was named Mate, and his father was named Pero...," going back seven or eight generations to the original Raguz who came to this area. He said, "We have much history; that is an enrichment, but also a burden."
Miro is a non-nationalist Croat, something rather unusual for this area. I asked him what he thought of Mehmed Dizdar's books. He told me that he had published them, and that in Herzegovina a Croat who collaborates with a Bosniak is a rare thing. Mehmed was Miro's high school professor.
Speaking about the general atmosphere in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Miro said, "If it were not for the international community, the nationalist oligarchy would make war again. They can manipulate the younger people. The younger people on each side don't know each other. BiH is a deeply divided society; it is sick. And Stolac is a sad place; it is like after a gold rush. There needs to be a catharsis here. People need to live in reality, not in a virtual space. The nationalist parties only spread fear.
"Here, there are separate communities that don't identify with Bosnia and Herzegovina. But it is a bigger problem that people go to work and they aren't paid. Nationalism is only important in relation to war. We are not in that context here anymore."
Miro spoke of the orchestra that he had helped found. Contrasting this activity with those of Nerin Dizdar, Miro said that the orchestra brings people together for a cultural activity, and doesn't force them to deal with political matters. He said, "We spend our own money on the band, like Santa Claus. That's how we struggle against nationalism. There are all ethnicities in the band; although we weren't particularly trying to make that happen, all came. They will be good citizens of Stolac. That is reconciliation."
I attended the orchestra's rehearsal. All of the clarinetists except Miro, and all of the flautists, were young women. All of the brass and drummers are men. It was a perfect small-town band. If someone were inspired to mount a humanitarian campaign to help this reconciliation project, the band could probably benefit from electronic tuners for each musician.
I had tried to meet with Zvonko Peric previously, and finally caught up with him on this visit. Nerin Dizdar had described him to me as an operator in the Croat nationalist infrastructure.
I nailed down a talk with Peric, and it was worthwhile in a strange way. The first part of what he told me was strikingly similar to what people on other sides of recent history have been saying: "Before the war, there were around 6,000 people who were employed. There were no unemployed people. Then after the war, most companies and factories were closed. There was privatization after the war, and it was a catastrophe, because people had no idea. The privatization was transparent, but the money behind it was not. People who didn't have money before the war got it by smuggling cigarettes, prostitution, etc."
Peric omitted important details about who has been responsible for the crooked privatization throughout the country: the nationalist elites who came to power in each area during the war. He continued, "Most of the people who came in to buy companies are not from Bosnia-Herzegovina, but from other countries, such as Slovenia. It has been a crisis; people are buying wrecked companies for little money, and then selling them off, or parts of them, for more.
"In this municipality, the mayor does not have the sense how to run an economy. He is centralizing everything, like in communism. People vote for the mayor because otherwise, they are afraid they'll lose their jobs. We are living in 1958, not 2008."
Speaking of Bosnia-wide politics, Peric told me that "The solution is to form a third entity. They separated Kosovo from Serbia, but they oppose a Croat entity. It is not normal."
When I asked him whether this would create a problem for the Croats in the interior, since there is a significant population of Bosnian Croats in central Bosnia and Posavina, he said, "The entity doesn't have to be connected." He continued, "Our problem is that the Croats don't have strong leaders. Those that we do have are more interested in their positions of power than in their people. We need a Moses, someone for our people that would be like Tudjman was for Croatia."
Towards the end of our talk Peric seemed to leave off with facts, and his discourse became dominated by a kind of retroactive logic. On the international community's behavior, he said, "There is interest in keeping things unstable here. The High Representative is paid 60,000 KM a month to be here, so he has an interest in prolonging the disorder. They have to keep making a crisis, so they can launder money."
Peric wound up our conversation with the following: "The more I read, the more I am convinced that there are several people who run the world. The Masons killed Aldo Moro. Kissinger was mixed up in that. And Milosevic financed his operations with drug sales, just like the Queen of England did."
The slow bus between Mostar and Stolac takes the high road through the Herzegovinan hills above Capljina and stops at little villages, mostly Croat-populated, like Domanevici. There, leftover campaign posters read, "Choose ours!" (meaning, "vote Croat").
Mostar looks more fixed up than I remember -- at first glance it seems to be between 80% and 90% repaired, with the notable exception of the big department store on the eastern (Bosniak) side, which continues to stand empty and gutted. There are more new shops.
The gutted department store
I walked slowly down towards the Old Bridge. The anticipation builds. Rounding the corner and seeing the Bridge is always a thrill of amazement. This beauty is something that you can never get used to.
The Old Bridge over the Neretva
In the morning I went to the new museum of the Old Bridge. As the Bridge was being reconstructed between 1998 and 2004, builders excavated the underpinnings of the tower, named Tara, on the left bank of the river. In that tower they created a museum with historical exhibits of the town and the Old Bridge. There are five floors connected by steep stairways -- more like slanted ladders -- leading up to the top of the tower. From there you have an unusual view, looking directly down on the Bridge, and the rest of the city as well.
The Tara tower above the Old Bridge
View of the Old Bridge from the top of Tara.
Underneath the tower there is a "labyrinth," where they discovered the traces of the two bridges that existed before the Old Bridge was built in the mid-16th century. One was a wooden bridge, and there had been a chain bridge as well. The museum guide told me that of the stones that had been part of the Old Bridge, around 10% have been reused.
One evening I had the unexpected honor of having dinner with Amir Pasic, a prominent local architect who was instrumental in the Bridge's reconstruction. I asked him if it was true what they say, about how the stones of the Old Bridge had been stuck together with eggs and horsehair. He told me, "I doubt that, but it makes a good story."
One night as I was working in an Internet club, there was an important soccer game taking place in Istanbul: Bosnia vs. Turkey. People all around the old part of town were outside at kafanas, watching the match on television. You didn't really have to watch the game, because you could always hear the cheers and noise whenever Bosnia scored, or lost a point, or even came close to scoring. As I went to bed, I concluded that Turkey had won the game, because I didn't hear any riotous cheering through the night. As it turned out, Turkey won, 2:1.
View from the Old Bridge.
I sat with my friend Huso, a leader of the youth group Abrasevic, at the bus station before leaving for Sarajevo. Up-to-date on all the political and cultural currents in the world, Huso is the real revolutionary in this country.
Describing the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Huso said, "We are nearing the end of the post-war transition period. There are a few rich people, and many poor. And Mostar has transformed into a management enterprise. Everything can be bought and sold. All the public spaces are being sold and attached to one nationalist side or the other. So there is almost no citizen's space left.
"There are 350 employees in the city administration, but there only need to be 150. The rest are kept in place so that they will vote for their party. And all the telecom companies are run by the nationalist parties. They need to be privatized in a careful way, but the parties would lose the votes of their employees if that takes place, so they are dragging their feet."
I asked Huso if there was any activity with Nasa Stranka (see journal #1) in the Mostar area. He said that there was, but that he was unhappy with them because they expected automatic support but didn't present a clear program. He said, "I can support you as a friend or a neighbor, but not politically, just because you're my friend."
On cultural trends among the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Huso said, "The Bosniaks have lost almost everything of cultural value that they have had. In the last two years there has been a rise in religious fundamentalism. A pernicious version Islam is creeping in. Bosniaks still have Sevdalinka [urban Ottoman folk songs], and some connection to Turkey. Islam provides the complete answer. Poor people are ready for this kind of solution. And there is a 'festivalization' of religion, such as Ramadan, turning the holy month into an exaggeration, a spectacle that's lacking in spiritual feeling."
The reference to Turkey recalls a recent comment by the spiritual leader of the Bosniaks, Reis Mustafa Ceric, that "Turkey is the Bosnian Muslims' mother." This statement is more clever than it sounds; it's bad history, but good political manipulation. Such statements reinforce the separation of ethnic identities in Bosnia at a time when continuation of this trend can only lead to disaster. The salvation of Bosnia will come, if ever, when Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks start thinking of themselves as Bosnians.
Of Ceric, Huso said, "He runs a schizophrenic kind of politics. He talks about European Islam, but there is no difference between European and Arabic Islam, because the Koran is always in Arabic." Ceric speaks to Europe about tolerance and multi-culturalism, but in his own country, he regularly makes pronouncements that reinforce division among the ethnicities. What's more, he exerts vast power in the behind-the-scenes process of deciding which Bosniaks will succeed in politics, and which will fail.
Huso was involved in the Queer Sarajevo Festival that was attacked by Muslim religious extremists in September (see journal #5). Speaking of the rhetorical attacks on the festival by the official Islamic community, Huso said, "The Reis and his ilk have dirty minds "pornografska svijest" -- a pornographic consciousness). They make a "microscopization of relationships, only focusing on sex, not on people."
I mentioned to Huso how Ceric, when he spoke in Seattle last year, said that Chicago, where he had studied, was "his kind of town." Huso said, "Yes, I'm not surprised, because Chicago is divided, the Blacks are in the south, and the Whites in the north, and there's no subway between them. And the university is a white-controlled enclave in the south." It turned out that Huso knew more about Chicago than I did.
Huso wound up his comments on Bosnia by saying, "This country is in high school. It needs to go to the university, and then become a citizen."
Next: Bosnia-Herzegovina journal #10 -- Elections wrap up; more crime and scandals; politics.