It has been thirty years since the closing of the Heliodrom detention camp in Mostar, and I – which is seldomly the case – simply don’t know what to coherently, let alone optimistically, write on the occasion of this anniversary, which in a better world would represent the starting point of a new life and the overcoming of trauma.

A new life has definitely come to Mostar. Ultimately, this happened with time and significant changes in the population, in a city where the people and families who lived there before the war are no longer the majority, and are very far from that percentage. However, the traumas have not been overcome, and no one – neither politically, psychologically, nor in terms of building a culture of remembrance – is working to overcome them. This is due to political reasons on the one hand, and on the other because people, even if they share more or less the same type of memories of what happened, did not share the same experience, nor did they suffer the same consequences and simply do not understand each other today because they speak an entirely different language. If only that language sounded the same and had the same dose of authentic Mostar humor in it.

So, what is this new Mostar like after everything? Perhaps the right word would be strange. For one, it is quite deserted. It’s enough to look up at the lights in the apartments when darkness falls or at the endless rows of closed businesses. But at the same time, it is full of life and energy that has always characterized it. Again, it is enough to walk around the city during the day, go to the Old city on weekends or during the season, or enter one of the two large shopping centers.

It is also simultaneously unique and divided. And I don’t mean that it is merely formally a unified city with a common administration and city government. Because even in that structure, there is a flaw where it is clear who controls which lines and with what public companies, and almost all of them are duplicated. Just as I don’t mean that state institutions are arranged in such a way that everyone has to go to both parts of the city, because, for example, in one part there is the police, while in the other there is the health insurance institute and the tax administration. And finally, I don’t mean that a significant number of Bosniaks have remained or returned to live in the western, modern part of the city where there are much more residents and apartments. Only around 7-8 thousand of them, according to all relevant estimates. All these are important points, but they are not decisive in themselves. No, for many people, it really functions as a unified city in everyday life, socializing, and attending concerts and similar events that interest people. However, the percentage of people who function in this way is quite small, and even they, despite not allowing this fact to change their perception of the city as unified, are aware that it realistically has two sides.

Mostar is simultaneously a miraculous city because after immense, unimaginable pain and suffering that occurred and was inflicted on people, mostly felt by Bosniaks simply because of their identity, life has indeed continued, and relationships are somewhat normal.

However, on the other hand, it is a city where not only is it simple, but it happens all the time, to re-ignite emotions and bring people to the brink of conflict, which we see with every sensitive topic, in hooliganism, before every election, or precisely around the construction of the Croatian National Theater building and the desire of the Islamic community to build some kind of Islamic intercultural center right next to it. It is also a city where politically, from the ’90s to the present, nothing significant has changed, except that the Serbs have definitely lost, and they are just for decoration both demographically and politically in the City Council, where they managed to elect only one councilor with their own votes for the first time in the last local elections. Besides that, the real majority and power over city institutions is actually held by HDZ, just as it has been since the first multi-party elections.

The SDA is in some way a partner and a party that undoubtedly governs the eastern part of the city, but always in the position of someone who does not have real power and is not in an equal position, while multi-ethnic left-liberal parties and civic initiatives have stable support from around 17-18% of people, which has practically not changed in over thirty years.

This finally brings me to the main theme and attitude towards the Heliodrom today, but also towards the entire terrible legacy of the so-called Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia.

From private conversations, I can say with certainty that there is almost no Mostar Croat who would say that ethnic cleansing in the western part of the city and all those camps did not happen. Moreover, each of these people would tell stories from their own neighborhoods in private conversations, and it’s almost impossible to find a person who hasn’t helped someone. On the other hand, nothing will be heard about this topic in public, nor will any of these people protest against the public narrative and glorification of the legacy of Herzeg-Bosnia. Especially in circumstances where inter-ethnic distance in the whole country, and thus in Mostar, is at its highest, and the views on what the political future of Bosnia and Herzegovina should look like are mutually opposite, and where many decisions are made out of spite, and a negligible number of people believe that a different society, like the one that promoted the idea of erecting a monument to Bruce Lee, is possible.

HDZ and all its officials, from Dragan Čović to the Mayor of Mostar Mario Kordić, really want, not only rhetorically but actually, to move forward and deal with municipal and infrastructural issues. And that is the only point where I agree with them. However, they would go further, but in a way that would end all talk about the nineties or, even worse, that the talk about the nineties would publicly support people like Valentin Ćorić, convicted as a war criminal in The Hague, in the same way that similar characters were supported until recently, like Dario Kordić and Slobodan Praljak. Not to mention the complete glorification of Franjo Tuđman and his policies.

From this perspective, the fact that a significant number of Mostar Croats know what actually happened in the nineties in the city and what the goal of that idea was, and privately do not approve of it, but for various reasons obviously still massively vote for HDZ, the path toward the future will neither be certain nor easy. And this is an obvious fact to anyone who spends even an hour talking to Bosniaks in the city. These people have suffered serious trauma due to the unjust pain and humiliation inflicted on them, which symbolically continues today, with all these manifestations and public declarations. And as long as those who realistically rule and have the greatest political, social, and economic power in Mostar do not recognize and accept this fact and do not try to respect these people and their trauma and at least make a minimal sincere step and extend a helping hand to heal it, the path to a new Mostar will be only a superficial illusion.

And that first step towards a breakthrough could and should be to set up a memorial room in the future HVO museum at the Heliodorm, dedicated to the camp for Bosniaks which was held by the HVO on that very location.

Dragan Markovina (Mostar, 1981) is a historian, publicist, and writer. From 2004 to 2014, he worked at the Department of History at the Faculty of Philosophy in Split, during which time he obtained a PhD in history and an associate professorship.
He is the author of the books Between Red and Black: Split and Mostar in the Culture of Memory (Zagreb-Sarajevo, 2014), Silence of the Defeated City: Essays, Stories, Columns (Mostar, 2015), History of the Defeated (Zagreb, 2015-Sarajevo, 2016), Yugoslav After All (Belgrade, 2015), The Era of Counterrevolution (Zagreb, 2017), Lonely Children of the South (Split, 2018, Belgrade 2019), Yugoslavia in Croatia (1918-2018): From Euphoria to Taboo (Zagreb, 2018), Lebanon on the Neretva: Culture of Memory, Culture of Forgetting (Mostar, 2019), Neum, Casablanca (Sarajevo, 2021), History, Politics, Popular Culture (Zagreb, 2022), Partisans Shall Pass (Belgrade, 2022), and February 14, 1945 (Sarajevo, 2023).

Translated by Luna Đorđević