We travel to Mostar in Bosnia & Herzegovina or BiH in short. It’s a magical place with a dark history, where the atrocities of war are still etched into the streetscape.
Mostar is a unique place in the Balkans region, at a crossroads of cultures, religions and empires. The blue-green Neretva river mesmerises as it rushes infinitely through the walled city.
Archaeology tells us that the earliest settlers were the Illyrians and Celts. The area has seen countless power struggles. The Western Roman Empire ruled for a period before Ottoman rule which lasted 400 years. It flourished briefly in post-WWII Yugoslavia, before turmoil.
Over the centuries, Mostar was a safe harbour for the Abrahamic faiths. During the Spanish Inquisition, Jewish refugees fled to Mostar and Sarajevo. An interesting facet of Balkan history was that all Abrahamic faiths in Bosnia—Jewish, Muslim and Christian—used the Star of David symbol.
The Muslibegović House, once home to a noble Muslim family and still occupied by its ninth generation, has the Star of David etched on its facade. Left untouched by the war, it is part museum and part hotel today.
Mostar Bridge or Stari Most (meaning “Old Bridge) is a stunning relic of Ottoman architecture stretching over the Neretva River. Built in 1566, in the last year of Suleiman the Magnificent’s rule, it likely gave Mostar its name—deriving from “Mostari”, meaning “bridge keeper”.
Mimar Hayruddin, the architect of Stari Most, was a student of the legendary Mimar Sinan of Blue Mosque fame in Istanbul. The bridge itself was an inspired work of construction and art. Even by modern standards, one is still awed by the elegant, almost impossible arch across the Neretva river. The 17th-century traveller and writer, Evliya Çelebi, described the bridge as:
“Like heaven’s rainbow … a bridge so high it seems to be connecting two clouds.”
Mostar’s tragic recent history is visible everywhere. The city saw one of the worst wars in recent memory over two decades ago.
The history of BiH is complex and tumultuous. It was part of the former post-WWII Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. This was along with Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia (including the autonomous region of Kosovo), and Slovenia.
Without getting into the (complex) details, war broke out in Yugoslavia in June 1991 when Slovenia and Croatia declared independence. There were split views in BiH—based around those who identified as Bosniak, Croatian or Serbian—whether to remain in Yugoslavia or seek independence.
“Yugoslavia lasted as long as it did because its very existence offered an apparently workable solution to the two most complex problems in the Balkans—those of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia… the British historian A.J.P. Taylor noted that ‘Macedonia and Bosnia… both contained the seeds of future disaster.”
— Misha Glenny, The Balkans (1804–2012): Nationalism, War and The Great Powers, pp 635–6.
Taking a walk through the streets of Mostar shows that a city does not easily shed its history. The physical streetscape is a painful reminder of the tragedies of war. In some corners, graffiti scrawls like “remember 1993” continues to evoke the past.
On almost every street, you can see the telltale signs of bullet fire and heavy shelling on dense concrete. Windows gape, wooden frames taken over by rot and nature, greening the cavities within. Almost like people, the ghosts of buildings sit, waiting for their owners. Some will never return. Two decades on, the signs of economic stagnation are obvious.
Towards the end of the war, Bosnian Croat soldiers blew up Mostar Bridge in a last act of destruction.
“After Sarajevo’s destruction by Serb shells, and the appalling suffering of its population, the Muslims had to watch the wholesale destruction of eastern Mostar at the hands of Herzegovina Croats supported by units of the regular Croatian army. On 9 November 1993, a group of Bosnian Croat soldiers videoed the climax of this orgy when the city’s great symbol, the sixteenth-century arched stone bridge over the Neretva river, was obliterated. This single act seemed to represent the utter senselessness and misery of the entire conflict.”
— Misha Glenny, The Balkans (1804–2012): Nationalism, War and The Great Powers, p 646.
The bridge was rebuilt with funds donated by countries involved in the peacekeeping efforts.
Aside from the physical scars on the streetscape, one senses the human scars of war. Invisible, hidden and deep within souls and memories.
In a taxi ride from the outskirts of Mostar, our taxi driver related his time as a sailor on a merchant ship in his younger days. He visited many places during his youth. “From Rio de Janeiro to Hong Kong”, he said, but “never Australia, strangely”. At one point he pauses, as we drive past a cemetery. He added, “The war, it was terrible. This is the Muslim cemetery, the biggest in Mostar.”
We were too afraid to ask more, for details—almost as if it would open a raw wound, too close to the heart. There were many other moments like this, alluding to the war, but never revealing full details.
Of course, we were strangers.
A fragile peace
On 21 November 1995, the presidents of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Serbia signed the Dayton Agreement, also known as the Dayton Accords. It was cobbled together with the help of the international community, with the US Clinton administration leading negotiations.
Even during the course of negotiations, conflict continued. When part of the negotiations broke down, it led to great atrocities in Bosnia:
“In early July , Mladic attached the safe Muslim haven of Srebrenica. Bosnian Serb troops entered the city on the late afternoon of Tuesday, 11 July 1995, and began to commit the single biggest crime of the Bosnian war, the murder of some 8,000 unarmed Muslim men.”
— Misha Glenny, The Balkans (1804–2012): Nationalism, War and The Great Powers, pp 649–50.
The Clinton administration remained keen on getting a peace deal together, however flawed. In the background, an impending 1996 US presidential election. In a cynical take which summed up the chameleon-like qualities of those in power, an American special envoy to Yugoslavia commented that:
“Milošević is reinventing himself as a statesman. He’s rather like a mafia boss who’s gotten tired of doing drugs in the Bronx and now wants to move down to Palm Beach to get into junk bonds.”
— The late Robert Frasure, American special envoy to Yugoslavia; Misha Glenny, The Balkans (1804–2012): Nationalism, War and The Great Powers, p 647.
In short, the Dayton Agreement is messy. And it does not promise long-term peace. It split the territory into two autonomous entities—51% to the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and 49% to Republika Srpska.
Today, Bosnia and Herzegovina has a three-member Presidency representing each of the three major ethnic groups in Bosnia. Anyone who does not identify as Bosniak, Croat or Serb—but rather Jewish, Roma or “other”—is barred from entering politics by law. In a final insult, the Dayton Agreement maintains a top-heavy political elite class that enjoys six times the average Bosnian wage.
Author of The Balkans, Misha Glenny, puts it well:
“Dayton brought the fighting to an end, in itself a considerable achievement. But as a model for reconciliation and for rebuilding a shattered society, it was and remains severely limited. The Dayton documents, which make up a thick book, are complex and contradictory. They have been interpreted both as a blueprint for partition and for the consolidation of a unitary state. The constitution included the most advanced provisions for the protection of human rights anywhere in the world. But it conspicuously omitted any reference to the role of the armed forces.”
— Misha Glenny, The Balkans (1804–2012): Nationalism, War and The Great Powers, p 651.
Assumptions built into the Dayton Agreement means that military matters, including the prosecution of war crimes, remain unsolved. The fact that there are “three [hostile nationalist] armies operating independently in Bosnia (not to mention the NATO-led peace-keeping force)” means that Bosnia is effectively partitioned. The Dayton Agreement preserves a fragile peace in what is a political stalemate:
“The international community has preserved the constitutional fiction of a unified Bosnia by maintaining its own armed forces in the country, but it refuses to use its military power to enforce the return of refugees. The Dayton Agreement is so fragile that the war will start again should the international troops ever leave. … The settlement is, in short, full of anomalies and frictions. The Bosnian question remains unanswered.”
— Misha Glenny, The Balkans (1804–2012): Nationalism, War and The Great Powers, p 652.
Prosecuting war crimes
In May 1993, the UN Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) by passing a resolution under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.
The ICTY at the Hague in the Netherlands was the first war crimes court created by the UN. It was also the first international war crimes tribunal since the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals.
The ICTY Statute sets out the powers, scope, jurisdiction and constitution of the ICTY to “prosecute persons responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in the territory of the former Yugoslavia since 1991”. The ICTY had the power to prosecute the following matters:
- Grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 (Article 2);
- Violations of the laws or customs of war (Article 3);
- Genocide (Article 4);
- Crimes against humanity (Article 5).
The ICTY lists its key objective as:
“… to try those individuals most responsible for appalling acts such as murder, torture, rape, enslavement, destruction of property and other crimes listed in the Tribunal’s Statute. By bringing perpetrators to trial, the ICTY aims to deter future crimes and render justice to thousands of victims and their families, thus contributing to a lasting peace in the former Yugoslavia.”
The ICTY was dissolved in December 2017 after 24 years and 161 indictments. Prosecutions extended to “heads of state, prime ministers, army chiefs-of-staff, interior ministers and many other high- and mid-level political, military and police leaders from various parties to the Yugoslav conflicts”. High profile prosecutions included former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević (the first sitting head of state to be charged with war crimes), the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić and Gen Ratko Mladic.
While the ICTY gave victims of war an outlet for justice, it was not without controversy. Some consider that the “tribunal represented victor’s justice” with two-thirds of those charged being Serbs. Further, that “the language of international law became a tool to legitimize the aggressive interventionist policy of the US and its allies in the Balkans in the late 1990s”.
In this sense, justice is never a straightforward matter.
Postscript: Outside the city
We found ourselves outside Mostar in a magical place.
Blagaj Tekke is a Sufi Dervish monastery, a twenty-minute taxi ride from the city. The monastery is wedged up against a cliff face at the source of the Neretva river.
As the swallows twitter and whirl above the water, one senses a deep sense of peace lodged within the earth that had—for a time—seen too much.
- The Guardian, “Bosnia’s bitter, flawed peace deal, 20 years on” (11 November 2015)
- Misha Glenny, “The Balkans (1804–2012): Nationalism, War and The Great Powers” (2012, Penguin Books, NY)
- Philippe Sands, “East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity” (2016, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, UK).
P.s. A very special thank you to M. Gurkan for the excellent photography, including sickening moments atop the minaret (see cover photo).