Mostar revels in an imperfect peace: Christopher Bellamy samples the euphoria in the Bosnian city that suffered the worst siege

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The Independent Online
'I'M FLYING two kilometres high. It's not perfect - still no water, still no electricity, but it's peace. Yesterday we had a meeting with our friends from the other side.'

I had met Selma, a secretary at the Free Mostar radio station two months ago, when the Muslim ghetto of east Mostar was under regular murderous mortar and sniper fire, and people scurried from cellar to cellar. They lived underground and moved by night, the radio station, manned by Mostar's intelligentsia, a centre of intense and stubborn life.

Because east Mostar was cut off from the outside world, apart from limited UN shipments of beans, and collecting water from the river Neretva was a dangerous business, they had only the most basic food and lived in some squalor. Families had been broken up when the Croats launched their attack on east Mostar in May last year, but on Thursday and yesterday they started meeting again, in a camouflaged tent on the ceasefire line run by the UN.

Yesterday, Mostar had been expecting the UN's commander in Bosnia, Lieutenant- General Sir Michael Rose, who has not yet visited this city. He had to stay in Sarajevo to nurture the possible peace agreement between the Bosnian government and the Serbs. East Mostar's citizens were also expecting 55 casualties to be flown out - to Sarajevo. It is a measure of how things have changed when sick people are flown into Sarajevo.

In spite of the leaden sky, cold and rain, people filled Mostar's streets as if they had emerged from some winter hibernation, waving and smiling and greeting each other. There were markets, crowds clustering round small collections of goods for sale.

It is a fragile peace. After nearly a year of the most vicious fighting in all Bosnia, the Croats, who dominate the west, and the Muslims in the east are not going to be reconciled easily. Last Friday, just as a reminder, five Serb shells from the east landed in the city. There was no doubt where they came from. The Serbs were probably trying to break the Croat-Muslim ceasefire, hoping the two sides would blame each other, but it did not work.

The fabric of the city does not suggest peace at all. When I was here before, I could not see much of it - you avoided the open spaces where you can get an impression of the landscape. Yesterday I met Jerrie Hulme, the charismatic chief of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' organisation in Mostar and Jablanica at the Tito bridge, in the city's blasted but defiant heart. From the east end of the bridge, the destruction seemed even more unbelievable. The Neretva hotel and every other building was riven with shot and shell and smashed.

The original bridge had been blown up last April, and a Bailey bridge substituted. That lasted a short while, until the Croat offensive on the night of 8/9 May last year, beginning the urban battle of Mostar. Yesterday we clambered over another repair job, slithering on slimy planks above the turquoise water of the Neretva. The Muslims had also held on to 100 yards or so of the west bank.

'I don't think either side had read their military history', said Mr Hulme, who retired from the British army in 1990 as a major-general. 'Well, maybe the Muslims had. The Croats didn't realise that unless you are prepared to go in with fixed bayonets and dig people out of cellars, they'll stay there.' In 10 months, an estimated 100,000 shells fell on east Mostar and 1,500 people were killed. The west side, the spacious modern sector, held by the Croats, housed about 27,000 people: the east, the small, old city and surrounding development, 55,000.

Peace came suddenly, but nobody could remember exactly when. The UN's special envoy, Yasushi Akashi, visited Mostar at the end of February and then there was the Washington agreement between Muslims and Croats. The mortar fire, the evidence of which is everywhere, stopped straightaway. The sniping continued, possibly even increased, and then died away. Could they remember a morning when they woke up and suddenly realised things had changed?

'I do, but I can't remember when', said Selma.

Given the destruction, you might think it would take decades to rebuild Mostar, but Mr Hulme is more optimistic. 'Within three days of the ceasefire there were people getting cement and stones to repair their flats. There's an immense amount of enthusiasm to get things right. They could do it in three years, given the money', he said. 'I am saying that assuming there is going to be a reconciliation and the continuation of the ceasefire. The Croats are maintaining their aim of having Mostar as their capital - something the Muslims can't stomach. The ceasefire is still fragile.'

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