The Most Divided City in Bosnia is Standing up to Nationalism and Government Corruption

Mostar Rising: The Most Divided City in Bosnia is Standing up to Nationalism and Government Corruption

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Every day more and more citizens are overcoming their fears and misconceptions and joining the protest movement in Mostar, one of the most essential cities active in the current uprising in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They gather every day, and have plenums (popular assemblies) a few times a week. They teach themselves direct democracy and activism – they will not be victims anymore. They are building civil power through direct action, and aim to reclaim their lives – the war is not over.
About six months ago, this amazing man Muharem Hindić – aka “Mušica” or “fly” in english – stood here and demonstrated alone.

Photo: Avi Blecherman

Every day, Mušica would stand in the square near city hall, holding a banner in his hand, protesting the government’s ineffectiveness that led to the lack of medical attention which caused the death of a sick baby. Government officials could not decide who should take responsibility for the care of the baby, and time ran out before they acted. Beyond the tragedy of the case, the incident serves as a symbol of how stuck the every day lives of people in Bosnia and Herzegovina are, when politics and politicians are not in service of the citizens, but a burden weighing on their shoulders.
For long weeks he demonstrated alone every day, urging citizens to join him, but to no avail. Some drove by ignoring him, some laughed, and many probably agreed with him, but didn’t think anyone would care if they joined him.
After several months of patience and determination, four or five citizens joined the man. Over the last two weeks, every day hundreds of citizens and of all ages, genders, and classes have protested in the Spanish square of Mostar.
In this interview, two young men, Feđa Fajić and Nadir Frlj discuss the exciting new protest movement in Mostar, and the importance of people standing up to take control of their own lives. Now that people have access to more information and are uniting, they are realizing that they don’t have to suffer in silence. They hope this movement will spread to all of the Balkans and aim to beat the lies of politicians who seek to divide them with intellect.

“You have to understand” explained Nadir, a young and passionate activist, “Mostar is so much different. Any problem Bosnia is facing you’ll find here twice as loud. This city is so divided and the ethnic tension between the groups is so present, and politicians are fanning it for their needs. Not everybody agrees. I’m a muslim and I have lots of Croat friends in the city.”
This city experienced a difficult war, and the Bosnian side was almost destroyed. One of the cafes in town hangs a huge sign that says “Do not forget the year 1993,” next to a picture of the ruined bridge. One of the symbols of the city was damaged during the war, and was not rebuilt for a decade.

Everything here is based on ethnic distinctions, this is a place where you are taught from a young age to obey. Nationalism is present everywhere. One mustn’t criticize the government, and many people are not aware of their rights, having grown up in a place where thinking critically and questioning the system is discouraged. There are so many desperate young people. People here have learned to bow their head head. “I walk the streets and for months I did not see a person smile,” said Ermin, owner of a local inn. According to surveys, 70% of the young people here would leave if they had the chance. This place does not offer them anything.
“Everything is corrupt here,” says Feđa. “Small business are collapsing here. The name of the game here is to be linked. Be part of the system. If you were born rich or have contacts, you’re set. If you’re just a talented young man who wants to start a business, very quickly you realize that you are out of the game.
Any appointment here passes through the system. From being a prophesier in one of the two universities, to a high school teacher going down even to the kindergarden level. People were warned not to protest, or risk their jobs. Professors and teachers were ordered to not allow their students to participate in the protest events. At the first week we didn’t have professors coming. We called them to open their mouth and come. Now few of them are with us. I believe that soon we’ll see more. Same with the students.”
Marina Mimoza, a youth organizer and journalist weighs in on the recent protests and why the Mostar rise is so important in this interview.

“I studied journalism,” said Marina, a young, active, and energetic activist. “I am 27 years old. I recently applied for a job as a reporter, but nobody even called me for the interview that the ad promised.” For her, this was another reminder of how corrupt the job market is in Mostar, and that companies are only looking to hire from within, not to give opportunities to young talented individuals. In a sense the government control this, and the system is designed to favor those on the inside.
On Friday, February 7, government buildings were set on fire. Despite the media’s portrayal of the protests as violent, and their demonization of the vandalism that occurred, activists know what really happened. The first stone thrown at the first building was cast by an elderly and disabled woman. In this moment, the people of the protest came together for one show of discontent, joining the elderly woman who had been oppressed by the state in a few moments of mayhem in which the government got a taste of its own medicine. “Do you understand?” asks Feđa again while explaining, “these people are not hooligans or riotous young men, they are desperate people with much to lose. They are hungry, and they see how bloated and corrupt the government has become.
Among the buildings burned, there were two that belonged to popular political parties. None of the nearby housing units or businesses were burned, none of them were even damaged. Nobody wanted to touch them, they are tired of nationalism, politics, corruption, and the structure of hopelessness created by the fascist nationalist system. They did not seek to destroy, they only wanted to convey the message that it’s been nearly 20 years since the war, but war politics still dominate the region.
Business is corrupt as well, and I bet that those who will restore the destroyed buildings will get huge government contracts to fix them. Insiders will enjoy it. Yet again, our public money will go to cronies.
Mostar has a special significance in this protest. We are a city with so much tension between groups. The whole country is watching this. And if it works here and people are protesting together overcoming those artificial tensions, it can work in any other place in Bosnia.”
In this interview, activist Robi Jandric weighs in on the protests, describing some of the conditions surrounding the protests.

“Do you understand?” Robi asks me as I close the camera. “The government has threatened and tried to silence and intimidate anyone who takes part or wishes to take part in the protests. Before the first demonstration after the burning of the buildings, a media person I knew, and someone I admire, dramatically told me on the phone, “Robi, do not go to protest and ask others not to go too. Tomorrow they are going to shoot someone. This all their conspiracy to form a third political entity here, Croatian, which was not completed during the war. In a few days, Bosnia in Herzegovina will cease to exist as we know it.
Almost everyone I know and recognize as an activist or a free man received a threatening phone call like this. Want to hear something more absurd? This place is sitting on a powder keg. People do not need to hear more than this to be deterred from participating. This place is Belfast’s Balkans. All the days of that horrible war did not prompt religious leaders to say something to the public. And here, after the burning of the public buildings, they all rushed out together to send a message to calm things down. Look how fast the regime protect the capital here. The corrupt government. Everyone here is in their one hand.
Still, and despite intimidation, it’s exciting to watch while every day more and more residents join the daily protest hour in the town square. Even the place chosen is symbolic for protest. Right on the border between the East and West, between the two groups that the government works so hard to maintain a separation between.
Every day immigrants here talk to civilians who have overcome fear and bring their problems, their hopes, and their understanding of the time now. This place is their responsibility, desire for change is about.
And the man who started it all, is standing there with a bullhorn and inviting others to speak: mothers, children, pensioners, the unemployed, students, and academics.

There is something cathartic about the moment in which a person overcomes fear. And perhaps for the first time speaking out loud with a preserved stomach. There are more people like him, in his condition, and there is a systemic failure, and now is the time to fight it.
We struggle through peaceful means, it is very important to us.”
Feđa later noted, “We believe in the way of Gandhi. Beyond that, we understand that another force is against us. The politicians here use every trick possible to try to undermine this protest, and hurt his legitimacy. Introducing us as hooligans and violent people. The nationalists seek to wreak havoc and restore the situation to war by playing on the old fears of the people.”
Since these interviews, the president of parliament of HNK (Herzegovina Canton) has given his resignation saying that he “felt responsible for the current situation, and gave resignation to improve current democratic process.” Feđa wrote us and said, “don’t know how good that will do for us, but its a start.”

Activist from Mostar, Sanja Majic describes how the protests in her city grew into a democratic movement despite viscous attempts from the media to discredit and divide them. She says it will be a long process to change her country and that it will require outside attention, along with solid demands for basic human rights.

Denis Drljevic, a student studying in Croatia came to Mostar when the protests began and the government buildings were set on fire. He explains that younger generations are seeing clearly that the system needs to be redefined, and that the challenge will be to unite under pressure. He expects more participation from the 20,000 students living in Mostar, and also that if they can solve their problems in Mostar, they can become an example for the rest of the country.

Karlo Grabovac says it doesn’t really matter if people want change or not, and that it must begin now on a global level. Karlo was laid off from his position as a system administrator at age 51, and has been struggling ever since. He may be a Croat, but in his heart he is not defined by his nationality, just by him being himself. He says it’s very important to break the ice between ethnic groups, and that he has high hopes for the future.

Said Bijavika stresses that this movement will be able to change the world, if they are able to change their way of thinking. Overcoming fear is absolutely essential, as is being optimistic. He says that with your thoughts, you create your future, and suggests that people who are at home and may be afraid to come to the protests should be a little more open and give it a try.

Orhan Maslo, who is the director of the Rock and Blues festival in Mostar explains that the government are acting like the Sopranos family and scaring people from going to the protests. He’s been coming to support the uprising every day since its inception, and describes these protests as a “concrete awakening of the people” and the “wheel that won’t stop until we sort out what we need to sort out.” He explains this as a consequence of 45 years of hardcore nationalist politics, and hopes that people can change things quick. He blames the government for it’s own burned buildings, and says that it was a result of people who are left on the street, and that this culture must invest in the youth if people don’t want these things to happen.