Bitter Split Between Mostar’s Croats and Muslims Belies Dream of Unity


A few days before the most dangerous violence here in 18 months threatened to escalate into a new war, the Bosnian Croat militia paraded its tanks and filled a stadium with supporters who accompanied a brigade commander in an old Nazi-era song.

The parade and the song harking back to Croatian fascism were broadcast on Croat-run television. The coverage was accompanied by a studio interview with a hard-line Bosnian Croat nationalist proclaiming that the southern city of Mostar must forever be kept from the Muslims, whom he called “a bunch of lepers.”

“Mostar,” said the man, Mladen Misic, “is the capital of the Croats!”

Three days later, on Jan. 1, 18 months of tense but steady nonbelligerence were shattered when a Muslim youth was shot to death by Croatian police. Then two Muslim police officers were shot and wounded, and a Croatian policeman was killed by gunfire from the Muslim side of the city.


Instantly, the U.S.-created Muslim-Croat federation, widely seen as the cornerstone for future peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina, was on the brink of collapse. Never strong to begin with because it attempted to unite two warring enemies, the federation faced a failure that seemed destined to doom the fledgling peace process in Bosnia.

What followed was a full-court diplomatic press, with even President Clinton weighing in during his visit to Bosnia on Saturday to demand that Croats and Muslims set aside their animosities and cooperate. The immediate crisis abated, but not the deep divisions that still threaten Mostar and the federation.

“Since the foundation [of the peace agreement forged in Dayton, Ohio] is a successful federation, then we have a very difficult problem if Mostar is not resolved,” U.S. Adm. Leighton W. Smith, commander of the NATO-led peace force in Bosnia, said as he visited Mostar this week to demand compliance and salvage the peace.

“Mostar is extremely important to the future of the federation,” said U.N. spokesman Alexander Ivanko. “Unified cities are the basis of a unified country.”

Diplomats and mediators say the problem in Mostar lies with power-hungry local warlords who, wrapped in the cause of nationalism--but just as eager to protect black-market business interests--are determined to prevent Mostar from being reunited as the model of reconciliation that U.S. and European envoys envisioned.

By most accounts, the Croats are primarily to blame, although both sides have shown signs of intransigence. Many of the Bosnian Croats would rather secede from Bosnia and unite with neighboring Croatia, taking Mostar and much of western Bosnia and the south of the country, Herzegovina, with them. These Croats are nominal allies of the Muslims but in truth are just as opposed to shared coexistence with them as are many Bosnian Serbs.


Tensions here came to a head when they did, in part, because men were going to be allowed to move freely between Muslim east Mostar and Croatian west Mostar in accord with the peace agreement. Some Croats were said to be fearful of revenge-seeking Muslims.

In 1993, the Croats created their own ministate, Herzeg-Bosna, complete with their own militia, known by its initials HVO. It was an HVO commander who led the song in the stadium late last month.

Herzeg-Bosna is not recognized by anybody but Croatia, whose president, Franjo Tudjman, largely underwrites the Bosnian Croats. The half of Mostar and the other western and southern cities they control fly the Croatian flag and use Croatian currency, even though they are in Bosnia. They do not recognize any Bosnian authority. Under the Dayton accord, Herzeg-Bosna must disappear and its people and territory must become part of the Muslim-Croat federation.

The 500-year-old city of Mostar in 1992 and 1993 was the scene of some of the most vicious fighting of the Balkan war. Croats and Muslims joined forces against Serbs, then turned on each other. Croatian militia laid waste to Muslim neighborhoods and destroyed a famous 16th-century Turkish-built footbridge that arched over the Neretva River and was described by novelist Rebecca West as one of the most beautiful bridges in the world. It had come to symbolize the spirit of multiethnic tolerance that many Croatian nationalists hated.

In March 1994, the so-called Washington agreement ended the war between the Bosnian Muslims and Croats and created the federation, placing Mostar under the administration of the European Union. The agreement stipulated eventual freedom of movement throughout Mostar, the removal of barricades and the creation of mixed police patrols. None of this happened, and the EU’s mandate is scheduled to expire in July.

“If the EU leaves and the situation is still like this, there will be another war,” warned Safet Orucevic, the Muslim mayor of east Mostar. “Mostar is just one good cause for the extremists who want to divide all of Bosnia. Mostar became one big camp. One and a half years of pressure from Europe has not helped us unlock the door.”


A couple of blocks from Orucevic’s City Hall, past the drab, cracked ruins of deserted buildings, a temporary bridge connects the two riverbanks of Mostar--the devastated Muslim east side and the more prosperous Croatian west. Limited freedom of movement--women and old men were allowed to cross starting in December--was suspended following the shootings.

On a chilly afternoon, Dzemal Novo and his wife, Fatima, clutched an umbrella and stood at one end of the bridge. Like thousands of Muslims, they were expelled in 1993 from their westside apartment, which is now occupied, they said, by Croatian nationalists.

“Unfortunately, today we use those terms: eastside, westside,” said 71-year-old Dzemal Novo, a retired city government employee. “We would like to live together again. A divided Mostar is a catastrophe. Even Berlin had to be united again. The federation depends on Mostar. Relations between Croats, Serbs and Muslims depend on it.”

Fatima Novo, 68, said many of her old Croatian friends agree. “A lot of fair Croats think the town should be united,” she said.

The couple said that during the short period when they could venture into west Mostar, they did not dare visit their old apartment.

“We lost everything,” Fatima Novo said. “We left behind a beautiful house, a garage, a car. . . . Now we have 24 deutsche marks [$16.80].”


Under international agreement, a statute dictating how Mostar is to be structured and governed was supposed to have been drafted by Dec. 31. But the Muslims and Croats have still not agreed on how the city should be divvied up.

Mostar is to consist of six cantons, or districts--three dominated by Muslims and three by Croats. The Croats want the existing line of division, the former confrontation line, to form the border. But the Muslims, saying that would confirm wartime partitioning, want the districts to be based on the 1991 census, which would give Muslims a chunk of west Mostar.

Where the Muslims insist on unification, Bosnian Croat nationalists are equally adamant about maintaining a separate system with their own schools, police and cultural identity.

“The Europeans are all the time trying to make coexistence between people who were at war and where there is still the potential for hatred,” said Mile Puljic, the deputy mayor of west Mostar, who is said to wield considerable power. “At this moment [coexistence] is impossible. We need time.”

How much time? Ten years, he said.

Croats, he said, are “afraid of the demographics” because Muslims would form a majority if the two populations were mixed. The federation should be the joining of two sides based on common interests but kept separate, he said.

Mijo Brajkovic, the Croatian mayor of west Mostar, is seen as a moderate voice among the Croats. He is also seen as having very little power.


“We Croats are willing to live with everybody, but you must understand this is the only city we have,” Brajkovic said, standing in the hall across from Puljic’s office in a city government building.

EU administrators who oversee Mostar have long complained that they do not know who is really running things here and that the civilian authorities seem powerless and unable to make decisions that stick.

It was always thought that Tudjman, the president of Croatia, controlled what happened in west Mostar, but some sources now think his influence may be waning, while Gojko Susak, the defense minister of Croatia, is increasingly in charge. He is a hard-line nationalist who hails from Herzegovina, in the Croat-controlled part of Bosnia.