Mostar – a city forever divided?

Mostar, the most important city of the Herzegovina region of southern Bosnia-Herzegovina, has not had an election for 8 years. The gridlock makes it hard for the city to develop. Mostar takes pride in being the country’s most ethnically diverse city. Since the war, however, Mostar is a divided city.

By David Helander

Srđan Škoro takes a seat at his restaurant in Mostar and asks for a glass of juice. The place has a garden big enough for 300 people. During the summer season, it’s often full. Right next to the garden flows the narrow river Radobolja, after which the restaurant is named. It’s the first day of April, but it’s sunny and warm even here in the shade – over 20 degrees. Mostar has a mediterranean climate, the Adriatic Sea is only an hour’s drive away. Srđan Škoro takes a sip from his juice.

”It’s hard to talk about Mostar without mentioning the situation as it is but obviously I do see a lot of positives,” he says. ”I like our weather. I think there is a lot of potential here. In good hands, with a good government, I think we could prosper ”

Srđan is a twenty-four, tall and speaks English like an academic, often correcting himself mid-sentence, carefully choosing each word. He’s known here. Whenever someone passes the table, they say hello and asks how everything is going. He took over the restaurant from his father, Zoran, who passed away in a sudden heart attack four years ago. He was 54 years old.

”It was a shock. A lot of things that happened since maybe wouldn’t have happened if he was still alive,” says Srđan. The last year of his father’s life they were close. ”Before that he dedicated his life to the restaurant. I grew to understand how much pressure there is when I took over.”

The restaurant was opened in 1998, just three years after the War had ended. Srđan’s father, a Bosnian Serb, opened it together with a Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) and a Croat. This area, on the western side of the city is ”very kind of liberal”, according to Srđan. A few blocks away is the main Boulevard, the informal border between the western, Croat, and the eastern, Bosniak, sides of the city. A bit further to the east is the old town, where Mostar’s most well-known landmark, the reconstructed Stari Most (Old Bridge), crosses the river Neretva’s turqoise water. The bridge is a symbol for Mostar, visible on its coat of arms and flag, as well as every postcard sold here. The city takes its name from the Mostari, bridge-keepers during the early days of the city.

Srđan was born in 1991, not even a year before the war broke out. Photo by David Helander
Srđan was born in 1991, less than a year before the war broke out. Photo by David Helander

Everybody knows

The Serb population of Mostar is significantly smaller than the Croat and Bosniak ones. Before the war, there were about 24 000 Serbs in Mostar. Today, there are 5 000. According to Srđan Škoro, they do not have a tight-knit community.

”Even if there was one I wouldn’t be a part of it,” he says. He doesn’t really care about ethnicity. ”When I go to Croatia, I am a Bosnian. When I go to Serbia, I am a Bosnian. Here, I’m a Serb.”

Relatives spoke a lot about the war with him and his brother when they were little. Some felt badly treated by the other ethnicities in Mostar.

”They pretty much have the typical Serb side,” he says. Denial of war crimes committed by Serbs, while viewing themselves as the losing side of the war. ”They didn’t have it easy here. I can understand, but you can’t negate everything just because you had a bad time.”

On the main Boulevard of Mostar, the informal border between east and west, many buildings remain destroyed since the war. Photo by David Helander
On the main Boulevard of Mostar, the informal border between east and west, many buildings remain destroyed since the war. Photo by David Helander

Formally, Mostar is a united city. After the Bosnian War it was split in two municipalities. The west was Croat, and the east Bosniak. Today, it has one city council, one mayor, one budget. Practically, however, it is still divided. Palmena, a woman who works for an organisation collecting money for poor children sits outside of a supermarket in the Old Town.

”People come up and ask if we give money to Serbs, Bosniaks, and so on,” she says. ”Mostar is really special about it. Everybody knows that Mostar is divided in two parts. Everybody knows even though it’s not written.”

Srđan went to a Croat school, and was constantly reminded of being a minority. The ethnicity in Bosnia-Herzegovina is inherited on your father’s side. Since Srđan’s father was a Serb, Srđan is a Serb. His Bosniak grandmother is irrelevant.

”That’s why there is a problem with parents today who will allow their sons to other religions but not their daughter, because the child will then be raised in another religion.” He does say that ”most people don’t care”, but he has experience of it himself.

“It’s getting better but it’s a common thing.” He talks about girls he’s dated whose parents have had issues with his ethnicity. ”It’s a fucked up thing here.”

Srđan was only a year old when the War began. The family left Mostar, and spent time in different parts of Europe. A few months in Gothenburg on the Swedish west coast, some time in Zagreb, and then Gradac, a small town on the Croatian coast. The time was chaotic, and he doesn’t know which order they went where.

”Chronologically I’m not sure,” he says. He does know they returned to Mostar after the war, and Srđan’s younger brother was born there in December 1995, the same month as the peace agreement was signed. His memories of the time are sparse.

”I remember 1996 when my grandfather died. I remember taking a walk with my mother when my brother was a baby.” He has no memories of the war. ”I just guess there wasn’t anything to remember. I couldn’t grasp the situation.”

A large cross overlooks the Old town of Mostar. It is placed on the mountain from which the Croatian Defence Council (HVO) destroyed the Old Bridge in 1993. The reconstructed bridge was opened in 2004. Photo by David Helander
A large cross overlooks the Old town of Mostar. It is placed on the mountain from which the Croatian Defence Council (HVO) destroyed the Old Bridge in 1993. The reconstructed bridge was opened in 2004. Photo by David Helander

Bosnia and Herzegovina declared itself independent from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in April 1992. When the Serb-dominated Yugoslav people’s army (JNA) besieged Mostar, the Croats and Bosniaks united and managed to push the JNA back. The alliance was however fragile, and the two turned against each other in late 1992. Mostar, the most ethnically diverse city in Bosnia-Herzegovina, became a melting pot of hatred. Neighbour fought neighbour, and in 1993, the formerly peaceful town had become a divided one. The main Boulevard of the city was the front line during the war. Walking along it today, you still see many burnt out buildings. Others are stained with bullet holes.

Dr Martin Coward is senior lecturer in International Politics at Newcastle University. He has researched the urban destruction of Mostar during the war, and has written the book “Urbicide”. Having the same suffix as genocide and homicide, urbicide sort of means ”violence against a city”. The term originated in architectural criticism in the United States in the 1960’s, but became more widely used because of the Bosnian War. Martin Coward exlains:

”We concentrate a lot on the human factors. We think that houses and tower blocks are replaceable things. But we have found that by changing the urban landscape you can change communities,” he says over Skype from Newcastle.

”There was a deliberate destruction of the urban environment. Not just symbolic buildings – the bridge for example – but also day to day architecture; houses, car parks and so forth,” he says. ”There’s a sense that there’s actually a kind of ongoing war against the built environment itself. The places that establish shared spaces are distinctive because they can be occupied by all kinds of different communities. Ethnic nationalists don’t want to create communities that have lots of different elements, and so they make war on houses, squares and streets in order to try and get rid of the shared space”

Mostar has not had local elections since 2008, when the High Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina deemed the system unconstitutional. The city’s division in six voting districts, de facto based on ethnicity, was problematic. The districts were not proportional. This is the reason why for almost eight years, there has been no working city council.

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With the missing letters, the sign reads “Grad Mostar”, City of Mostar. There has been no working city council since 2008. Photo by David Helander

The political parties of Mostar are working on reforming the voting system. The Bosniak-dominated Party for Democratic Action (SDA) have proposed a division of Mostar into two municipalities. The ruling Croatian Democratic Union party (HDZ BiH) have suggested changing the current six into five, while the Democratic Front party (DF) along with the Social Democrats (SDP) have proposed three. According to Damir Džeba, president of the city committee of Mostar for the currently ruling centre-right Croatian Democratic Union party (HDZ BiH), there have been attempts to make one proposal, but they did not succeed in getting along.

”It’s very hard to negotiate and to get in line with one unified proposal when you have changing opinions on daily basis,” he said over phone.

Mahmut Trčalo entered politics three years ago, when the Democratic Front was formed. Photo by David Helander
Mahmut Trčalo entered politics three years ago, when the Democratic Front was formed. Photo by David Helander

Mahmut Trčalo is the local leader of the social democratic Democratic Front party (DF) in Mostar. His office is in a newly built building. Orhan Đulančić, the leader of DF’s local youth party, is there as a translator.

”Mostar should be unified in administration and the old war borderlines should not be the divide,” says Mahmut Trčalo. He points towards the main Boulevard just a block away. Twenty years ago he was there, as a soldier in the new army of the independent Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Damir Džeba of HDZ BiH agrees with the importance of a unified Mostar.

”I am fully against any kind of divisions,” he said. ”SDA want to do this with their proposal. It’s totally against common sense. This type of ethnic division is very dangerous for future generations.”

The last census in Bosnia was done in 1991. Then, Mostar’s total population of 126,628 people consisted of 34,63% Bosniaks, 33.99 % Croats and 18,83 % Serbs.  A new one was expected in 2013 but has yet to arrive. According to Damir Džeba of HDZ BiH, the delay is due to problems dividing 80 000 people into the correct ethnicity. He does have the preliminary results. The largest nationality is Croats, being about 5 000 more than the Bosniaks.

The mother country

The relationships between the Bosnian Serbs and Croats with the Croats and Serbs from respective ’mother country’ are sometimes tense. Josip Ladan is a student of journalism from Sölvesborg in southern Sweden. His Bosnian-Croat parents fled from central Bosnia in 1992.

”The ’regular’ Croatians see us Bosnian Croats as kind of the cousin from the countryside who you don’t want to be with but of have to,” he said. ”The Serbs from Serbia have the same attitude towards Bosnian Serbs.”

”The tensions are a lot higher here than in Croatia and Serbia which had their own countries to themselves,” says Srđan Škoro. He claims the Bosnia Croats and Serbs are more nationalist than those from Croatia and Serbia. ”They act like they are the real deal, loving their ’motherland’ more than they do in Serbia or Croatia,” he says.

”Croatia has its own country and it’s own people – they are on a path to EU integration, talking about economy, trying to lower crime and so on. They are a bit beyond the war talk. It’s not as fresh there as it is here.”

Damir Džeba of the HDZ BiH, also a professor of Croatian language and literature, says the ethnic tensions in Mostar are exaggerated by the media.

”Believe me, wounds healed enough,” he says over the phone from his office. He tells me about many friends of his, who own companies. They do not look at ethnicities when employing people. ”They employ muslim Bosniaks, serbs. They need a good worker.”

”There is communication between the Bosniaks and Croats,” says Mahmut Trčalo of the Democratic Front. ”They even go out together, especially the young people. In general this is very peaceful town.”

”The problem is of course when there is football,” adds Orhan Đulančić and laughs.


Srđan’s house is right next to the restaurant. There are bullet holes in the façade.

”Pretty much every house built before the war looks like this,” he says. He drives his green Peugeot to Bare, a green area just a few minutes away. In the car, he talks about the time during the war. Relatives and older friends have told him about how it was.

”People knew when there were bombings. There was a curfew when you couldn’t leave your house. A lot of damage was done at that time.” Despite that, around 2 000 people were killed in Mostar during the war.

Unifying a city via making sure ethnicity isn’t the term for public office is one thing. The job of ”re-mixing” Mostar is another. This has proven to be very difficult. The people of Mostar see the main Boulevard as a natural separation line. Two parallel societies have developed. Srđan Škoro says that if you want a driver’s license, you go to the office on your side of the city. Going to the other is unnecessary, and is only done by people to make a ”political point”, he says. How mixed Mostar was before the war is still being discussed. It had the highest amount of mixed marriages in Bosnia, and even though there were areas with higher concentrations of either Bosniaks or Croats, there were incentives to mix.

”Paramilitary forces effectively divided the city,” said Martin Coward of Newcastle University. ”By a deliberate pattern of urban destruction they managed to create this kind of dead zone between Croat and Bosniak populations, and effectively divide the city.”

The ”dead zone” is the main Boulevard. Damir Džeba does not see a big problem with the separate schools of Mostar. He points out that there is no law prohibiting people from mixing.

”I’m asking myself ’why did we have a war?’. Before, we were united. We had one educational system. We had one language. If we are that much similar, why did we have the war then?” he says. ”But it’s also huge and complex questions.”

”This is a common thing to be said, from hardcore extremists to well-meaning politicians,” says Martin Coward. ”But the evidence does not really back up that story. Well, if people were that separate before that war, why would the worst violence be in the places where there were most mixing? This suggests that ethnic nationalists had to do a lot of work to separate out these communities, since mixing was the default.”

While the future of Mostar as a city is uncertain, Srđan hopes to find someone who can take over the restaurant from him.

”I don’t think I would ever be a good restauranteur or owner. It would take a log time to learn how to cook.” He says the best restaurants are run by cooks. ”I don’t want to do this. It’s not like I can say I like it, but my father gave his all to this place. I owe it to him to not ruin it.”

”I do feel it dragged me down somewhat. But if someone from here read that they would think I was a spoiled brat,” he says. ”It’s not the biggest of issues. I have it much better than most people here. I’m not hungry, while people are eating from garbage cans.”