Divided by a river of hate

March 1, 1996

The single most shocking thing walking along the front line in Mostar is the sight of huge Austro-Hungarian houses, burnt out and ravaged by shells, their facades destroyed by nearly a year of strafing from machine guns. It is impossible to imagine the intensity of gunfire needed to strip an inch of stone from the front of a building. Behind these facades is the river Neretva. Behind that, East Mostar, where everything is destroyed.

And yet East Mostar has an overwhelming smell of optimism - the smell of wet concrete and freshly sawn wood. Parts of some buildings are already functioning again, small cafes and bars have opened and everywhere men climb scaffolding, mix concrete on the street, unhurriedly patching together the ruins of their once beautiful city.

In stark contrast, West Mostar looks almost untouched. High-rise apartment blocks, well stocked shops, thriving bars and hotels line the streets. BMWs and Mercedes drive through the avenues of what could be any small European city.

The war in Mostar went through two phases. The first was the attack by Chetnik forces (so-called Bosnian Serbs) during 1992 which resulted in the Chetniks being driven from Mostar to the mountains to the east of the city. The second followed in l993 when Croatian separatists destroyed most of the Bosnian-held east of the city. From West Mostar the HVO separatists pounded their Bosnian neighbours with 100,000 heavy shells over nine months.

There are two of everything in Mostar. In the west businesses, schools, cafes and civic authorities use the modern facilities of the thriving pre-war city. In the east the same institutions struggle for survival in the remains of buildings reduced to rubble by all-out war. But they are rebuilding a civic life with patience, energy and pride.

Before the war the Dzemal Bijedic University of Mostar was a large modern institution located on the west side of a united, multi-cultural city set in stunning mountains. The only thing dividing the city was the beautiful river Neretva. Students came to Mostar from all over the former Yugoslavia.

Named after the former Yugoslav President Dzemal Bijedic, it boasted five faculties (civil, electrical and mechanical engineering, law and economics) and several research institutes linked to the region's industries. Before the war there were about 3,000 students in Mostar. Now on the west side there are about 2,000, in East Mostar just over l00. Of an original 300 in West Mostar, 120 full-time and 60 visiting staff remain, while in East Mostar there are fewer than 30.

Murat Prado, a lecturer in the economics faculty in the east, is a quiet, thoughtful man. His controlled manner and calm voice conceal a burning desire to see his university contribute to the normalisation of Mostar. He taught at Dzemal Bijedic University before the outbreak of war but left with his wife and family in 1993 during the HVO attack and lived for two years as a refugee in Norway. His family are still in Norway but he and two colleagues returned home to teach.

At the end of 1992 the Croatian authorities in West Mostar decreed that the name Dzemal Bijedic should be dropped and a Croatian university be established with Croat as its only official language. Prior to this staff had been required to sign a declaration stating their desire to continue at the university. This was taken as giving consent to such "croatianisation". Wolfgang Benedek, of the University of Graz, in his 1994 report on higher education in Mostar for the Council of Europe, says: "The change of name and the introduction of Croatian as the only official language happened in a legally doubtful way."

Professor Prado is less restrained. "All non-Croats had to decide if they wanted to cooperate with the extremists and many said no to that kind of cooperation. An ethnically 'clean' territory is unacceptable for me and many of our professors."

Out of 300 staff, 222 signed the agreement to continue working in the university. Professor Benedek states in his report that "nearly all of the Muslim and Serb professors and students who remained after the first phase of the war were detained by Croats during the second phase and there are many reports of maltreatment of professors and students even at the university buildings themselves". Since the signing of the "wish to remain" document in 1992 a further 80 staff have left West Mostar and have been replaced by Croats.

Stefan Sunaric, the pro-rector of the University of East Mostar, who is of Serb background, does not believe his former colleagues support the politicisation of the university. "In terms of re-unification there is not a problem between university staff on one side or the other. The problem is with politicians. This town does not need two universities."

In East Mostar staff and students continue to work despite the fact that most male students are also in the army and the facilities are extremely limited. Professor Prado says: "We would like to have visiting lecturers to come for maybe one semester. If it is possible that they want to cooperate with us it will be very useful for the next development here at the university.

"The students haven't books, paper, pencils. The biggest problem is that you must dictate or improvise something for teaching as we have almost no equipment."

Professor Prado opened his briefcase and took out a block of 138 sheets of carefully hand-written pages. "This is my text book for my students. I had to write it myself."

Offers of support to Bosnian universities through "Academic Lifeline for Bosnia" should be sent to Zoran Pajic, School of Law, King's College, London WC2R 2LS. Tel 0171 873 2023, fax 0171 873 2465.

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