Mostar: The City of Apartheid

The catholic Croats are proud of “their” Medjugorje, and they often go there. But as some humorists say: Now to something completely different.
Tourism sign at the front line, seen through an artillerie whole
To do it the other way around, going from Medjugorje to East Mostar (meaning east of the former front line, the Muslim part) is not all that easy. No consistent rumors about buses, I don’t want to hitchhike (like I did before) with all the baggage, so I splash out 30 DM for a taxi. “What is the name of the street again? But that is in East Mostar”, the Croat driver says. He absolutely refuses to cross what is commonly called “the invisible wall”, the completely destroyed former frontline.
50 m from that frontline- street, he stops.
82-year old Muslim in his 500-year old Turkish house There I go, in the hot sun (40 degrees centigrade in the shadow), walking over a former frontline, where hundreds of thousands of bullets have hit every single building, going into Mostar’s old city, trying to find the pension I have phoned. 2 liters of sweat later, the price of that pension has incredibly increased since yesterday. No way. Good-bye.
An 82-year-old Muslim man stops me. “I have a 500-year old Turkish house. Do you want to see it?” Yes, but first a bed and a shower. No, he wants to show me his old Turkish house. One liter of sweat later, we arrive there. Somewhere in the middle, he stops: “My heart!” Then I have to make the tour of that – indeed – wonderful house. It belonged to a wealthy Osman family, has survived World War I and World War II, but not the 90’s. I get to see the kitchen, the living room, and some books as old as 500 years. I recover somewhat over tea, where he tells me that he also has a house in Western Mostar, now occupied by the army of the Republic of “Herceg-Bosna”, a republic that is theoretically dead and buried. But Dayton is one thing, the facts on the ground are quite another. As much as I feel sorrow for the victims of this war, I almost become one from dehydration: I reluctantly bring up the subject of getting a place to stay. Oh yes, he knows someone, “very close”. Almost on the other end of Eastern Mostar, two liters of sweat later, I get to know another proud descendent of the Osmans, around 60 years old, married “three or four times, I don’t remember”. The guy has a lot of humor and knows four languages. Finally, I have arrived, six hours after I’ve left Medjugorje, 30 km away.
In front of the Karadzozbeg Mosque (1557)
After having slept under a Cross and after having had breakfast next to the picture of the Pope, I now wake up to the sound of Mosques. This is the multicultural Bosnia and Herzegovina – you can still see it, if you are a foreigner.
The very symbol of multiculturalism was the “old bridge” (Stari Most) – that the Croats destroyed in 1993. Now you can see how the Hungarians fish the pieces of one of Europe’s most remarkable bridges out of the Neretva River. Whenever possible, they will use the same stones. The running joke is that Stari Most will be older than before with the Hungarians re-building it. Of course, SFOR takes care of security, and the new bridge will need 24 hours of surveillance, that’s for sure.
Stari Most - can you recognize where it used to be?
Former front line between East and West MostarEvery day, I do what few locals do, at least three times: crossing the former front line, that 1.5 km stretch of a street that makes Mostar continental Europe’s city of apartheid. On the Eastern side of that street – which a sarcast named “Boulevard of European Union” – you are in Bosnia and Herzegovina. On the Western side, everyone feels and behaves like in Croatia. There is even a provocative sign: “Welcome to Croatia”. In a café in Western Mostar, the mood is easy until the waiter, who was an HVO soldier during the war, wants to start talking about the war. “This is f****** occupation”, he says, adding that later he earned only 1’500 DM as an interpreter and field officer for the ICRC (an incredible amount in Bosnia). Thanks to the ICRC job, his knowledge about Switzerland is very deep and differentiated. We hand out syringes and drugs for free to drug addicts (half-true, to avoid HIV, crime and prostitution), while he would kill his son if he was addicted. I also learn that the Swiss, living in a multicultural state, are “foreigners in your own country”. One day, the Croats will kick the international community out of their country, just like in Somalia. And as to the Muslims: “Can’t you choose your neighbors?”. No, we can’t.
Rebuilding a Serb house in Rastani, near MostarI am aware that Western Mostar is not Bosnia; it’s the worst of Bosnia. Only a few kilometers outside Mostar, in the village of Rastani, the other Bosnia can be seen. Here, Serbs and Muslims help each other re-build completely destroyed houses. The Serb coordinator for the return of the Serb refugees is overly optimistic: “This will be an eldorado”, while a pensioner, who has to live with less than 100 DM a month, says they will continue to rely on international aid – even for food. Only the Croats of Rastani try to do some last-minute obstruction to the return of the refugees, by cutting off the water to the Serb and Muslim part of town, for example. One Muslim historian present complains: “We are a protectorate. Why doesn’t Mr. Petritsch turn on the water?”.
In East Mostar, also everyone wants to tell war stories, emphasizing their roles as victims. “Once a grenade just went 2 meters past me when I was running to get water in the Mosque”, a woman tells me. Most Muslims seem to be quite secular: If you look at the dresses of the young women, you are convinced that the Sharia is not what they think about the whole day…
Mixed graveyard in Western MostarThe most pervert thing about Mostar are – again – the cemeteries. Like everywhere in the towns that were in the war zones, almost all green areas have been transformed into cemeteries. But in Western Mostar, you can learn history from these cemeteries. In some of them, Catholic and Muslim graves are next to each other – that was in the first phase of the war, when Croats and Bosniaks fought alongside against the Serb attack. In others, it’s Croat-only – ethnically divided, like everything in this country.
But things are moving towards the better, even in this horrible town. The youngsters sometimes go to the discos of the “other side”, fall in love with each other, but don’t say anything to their parents… The mafia cooperates. And at the front line, the first café is open again, and some renovation is being done.
250’000 deaths and 2 mio. refugees can’t be forgotten in a few years.
Old or new demons? Former front line.

Medjugorje: An Oasis of Peace

Sitting in the train that takes me to Croatia, I was thinking about the reactions of my friends and relatives. One might think I go to a war, not a country. Why Bosnia? [when I write „Bosnia“, I also mean „Herzegovina“]? What drove me there is the interest in world politics, some journalistic work, and – most importantly – my interest in human nature.
I am now waiting for the bus that takes me from the wonderful Croatian town of Dubrovnik up to Medjugorje, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, thinking that I have probably left the last tourists behind. I am wrong.
Driving up to Bosnia, it’s difficult even to tell where Croatia ends and Bosnia and Herzegovina begins. On the other side of the little-controlled border, there is still a Croatian flag. In the bus up to Medjugorje, look out of the bus windows The currency is the Croatian „Kuna“. Don’t throw away your Croatian phone card. The mobile phone shows „HR“ on its display. And, very important to the local Croats, the language is „Croatian“. (Outsiders, like linguists, consider Serbo-Croatian one language, with the dialects „Croatian“ and „Serbian“. But outsiders don’t know that war can destroy languages as well.)
The first indications that we have entered a new sovereign state are four wheel driven „OSCE“, „UN“ and „SFOR“ vehicles. And then, after about 10 minutes in the country, a shocking sight I will never forget in my life. Our bus drives past completely destroyed villages where not one roof is left on any house. I am looking out of the window, and I see nothing but ruins. And after the ruins: a cemetery. Villages replaced by cemeteries. Welcome to Bosnia and Herzegovina!
In these cemeteries, there is no peace.
St. James Church
But I do find peace – in Medjugorje, in the mountains of the Herzegovina. An oasis of peace so close to where the heaviest fighting on European soil since World War II took place. It’s difficult to find a bed (Medjugorje has 17’000 of them) because of a youth festival. All of the sudden, I find myself in the middle of probably the biggest spiritual center in the world. I have become a pilgrim.
Thousands celebrate the mass in 8 languages
Ivan, one of the visionaries, in front of his houseSix teenagers claim they had apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1981. They can see her three-dimensionally, talk to her, and she talks to them, they say. “I have no idea why the Gospa [as the Croats call her] has chosen me”, Ivan – one of the visionaries – tells me in a rare interview. Up until today, the Virgin is supposed to appear to three out of the six visionaries every day at 18.40 h.

The message of “Our Lady” was and is a very Catholic one: pray, fast, confess, celebrate the Holy Mass, read the bible.
But there is one resounding message that comes again like a guiding thread: peace. On the 25th of June, 1981, Mary said to the six young Bosnian Croats that they should pray for peace. “Peace is all we have”, the poor villagers said at the time. On the 26th of June, 1991, almost exactly ten years later, the forceful disintegration of Yugoslavia began. Then, peace was all they longed for. But this supposed coincidence of dates doesn’t state who drove the Muslims out of West Mostar.
Confessing in every languageSince 1981, probably close to 20 million pilgrims from France, Spain, Ireland, Poland, Romania, the United States, Germany, Lebanon, South Korea, and many other countries, have come by the bus loads and by the charter planes to the once unknown village that developed into a center for religious tourism. They can be found up a hill now known as “Apparition Hill”. A simple wooden cross reminds people of where the first supposed apparitions took place. They also walk up the nearby stations of the cross. Some do the latter barefoot, some do it on their knees. At any time of the day and the night, pilgrims can be found at both places. Everyone is praying. There is no superficiality here. Medjugorje is the best tranquilizer you can get.
In Medjugorje, every house is a pension, and also in all other respects, religious tourists are catered for. Souvenir shops along the main road compete with each other for the most holy name: “Glory Souvenirs”, “Hallelujah”, … And if you don’t have your Visa card ready to pay for your rosary, don’t worry, you can also pay in Australian dollars.
Our Lady sells well - in any currencyThe pope has not officially recognized the apparitions of Medjugorje as supra-natural, but has also not done the contrary. What should I believe?
“In the name of God”, I ask professional visionary (and family father) Ivan and look into his eyes, “are you lying?”. At first, he doesn’t understand the English question, even when re-formulated. Then he answers: “The apostles didn’t believe Jesus. I am ready to die for the apparitions”.
And the spiritual adviser of the visionaries, Franciscan Fr. Slavko, tells me he is ready to pay transport and accommodation for everyone who wants to prove that the visionaries don’t say the truth. That’s as difficult as to prove that they are right. Either it is a show completely orchestrated right from the beginning, or it is true.
Ivan allows me to be present at one of the “extraordinary” (meaning not at 18.40 h) apparitions, today at 22 o’clock. A crowd of maybe 200 people is waiting at the place, where Mary announced to Ivan that she would appear. They sing and pray. Sometimes they compete as to which pilgrim group has the right to sing: “Pssst!”. Peace.
Ivan arrives. He is standing, looking up into the sky, and then, all of the sudden, he falls on his knees and starts praying. “This is the moment of the apparition”, says a French pilgrim behind me. Everyone prays, except for the children, the mentally handicapped, and the few who came to take photos. After five minutes, everything is over. “Our Lady had no special message today”, Ivan announces, “she appeared happily and said that she would pray especially for the sick today”. The message is immediately translated into six languages and told to the pilgrims present.
Personally, I didn’t feel anything special, but maybe that’s because I am a protestant. Protestants are very welcome in Medjugorje, especially when they become Catholics. I spoke with maybe 100 people in my two weeks as a pilgrim. Around 30 of them asked me if I’m Catholic. My standard answer: “I am the son of my parents”.
Ivan says it’s difficult to return to the real world after having spent 10 minutes with the Virgin Mary every day. As for me, I will return to the real world of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is not (yet) one of peace.

I certainly found a lot of inner peace in Medjugorje, in that oasis of peace in the middle of a former war zone. But I am not enough naïve not to see the other reality: the next ethnically cleansed (by Catholics…) Muslim village is only a few kilometers away, and the worst place in Bosnia, Mostar, is 30 km down the hill. That’s where I’m heading now.