Surviving war in Europe: one person’s story of the Bosnia War

Bosnia-Herzegovina is a lush, green playground of mountains, crystal clear rivers and architecturally stunning settlements. But, along with its neighbours, the country’s past is complicated and littered with conflict. The Ottoman, Austria-Hungary and German empires have all had claims to the land at different points in history and have influenced the culture and architecture.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is perhaps most famous for Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in the capital, Sarajevo, which sparked World War One in 1914. Following annexation by the Nazi’s during World War Two, Bosnia-Herzegovina experienced a period of stability under the communist regime of Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia.

Near the border with Croatia, some 30 miles into the Herzegovina region, sits the beautiful city of Mostar. Famous for its UNESCO protected, old-yet-new Stari Most bridge, where locals and professionals, including the Red Bull Cliff Diving series, take the rite of passage by diving the 70-plus feet into the turquoise water of the Neretva river below.

This beautiful and deceptively steep bridge is a symbol of the unification of the Bosnian and the Croatian sides of the city, as it had been since its original construction in the 16th century. But, as with many things in Bosnia-Herzegovina, it has seen more than its fair share of turmoil.

Gabriela has lived in Mostar for most of her life. She has seen the changes, and remembers the days of communist rule.

“Yugoslavia was an independent country and life was much better than in other communist countries. We could travel anywhere. School was free, health care was free, there was no crime. It was a social country. Everybody had a job, a flat, but of course members of the communist party had better opportunities. After Tito’s death everything changed.

“There was a difficult period I remember in the 1980s. My mother complained there was not enough coffee or oil to buy, but we were young and it was not a big problem for us.”

Tito had led Yugoslavia since 1953, and before that as Prime Minister since 1944, and his death and transfer of power had not been planned for. Following his death in 1980, a power struggle gripped Yugoslavia and ultimately led to a rise in nationalism, and the presidential reign of Slobodan Milošević in 1989.

Milošević’s view of a ‘Greater Serbia’ came at the expense of every other region within Yugoslavia, resulting in wars breaking out in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.

Gabriela explains: “When the war started, I was just 23 years old. I had just got married. I had a good office job as a German translator and I was enjoying life. I only remember good days, having lot of fun with friends, but of course it was not always perfect.

“In 1992 the war started. I first stayed in Mostar when the town was attacked by Serbian forces that occupied the left bank of the city. My flat was at the right bank, so it was safer.

“To start with, the Bosnian and Croatian army fought together against the Serbs, and after a few months the Serbian army was forced to leave the city. We all thought, ‘that’s it, the war will end soon!’. But we were wrong. I never thought it could get any worse.”

The war saw a significant overlap in who was fighting who. Complicated by the Croatians, largely Catholic Christians; Serbs, largely Orthodox Christians; and the Bosnians, largely Muslims (known as Bosniaks) each living across these now newly drawn borders, meaning the countries were keen to take ‘their people’ and ‘their towns’.

Learn more about our trip few Bosnia-Herzegovina by clicking here.

Gabriela continues: “So, May 9, 1993, the Croatians started the war against the Bosnian army. What a mess. They wanted Mostar. The whole city. So, they started to expel all the Bosniaks [Bosnian Muslims] from the city. We saw trucks collecting the Muslims coming nearer and nearer to our flat, so we decided to spend the next few days at my husband’s aunt’s house. She was married to a Croatian man so it was safer at her place.

“We arranged papers from the police so we could leave the city, helped by a good Croatian friend of my husband, who helped us escape. At that time, I had also given birth to my son who was less than three months old when we left.

“We first left for Split, then Zagreb [both in Croatia], where my uncle came and took us to Germany where we stayed until the war ended.”

In 1995, the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed, and the war ended. Thousands had died; Sarajevo had endured a four-year siege; over half the country had been displaced and hundreds of religious buildings had been destroyed. The worst examples of ethnic cleansing and genocide had also been committed in Europe since World War Two; and the 427-year-old Stari Most bridge, both a historic landmark and metaphor which joined the two sides of Mostar together, was destroyed by Croatian artillery fire.

Asking Gabriela what affect the destruction of the bridge had on the locals, she is emotional, “9 November, 1993 the Old Bridge was destroyed by Croatian artillery. You ask me how I felt. For every Mostarian it was like we lost a family member. It was the symbol of our city. It was the place where we spent so many days in our youth.

“In our flat in Germany we could listen to a radio station from Bosnia. That day the whole family sat listening to the news when the radio announcer said that the Old Bridge had been hit and totally destroyed. At first, we couldn’t believe it. Nobody said a word but everybody was crying. As I said, it was like we lost a family member.

“We came back to Mostar in 1997. There were still so many ruins and the ‘Old Bridge’ was not there. First it was a wooden bridge before finally, in 2004, it was rebuilt. It’s very important the bridge was there again.”

UNESCO and the World Bank, among others, provided the $15.5million needed for the reconstruction of the bridge, using the same construction techniques of its original 1567 build. Work began in 2001, and the Stari Most bridge reopened in 2004, and now, once again, locals dive into the Neretva river below, to transcend into adulthood.

But this is only a small fix for this complex country. Progress is slow, in part due to the Dayton Peace Agreement, negotiated in 1995, showing signs of its limitations, particularly with present day politics in the Balkans holding a delicate truce. A three-president system, one each to represent the Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian populations, allows each to veto any decisions, meaning it has been used as a tool to hinder one-another’s proposals and plans, stalling everything from road repairs and welfare, to European Union membership.

Unemployment rates are over 30% and there are a significant number of war-wounded. Also, as with most countries in Central to Eastern Europe, there is a skills shortage, with the likes of doctors leaving for better pay and opportunities in richer European countries.

Even to this day, Bosnia-Herzegovina is still scarred by the conflict, littered with bomb-damaged buildings in the towns, landmines in the countryside, and the appropriate motto, ‘forgive but never forget’, graffitied across the country.

Gabriela has hope. “People are good, and good at coming together, but the politicians? We still have separate schools in Mostar [for Croatians and Bosnians], and I think all kids should attend school together. If the kids are not going to be in the classrooms together, the future cannot be good.

“Do Bosnians miss Yugoslavia? I don’t know, maybe some. Some would say no because we just had to choose if we were Croatians or Serbs. In 1974 we were allowed to say we were Muslims, but it was just religion, not nationality.”

Despite having been through so much, Gabriela is pragmatic, but realistic about the town she loves and the damage that has been caused to a country once famed for its multicultural tolerance.

“Today Mostar is a divided city. I always say it’s like the city lost its soul. The real Mostarians were expelled during the war and they never came back. My husband and I, we wanted always to come back, but it was very difficult the first years after the war.

You know the older people always spoke about the Second World War and I never thought that I would have to survive a war in my life time. But it happened. And you know, as strange as it sounds, you get used to it. Life without electricity or water in your flat, hiding from bombs… but I don’t know if I would survive it again.

“I hope there is no war again.”

by Tom McBeth

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