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Yugoslav War in Bosnia


In Bosnia-Herzegovina, which suffered greatly in the Yugoslav War, we visit Trebinje and Mostar to learn about the tragic conflict among the three South Slav groups — separated by religion — who fought Yugoslavia and each other: Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosniaks.

Complete Video Script

The landscape changes once again as we cross into yet another country: Bosnia-Herzegovina, or Bosnia for short.

Before we get into Bosnia, let’s review the big picture. Every place we’re visiting on this trip was part of Yugoslavia, which means literally the “land (or union) of the South Slavic peoples.” The country of Yugoslavia lasted roughly from the end of World War I until the 1990s.

While its ethnic make-up shaped its recent history, the differences between its groups can be subtle and confusing. That’s because the major “ethnicities” of Yugoslavia were all South Slavs — they have the same ancestors and speak closely related languages.

The defining difference is that they adopted different religions, brought here over the centuries by various emperors, missionaries, bishops, and sultans.

Catholic South Slavs are called “Croats,” Orthodox Christian South Slavs are called “Serbs,” and Muslim South Slavs are called “Bosniaks.” For the most part, there’s no way that a casual visitor can determine the religion or loyalties of the people just by looking at them.

So we can better understand this troubled union, I’m joined by my friend and co-author of my guidebook to this region, Cameron Hewitt.

Rick: It just seems like an unlikely union.
Cameron: Oh, it was extremely unlikely. You had all these different groups in this one territory. There’s only one person who was able to hold it together successfully. That was Marshal Tito, who ruled Yugoslavia. He respected all the diversity within the country, but he believed above all in Yugoslav unity. He said that the divisions between the different groups should be like the white lines in a marble column.
Rick: That marble column didn’t last very long.
Cameron: No, it didn’t last very long. After Tito died in 1980, this very delicate balance he created started to topple; different groups started to grab for more power and authority, and before long, the whole thing just fell apart.
Rick: Now, I’ve always just thought of it as a place with so much ethnic baggage — that it was just, without Tito, a bloody mess waiting to happen.
Cameron: That’s definitely one factor. There’s no question that this region has a long history of groups not getting along with each other, lots of warfare. On the other hand, that can’t be the only reason. There were long periods of peace in their history as well. In this case, you had politicians who were taking advantage of those feelings, manipulating those feelings…It was a combination of those two factors that caused Yugoslavia to fall apart in such a violent way.

Rick: It was a horrible war.
Cameron: It was a horrific war. I mean, as each group tried to grab for more of what they thought was “their” territory, this is the conflict that introduced the term “ethnic cleansing” into our vocabulary.

And much of the worst happened here, in Bosnia. That’s because this was Yugoslavia’s crossroads of cultures. Looking at the architecture, you can see this is where its three major ethnicities — Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosniaks — all came together. In the 1990s, Bosnia was ripped apart by a three-way war between these groups.

Cameron: So, after a few bloody years of fighting, all the different factions across Yugoslavia finally laid down their arms and agreed to peace accords in 1995. Here in Bosnia, they had to actually create a semi-autonomous Serb state within the larger state of Bosnia to preserve that balance.

Trebinje, nestled along a river in a fertile valley, is a showcase town of the semi-autonomous Serb state called “Republika Srpska.” Exploring it, Cameron and I see a hardworking community offering the foreigner a warm — if curious — welcome.

At first, Trebinje felt a bit inaccessible — quite different from my hometown. Yet the more I observed, the more it seemed essentially the same. Teens enjoy prom photos posted in the photography studio’s window. Parents give driving lessons in the park. And little girls love a visit to the snack shack. As always, travel humanizes a distant land.

A grand Orthodox church caps a hill high above Trebinje. Its interior is rich with symbolism. While newly painted, the medieval feel of the church is a reminder that the Eastern Orthodox faith steadfastly carries on the earliest traditions of Christianity in a modern world. Father Dražen takes a few moments to clue me in.

Rick: When I come to this church as a western Christian, it feels very eastern. Why is that?
Father Dražen: Well, because it is an eastern church. And here, Eastern Orthodoxy is the biggest Christian community.
Rick: What makes you a Serb?
Father Dražen: Well, first, Serb’s our nation. So, that’s something that has to do with our genes, with our families, with our background. But as Christians, we would say our Christian Orthodox faith is also something that makes us Serbs. And, as a believer and as a priest, I would say that the real Serb is an Orthodox Christian Serb.
Rick: So the Serbian Republic here in Bosnia-Herzegovina is Serbian Orthodox.
Father Dražen: The majority of population belongs to our Serbian Orthodox Church.
Rick: In America, we have a word “balkanization”; it means everybody’s fighting, and just nobody gets along, and that’s this area here. Why is that?
Father Dražen: Obviously there was a problem. And balkanization, as you mentioned, is something that has to be slowly overcome. And we, as a church, I think we have a specific role in reconciliation.
Rick: One last question: What’s this ostrich egg?
Father Dražen: Well, it brings life. So in Orthodox tradition, it symbolizes resurrection.
Rick: There you go.

Exploring the countryside, we find more reminders of the natural beauty and the humanity of this obscure corner of Europe.

Heading west, we approach the ethnic boundary — Europe’s cultural fault line. We’re leaving the Serbian Republic and entering the half of Bosnia shared by Muslims and Croats. Patriotic symbols remind those driving where loyalties lie. Illustrating the cultural divide, the Serbs’ Cyrillic alphabet gives way to more familiar letters. And a mountaintop castle guarding the pass suggests that this has long been a point where different cultures merge.

Mostar, straddling its beloved river, is the leading city of the southern part of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Mostar feels Turkish because, until the early 20th century, it belonged to the Ottoman Empire. When the Ottomans vacated, they left behind a large population of Muslim converts.

You feel this Turkish heritage everywhere. It’s embodied in a skyline of minarets and in the five-times-daily call to prayer. And Mostar’s 400-year-old stone bridge was ¬commissioned by Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent.

With its elegant, single pointed arch, the Old Bridge symbolized the town’s status as the place where East meets West in Europe. When it was part of Yugoslavia, as in centuries past, Mostar was a place where cultures mingled — where Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosniaks lived together in relative harmony.

But then, as Yugoslavia fell apart in the 1990s, Mostar itself became embroiled in war. Neighbors and friends took up arms against each other. First, Croats and Bosniaks forced out the Serbs. Then the two remaining groups set their guns on each other — establishing a bloody front line that cut right through the center of this town.

Locals, like tour guide Alma Elezović, lived under siege during that frightening time.

Rick: You must have powerful memories of living during the war — living through the war.
Alma: Yes. You know, we are Muslim, and that was our flat here — we lived here all the time when war start. So, when war start, they cut electricity, cut everything…so it was totally dark! It was like we back — 500 years back. And during the shelling, they sent us a million grenades and bullets — we have to stop, we have to find a shelter to protect us and our families. But evenings bring new duties: You have to find water, you have to find food, see the friends, et cetera. So, I remember I had to wear black things because of snipers watch us all the time, 24 hours.
Rick: So there were Croat snipers over here shooting this way?
Alma: Exactly. Exactly.
Rick: Was your family OK?
Alma: Yes. Thank God, my family was OK, but many of my friends have been killed here. And two friends actually died here… just here. This street is very symbolic to us. We live on this street and die on this street.

Alma: This is a very special place for us. It was a park, before war, where lovers gather, children gather, and sitting here have a nice time. But in the war, we mustn’t go to the cemetery because it was exposed too much to the snipers. We had to come here and bury people — actually we have to, transform park into a cemetery.
Rick: And all of the dates… 1993.
Alma: Yes. I think 90 percent of these graves are from ’93. Very young people.

The conflict reached its peak with a symbolic moment that resonated around the world. This venerable bridge was pummeled by artillery shells from the hilltop above, until — finally — it collapsed into the river.

While the city has been at peace now since 1995, the sectarian symbolism remains powerful. Still, both religious communities seem determined to build upon this fragile reconciliation.

The 10 minarets, rebuilt since the war, once again pierce Mostar’s skyline like Muslim exclamation points. Each Friday, the town’s mosques are busy with worshippers. Across town, twice as high as the tallest minaret, towers the Croats’ Catholic church spire. Like the mosques, this new church is busy serving the faithful in its community. Observing this, it occurred to me that I’ve never met anyone — from either community here — who called the war anything but a tragic mistake.

Mostar is rebuilding — it’s moving on, and those ethnic divisions are gradually fading. Soon after the war, the Old Bridge was rebuilt using the original materials. The new Old Bridge was immediately embraced as a promising sign of reconciliation.

And today, as they have for generations, young Mostarians jump from the bridge. Divers make a ruckus collecting donations at the top of the bridge. They tease and they tease, asking for more money… and more money… and more money. Finally, they take the 75-foot plunge.

Leading up the hill from the Old Bridge is Coppersmiths’ Street — a lively shopping zone with the flavor of a Turkish bazaar: you’ll find hammered-copper decorations, artists’ galleries, and a local twist: old Yugoslav Army kitsch.

And in the evening, restaurants along Coppersmiths’ Street and the rest of Mostar’s riverfront clamor for your business. Grilled meats are big here — including shish kebabs and the little sausage links called ćevapčići. And everything tastes better with a dab of ajvar — that’s a condiment made of eggplant and red pepper… like Bosnian ketchup with a kick.

An after-dinner stroll inspires confidence in this region’s ability to heal its wounds. Young and old, everyone’s out embracing life. Masala Square — literally “Place of Prayer” — is designed for big gatherings. And tonight, the students are out… and Bosnian hormones are raging. Being young and sexy is a great equalizer. These 20-something Bosnians were toddlers during the war. Seeing them tonight, it’s clear: They’re looking forward to a bright and promising future.