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01 May 1994 The Observer Page 26 Ed Vulliamy .pdf

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01 May 1994: The Observer - Page 26 - (4960 words)
Out of darkness into light: When war forced the Muslims of Mostar
underground, it was Sarajevo that held the world's headlines. Ed Vulliamy tells
the story of Bosnia's forgotten siege
Ramiza Kevric has white hair, and in her dark eyes is the kind of
stare that wretched memories bring. Ramiza is 65, and has not moved
from her dank mattress during the five months that she has lived on
the crowded floor of what was the theatre foyer in East Mostar. The
shelling had been so heavy she was too frightened even to go over to
the plastic window, let alone to venture on to the streets of Mostar's
Muslim enclave where one in every 40 people has been killed in the
past nine months.
In May 1993 there were 10,000 people, mostly Muslims, living on the
east bank of the river that divides Mostar. That figure is now 50,000,
most of them women and children wrenched from their homes during a
hurricane of 'ethnic cleansing'. East Mostar is a stockade, not a
city. To the north, south and west are Croats, to the east are Serbs.
Every building has taken several direct hits, and most have been
incinerated. Near the theatre foyer is a nest of mauled flats which
people call 'Beirut', where families live in basements beneath the
towers of smashed glass, concrete and metal that were once their
homes. Eight out of 10 people in East Mostar spent the winter
Ramiza Kevric was at home with her daughter on the western side of the
city when the Croatian soldiers came to her door. 'Men in uniform,'
she recalls, 'three of them they told us to go immediately and to take
nothing with us. My daughter wanted to take her medicines - she
suffered from epilepsy - but they shouted 'GO! GO!' There was shooting
everywhere. We made it across the front lines into the east, but
without her medicine my daughter has since died.'
On the day I heard this story, Bosnia's capricious political
weathercock was spinning busily. An American initiative had advanced a
scheme whereby Croats and Muslims would exist in a federation. There
had been pressure on the Croats to relent in their annexation of part
of Bosnia, with rumours of financial incentives if they did so, and
the threat of sanctions if they did not. And so, while Ramiza knitted
on her mattress, a ceasefire was declared, and East Mostar enjoyed its
first day in nine months without shells (although the snipers were
busier than ever).
Mostar's war - overshadowed by the glare of publicity on Sarajevo and
latterly Gorazde - began back in 1992, when the mainly Muslim Bosnian
Government Army and the Croatian HVO militia were allies against the
Serbs. In June 1992, a remarkable joint push by the Bosnian Army and
the HVO drove the Serbian army out of its strongholds on the eastern
side of the city and up into the hills. The cost of the Serbian
retreat from Mostar came to light weeks later: mass graves filled with
the stinking remains of 200 mangled bodies, including those of women

and children - Muslims caught in villages the Serbs were leaving. The
pathologist who inspected the corpses said they had been shot at close
range with automatic weapons some had been buried alongside farm
Mostar was traditionally Ottoman and Muslim, but had sizeable Serb and
Croat minorities by the turn of the century. After the Second World
War, Tito's industrialisation programmes brought in a wave of
Croatians. The Muslims remained, marginally, the majority population
when Bosnia's war began. Mostar was then one of Bosnia's most
beautiful cities. Nestled deep in the Neretva valley, it was home to
some of the finest Ottoman mosques anywhere, its riverbanks linked by
a glorious high-arched bridge. Its architect, Hajrudin, was threatened
with execution by his patron, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, if the
bridge, built in the 16th century, ever fell down. And Hajrudin did
his work well: the bridge - which has graced a million tourist
postcards - survived 30 earthquakes. In the summer of 1992 anxious
citizens covered it with a corrugated iron roof and hung it with car
tyres in an effort to protect it from Serbian shelling, which began
reliably and ferociously each evening.
The liberation of East Mostar concealed the imminent break-up of the
alliance between the Croats and Bosnian Army. The Croatians in Bosnia
had been fighting to their own agenda. With the backing of Zagreb,
they had embarked on their own racial-political project: a Croatian
state within Bosnia called 'Herzeg-Bosna' Mostar would be its capital.
It took some time for the Bosnian Croat leader Mate Boban to stamp his
authority on the hills of 'Herzeg-Bosna' and to collect the farrago of
thugs and militias on its territory into a single Croatian Army. But
in Mostar, as the 'Herzeg-Bosna' project got into full swing, the
Croat priority was no longer the Serbs it was the Muslims and the
Bosnian Government Army with whom they had liberated the city, and
against whom they now turned.
In October 1992, on the day that Croatian militias began the
systematic and brutal 'ethnic cleansing' of Muslims in Prozor, central
Bosnia, the HVO in Mostar put out a statement saying it would not
tolerate any 'Muslim extremists' living in any area where there were
Croatian citizens. The HVO command simultaneously declared that it no
longer recognised the legitimacy of the Sarajevo government or its
defence forces. Three days later the HVO gave the Government Army an
ultimatum: either to come under direct Croatian control or to hand
over its weapons to the HVO. 'I do not recognise the army of the
republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina,' declared Mate Boban. 'We, the HVO,
are the only effective army in the free territory. If they want to
call themselves the Bosnian Army, that's their business. They must
come under our authority.'
The HVO commander, Miljenko Lasic, sent troops fanning out across
Mostar in trucks to take over the courthouse, police station, post
office and telephone buildings. Inside the cordon sanitaire of
beer-swilling clods around his headquarters, he explained over a glass
of duty-free Scotch that his Croatian troops would be 'much stronger
and better organised if we removed the Bosnian Army altogether from

Mostar. I told them yesterday, they are free to remove their men from
the front lines.' An uneasy peace held in the city for a while, thanks
mainly to the restraint and naivety of the Government Army, but
Muslims were now third-class citizens in Mostar, and a 'second' war
was delayed only by the continuing Serbian bombardment.
That war finally broke out on 9 May 1993, with a night-long barrage of
mortar and shellfire. Within a matter of days, two things happened:
the Bosnian Army was pushed out of the west side of the city, except
for a promontory which it held - two blocks of houses deep - around
the old Turkish souk, or market. And the 'cleansing' of Muslim
civilians from their homes began, an entire population of thousands
herded on to buses, driven up to the new front lines, and walking the
deadly no-man's-land over the venerable old bridge to the other side
of the river. Like the Serbs in northern and eastern Bosnia, the
Croats ordered Muslims to hang white flags from their homes so that
they could be identified.
In the chaos on the east side of the river, they collected outside the
newly established Army headquarters, underground. Jasmina, a lady in
early middle age, was among them: 'We knew the Croats would come for
us in the end. We must have been among the last left in our
neighbourhood. And of course they did. They said we had to go because
we were 'filthy Muslims' and 'fucking gypsies'. They put us on a bus,
without seats, 19 of us, but they kept back the young ladies, at least
the pretty ones. I don't want to say what I think they were going to
do with them, but I think I can guess. They took all our jewellery or
money and possessions and as we got on the bus, trucks were already
arriving ready to load up the things from our houses. The bus took us
to the river, the soldiers pushed us out and sent us across the lovely
old bridge.'
For three months, the ethnic cleansing of West Mostar proceeded out of
sight of prying international eyes. The city was sealed off to
journalists, the United Nations and all aid agencies as the Croats did
their business in private. On 8 May, after a tip-off from the Croats,
'Spanbatt', the battery of Spanish troops from the so-called
'Protection Force' of the United Nations, had abandoned its base in
town. The more reliable and organised British Army had for months been
trying to assume responsibility for Mostar, fearing what was to come,
but the Spanish had refused to hand over, confident of their capacity
to handle the upcoming offensive and do the job required.
Meanwhile, the grotesque harvest of women and children from the whole
Mostar area continued. In all, the UN teams estimated, 45-50,000
Muslims were 'cleansed' from homes in and around West Mostar between
May and September and sent to the tiny enclave on the other side of
the river.
In July 1993, with Mostar closed, we managed to get into Capljina, one
of its satellite towns, by driving a beat-up car with Croatian plates
and pretending to read Croat newspapers with our feet sticking out of
the car window, spitting and chewing gum - the kind of deportment that
gets you waved through HVO roadblocks and into their 'secure zones'.

In town there was an inhospitable silence few people were on the
streets except the usual uncouth heavies from the HVO. The smell of
charred stone hung in the air from shops and houses recently
dynamited. Four foreign aid workers had been arrested in Capljina, and
a CNN crew had that day been uncovered, detained and had its equipment
confiscated. An old man walking down the street by a park told us he
was going to his son's flat to see if it was still there. Both his
boys had been taken, he said his eyes filled and he crossed the road,
saying: 'I cannot talk to you.' We elected to move with caution,
starting from the mosque. A woman, also too nervous to speak, ushered
us up a back stairway to the imam's house.
'I am the only Muslim male under 70 left in Capljina, because I am a
religious official,' said Imam Hassan Palic. The seizure of men had
begun in June, after all the telephone lines had been cut and
roadblocks thrown up around town. As we were talking to the Imam an
elderly woman came into the mosque: 'Look, I am not going to cry in
front of you, or tear my hair out. Just this: they took my four sons.
We went to the camp to ask what had happened to them, and they said,
laughing, that they had killed my second son, and put stinging nettles
on his grave, as an insult.' This lady said that women were starting
to disappear too, 'sent with their children to East Mostar'.
Another, younger, woman came in and told us to stop talking and stay
on quietly, because a group of soldiers was patrolling the street
below and if we were found speaking. . . 'My husband was a football
player,' she whispered, 'he was just kicking a ball around in the
stadium with our boys when they took him. We fought with these people
against the Chetniks. Our men were in the HVO and some were even
fighting on the front lines with the Croats against the Serbs when
they taken. We have lost our men, and there is no appeal, no law here
any more.'
Indeed, the wheel of war had turned full circle. First the Serbs in
northern Bosnia, now the Croats in Mostar: troops stomping the
streets, shops and houses shelled, word of concentration camps. The
women in the Imam's house had come up with names of the places they
believed these camps to be - Garbela and Dretelj.
All international aid organisations had been refused access to the
camps in and around Mostar, but in September UNHCR officials in
Jablanica, north of Mostar, saw the first men to be 'released' from
them. They were skeletal and malnourished. They had been stripped
naked at the Croat outpost positions and sent running down a rocky
track towards the Government Army lines, fired upon as they did so.
The UN officials had dealt with teenagers in conditions of severe
trauma, some of them as young as 13 years old. Some prisoners said
they had been forced to have anal sex with one another and with
Two months after our first unsuccessful request to Mate Boban's office
to visit the Dretelj camp, we finally made it through its gates to
find the Muslim menfolk of what was now Croatian West Mostar.

Their huge, burning eyes, cropped heads and shrivelled, sickly torsos
emerged only when one became accustomed to the darkness: hundreds of
men, gaunt and horribly thin, crammed like factory farm beasts into
two stinking underground storage hangars built into the hillside.
These infernal tunnels had been home to these men for 10 weeks when we
arrived. The murky hangars were two of six sheds that now made up the
camp, run by the HVO police.
Talking to prisoners, mostly from West Mostar, Capljina and Stolac,
was not easy men leaned forward from their huddles to whisper snatches
of recollection, out of earshot of the commander and interpreter, or
else ushered us back to the shadows to tell hasty fragments of
testimony. During one stretch, apart from a single meal a day, the men
in the hangars said they saw no daylight for 15 days. And for one
period of 76 hours, they said, they had been been left without food or
water totally incarcerated in the dark, the heavy metal doors slammed
shut, steaming in the heat and in their own excreta. 'We had to drink
our own urine to survive,' said one prisoner.
There was worse to hear. At the back of the hangars the walls were
pock-marked with bullet holes. Prisoners talked about Croatian guards
coming up to the closed doors after drinking sessions and singing as
they fired into their quarters. Estimates of the numbers of dead
ranged from three to 10, with many more wounded. After the shootings,
said a prisoner with the skin of his chest sinking back behind his
xylophone ribcage, 'a man had a bullet in his leg for three days
before he could get any help.' 'They would beat us every day,' said
another, 'every kind of torture - you imagine it, they did it.'
As we left the camp, on a lonely road out towards Mostar, a car with
official HVO number plates pulled up alongside, crashed into the side
of our car, and tried to run us off the road. It had come from the
direction of the camp.
For more than three months after their siege of East Mostar began, the
Croats allowed no food, aid or medicines on to the east bank of the
river. But at the end of August, a convoy organised by the United
Nations refugee relief organisation UNHCR finally made it. The convoy
was greeted at its destination by ecstatic and desperate crowds. The
state of the ravaged east bank appalled those who had come upon it the
UN warned of starvation 'within days' if a supply line was not
secured. The convoy was then trapped for three days by crowds who knew
that the minute it left, the siege would resume with its full
It did, although the east bank was not now completely isolated, and a
few days later it was possible to see for ourselves the full extent of
the torture of East Mostar. Let no one say that people become
'accustomed' to shelling. The morgue was brimful and stinking, there
was no refrigeration and no body bags. The dead were buried in parks
and on any piece of open ground by night the funeral rites were
nocturnal, and as silent as possible, so that the snipers could not
see or hear them. The last appeals to Allah or, more likely, to

personal memories, were whispered, not spoken.
For those who were hit but lived on, there was East Mostar's
underground hospital. By autumn, some 600 operations had been
completed by the tireless staff, working round the clock in a small
room and in a precarious half-light which was every now and then
denied by a generator failure. We walked down past the anxious,
waiting relatives and soldiers with their girls, eager for news, into
cellars lined with rough beds and young nurses equipped with next to
nothing to mount their struggle against pain, death and desperation.
Arijana's eyes stared out with a stab of apprehension from her
beautiful, lacerated face. She was 11 years old, and confused beyond
reason. Half her head was shaven, and the locks of a little girl
flowed down on to the other shoulder. Shrapnel had been removed from
her brain and her left leg was amputated after a tank shell had
exploded near where she was playing one day. Then her stomach had
become swollen - bits of flying red-hot metal had dug their way in
there too. She was not little Irma from Sarajevo, so there would be no
airlift for her. Since the UN convoy, there had at least been some
anaesthetic, but before that there had been none. The underground
wards were full of horribly injured men, women and children, and the
latest severely wounded arrival lay bloodily on the operating table
for all to behold - an old man hit by the mortars that had fallen that
'We have taken 50 direct hits,' said Dr Dragan Milavic back in
September, 'including 10 tank shells in the last fortnight which
destroyed most of our medicines. The hospital is clearly marked, and
the Croatians know exactly what they are aiming at.' Pathetically, men
were that day busy sawing planks of wood and setting about trying to
repair the roof in anticipation of cold weather. 'Sometimes,' said Dr
Milavic, 'we send people up to try to replace the tiles, but the
snipers just fire on them.'
'Beirut', to the north, was now all but cut off from the centre of the
pocket, because there was too much open ground across which to sprint
through the relentless sniper fire. Young Adnan, sitting on a wall in
the town
centre, would have to sleep there that night. He came from 'Beirut' and was marooned from his
underground home he could not
consider attempting the dash since shrapnel cut into his legs after an
explosion the previous week. Cautious soldiers from the Government
Army advised that 'you'd have to be Linford Christie to make
it alive'.
Two girls were bringing up burned furniture from a ravaged house down
towards the river, preparing to make a new home in a cellar below the
centre of town. 'They come from 'Beirut',' said Adnan resignedly,
'quite a lot of people are moving down to be like sardines in this
tin. But what happens when the Croats come across the bridge and
really start to cook us?' He waves his crutch around the points of the
compass: 'Fascists to the north, south, east and west. We are a Muslim

sardine sandwich for the fascists to eat.'
A few weeks later, Mostar's soul was wrenched out. The 427-year story
of its mighty bridge ended, victim of a two-day barrage by the
Croatian artillery. Watching a videotape of the destruction became
something like a ritual for those who could get to the radio station,
where there was enough generated electricity to power the appropriate
machinery. The tape was shot by a Scottish volunteer in the Bosnian
army called Jimmy.
On 8 November, the first mortar ploughs into the side of the already
battered bridge, to gasps from the video audience. Another, a red
flare, rams into the middle of the high arch, like a blow to its body.
Masonry tumbles into the water below. The third is a huge explosion, a
heavy shell, and the fourth soon after hits the same spot. Then a
fifth, and a sixth - it is like watching an old man being kicked in
the stomach by a thug in heavy boots. But the bridge continued to
stand that night, albeit with great lacerations to its southern flank.
'I'm a civil engineer,' said Dragi, one of the company, 'and look how
thin that arch is, and how it still stands. It was the most wonderful
construction. If it had been in Italy, it would have more famous than
the Ponte Vecchio. Just think, two years ago, we had a huge
international diving competition from the top of that arch.'
9 November: 'It was a very nice day,' says Tima, watching the freeze
frame move into action, 'very quiet until we heard the first shell.'
It pile-drives into the eastern flank of the bridge, and is followed
by another. The structure reels for a moment, holds, and then there is
a cruel crashing sound and Mostar's bridge tumbles within five seconds
into the rushing currents below. The stumps of what is left of the
bridge's flanks protrude, amputated, a little way from each bank. The
view of the river looks perverse, unreal. There is a salvo of
machine-gun fire, bullets shot into the air, the rejoicing of the
Croatian gunners in the hills. 'Bastards,' says the Scottish voice on
the soundtrack, 'Fucking bastards.'
Within weeks of the bridge's destruction, and with incomprehensible
ingenuity, the Government Army built a new, wooden bridge to link the
east bank to the front line, and added another, metal one to span the
river. And food, by and large, continued to come in. The stockade was
kept alive by a truly remarkable effort on the part of a dedicated
team from the UNHCR, led by a foursquare former Major-General in the
British Army, Jerrie Hulme, who is everywhere greeted as the saviour
of the city. Hulme's convoys kept going as best they could, overcoming
what he generously calls 'stupidity and misunderstanding at the
checkpoints', negotiating their delicate and tortuous way through the
siege lines, providing for the Croatian as well as the Muslim side of
the river.
In February, there was a sudden and dramatic reduction in the
shelling. The sun came out, and Mostar changed. People emerged from
their cellars for the first time in months, to walk and talk. Along
the pummelled main street, a mutation of the traditional evening
stroll was resurrected in the early evening sunshine - almost like

some vernacular version of the prisoners' emergence from their
dungeons in Fidelio. Disbelieving, young couples held hands and picked
their way along the pavements again, stopping to greet friends and
initiate the old casual chatter from what seemed like another world
and another time. Now people like Dzenan the fireman had nine month's
worth of stories to tell. 'Firemen without water! That's what we were
sometimes, throwing buckets of river water at blazing buildings. They
always used to shoot at us whenever we tried to put them out, and I
lost some of my best friends that way. Now, we are waiting, waiting to
see what happens next.'
The elderly were slower to come out, sceptical and wary. For a while,
old men and women watched the cautious parade from their smashed
windows or shattered doorways, or from the entrances to their wretched
caverns. But eventually they too ventured out. 'It doesn't seem real,'
said a man accompanying his little granddaughter, 'I'm expecting
another shell to come any minute.' On that particular evening, though,
no shell did fall. And on a scrap of wasteland beneath one ravaged
block of flats, a football match was played with a punctured ball the first, said the players, since the siege began.
There had been a pincer movement on the besieging Croats. On the one
hand, the Nato ultimatum to the Serbs above Sarajevo had an immediate
effect. There was word that Mostar would be next, and the HVO, wary of
the apparent veracity of the threat this time, declared a 'unilateral
ceasefire', although it manifestly failed to hold. Meanwhile, the
United States envoy to Bosnia, Charles Redman, moved frantically
between Sarajevo and Zagreb, trying to forge an accord between the
warring governments.
The day of the Bosnian-Croat summit meeting in Zagreb, at which a
ceasefire was declared, was eventful enough on the ground. Since my
last visit, a new field hospital had arrived, its equipment stacked up
in a group of hangars out in the perilous suburbs. The previous night,
there had been a bad fire at the warehouse and the firefighters had
been shot at with anti-aircraft incendiary rounds as they tried to
douse the flames. It was still burning when the UNHCR team went to
inspect the damage next morning - heavy and costly: an ambulance and
tonnes of medicines destroyed. The Croat gunners' response was
straighforward enough: a burst of anti-aircraft fire ricocheting
around the walls, spinning off our vehicles and sending us scurrying
into the smoky warehouse for cover.
Although the artillery barrage relented a little, the snipers were
ferociously busy. The shooting went on all day, firing along the
alleyways. Even the hardest of men scurried fast alongside the new
protective metal barricades made of office shelving and riddled with
bullet holes. While the Zagreb summit opened, 10-year-old Hidaj Sikalo
was fighting for his life at the underground hospital. While playing
near his home in the gutted suburb of Salik, a sniper's carefully
aimed bullet from a high-velocity rifle struck his head and came out
the other side. 'We don't think he'll survive,' said the hospital
secretary, Edina Slipicevic. The ambulance bringing him in had been
fired at with 12mm bullets, and the hospital still took three shells a

week, during the 'quiet' period. The number of patients passing
through the ravaged building had now risen to 6,000 - one in eight of
the population - and there had been 2,000 operations.
The city was still living in cellars, and the news that the HVO and
the Government Army had finally signed a ceasefire in Zagreb reached
our dank cellar shortly after sunset on 23 February, the time that
most of the still terrified population went below ground to shelter,
shiver and sleep. 'We've been down here for nine months now,' says old
Tima Nikovic, her eyes glinting in the candlelight. 'We've been
cheated by the Croats so many times that we have little reason to
believe that this will stop the firing for the first time.' Ibra
Buljina, making a cigarette out of magazine paper, was more
optimistic, believing the war would end: 'I don't think that this time
there is any hidden agenda.'
Some 25 minutes after the news arrived, the first shell of the
evening, a big one, rammed into the edge of town. Ten minutes later,
another mortar hit a block of flats nearby, the bang making our
company jump, although this was officially shell number 100,146 since
the siege began (the record was 4,850 in one day). Old Tima shrugged,
vindicated, the second man apologised for his optimism.
Although East Mostar now breathes a little more easily than at any
time since the siege began, the seismic political rifts between the
Government and Croatian sides remain beneath the surface of the
Smail Klaric, head of the war presidency, says that the Government's
demands for a future in Mostar cannot budge: 'There are four
conditions to any agreement: one, that Mostar be a free and open,
multi-ethnic city two, that it cannot be part of any Croatian statelet
three, that it cannot be the capital of any Croatian statelet and
four, that all people displaced from their homes be allowed to
Over on the other side, however, the commander who wrote the order for
the mortars to be covered, Franjo Coric, says, 'This land is our land,
Croatian land. As a soldier, I will respect the order for a ceasefire,
which comes from above. If the order says we have to hand over our
artillery, we will. But Mostar is our land, and if there is any
suggestion that it is not our land, then we are going to fight for it,
even if we have to fight with rocks.'
The choice for the Muslims of Mostar is still a stark one: subjugation
and forgiveness, or war. 'Mostar,' says Dr Dragan Milavic at the
underground hospital, 'was like a carpet. You could see the pattern
but you couldn't see the threads nobody knew which nationality anyone
else belonged to. Now it has been torn apart, its beautiful pattern
gone, the threads left lying and bedraggled. It is us who want to put
it back together again.'
'We were a funny people,' recalls Dragi, a civil engineer, 'terribly
proud of our town, and of its soccer team which never won anything. We

used to like sitting in the cafes and taking the mick out of anyone
who came past, and most of all we would go up on to the bridge on
Sundays and dive into the river. I would give anything to have those
days back again, but I fear they are gone.'
However, the relative calm after the worst of the siege does at least
tempt some people to recall a life beyond torture and fear, and to
dare to hope that it might one day be restored to them. 'There is no
victory in this war any more,' said the disarmingly mature Edin, aged
15, in the theatre-foyer dormitory on a mattress near to old Ramiza
Kevric, 'because they hate us now - although I cannot understand why.
But victory to me is just being alive, and I am still alive. And maybe
I will see my Croat friends again one day if they are also alive.'

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