The city of Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina has long been reduced to a mere symbol of Balkan ethnic division by journalists and scholars. Aline Cateux looks beyond the “ethnic divisions” and Mostar’s iconic bridge “connecting East and West” often used to represent them, and finds a much more complex city.
After an intense 20-year relationship with Mostar, I decided to embark on an Anthropology PhD focused on the city. I wanted to organize the information I had collected and to dig deeper into the subject using a more scientific framework.
Another reason I chose Mostar was that for years I had been reading articles in the media that exaggerated some of the city’s features, ultimately turning it into a caricature of itself. Academic work mostly seemed to take a similar approach by focusing primarily on its famous division. I decided that examining the way Mostar had been portrayed since the Bosnian War (1992-95) was going to be a significant part of my research. Though initially I was nervous to tell my Mostar friends that the subject of my PhD was going to be their city, the response I got back from them was largely positive: “Great, we’ll finally get to read something and reflect on our experience,” was a typical reaction. I sympathized with their response, as Mostar has been viewed exclusively through the grid of ethno-national division, war, and ruins, many of them still visible in the city. In addition, almost none of the academic work produced on Mostar has ever reached them.
Keywords and the damage done
Mostar is nicknamed “Grad Slučaj” (roughly translated as “a case of a city”). It’s also known as the “the divided city”, “the city of hatreds”, “the city where violence erupts anytime”, and “the city with no reconciliation”. Nicknames and expressions used to characterize Mostar say a lot about how the city has been viewed since 1995. For 20 years, the capital of Herzegovina has been riddled by reductive and pessimistic vocabulary. The focus on division has been an obsession for journalists and researchers, along with the pervasive “reconciliation”. These thematic trends match the International Community’s stance on the so-called “post-conflict” or “transition” period. Foreign grants have poured into the country through NGOs, which have organized hundreds of peace-building workshops, funded studies on ethnic division, and held reconciliation-themed summer camps.
Every time I hear the word “reconciliation”, I recall a friend from Mostar telling me 10 years ago that she felt she had to hurry up healing her wounds from the war, come to herself and then that she had the duty to reconcile, only she didn’t know with whom. This is one problem with the word “reconciliation”— nobody bothered defining what reconciliation would mean in Mostar (or anywhere else in Bosnia-Herzegovina). What would it look like? What protocol should people follow to reconcile? In addition, what was the ultimate goal of it all? Another friend joked: “It’s like Internationals and NGOs point a finger at us, give us a nasty look and scream loudly ‘Reconcile! Now!'”
The worst aspect of this strategy is the damage it has done to the people who live there. As part of my research, I asked residents about the academic work and journalism that had made the city its subject. Many of them expressed the feeling that at one point, Mostar was like a zoo where they were being observed and dissected. Many of the interviewees described feeling that they were being viewed as incapable of understanding their own political situation. Some said they felt they were being treated like they were “mentally handicapped”. Stories of forced recollection of memories are abundant.
“I was interviewed once by a researcher who absolutely wanted me to say I had problem going to the other side of the city, which is not true,” one interviewee told me. “She insisted so much that I almost felt sorry to disappoint her.”
Another frustration expressed by many interviewees in Mostar was that they frequently don’t have access to the conclusions reached by researchers or journalists. They say they find the unequal exchange disrespectful and that it increases the feeling that they are being used to reach falsified conclusions that do not accurately reflect their life experiences and ultimately don’t help them in any meaningful way.
“We feel like lab rats,” one interviewee told me. Most of all, people expressed a strong desire to focus on positive initiatives and developments in the city rather than the past.
As one person said: “I can’t take the stories of division and war anymore.”
Stereotypes and forgotten topics
Mostar has been the subject of extensive research, but save for a few recent works exploring long-ignored aspects of the city (which therefore challenged decades-old stereotypes), the vast majority of academic writing on the topic has focused on division, reconciliation, reconstruction, diversity, and identity. Academic works on reconstruction have focused almost exclusively on the city’s Ottoman heritage. While some mention the disinterest of the International Community to rebuild the Austro-Hungarian or socialist heritage of the city (the latter usually reduced to the famous Partisan Cemetery, a masterpiece by former mayor of Belgrade and celebrated architect Bogdan Bogdanović), it seems no work has focused on this disinterest as its central subject. For example, it would be very useful to look at how and when the Old Bridge of Mostar became the symbol of reconciliation, the so-called link between divided communities. Stari Most only connects one bank of the Old City to the other. It has also enhanced the perception of Mostar as hopelessly divided, torn between East and West.
The East (comprised mostly of Bosniaks) has been the subject of extensive media and academic scrutiny, while the West is rarely mentioned as anything other than “the Croat part of the city”.
In fact, I do not recall reading a single significant work on the Western part of the city during the war, or after. Who are the people living there? Where are they from? How was life in West Mostar during the siege of 1993? (Not to mention the Serbian population, almost always excluded from the Mostarian picture).
The transformation of depictions of Mostar into a city of intractable division and hatred is particularly striking when compared to enduring descriptions of Sarajevo as a sort of multicultural paradise of cohabitation and diversity. One lie feeds the other. Mostar probably would be “Grad Slučaj” if the rest of the country was an example of “Brotherhood and Unity”, and Sarajevo still the diverse city it once was.
Finally, the methodology sections in some PhDs provide some interesting insights into how researchers approached their fieldwork and their relationships with informants. In one anthropology PhD thesis on the theme of diversity, some informants were not anonymized. One person is named and described as “mildly reliable”, ostensibly because they were believed to have held biased opinions on Mostarian NGOs because they worked in that sector. This person is also described as having been too prepared and formulaic in her speech, most likely seeking PR for her organization by giving interviews to foreigners, “as many locals have learned over the years that they potentially have something to gain from participating in these interviews”. A generation of researchers who have largely built their careers on post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as many journalists, have talked with the same local interlocutors for years (the “thank you” sections of PhDs are another relevant source of interest), and have therefore adopted the same angle over and over again. They have explored the same topics for years only to reach the conclusion that local informants have adopted a formatted speech, that they might not be reliable, and that they are somehow responsible for the proliferation of clichés about their city.
Mostar as a result is frozen in time. The vocabulary used suggests the city hasn’t changed since 1995, that nothing has healed, that nothing has evolved, and that people in Mostar still adhere to the politics that devastated the city more than two decades ago. No one can deny that Mostar is still a divided city to some extent, but what about examples of the breaching of those divisions? What about the attempts at solidarity, and social mobilizations, big and small? The social revolts of 2014’s so-called Bosnian Spring provide a good example: while you can find numerous accounts of the Sarajevo and Tuzla demonstrations and plenums, the relevant literature about Mostar is virtually nonexistent. The demonstration of the 7th of February 2014 is described by numerous Mostarians as “the most important moment in Mostar since the end of the war” but because of its smaller size compared to that of other cities, it seems it was not worth a study, nor was the plenum of Mostar that did continue for weeks but in a less spectacular manner than in Sarajevo or Tuzla on which attention focused. In the studies of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s social mobilization, Mostar is often left aside as if the city was at the periphery of the country’s social movements, a mere footnote.
For more than 20 years, almost anything that has failed to fit the narrative of “Grad Slučaj” has been excluded from academic research and the media. Stereotypes, caricatures, articles about architectural ruins, traces of war, and football rivalry still dominate the discourse. Grants for research have played an enormous role in the seemingly singular focus on reconciliation, ethnic division, and of course, “post-war reconstruction”. As a result, much attention paid to the city continues to focus on subjects that have little to do with the more complex reality of Mostar and its people.
Cover photo credit: flöschen/flickr/some rights reserved