The old front line of the Bosnian war is still very much in evidence in Mostar. Buildings along both sides of the wide avenue lie in ruins and their woeful condition is highlighted further by the contrast with the few structures that have been rebuilt.
People in Mostar talk about the first and second parts of the war. The first was when the Muslims and Bosnian Croats, their two flags knotted to symbolize unity, drove the Bosnian Serbs out of Mostar. In this part of the war, the front line had been the river itself, with the Bosnian Serbs occupying the east bank and the Bosnian Croats the west.
The second part of the war was the conflict between Muslims and Croats. Muslims were disappointed that, despite a formal alliance signed by Croatian president Tudjman and Bosnian president Izetbegovic, the Croat forces were content with their victories in the west of the country and failed to help the Bosnian army with the liberation of Sarajevo. For their part, many Croats were suspicious about Muslim collusion with the Serbs in the earlier war for the independence of Croatia. Bosnian Croats considered Mostar their capital and when Muslims began to be removed from positions of importance within the city, the knotted flags began to unravel. With the influx of refugees, ethnically cleansed by the Serbs from their homes in the north and east of the country, the tensions boiled over into open conflict, with the Croats pushing the Muslims across to the eastern side of the Neretva.
The front line fluctuated from the river to the nearby and parallel Dr Ante Starcevic Boulevard that shows the worst damage of the war to the present day. Buildings on both sides still show the ethnic symbols of the conflict; the blue and gold fleur-de-lis on the Bosnian side and across the street, the red and white Croatian checkerboard or the letters HVO (Croatian territorial defence). On the western side the catholic cathedral stands rebuilt in stark reinforced concrete with the height of its renewed bell-tower tripled in either (depending on your perspective) a proud, patriotic gesture of survival and defiance, or a childish one-upmanship over the highest minaret. A few other buildings have been rebuilt, but the overwhelming majority still show their wartime scars and the worst are just crumbling stone shells with window-sized gouges like the hollow eye sockets of a skull.
Most of the buildings along here are two or three storeys at the most, but overlooking the square where local men play chess behind the memorial to Spanish peacekeepers, is a modern high-rise building of ten or twelve floors. It’s a particularly graphic reminder of just how recently this war was fought; you can find pictures of razed two-storey stone houses in books about the first and second world wars and see buildings of a similar size crumbling in poorer regions of many countries. A gutted Ferro-cement high-rise however is a rarer sight and must be the victim of a conflict both recent and major.