Rebuilding Cultural Bridges Takes Time in Divided Mostar


Rather than testifying to the city’s love of the stage, Mostar’s two theaters serve as one of many examples of the city’s deep ethnic divisions.

Although still advertised as a place where East meets West, Mostar has largely lost its cosmopolitan aura, as nearly all aspects of life in this southwest Bosnian city succumb to a culture of ethnic ghettoisation.

As one of Bosnia’s most ethnically tolerant cities, Mostar was once a haven for artists, particularly painters and writers. But the vicious warfare in the early 1990s left much of the city in ruins and it remains deeply divided.

Although the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina ended 15 years ago and most destroyed infrastructure has since been rebuilt, little progress has been made in bringing together the two estranged communities.

With a population of about 100,000, Mostar has two large “national” theatres. But rather than testifying to the city’s love of the stage, the theatres serve as one of many examples of the city’s deep ethnic divisions.

One of the two theatres sits on the west while the other is on the east bank of the Neretva river, which divides Mostar in two. The actors, directors and writers working in the two theatres do not form a single community of artists, meet rarely and never conduct joint projects.

“Togetherness… is a political issue. It’s not up to us,” says Ivica Ovcar, director of the Croatian National Theatre, in the western part of the city.

That sentiment is echoed by Serif Aljic, manager of Mostar National Theatre on the east side. “We could be under same roof,” he says of the two theatres, “but we’d need political approval for that”

While shared creativity is lacking, the two theatres have one thing in common; both are struggling to make ends meet. Last October, Mostar National Theatre used some of the little money it had to purchase black fabric and wrap it around the building in a bid to draw attention to the fact that the theatre was no longer guaranteed financial support from the city budget.

Two days later, it closed its doors to visitors. Shortly after, the Croat National Theatre also went on strike. The reason was the same; lack of budgetary support.

The ruling ethnic parties in the city were too busy disagreeing about a power-sharing agreement to notice that the two theatres were not working. Theatres came bottom of their list of priorities for over a year, which was the time they took to agree on the appointment of a mayor and adoption of a budget.

While the parties argued, Mostar’s public servants, including teachers, doctors and firefighters, also had to wait to be paid their salaries. Even after the parties reached a political agreement in December, theatres were still left out of the budget.

Before Bosnia’s 1992-95 war, Mostar had only one national theatre, which played an important role in the cultural life of not only the city but of the wider Herzegovina region. The Croat National Theatre was not established until the war of the 1990s.

When the two parts of Mostar were reunited after the war, the city gave up its founder’s rights, and, more importantly, its related financial obligations, to both theatres. Instead, the city offered these to the regional government of Herzegovina.

But while the regional authorities provide some grants for both of Mostar’s two big theatres, they refuse to take them under their wing and guarantee regular funding.

Sead Djulic, director of Mostar Youth Theatre, one of three smaller theatres that also operate in the city, says Mostar does not need two large publicly funded theatres.  “The situation was different before the war when a (publicly-funded) theatre served the whole Herzegovina region,” Djulic said.

Today, the whole of Herzegovina is more or less divided, as wartime ethnic cleansing left most communities dominated by one ethnic group or the other.  “Now, just the address of an institution in Mostar will tell you about its ethnicity,” Djulic explains. “If it is in the west, it must be a Croat institution. If it is in the east, it is Bosniak”.

The reopening in 2004 of Mostar’s landmark 16th -century bridge, built by the Ottomans and destroyed by Bosnian Croat artillery in the 1990s, was intended to aid reconciliation and put the city back on the map of world-famous tourism sites.

Over the following years, tourists did start returning to Mostar to see the UNESCO world heritage site, rebuilt as an exact replica of its old self with generous international funding. But tourists generally do not overnight in Mostar because after seeing the Old Bridge they have little else to do.

“Mostar has no cultural products to offer tourists. We sell battery-powered statues of Virgin Mary made in China, Russian Babushka dolls and crappy Turkish souvenirs,” the writer and publicist Dragan Marjanovic complains. “We don’t have anything original, nothing that people could identify with Mostar,” he adds.

Some people in the city are determined to overcome the city’s divisions, hoping Mostar will once again be better known for its writers, painters and actors than for its nationalist politics.

Located on a boulevard that once sat on the front line between the Bosniak and Croat forces, Youth Cultural Center Abrasevic tries to provide a space for those people in Mostar who “refuse to be primarily identified by ethnicity”.

Its activities aim to expose the selfish political interests of “privileged elites who claim they are protecting their ethnic groups’ vital national interests” by preserving Mostar’s divisions, one of the centre’s founders, Kristina Coric, explains.

Abrasevic recently hosted a gathering of artists, architects, historians and sociologists with colleagues from similarly divided cities, including Beirut and Belfast, for a Festival of Art in Divided Cities. Four days of exhibitions, public lectures and performances were held to “open a space for the… establishment of a new socio-cultural and artistic nucleus.

“We believe we can lead by example, by voicing our opinions and by showing through our work what purpose culture should be serving,” Coric said. “Identity does not have to be primarily determined by someone’s nationality or ethnicity,” she added.

The centre, founded by a number non-governmental youth and culture organizations, attracts audiences from both sides of the river. “Abrasevic shows that culture can bring people together”, says Katie Hampton, who moved to Mostar from the United States three years ago to work as a volunteer in the centre.


The story was first published in Culture Watch.

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