Mostar: one family, three armies, a divided city

MOSTAR, Bosnia (Reuters) - Like Bosnia, Zoran Laketa has a complicated past.

A bullet riddled building is seen is seen before being repaired under an European Union reconstruction programme in Mostar March 29, 2012. REUTERS/Srdjan Zivulovic

An ethnic Serb, he fought for the Catholic Croats in Bosnia’s 1992-95 war, against his brother in the Muslim-dominated Bosnian army, and against the Orthodox Serb forces that drafted their father.

Ask him what he is, and he’ll reply “Mostarac”, a man of Mostar, the southern Bosnian town split by the emerald waters of the Neretva river.

Laketa epitomises the complexities of the Bosnian conflict that kept the West dithering over intervention in the face of mass ethnic cleansing.

Twenty years since the start of the war, ethnicity is still a deep dividing line - no more so than in Mostar, where Croats hold the west bank, Muslim Bosniaks the east, in an uncomfortable co-existence that has resisted foreign efforts to promote reintegration.

A town of 72,000 people, it has two electricity companies, two phone networks, two postal services, two utility services and two universities.

Croat and Bosniak children go to separate classes, learning from different textbooks.

Mirroring the rest of the country, Mostar’s budget is creaking under the strain of duplicate institutions and ethnic politicking that has paralysed the city more than once.

Ethnic divisions feed two systems of political patronage. Unite the two sides, and someone is out of a job.

“All the talk about national quarrels is just aimed at public consumption, so the (Bosniak) SDA party and the (Croat) HDZ can share the governing of the city,” said Mirsad Behram, a Mostar journalist for the Starmo web portal.


Quick-witted and carrying a scar over his left eye from a bar brawl, Laketa is a true child of Mostar, once the most ethnically diverse city of socialist Yugoslavia and named after the guardians of the Ottoman-era Old Bridge that spanned the Neretva.

The 16th century bridge was destroyed by Croat firepower in 1993, as Croats and Bosniaks - once united against the Serbs - went to war against each other and Laketa and his younger brother found themselves on opposing sides of the river.

Their father had already been drafted into the Serb forces at the outbreak of the war, but the brothers felt little affiliation with the Serbs, whom Laketa likened to paramilitaries.

Young men of military age, Laketa joined the Croats, and his brother the Bosniaks.

“We had to be in the army to survive,” he said.

“When I look at it today, I actually shot at my brother, I shot at my best friends, but those were the times - soldiers are soldiers. I didn’t choose it, and nor did my brother.”

“Imagine it - one family in three armies.”

In August 1993, Laketa’s brother was killed aged 23. Laketa, then aged 25, was wounded a month later. Their father fought until the end of the war in December 1995.

“It was destiny,” he said. “I survived, at least to tell this story so that such evil never happens to anyone again.”

Bosnia’s foreign overseers have repeatedly tried to bridge Mostar’s division, quite literally when they rebuilt the arched Old Bridge in its original style at a cost of 10 million euros.


The new, Old Bridge was opened in 2004, and hailed as a symbol of healing. But the divisions persist.

Two years ago, rubbish piled up in the streets and unpaid fire-fighters blocked roads as rival nationalist parties argued after the city budget.

Now, a local election scheduled for October may be postponed in a row between Bosniaks and Croats over how the city mayor should be elected.

Among ordinary Mostar residents, there are those who mingle, and others who have not crossed the bridge since the Croat and Bosniak armies agreed to a peace in early 1994.

They were joined into a Federation of Bosniaks and Croats, which together with the autonomous Serb Republic makes up postwar Bosnia, an unwieldy state of Byzantine complexity and strict ethnic quotas.

“The advantage of Mostar is that people here meet, they can have direct contact every day, whereas in other cities they don’t meet at all,” said a Western diplomat stationed in Bosnia.

On the other hand, he said, “this place becomes a flashpoint because the people live together.”

It was with foresight that, at the height of the war, Laketa and his ethnic Serb wife named their two newborn daughters Danea and Dea, names untypical for any of Bosnia’s rival communities.

In their late teens now, Laketa says he sees no future for his children in Bosnia, where he is among the estimated 26 percent of the workforce registered as unemployed.

“We gave them neutral names so that nobody could recognise them,” he said, “so nobody could put them in any of these ethnic boxes and say that by their names they are Bosniaks, Croats or Orthodox.”

“It’s been 20 years since the war started, and the guardians of these three ethnic cages have robbed this country of everything.”

Editing by Matt Robinson and Ralph Boulton