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Balkan Ethnicity in Times of War

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“My mother is Croatian and my father is a Muslim,” Nina explained to me as we rode in her mother’s old car. Her mother, in the driver’s seat,  was a busty blond with very pale – almost shiny – white skin. We were in a small city called Mostar, in what I m taking to be the country of Herzegovina.

“Are most people here of mixed ethnicity and have Croatian, Muslim, and Serb family members?” I asked.

Nina answered in the affirmative as a new light was shed on the conflicts that panged this part of the world for the better part of the early 1990’s.

“Where you here during the war?” I asked as I tried to size up Nina’s age. She looked young, probably younger than me, and I was testing the waters of what she could have recollected from the times of her turbulent youth.

“Me and my mother moved to Norway for one year as refugees, but my father stayed in Mostar.”

Map of the ethnic composition in Bosnia before the war. Blue represents Croats, green, Bosniaks, and red, ethnic Serbs. 

This was a story that I have heard many times while traveling in the Balkans. A people that once live companionably in a single, diverse community were ripped apart from each other as tyrants lead wars of conquest in the phony name of ethnic strife. Many of the people in Bosnia are of mixed heritage: Croats have Bosniak spouses and their children are married to Serbs. I am told that this is the case all over the former Yugoslavia, where people of different religions, backgrounds, and ethnicities blended together for four decades during the rule of the much beloved General Tito. When the problems broke out at the downfall of Tito lead socialism, the people were sifted to the bottom of the barrel as power hungry politicians and military generals rose to the surface.

The people of Bosnia had to choose sides. People who where ethnically mixed had to choose which aspect of their heritage they would represent themselves as. Brother literally fought against brother and sons were forced to open fire upon their mothers’ villages. A people who once stood together peacefully in multi-ethnic harmony were compelled to claim an identity of opposition. The people of Bosnia laid their cards upon the table and tried to figure out if they were in fact more of a Croat, a Bosniak, or a Serb. They seemingly chose their colors like kids picking teams for a game of school yard football, and then killed each other.

“People had to choose sides,” Nina told me,” . . . pretty much everyone here had to join the military. Mostar was once a city that had Croats on one side of the river and Muslims on the other. But people went to the other sides, married each other, and everything was fine. Then the war happened and the people were divided to each side of the river.”

Bridge over the Neretva River, which traditionally divided the Croatian from the Muslim sides of Mostar. Now, as it was in the past, the two ethnicities are mixed together and the river is no longer a dividing line. In a poetical sense, bridges, like the one in this photo, seem to have been rebuilt since the war.

“How is everything now? Are the Croats and Muslims still separated on different sides of the river? Are people still angry at each other for what they did during the war?”

“No, everybody is mixed together again. For a while after the war the people were forced to live in separate communities, but now we are all mixed together,” Nina answered as we crossed over the river from the Muslim side to the Croatian.

“During the war, was it people fighting against people, military fighting against military, or military fighting against civilians?”

“It was everything,” was Nina’s direct answer.

“Who attacked Mostar? Was it the Serbs?”

“Yes, at first it was the Serbs, then later on it was the Croatians.”

The Neretva River, which runs straight down the center of Mostar, was the desired borderland of what was intended to be greater Serbia. Thus being Mostar was the site of heavy action during the war, as Serbia attacked from the north, and, latter on, Croatia from the south. The city had the shit bombed out of it, which is today evidenced by copious amounts of ruins and rubble where their was once a living city.

I am beginning to arrive at the impression that the Bosnian war, as with most armed struggles, this was not a war of the people and for the people, but was rather a power struggle for the elite and powerful. A land grab free-for-all that was paid for with the blood of taxi drivers and shop keepers. After the big man – General Titovi – passed away, his underlings and successors sought to grab everything they could for themselves. The fuel of ultra-nationalist and separatist rhetoric was poured into the engines of what was previously a multi-ethnic and intermixed society, lines were drawn down the middle of families, armies marched into town, and the people – regardless of their true ethnicity – fought each other from one side or the other.

I can vaguely remember the news of the wars in the former Yugoslavia being broadcasted in the West as if they were ethnic struggles. Perhaps in Kosovo and Albania this was the case. But here in Bosnia, it seems to have been a war from the top down.

I can remember skeptically listening to the Dancer in Belgrade tell me that all of the people in the former Yugoslavia are really the same. “They speak different languages, but they are the same as me,” he said. I was expecting to hear a different song in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but the tune here is pretty much the same: the common people, for the most part, were content as Yugoslavs, living in a big, ethnically and linguistically diverse country. Graffiti scrawled upon the walls of Bosnian cities are a testament to this: “Tito, Tito, Tito,” it is written. It is the impression of this wayward traveler piecing together a scattered spread of impressions, that there is a deep nostalgia for Yugoslavia buried deep in the Balkans.

Posters of the architect of Yugoslavian socialism, General Tito, still hang in many homes in the now divided and segmented Balkans. The general’s very name seems to speak of a nostalgia for better times when Yugoslavia was a big, diverse country.

I was told a story in Sarajevo of when a Serbian singer competed in – and subsequently won – the European Idol television show that the entire Balkan region went crazy in support for her, regardless if they were Serb, Croat, Bosniak, Albanian, or Kosovar.

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Filed under: Bosnia, War

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3048 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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