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Jun 25, 2014

Back to reality for Bosnia, Croatia

Edin Dzeko scored his first World Cup goal for Bosnia in their finale Wednesday.
Edin Dzeko scored his first World Cup goal for Bosnia in their finale Wednesday.

MOSTAR, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina are out of the World Cup. Both are headed home, and whatever rush of happiness and goodwill that their journey brought to the ethnic Bosniaks and Croats in the divided nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina is coming to an end. Reality starts again now, which makes me remember the segregated city of Mostar, which is half Muslim Bosniak and half Catholic Croatian.

The myth of civilization is exposed on the broken avenue through the town, which runs straight and wide toward the hills. Gray ruins, with gaping wounds for windows and eroding walls, remain more than 20 years after the fighting stopped. At the peak of the nearest mountain, a towering, tubular steel cross dominates the skyline. Croatians built it after the war ended. Painted in huge letters on the tallest ruin, facing the Croatian side of town, is a slang phrase used when a breakup goes bad.

"Give me back my stuff," is the best translation.

The east half of the city is Muslim and the west is Croatian. The day after the Bosnian-Herzegovina team won in Lithuania to earn a spot in the World Cup, the world saw the video and pictures of the celebration in Sarajevo. Those images were both true and a lie. In Mostar, another battle in an ongoing cold war was fought. The game ended, and the bars emptied. Muslim fans headed to the avenue, which 20 years ago was the front line, the buildings turned into fortified gun positions.

A group of Croatian soccer thugs met them in the old battlefield, launching volleys of stones. They ignored the reminders rising around them about what happened when their fathers and older brothers met violently in this same street. The taunting and provocations go both ways; four years ago, Muslim fans wore Brazil jerseys to the avenue after the Brazilian national team defeated Croatia. "Football is one of the things that divides this country," says Vladimir Coric, who runs a youth center near the old front line. "So anybody who says, 'Oh, that success united the country,' no, that is not true. The war basically started on football fields. The war criminals were leaders of hooligans."

The skeletal buildings are brittle and lifeless, with only the structural beams and struts left, and none of the little details that turn concrete into a place where humans live. The graffiti covering the walls is like the past crying out in pain. A bullet-pocked wall facing the street says, in delicate cursive script: You must learn to see things through the eyes of those who can no longer see.

The Siege of Mostar peaked in 1993 during the Croat-Bosniak conflict and lasted 18 months.
The Siege of Mostar peaked in 1993 during the Croat-Bosniak conflict and lasted 18 months.

A small neutral ground exists a block or two from the old front line. It's Coric's youth center, where local rappers and rock bands perform for young Muslims and Croatians. 

"I like to call this place a bridge on dry land," Coric says.

The center struggles to take in enough money to keep its doors open. It is the only desegregated place in the city. International organizations raised money to reconstruct the ancient Old Bridge, built by the Ottomans and destroyed during the war. They even used the same stones which fell into the river after Croatian artillery destroyed it. They held celebrations and congratulated themselves on reconciliation. The bridge is now open, and a block or two away, the front line remains as the soldiers left it when shooting stopped. They fixed the easy symbol instead of the complicated reality.

The bombed-out avenue isn't an accident. Politicians want it to remain a scar, so that the experience of crossing from one side to another evokes the pain and memories of the war. If everything got rebuilt, then people might slowly begin to mix. Instead, the front line is reserved for symbolic fights, recreating the battles fought by the older generation.

"You have young people who were taught by their parents to hate," Coric says. "They are becoming new members of the old movements."

Croatian soccer hooligans, the ultras, led the stoning of the celebrating Bosnian fans. They hang out at a pub not far from here. My translator, Dzemal, takes down directions from Coric, and soon we take a seat in the corner. We order two Croatian beers. The bartender plays menacingly with a knife. Bandages wrap most of the hands in the bar. A banned Croatian nationalist singer plays on the stereo. We ask carefully about the national team.

"I don't think they will win a single match," one hooligan says. "The Bosnians will wear Brazilian shirts when Croatia plays Brazil."

The biggest dude I've ever seen in my life -- a dead ringer for Shrek, both Dzemal and I thought the moment we saw him -- comes through the door, his back supported by a stiff brace. All the Croatian ultras have recently been in a fight. Behind him, a short guy in a red collarless leather jacket enters the bar, and everyone rushes to flatter him.

He is the head of the ultras.

His father is a local mafia boss, controlling much of the city's drug and gambling business. Dad got his start with the war; before, he'd controlled logistics and supply for the Yugoslavian Army. Not long ago, he served as a character witness during a war crimes trial at The Hague, swearing to the moral rectitude of the man who destroyed Mostar's bridge.

The boss pays our bar tab.

"Have you ever ridden in a Maserati?" he asks.

I get into his car.

The stereo blares nationalist turbofolk, sung by the widow of the most infamous Serbian ethnic cleansing warlord, a man named Arkan. The ultras leader slams on the gas, then the brake, stopping and starting through Mostar, headed to a restaurant owned by his mafia boss father. He stops shy of the river, staying on the Croatian side.

Nothing seems broken from the cockpit of his white Italian race car. He drives a white Maserati. His father gets rich in a divided city. Politicians from both groups stay in power and accumulate wealth by preventing Mostar from reuniting. Division is a business.

Business is good.