A makeshift eyesore of a structure now stands in the place of the fabled sixteenth-century stone bridge across the Neretva River in the Bosnian town of Mostar. The beautiful old bridge, which had been an unofficial emblem of Bosnia, was destroyed in the bitter fighting between Muslims and Croats. It is still hard to believe it is gone. The bridge, built by Bosnia’s Ottoman rulers and an object of tourist wonder, had withstood earthquakes, floods and wars. But not the battles of 1992-95.
As I stood on the rickety new bridge, I couldn’t help thinking of it as a metaphor for today’s Bosnia (officially Bosnia and Herzegovina), for the destruction of the old common “Bosnian” identity, which transcended religion and ethnic background. “Screw the country that doesn’t have a Bosnia,” people used to say, crudely summing up their pride. To be Bosnian was to possess an arrogant and irreverent attitude to life, a self-deprecating sense of humor and pride in the uniqueness and diversity of the place. But that Bosnian identity, which had seemed as robust as the bridge, also blew apart in the fighting and is unlikely to be rebuilt anytime soon, particularly under present circumstances. That much was clear in the recent parliamentary elections, which solidified hard-line nationalist divisions among the three main ethnic groups: Serbs, Croats and Muslims.
By way of background, early on in the Yugoslav wars, many Bosnians believed they could avoid getting caught up in the ethnic hatreds. The nationalist manias at the time were being directed from Serbia and Croatia. The Muslims felt caught in the middle (centuries earlier, they had been Serbs or Croats but changed their religion to win better treatment from their Ottoman rulers, and their new Muslim identities became fixed). They soon began to feel they would have to side with Serbia or Croatia to survive. The Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic summed up how they felt: It was, he said, a choice between “leukemia and a brain tumor.” Around Mostar, as elsewhere, the Muslims first joined with the Croats to drive out the Serbs. Then Muslims and Croats fought each other in bitter, house-to-house battles in which the bridge was destroyed.
Eventually–and under US pressure–Muslim and Croat leaders agreed in Washington to form a Muslim-Croat federation, which, under the 1995 US-brokered Dayton agreement ending the fighting, comprises just over half of Bosnia. The other half is the Serb republic. The two work together in a single parliament. It is a good arrangement–but only on paper. In reality, Bosnia is the ugly and resentful stepchild of a peace imposed and subsidized by resented outsiders. The country has received an estimated $5.2 billion in aid, excluding military expenditures, since the Dayton agreement. It has become, essentially, a Western protectorate. It has three ethnic armies and three ethnic police forces. It depends on foreign handouts. Unemployment is at 45 percent.