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Bosnia: The Man Rebuilding Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik, Croatia, 26 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Rarely, even in a lifetime, will an architect face the task of rebuilding a city ranked as an antique and a treasure. Matko Vetma has the job, and it's enriched by the fact that the treasure is his hometown, the Croatian Adriatic port city of Dubrovnik.

UNESCO's world heritage list names Dubrovnik alongside Stonehenge, the Acropolis, and the Great Wall of China. But for Vetma, it is simply where he grew up and first fell in love with the beauty of buildings.

In Dubrovnik's re-emerging old town recently, Vetma told an RFE/RL correspondent how earthquakes damaged Dubrovnik and its treasures over the centuries. But, he said, skillful politicians always managed to save it from the devastation of war. Always, that is, until Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in the summer of 1991.

What followed in October that year can only be described as "unbelievable," according to Vetma.

"For ten months, Dubrovnik came under heavy mortar and artillery fire from Serb and Montenegrin forces of the Yugoslav National Army (JNA). The bombardment came from the sea, the air and close-in hills, and aimed at the best hotels and at yachts in the harbor, and homes," Vetma said.

An official at the time with the Institute for the Protection and Conservation of Historical Monuments, Vetma remembers going into the streets on the evening of a particularly fierce bombardment and, through his own tears, seeing old men crying. The all-out shelling lasted an entire week. Before it stopped, towers and domes were holed, cloisters and fountains damaged, and nine of the town's 17th Century palaces were gutted.

"There were 111 direct hits on Dubrovnik's great wall. The most critical damage, was to the town's rooftops. Two out of every three buildings were hit, and the projectiles pierced more than 60 percent of the tiled roofs," Vetma said.

Nearly five years on and the guns now silenced, Vetma works as an engineer-architect for a Croatian-French firm charged with rebuilding Dubrovnik. He told our correspondent that about one-third of the town's roofs have been repaired. "The most difficult part of the work is training today's workforce to use traditional methods and materials, some dating back 200 years," Vetma said.

Vetma said another problem is that much of Dubrovnik's workforce were Bosnians, many of whom have since gone home to face their own domestic reconstruction projects. Asked if he had any advice for the Bosnians, he said, "Pay attention to history and don't be afraid to ask for help."

"Looking back is like a bad movie that is still somewhere inside you," He said. To this day he does not feel secure, and maybe never will again. He hopes that Dubrovnik will see continued peace.

Still, Vetma give the appearance of being at peace with his world, and so does his city.

A winding path leading into town is bordered with lemon and orange trees, hibiscus and Oleander. Locals claim the flora descends from cuttings brought by sea captains when Dubrovnik was a crossroads between East and West on the Silk caravan. Inside the city walls, the streets are polished to a lacquer-like finish from the foot traffic of hundreds of years and four empires. Crowds of youngsters gather and laugh on the central square in front of shop windows brimming with Western goods.

The travel industry worldwide has raised $300,000 to help repair the town it calls "a Phoenix rising."