National Catholic Register

News

Slowly and Cautiously, Bosnia Throws Off the Vestiges of War

But Sarajevo's Cardinal Vinko Puljic says rebuilding Catholic life remains an uphill struggle

BY Gabriel Meyer

November 30-December 6, 1997 Issue | Posted 11/30/97 at 1:00 PM

 

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina- “People in Sarajevo-they have a lot of money to spend repairing buildings. But no one is doing the most important thing: repairing hearts.”

That was the crisp assessment of a Herzegovinian cafe owner on the Bosnian reconstruction effort two years after the U.S.-brokered cease-fire signed at Dayton, Ohio silenced guns in the Balkans.

It's an apt verdict-on both counts.

Take Mostar. Centerpiece of the plan spearheaded by the Clinton administration and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) leaders to create a Muslim-Croat federation in Bosnia, Mostar, Herzegovina's capital, was to showcase efforts at inter-ethnic cooperation and prevent the further splintering of Bosnia along ethnic lines.

Hence, there was a flurry of international media attention focused on the launch in mid-October of a European-financed project to dredge the remnants of Mostar's historic 15th-century bridge from the waters of the Neretva River. (Local Croatian gunners blew up the structure in 1993 to prevent Mostar's Muslims from rearming themselves during the Muslim-Croat phase of the war.)

Stari most (Serbo-Croat for “old bridge”), ascribed to the great Ottoman architect Sinan, has functioned for centuries as the city's symbol (the name Mostar comes from the word for “bridge”).

Officials from the government of Bosnian President Alija Izobetgovic were quick to hail the lifting of the first limestone blocks of the Turkish-style span from the river as an act that would bridge the city's divisions and heal the wounds of the war.

“This is a symbol of peace for the Bosnian people,” declared Izobetgovic. (The government-sponsored Foundation Stari Most, set up in 1994, is spear-heading the project under the supervision of local architect Zijad Demirovic.)

In Croat-dominated west Mostar, however, reactions to the event were less than enthusiastic. “The bridge, it's no symbol for us,” a former Croatian militiaman told the Register. “When it was built 500 years ago, we Catholics were slaves of the Muslims. The bridge means nothing to us, except as a symbol of occupation.”

Although Catholics have formed a clear majority of the population in western Herzegovina for centuries, they were landless peasants serving mostly Muslim landowners during the nearly 500 years of Ottoman rule here. Herzegovina's Croats were allied with local Muslims earlier this century during conflicts in the old Yugoslavia and, again, when the Serb-dominated Yugoslav National Army and Bosnian Serb units invaded the republic in 1992. But by late 1993, differing political agendas had sundered ties and set off one of the bloodiest phases of the war.

Other historic public buildings in Mostar, like the Hapsburg-period bishop's palace, a burned-out shell since 1992, have also been treated to tasteful reconstructions.

But if the speed with which war damage is being repaired speaks of Bosnians' determination to put the war behind them, many of the conflict's deeper legacies remain untouched.

Weeks before east Mostar divers kissed the stones of the stari most as they were lifted to shore, Muslim workers who had strayed into the wrong part of town had been severely beaten by Croat police.

And just days before this reporter visited the city, a 65-pound car bomb had gone off in front of a busy west Mostar apartment complex, injuring more than a hundred. An Islamic terrorist group took responsibility.

“The problems in Mostar can't be resolved,” Dr. Ben Markin, a surgeon at one of west Mostar's hospitals lamented, “because there's no trust. It's not difficult to understand. How can you work with someone who may have killed your father or your brother or your son?"

In Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina's capital, a city that saw some of the worst fighting of the four-year-old Balkan conflict, tensions are even less visible under the veneer of massive reconstruction.

Much of the historic core of Sarajevo-a veritable image of the horrors of war only two years ago- has been restored. Mosques and churches that recently lay open to the sky today sport brand-new hand-beaten copper roofs. The once-skeletal downtown Holiday Inn, boasting a new colorful postmodern exterior, is now open for business. Even the tragic bullet-riddled ruin of the National Library, once a symbol of the city's suffering, is off-limits now while an Italian architectural firm tries to restore it to its former glory.

More importantly, the edgy cultural life of prewar Sarajevo is taking hold again. Last month, a Sarajevo film festival attracted large crowds, posters advertising a six-day poetry celebration were visible on every downtown store-front, and the city's famous National Theater was back in business with a new production of Moliere's Tartuffe. In September, the Irish rock band U2 staged a multi-media extravaganza in the city's sports arena.

It was a far cry from two years ago, at the time of the cease-fire, when the only operational movie theater in town was showing the American film “Natural-Born Killers” to the city's shell-shocked public.

Still, behind the facade of rapid recovery, the war's legacy of mistrust and ethnic strife remains.

This is a particularly sensitive issue for the leaders of Bosnia's dwindling Catholic community. Prewar census figures (April 1991) indicate that the Archdiocese of Vrhbosna-Sarajevo, one of three dioceses in the republic, served more than 500,000 Catholics. Not counting the many dead, the war displaced more than 200,000 Catholics and 45% of Sarajevo's churches were destroyed.

While some church buildings have been repaired in the past two years, diocesan spokesmen say that the Bosnian government has shown little interest in facilitating the return of Croat refugees to their former homes and villages-a key provision of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords.

More ominously, say Sarajevo Church leaders, a dozen Catholics have been killed in Muslim-controlled areas in the past few months and terrorist bombs have gone off in front of eight church buildings in the diocese since the cease-fire.

“We have the impression that these killings and terrorist acts are organized in order to discourage refugees from returning, or dislodge Croatians still living in Muslim territories,” Sarajevo's Cardinal Vinko Puljic told the Register.

“Without reasonable security,” he said, “Catholic life cannot be reestablished here. And without a vibrant Bosnian Catholic life, what chance will there be to build a true multi-ethnic Bosnia in the future?"

Small signs of rapprochement have been ventured by communal religious leaders in recent months. Last June, Bosnia's bishops joined Serbian Orthodox, Jewish, and Muslim clerics in signing The Statement on Shared Moral Commitment, an initiative that is paving the way for the formation of an Interreligious Council of Bosnia-Herzegovina. And last month, the Bosnian bishops issued a pastoral letter calling for Catholics to forgive and ask forgiveness for war crimes, as Pope John Paul II had urged during his visit to Sarajevo last April.

“[Bosnia's] civil authorities have been quick to remove the war's architectural scars,” Cardinal Puljic declared. “But they are not interested, it seems, in addressing less cosmetic concerns, such as the spiritual and psychic wounds of the war. It's a superficial and short-sighted policy.”

In Stolac, near Herzegovina's border with the Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska, there is another kind of postwar recovery on display.

Since last Christmas, an unofficial flea market, patronized by Herzegovinian Croats and Muslims and their Bosnian Serb counterparts, has operated in an unpatrolled open space here. No one seems sure about where the border is supposed to be, but since there are no guards or checkpoints in sight, the issue is moot. In fact, the only clue for the traveler that he has ventured into Serbian territory is furnished by the appearance of road signs in Cyrillic script.

Here Croats sell used cars to Serbs and enterprising Serbian merchandisers carry sides of lamb to eager Herzegovinian buyers. “Everybody around here buys meat from the Serbs,” says one Croat restaurant owner. “It's much cheaper than in the local markets.”

Buyers stand around greeting one another and exchanging cigarettes. Croats living in Serbia proper meet up with Herzegovinian relatives at Stolac and catch up on news. After sales are concluded, Serbs and Croats, who only months ago were manning front-line posts against one another here, wander off to Serbian-owned pubs to trade mock insults and war stories.

What is the view of current peace prospects at Stolac?

“Dayton was good because it stopped the fighting,” says one former commander of a Croatian Defense Forces (HVO) unit who makes the journey to Stolac each week. “But it isn't working anymore. The problem is that the Muslim-Croat federation doesn't exist. It doesn't govern, or collect taxes, repair roads, or pay retirement benefits.”

What does it cost the government to secure foreign funding for reconstruction? Nothing, the man explained. “Real reconciliation would be for Muslims who destroyed churches to see to their rebuilding, or for us [Croats] to restore damaged mosques or Serbian villages on the Neretva.”

“That would be the real thing,” he said. “The rest is just window-dressing.”

Gabriel Meyer recently spent two weeks in Bosnia-Herzegovina.