Since the summer the most dangerous and miserable of all Bosnia-Herzegovina’s cities has not been Sarajevo; it has been Mostar. Once one of the most beautiful of all the region’s towns, Mostar attracted tourists by the busloads. They would come to stroll in the old Muslim quarter and see the city’s most famous attraction, the Ottoman bridge, the Stari Most.
Once compared to a “rainbow rising up to the Milky Way,” the Stari Most is today a battle-scarred monument to the hostility between the Croats and Muslims fighting for control of the city. The bridge spans the Neretva River which divides the two sides. Croatian Mostar on the west bank is well supplied with water and electricity. It is relatively safe except for the neighborhoods along the streets that are now the front lines. Muslim Mostar, on the other hand, is an encircled ghetto of some 25,000 inhabitants on the east bank, where only one in three buildings is habitable and where Croatian shells bring death and destruction daily. Snipers are everywhere, and the main streets and the river are now killing zones. Mostar is also the gateway to the greater hell of central Bosnia which is the most unstable and fought-over region of the country.
In a basement café-bar not far from Mostar’s front lines one can meet members of a special twenty-five-man military unit, among them a friendly man called “Branimir.” Music is blaring from two jukeboxes and the bar’s regular customers—body-builders with Mohawks in stylishly ripped fatigues, heavily made-up women in short skirts, sharply dressed boys with buzzcuts and guns—gather around a billiard table with black metal pool cues. The place has the look and feel of the aliens’ bar from Star Wars.
In fact everyone looks as if he had been cast as a thug by a movie director. Everyone, that is, except Branimir. He is twenty-four, soft-spoken, and good-looking, almost angelic. He has long, thick hair which he wears in a ponytail. He has a gentle smile and expressive eyes, and he wears a tiny Beretta pistol in a holster near the small of his back. The delicate gun somehow suits his personality but it still seems out of place. His beauty and friendliness, along with the gun and the company he keeps, all remind one of Byron’s line from Don Juan: “The mildest mannered man that ever scuttled ship or cut a throat.”
Branimir and his friends are killers. They are part of a paramilitary force of several hundred men which specializes in terror. They see themselves as patriots, slaughtering Muslims for their country, while to outsiders they are war criminals plain and simple. Contrary to the popular perception of Bosnian killers, however, Branimir and his buddies are not Serbs, but Croats, attached to the HVO, the 20,000-member army of the Bosnian Croats. Only a year ago this army was allied with the Muslims in the fight against Serbian expansionism. Now the serious fighting in Bosnia is between Muslims and Croats, while Serbs do…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.