A historic Bosnia mosque is rebuilt in powerful symbol of post-war reconciliation

Twenty years ago, the vicious civil war in Bosnia between Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Bosnians left more than 100,000 dead, and the country remains segregated along religious and ethnic lines to this day. Now, both sides are taking steps toward reconciliation with the rebuilding of a historic mosque in Serbian Bosnia, but skepticism abounds. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

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    The nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina remains bitterly divided more than 20 years after a vicious civil war. Tens of thousands died, and millions were made refugees.

    Bosnian Serbs were largely responsible for driving Muslim families from their homes during the early stages of the war. Now many hope the reopening of a United Nations Heritage Site, a mosque, in the Serbian town of Banja Luka is a big step on the road to reconciliation.

    Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant has the story.


    The Muslim call to prayer rang out from the 16th Century Ferhadija Mosque 23 years to the day that Serb militiamen blew it to pieces; 10,000 Muslims traveled to Banja Luka to witness this act of renaissance, a generation after the Serbs had attempted to systematically erase not only the population, but also their culture and heritage.

    Ibrahim Ahmedbasic lost his legs in one of the worst single attacks of the war. He was 21 when a Serb mortar exploded in the town of Tuzla, killing 71 and injuring 250.

  • IBRAHIM AHMEDBASIC, Bosnian Muslim (through interpreter):

    When the mosques began to be reconstructed, people started to coexist again. So you can see, people are capable of living normally.


    The Bosnian War was the most vicious of those that accompanied the break up of former Yugoslavia, largely because of the population's complicated ethnic and religious mix. The conflict began in a wave of nationalism in 1992, when the Christian Orthodox Bosnian Serbs attempted a land grab and attacked areas occupied by predominantly Catholic Bosnian Croats and Muslims.

    In 1993, the country fragmented still further, when the Croats launched an offensive against the Muslims. Peace finally arrived in 1995 with a deal signed in Dayton, Ohio. The accord preserved Bosnia as a single state, but as two separate entities, a Muslim-Croat federation and the Serb Republic; 21 years later, the divisions are as entrenched as ever.

    Banja Luka is the capital of the Serb Republic, which makes the restoration of the mosque so symbolic. It took 15 years to reconstruct. Craftsmen employed 16th century techniques and recovered 75 percent of the original masonry that had been discarded in city dumps and in nearby lakes.

  • OSMAN KOZLIC, Imam, Ferhadija Mosque:

    This is one of the most beautiful mosques in Balkan, not just in Bosnia-Herzegovina.


    Osman Kozlic is the imam of this World Heritage Site.

    What is your message specifically to the Serbs in terms of reconciliation and trying to move on?


    Our mosques, our cathedrals, our temples belong to all of them, belong to us. This is holy place, not only for me, as a Muslim, but it's holy place for Catholics, for Orthodox Serbs. And if we are — think in that way, we have a good future.


    The mosque has special meaning for 21-year-old Emir Galijasevic, even though he was born just a year before the war ended. His family came from Banja Luka and were among those driven out during the ethnic cleansing.

    EMIR GALIJASEVIC, Son of Muslim Wartime Refugees: All the criminals who had done bad things in the war had to be going from the court. But I still think people can still live together. We can still be friends and work together and be as a mirror to other place in Europe, that multiculturalism can live, and it's, I think, the best example of this is this mosque in this town.


    But segregation has been exacerbated by economic stagnation. On both sides of the tangible partition, unemployment is sky-high, especially among the young. When part of Yugoslavia, this region was reasonably productive. Now it's anything but.

    Potential investors are frightened away by corruption and political uncertainty.

    Pero Slavnic, a former major in the Bosnian Serb army, is campaigning for better benefits and pensions for military veterans. Financial hardship contributed to his divorce. Three of his sons are unemployed. And he is weary of politicians manipulating public opinion.

  • PERO SLAVNIC, Bosnian Serb Veterans’ Representative (through interpreter):

    I think we are now further away from being together without borders than just after the war. When foundations are flawed, you become skeptical about everything, including the hand that reaches for you from the other side. We are constantly asking, is this an honest hand? We have a lot of problems in the area of trust.


    This would have been the perfect occasion for the Bosnian Serb leader, Milorad Dodik, to address the issue of reconciliation. Of all the dignitaries present, his words would have carried most significant, because, after all, for many Muslims, Banja Luka represents the lion's den.

    He was due to make a keynote speech, but he clearly didn't like the tone of this event and elected not to speak. So, to find out what he thought, we headed past the glittering Serb Orthodox church to the presidential palace of the Serb Republic.

  • MILORAD DODIK, President, Republika Srpska (through interpreter):

    I am sorry that Ferhadija was destroyed. But since then, we were the ones to support its reconstruction. Evil times happen. But people can't choose those times. We were born in that period.

    But what we can do is to ensure that we don't behave in an inhumane way. Regardless of our religion, nationality and ideology, we shouldn't harm each other.


    But former Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko is skeptical. He's responsible for the civilian implementation of the Dayton peace accord and is concerned that Dodik's threat to secede from Bosnia is poisoning the atmosphere.

    VALENTIN INZKO, High Representative of Bosnia Herzegovina: There's some mixed signals. For example, he gave some money for this renovated mosque. On the other side, the refugee return is many times not so easy. People have problems with papers, et cetera. In schools, they don't — they're not allowed them to speak their own language.

    He invented a different name for the Bosnian language and so on. So we have to measure him on the ground, in the field.


    This student dormitory in the wartime Bosnian Serb capital Pale, a short distance from Sarajevo, is the most current source of Inzko's concerns. It was named in honor of the wartime leader Radovan Karadzic, just as he was being sentenced in late March to 40 years imprisonment for crimes against humanity and genocide.


    Imagine in our country, we would have such dormitories glorifying Nazi people, et cetera. It's totally unacceptable and this is really something where Mr. Dodik has crossed a red line.


    In Sarajevo, besieged for three years during the war, Professor Muhamed Hamidovic is a symbol of reconciliation. His wife was killed by a Serb mortar fired from the surrounding hills. He led the reconstruction of the Banja Luka mosque, but he too is disillusioned.

  • PROF. MUHAMED HAMIDOVIC (through interpreter):

    We are still living in the past. We need a new global system. We need a new approach for young people. The current situation is horrible. I have a son who doesn't know where to go or what to do. For five years, he's unemployed. That's a tragedy. We're talking about reconciliation, and that's so abstract to me.


    Back in Pale, Radovan Karadzic's old stomping ground, three young students are weary of the lack of hope, and of being tainted by the Serb wartime legacy that has nothing to do them.

  • ANOJELA BOROVCANIN, Bosnian Serb Law Student:

    It is really pointless to make some differences because people, because we are all made of bones and blood. And we are all here for some reason. We are here to live, and we are here to love, and we are here to improve this world.

  • NENAD SAVIC, Bosnian Serb Law Student:

    Bosnia-Herzegovina is a place with too many fights between people.

  • NENAD SAVIC, Bosnian Serb Law Student:

    They were affected by everything that happened here a long time ago and people think — still cannot let it go. And that kind of depressing. And there is like no opportunity. When you go somewhere else, you see all those opportunities, and what can you actually do and what you cannot do here in my country.


    If the Ferhadija Mosque is to be a component in breaking down the barriers, Western officials believe more Muslims need to pluck up the courage to return to their former homes in what is still the Serb heartland.

    But the Serbs also need to offer genuine guarantees. Ordinary people on either side are forging bonds. But it's widely accepted that politicians are getting in the way.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Banja Luka.

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