Gunmen hold fast to divided city

Robert Fisk in Mostar finds news of the US-driven peace plan for Bosnia has done little to reduce fear and loathing between Muslims and Croats
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The Independent Online
Down by the Neretva, Ekrem Handjic has singlehandedly rebuilt the great Turkish bridge of Mostar. Two of his paintings, pseudo- Impressionist, with too many pinks and blues, depict the old stone parapet and pavement crashing into the river at the moment the bridge was destroyed in November 1993 during the Croats' 11-month siege of the Muslim side of the city.

But a new series of canvases shows the bridge resurrected, floating above the green water of the Neretva like a rainbow, a Bosnian dream that is only mocked by the broken stones and the spindly iron suspension bridge that replaces it just outside Mr Handjic's studio.

Last week's Geneva peace accord has produced more than one dream in a city where Croats tried for almost a year to liquidate the Muslims, killing 1,400 of them in the effort - and a nightmare or two as well. For if anyone is to judge the Bosnians' ability to make the Geneva agreement work, Mostar will be a litmus test, as its two front lines divide Bosnia's three communities: the Croats, living it up on the west bank of the river with their discos and direct-dial telephones; the Muslims, huddled on the east bank with their pathetic bus route to Sarajevo, no phones and infrequent water supplies; and the Serbs, peering down at them from Mount Snijeznica to the south-east.

The Serbs last presented their views to the people of Mostar three weeks ago when they fired a flurry of shells around the city. Nato replied to them four nights ago when the Muslims heard jets over the mountain, followed by a deep explosion that rattled what windows they had. As for the two communities in the city, their womenfolk and the men over 60 can visit each other with the permission of the police forces of Herzeg-Bosna, the notional Croat state on the east bank, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the largely Muslim authority which is supposed to be confederating with the Croats to secure the Americans' new peace plan.

But, as Vesna, who works at the local radio station, put it, a Bosnian peace is going to take years. ''Think of it like this,'' she says, chain- smoking outside the studio. ''I was in my apartment on the west [now Croatian] bank of the river, and these Croatian men came into my home and demanded my passport. And when they saw that I was a Muslim, they shouted: ''Out, out, out'' and I had to leave, and now I am homeless.

"I live here safely only because I am with my boyfriend, but we people need time to learn. I need time to eat my anger, the anger I feel at these men who deprived me of my home.''

Vesna believes the Geneva peace just might work one day, although it is not, she says, the peace she wants. ''I can guess what happens. Bill Clinton calls up his experts and tells them to write a constitution for this very distant country called Bosnia. They produce a constitution which makes a divided country. But I think the Americans have done nothing. It's psychological, like Ekrem Handjic's pictures. I like Ekrem, but I think this business of loving symbols is a mistake. You see, we have to be real. Of course we want to go back to our homes on the west bank but it will have to be in twos or threes, not thousands at the same time. It will take years.''

There was much fumbling for another cigarette. ''You have to see that we are a changed people. Thirty years I lived under the Communist political system - all my family were members of the Party, but we always put 'Muslim' after our name. For me it was an identity. Then there have been these four years of war and a lot of people killed and wounded. I was hit in the stomach by a Croat sniper's bullet in September 1993. It's like a bad dream now. It just missed my kidneys. Now, yes, I need a normal life, but I need time to think about my changed emotions.''

Crossing over the Neretva yesterday on the steel bridge put up by the Royal Engineers and a Spanish army engineering unit - ''A gift from the British people to the whole city of Mostar'', it says on the plaque in the middle - I stopped off for lunch at a pizza parlour on the Croat side of the river. The owner was a huge man, slightly bearded with massive, heavy-framed spectacles. He seemed faintly familiar. What did he think of the peace? ''It will be fine as long as there are no Muslims left in Mostar,'' he replied. ''They started this war, they have taken foreign ideas and tried to destroy us. Sure, we used to live together. I lived with Muslims on either side of me but they became fundamentalist, dangerous people. We can never live with them again.''

From above us came the high, waterfall roar of Nato jets. ''They're going to decide what happens; the Americans and Russians will decide - big men, not little men like us,'' he went on. ''But there can be no peace with Muslims. Do you know that 400 years ago they used to be Croats and they became half-Croats because they changed religion to be like the Turks?''

"They have no place in the country - none, ever,'' he added. A young woman beside him laughed and said: ''Muslims are no good anywhere.''

And then I remembered. Two years ago I had met this pizzeria owner. Then he had been wearing a black flak jacket and a pistol in a leather belt and was holding a large automatic weapon. A member of HOS, the most extreme Croatian militia movement, I seemed to recall. Yes, he nodded, we had met before. As he cheerfully shook hands, I said that if he really looked at the people on the other side of that deep river, he might discover that they were not dreadful at all.

He roared with laughter, louder than any passing Nato jet. ''I know these people better than you,'' he bellowed. ''They were my neighbours but they've changed.''