In Sheltered Mostar, Tentative Rebuilding

Article excerpt

MOSTAR, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- High above the turquoise-green Neretva River, a suspended rope walkway links the crumbling bridgeheads that once belonged to Mostar's Stari Most, or old bridge. For five centuries, the magnificent stone bridge was a symbol of the peaceful coexistence between Muslims, Catholic Crosats and Orthodox Christian Serbs in this picturesque city in west Herzegovina.

Six months after the termination of the fierce Croat-Muslim war, the city is divided, its multiethnic community as shattered as its famous bridge. On the east side of the Neretva now live the city's 55,000 Muslims, in west Mostar the 35,000 Croats. The 20,000 Serbs have left for Serb-occupied Bosnia.

Under European Union administration since June, Mostar is the site of an ambitious pilot project of reconstruction and ethnic reconciliation, an experiment that could serve as model should a similar peace ever come to the rest of this country.

In contrast to the few bullet-scarred buildings in west Mostar, the historic Old City of east Mostar lies in ruin. The Turkish marketplace, the vine-covered houses and cobbled passageways are piles of rubble, the work of Bosnian Croat forces that relentlessly shelled the east bank for almost 10 months.

When the Bosnian Croat army attacked the Muslims in April 1993, ending their common alliance against the Bosnian Serbs, its leadership set out to cleanse west Herzegovina of non-Croats and eventually annex "Croatian" parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina to Croatia proper. The Croat government in Zagreb, as well as the Catholic hierarchy in west Herzegovina, threw its full support behind the extremist Bosnian Croat leadership, encouraging and aiding the expulsion of tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims from their homes.

The vicious, senseless war within the war ended early this spring, when Zagreb buckled under heavy pressure from the international community, as well as from the Catholic hierarchies in Sarajevo and Croatia, to abandon its dream of a greater Croatia. As abruptly as the war began, it ended. The Croatian government agreed to the Washington Plan, which proposed a sovereign Bosnian federation, governed from Sarajevo and made up of Croat, Muslim and mixed cantons.

But even the EU's $40 million 1994 budget for Mostar, a figure to be doubled next year, may not be enough to quell the resentment on both sides of the Neretva. At their headquarters in the deluxe Hotel Ero in west Mostar, the teams of EU architects, health experts, social workers and lawyers as well as a German-led, 186-man western European Union police force know the stakes are high.

"If Mostar can succeed, the federation can succeed," says the barrel-chested project chief, Hans Koschnick, a German social democrat and former mayor of Bremen for 20 years.

After two months on the job, the EU team has restored electricity and running water to most of the city. But in east Mostar, extended families live in cellars and the skeletal remains of housing blocks. An emergency reconstruction project to make 3,000 homes livable by winter's onset will be too little, too late, say the people of east Mostar, exhausted and still in shock after the siege.

At night, the sound of Serb artillery echoes through the mountains behind east Mostar, where the Bosnian federation ends and Bosnian Serb-held territory begins. …