Glimpses of a Bosnian town torn apart by civil war


March 24, 1996|By Dennis Drenner

"Where are you going?" The border guard's expression was as grim as the landscape outside the bus. Just hours before, I had been in charming old Split on Croatia's sunny Dalmatian coast. Strolling palm-lined promenades along the Adriatic, I found it hard to imagine Iwould be spending the evening in a town devastated by war. I told the guard I was heading to Mostar and he moved on down the aisle. As the bus pulled away and crossed into Bosnia-Herzegovina, the gray sky was quickly turning black.

Four books and countless articles did little to prepare me for the experience of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The last four years there have been like a deadly real-life game of Risk, the region's complex patchwork of ethnic enclaves constantly shifting with the tides of war.

In my work as a photojournalist, I recently traveled to the town of Mostar in southwestern Bosnia-Herzegovina. Mostar is an elegant microcosm of the conflict in the former Yugoslavian republic, and a bone of contention for negotiators trying to implement the Dayton peace agreement. A number of attempts this year to reunify the town have been unsuccessful, and as of this writing Mostar remains stubbornly divided into Muslim and Croat halves.

A crown jewel of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mostar lies 40 miles north of the Adriatic, between Serbia and Montenegro to the east and Croatia to the west. Before the civil war that followed Bosnia-Herzegovina's declaration of independence, Mostar, a town of 120,000, was a model of peaceful co-existence between Muslims, Croats and Serbs. Minarets and church spires shared the sky above the cobbled streets of the old quarter.

The cultural capital of the province, Mostar was known for its schools and universities; it supported a vibrant arts scene and drew tourists from around the world. Stari Most, a graceful, 16th-century bridge over the emerald Neretva River, was the town's showpiece. Its image graced a thousand postcards and hung in every living room in the town.

But Mostar, along with the rest of Bosnia-Herzegovina, succumbed to a wave of divisive ideology. The war began in the spring of 1992 with a Serb offensive from the east. Serb shells rained down on the town and sent the population fleeing into its basements. Just a few months later, a joint push by allied Muslim and Croat forces drove the Serb lines back and Mostar enjoyed a brief peace. But the Muslim-Croat alliance, born of a common Serb enemy, was short-lived. The Croats coveted beautiful Mostar just as much as the Serbs had, and in early 1993 the Croats turned on their former allies.

The Muslim population was driven into the tiny pocket of East Mostar, where it was subjected to one of the most brutal sieges in the region's recent history. For 10 months, Croat artillery pummeled the tiny enclave from the surrounding hills and snipers turned the streets into killing fields.

When the siege was finally lifted, thousands had been killed and the town lay in ruins. The Muslim east side, containing the beautiful old Ottoman quarter, suffered the worst damage. The tiny alleyways, once crowded with shops and cafe tables, were now choked with rubble. Stari Most, battered by Croat shells, had crumbled into the river.

When I arrived last December, Mostar had been relatively peaceful for two years. Even so, an eerie no man's land of war-ravaged buildings and shadowy streets -- the former front line -- still separated east and west. Flashing my press credentials to guards toting machine guns, I walked this zone my first morning in Mostar.

The residential streets were littered with shell casings and scarred by grenades, the trees denuded and dead. The buildings were skeletons; their roofs, windows and doors had been shot, blown and burned away. A specter of extreme violence hung in the air with the December mist.

I lived in Mostar for three weeks and wandered its streets every day with my camera. As a foreign journalist, I was able to travel freely in both the east and west sections, a privilege denied local men of military age.

The differences between the two areas were striking. Croatian West Mostar was relatively intact; the ramshackle Muslim army in the east had barely been able to defend itself, let alone fight back. Though I met many kind people in West Mostar, the general air was that of a police state. The red-checkered shield, symbol of Croatian nationalism, loomed on every street corner, in the coffee bars, on kiosks and on the shoulder patches of the grim policemen. To walk the town at night was to walk a gantlet of dour faces and suspicious looks.

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