Bosnian city sees dream shattered A once-quiet town is reduced to rubble in heavy fighting

August 19, 1992|By New York Times News Service

MOSTAR, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- The ruins of the dream of a peaceful future for Balkan republics are nowhere more visible than in the rubble of this historic town.

Serbian forces have blown up six major bridges, burned hundreds of homes and businesses and wrecked both of the principal religious centers, a modern Catholic cathedral and a stately 15th-century mosque.

From nearby hills, Serbian gunners are still shelling Mostar, but there is little left to destroy. Streets once lined with tour buses are now littered with the debris of war, and a community that was once thought to symbolize friendship among Serbs, Croats and Muslims is now gone, a victim of the bitter hatreds fueling this war.

Probably no large town in Bosnia and Herzegovina has suffered as much damage as Mostar. In other republics, only Vukovar in northern Croatia has been so thoroughly destroyed.

"I was shocked to get here, because in my mind I had only pictures of Sarajevo," said Rupert Neudeck, chairman of the German medical relief organization Cap Anamur. "I was not aware of the fact that the destruction in this town may be even greater than Sarajevo."

For centuries, the three major ethnic groups that populate this corner of Europe lived together in Mostar. Croats were concentrated in modern neighborhoods on the eastern side of the Neretva River, while Serbs and Muslims lived amid historic monuments on the opposite bank. Connecting them were seven crossings that give Mostar its name, which means Bridge Town.

Tourists who converged here by the thousands each summer came mainly to view the Muslim quarter and the imposing mosque that stood at its center. Narrow cobblestone streets wound past cafes where visitors could overlook the broad river while sipping strong Turkish coffee.

Mostar was not one of the first places that collapsed into fratricidal violence when the former Yugoslavia began flying apart last year, but when the fighting began here in April, it was fierce.

Serbian irregulars, armed with heavy weapons left to them by the Yugoslav army as it withdrew, turned first on their Muslim neighbors, seeking to expel them as part of the "ethnic cleansing" that Serbs are pursuing throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina.

After chasing out the lightly armed Muslims, Serbs began shelling the Croatian quarter across the river. The Croats quickly organized themselves, and with reinforcements and weapons from Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, they held off the attack and ultimately turned the tide of battle.

Serbs were dislodged from their positions in mid-June, and retreated to the surrounding hills. Before leaving, they planted heavy explosives under six of the town's seven bridges and detonated them by remote control.

Only after their retreat did it become clear how fully they had destroyed the old Muslim quarter. Almost every building was burned, blown up or otherwise wrecked. The first Muslims who returned were so enraged that they marched to a Serbian Orthodox Church, smashed its walls and set it ablaze.

Before the fighting, Mostar was home to 125,000 people, about one-third Muslim, one-third Croatian and one-fifth Serbian.

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