Mending of Bosnia Begins in Mostar

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The ethnic division of Mostar is perhaps best seen in the destruction of its Old Bridge. Constructed in 1556 by Bosnia's Ottoman rulers, the simple stone arch was shelled into oblivion by Mostar's Croatian forces in 1993, leaving a divide where connection once stood.

But like the rickety makeshift wooden bridge that has replaced it and now connects Mostar's Croatian western and Muslim eastern halves, the vote held on Sunday here began to bring a tenuous reconciliation to the city. It was the first postwar vote in Bosnia, where nationwide elections are now slated for Sept. 14. The Mostar vote presents in miniature the complicated logistics required to organize a fair vote in postwar Bosnia, where ethnic cleansing has caused whole populations to flee, new populations to move in, and where ethnic tension remains highly volatile.

"We have a long way to go before the city is fully restored and until the peoples of Bosnia are fully knit back together," said US Ambassador John Menzies after touring the city. "But we like what we see."

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Thirty-seven European Union-sponsored buses ferried residents from one side of the city to the other. For many, it was their first trip to the other side in four years. Three years ago, Mostar saw some of the most bitter fighting between Muslims and Croats during the Bosnian war. Its prewar population of 99,000 people is now largely divided into two camps, with about 43,000 Bosnian Croats in the western half, and 44,000 Muslims in the eastern half. Mostar's Serb population, which stood at 24,000 before the war, is now 3,000.

Key to keeping ethnic tensions from exploding were some 3,000 international troops. Their strong presence hinted at growing international will to implement the peace accord hammered out in Dayton, Ohio, last year. The next test of that will is whether the international community will insist on Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic's complete removal from power.

But in Mostar international will was also evident in the presence of hundreds of Mostar's former residents, who were bused into the city from across Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, and Western Europe.

Ultimately the vote was a choice between the main Croatian party, which aims to keep Mostar divided, and the Muslim-led party that would unify the city. Results weren't yet available, but the Croatia-heavy refugee vote is likely to favor Croatian hard-liners, though votes by refugees who voted abroad at special polling booths in Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, and the Netherlands may offset the Croatian vote.

Despite the vote's success, the connections between Mostar's ethnic groups will need to be much stronger for peace to prevail. And Deputy Mayor Puljic suggests that economic interests may ultimately draw Mostar's Croats, Muslims, and few Serbs back together. "What we and Muslims have in common are economic interests - trade, industry, infrastructure," he says. "That's the only possible basis for co-existence."

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