Where Once Were Playgrounds: Balkan cities after the wars

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This was supposed to be in the paper this week, but it turned into a web exclusive. Hey, that meant I got to write longer!

Where Once Were Playgrounds
Rebuilding Balkan cities after the wars
By Suzi Steffen

Stari Most, the Mostar Bridge, in August 2006. Photo from Wiki Commons.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, two of the most damaged cities of the 1990s wars aren’t healing thanks to continuing tensions — and design mistakes.

So argued UC-Irvine professor Scott Bollens in the third week of the second year of the UO Department of Architecture’s Savage lectures on war and peace. Bollens spoke to around 120 students, faculty, community members and interested architects on Tuesday, Jan. 22.

Read more.

Though the main thrust of his lecture focused on the cities of Sarajevo and Mostar, Bollens also spoke at length about urban planning in divided cities, including Barcelona, Belfast, Jerusalem, Johannesburg and Nicosia, all cities he has studied in pursuit of figuring out how urban planners can help heal the injuries of contested cities. “These cities have been and continue to be divided physically, often emotionally and sometimes spiritually,” Bollens said at the beginning of his talk.

As an urban planner, Bollens said, his focus lay where the questions of urban policy affected and sometimes conflicted with group ethnic identities and the ways cities underwent political transitions. As he spoke, Bollens often discussed the emotional remains of trauma from war, ethnic cleansing and apartheid.

The most obvious example of what he called “the concussions” remaining in ethnically divided areas came at the famous, lovely old bridge in Mostar. After attacking Serb forces abandoned Mostar to focus on other areas of Bosnia, Bollens explained, the Bosnian Muslim and Croat populations began to attack each other. And the bridge, which had stood across the Neretva since the 16th century, was destroyed near the end of the war by Croat forces. “Mostar once had the highest intermarriage rate in Bosnia,” he said.

After the Dayton Accords of 1995, Bosnia-Herzegovina was divided into two autonomous regions, one a Serbian area ("The Republika Srpska") and one a Muslim-Croat federation ("Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina"), and European Union forces tried to help figure out a way to bring Mostar to a state of “urban normalcy.”

Bollens told the audience that the autonomous Muslim-Croat federation had to figure out a way to work together, “so just think how important Mostar is to the federation!” The European Union took over the government of Mostar after the Accords and attempted to heal an extremely divided, destroyed city. That included rebuiding the bridge, which Bollens said the international community celebrated as a symbol of brotherhood, a symbol that connected the Bosniac Muslim east bank of the river to the Catholic Croat west side.

“But if you looked at the bridge, it actually connected Muslim East Mostar to a Muslim enclave in West Mostar,” Bollens said, and that meant the Bosnian Croat community in Mostar felt betrayed by the international community’s celebration of the reopening of the bridge.

In addition, he said, the EU’s attempts to create a neutral township in the middle of the city failed to work because the EU and the governing councils didn’t keep religious and ethnically specific buildings out of the area. “Keeping the Central Zone neutral was a great idea in design. In implementation, it absolutely failed.”

Sarajevo now, with a cemetery sloping down towards the city, taken from the east. Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia-Herzegovina*, was in the former Yuogoslavia “a multicultural city,” Bollens said, with about 40 percent of the population Muslim, 30 percent Serb and 20 percent Croat. The architecture blended Turkish buildings from the Ottoman empire, Viennese buildings from the Austro-Hungarian empire and Communist Eastern bloc buildings from the time under Josip Tito. “Sarajevo became a target because it represented everything Serbs did not want in a greater Serbia,” Bollens said.

For almost 4 years, the Serbian army surrounded Sarajevo and subjected it to sniper fire and siege. (Joe Sacco’s brilliant and award-winning Safe Area Goražde, a graphic novel concerning the events in eastern Bosnia during this time, recounts some of what happened in Sarajevo as well.) Sixty percent of the city was damaged or destroyed, Bollens said. Now, the formerly multicultural city is located within the Federation but right on the borders of the Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb autnomous region, and the city “is about 80 percent Bosniak Muslim,” Bollens reports.

And that’s a failure of political design, he believes. “Sarajevo is the key to holding Bosnia together, and they should have done everything to keep the multicultural, multiethnic mix there,” he said. “The international community missed an opportunity to create a kind of ‘Sarajevo, D.C.,’ an unaligned city with lots of U.N. troops — because with that as an anchor, Sarajevo might have had a chance.”

Bollens briefly touched on issues in Belfast (where “peace walls” divide Protestant from Catholic neighborhoods), Jerusalem (where, he said, there’s not much hope for solutions) and Bilbao, where the city has tried to remake its image with the famous Frank Gehry museum so that people don’t simply associate Basque separatist violence with the area.

Questions after the lecture focused mostly on Jerusalem. Despite Bollens’ lack of hope about some sort of solution for the Palestinians and Israelis, he said that urban planners from both sides have been meeting on neutral territory in the Netherlands and other places for years. That’s important, he said, “because if and when national peace progresses, there have to have been a set of professional discussions, and there has to be something for politicians to grab ahold of.”

Years of working in war-torn areas have made him both wary and determined. “Even when things look very dark and very dim, I say there’s a role for urbanists and urban professionals.”

Next week's lecture, at 7:30 pm Tuesday, Jan. 29, in 177 Lawrence on the UO campus, focuses on the Iraqi marshes around Baghdad.

*This used to say "the capital city of the former Yugoslavia," which a generous commenter kindly noted for us was actually Belgrade. Sarajevo was merely one of the largest cities, and possibly the most important city, in Yugoslavia.


haha this is hilarious. you just claimed up there that sarajevo was the capital of the former yugoslavia! im not quite sure what your credentials are as an urban planner but it be a good idea to read up a bit about the history of cities before you claim you can rebuild them.

The capital of the former Yugoslavia was Belgrade not Sarajevo.

Submitted by Anonymous Coward (not verified) on Sun, 03/01/2009 - 15:26.

Hi Anonymous Coward,
1. I have no credentials as an urban planner and have never claimed to be one.
2. I'm correcting the mistake in the post. Thanks for the factual portion of your comment.
3. Glad you're so amused by the mistake. I will note that Sarajevo is *now* the capital of Bosnia Herzegovina.


Submitted by Suzi Steffen on Sun, 03/01/2009 - 15:41.
Mostar - contact info

Hi Suzi,

I enjoyed your writing on the Balkan cities post-war. I'm in an Architecture studio (Grad Students at NC State in Raleigh, NC) that is attempting to propose further projects to help MOSTAR, and we need some detailed information to do so. Do you have any contact info for planners, engineers, or archtiects in MOSTAR that is current? Amir Pasic was the archtiect in charge of the bridge project but we can't find current info for him, or any direct access to the supposed records and damaged building databases that were created by the EU team. :( very sad at this end, if anyone can help that would be much appreciated. thanks to anyone who can help! karl rogers

Submitted by Karl Rogers (not verified) on Fri, 09/11/2009 - 10:50.

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