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Tourists flock every year to the Mostar Bridge, which spans the Neretva River that divides the city along ethnic lines. (file photo)

Mostar is flooded with tourists at the moment. Ignoring temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius, people from all over the word have been flocking to the Bosnian city in record numbers to see the Old Bridge, a masterpiece of 16th-century Ottoman architecture.

There is nothing to indicate to the visitors whether they are on the Muslim or the Croat bank of the Neretva River. That imaginary dividing line only exists in the hearts and minds of the people of Mostar. It corresponds to the front line that ran through the center of the city and next to its main high school during the war of 1992-95.

In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, the high school was given a Croat name and was reserved exclusively for ethnic Croat youth. Under pressure from the international community, in 2003 the Croat and Muslim high schools were formally integrated. However, that move only led to a form of apartheid that is becoming common throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina. It's a system of two schools under one roof. On the surface everything appears normal, with Croat and Muslim kids attending classes in the same building. In reality, they follow different curricula, have different teachers, classrooms, and school officials.

The Narcissism Of Minor Differences

At least the school building itself has been renovated. The beautiful neo-Moorish structure built in 1902 has been restored and repainted in its original vivid colors.

According to Syracuse University professor Azra Hromadzic, the newly "unified" high school does not simply reflect the ethnic divisions in Bosnian society, but rather reproduces them. She was in Mostar to attend the launch of the Bosnian translation of her new book, Citizens Of An Empty Nation, which is focused on the main high school as a symbol of a divided city.

"Divisions are unavoidable -- we have a problem only when divisions are overdetermined by a particular form of identity," says Hromadzic, who teaches anthropology at Syracuse. In her book she analyzes how the narcissism of minor differences has become the dominant feature of post-war Bosnian society, in which ethnicity annihilates all other identities -- and in the process denies Bosnian history and tradition.

Toilets As Common Ground

Life in post-Dayton Bosnia is determined by the constitutional idea of two nations living side by side but never coming into contact with one another.

It is a model that goes against the grain of Bosnia's history of ethnic pluralism.

"Divisions did not cause the war -- they are the result of war. But the reason why divisions remain in society is related to the way how differences are being managed," says Hromadzic. Pointing out that there is no shared public space where people of different ethnic groups can come together, Hromadzic goes back to her case study, the Mostar high school.

Professor Azra Hromadzic (file photo)
Professor Azra Hromadzic (file photo)

​"The only place where students of different ethnicities come across each other is the school toilet."

"That is the place where they come for a secret cigarette. I just discovered that by accident while I was doing my research at the school. There were no professional guidelines on how to conduct an ethnographic study in a toilet."

Not only in the Mostar high school, but in Bosnia as a whole, public space has been reduced to ethnic space.

After school each student goes to her or his bank of the Neretva River -- a daily reality replicated throughout the country.

"Interaction between people of different ethnicities has been banished to the smelly toilets," Hromadzic told an international forum in Mostar on August 2.

'Afraid To Cross The Bridge'

The school is educating young people who do not identify with the Bosnian state -- only with their ethnic group.

"I was a student in the Mostar high school that is part of that unfortunate project -- two schools under one roof," says Lana Prlic, now the vice president of Bosnia's Social-Democratic Party.

"Bosniak kids in one class," she says, referring to Bosnian Muslims. "Croat kids in another."

"While we separate our children," she notes, the top floor of the school houses the United World College Mostar, where around 150 young people from across the world gather to learn about differences.

Two ethnicities under one roof -- the high school in Mostar
Two ethnicities under one roof -- the high school in Mostar

Two years ago, a student from the Mostar high school appeared on "Perspektiva," a program produced by RFE/RL and NED (National Endowment for Democracy), and made waves in the region by stating that he had never crossed Mostar's famous Old Bridge. The boundaries of his world are the boundaries of the Croat part of the city.

"The whole world knows Mostar for its Old Bridge, and I -- a Mostar native -- had never set foot on it, because I'm afraid," the young man explained at the time, adding that he dreamed about studying at the Faculty of Traffic and Communications in Sarajevo, but that he was apprehensive about being in an environment where ethnic Bosniaks were in the majority.

Known to the public only by his first name, Ante, he expressed anxiety over what might happen to him on the other side of the river, where "the others" live. In one of the later episodes of this youth-oriented show, Ante was filmed by a TV crew as he finally crossed the river and had a coffee on the other side.

'Sniffing Warily From Behind The Bushes'

Another student, reflecting on Ante's experience, made the following comments on the "Bljesak" portal:

It would be hypocritical of me to say that when I first came into contact with those from 'the other side' -- when I was 15 -- I did not have any prejudices. We were among the first classes to have the courage to attend that school. That's what it took -- courage. A decade or so ago, the old high school had a terrible reputation. It was still bullet-ridden and full of shrapnel holes, and stood on the dividing line, seen as the place of constant clashes and disturbances. It was attended by both Bosniaks and Croats. Classes were small, because few wanted to go to such a school.

We observed each other from a distance, sniffed warily from behind the bushes, and then we slowly approached one another and saw that we were the same. There were no fights or riots. Only some minor provocations when the football matches were on, mainly in the form of some graffiti in the toilets. Ironically, it was precisely in the toilets where we came together and interacted.

Yet another reminder of Bosnian fractured society. It appears that, as long as ethnicity is the only way of expressing identity, rebuilding a 16th-century bridge was easy compared to the task of rebuilding broken relations between ethnic groups.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
Diana Budisavljevic's passport photo from 1945. The Austrian woman is credited with helping rescue 7,500 mostly Serbian children from wartime Croatia's death camps.

In any Balkan country the names of war criminals are well-known. But the names of people who have moved humanity in a positive direction are often hidden from the public eye.

That is the case with Diana Budisavljevic, whose heroics in rescuing thousands of lives during World War II-era Croatia went unrecognized for more than half a century.

A few years ago, Croatian film producer Dana Budisavljevic was visiting the former concentration camp at Jasenovac when her last name caught the attention of the memorial center's director.

"Have you heard of Diana Budisavljevic?"

When Dana said she hadn't, the director explained that her near-namesake had been directly responsible for saving thousands of children from concentration camps run by the Independent State of Croatia's fascist Ustase regime after the Nazi puppet state was established in 1941. She also presented Dana with a copy of Diana Budisavljevic's diary, published in 2003 by her granddaughter, Silvija Szabo.

The encounter piqued Dana's curiosity, and more discoveries were to follow. It turned out after some digging that her family was related to Diana's husband, Julije Budisavljevic, a respected surgeon, and that Dana's own grandmother had known the couple.

The story of Diana Budisavljevic, meanwhile, was as fascinating as it was virtually unknown in Croatia. The Austrian woman married to a Zagreb-based doctor has been credited with organizing the rescue of at least 7,500 mainly Serbian children from various Ustase-run camps, and yet "Diana's story is not part of our collective memory," Dana told RFE/RL.

Operation DB

Struck by the story and the injustice, Dana resolved to do everything in her power to set the record straight -- which, in her case, meant directing a movie about Diana's life. The film -- whose working title is Operation DB, drawing on Diana Budisavljevic's initials -- is due to start shooting this fall, and Dana is currently scouting locations.

One of her chief inspirations is Diana's diary -- a stenographic journal in German that has survived.

The first entry in the journal reveals that Diana found out from her Jewish seamstress about a camp at Loborgrad, a castle near the Croatian capital Zagreb. When she received confirmation of the camp's existence and its mainly Serbian and Jewish female inmates, Diana set to work.

Natasa Matausic -- a historian who is currently completing a doctoral dissertation on the child-rescue operation -- also found out about Diana Budisavljevic only relatively recently, in 2003.

"One of the most powerful passages [in Diana's journal] describes her visit to the camp at Stara Gradiska. Diana and some nurses from the Red Cross were made to wait all night before being allowed inside the camp by its commander, Maks Luburic," the historian told RFE/RL.

"He then reproached them for caring about Serbian children, and not Catholic and Muslim kids who were also going hungry. Luburic threatened to have Diana and the nurses interned in the camp, saying that no one would know what had happened to them or their whereabouts. Despite this, the women insisted on entering the children's hospital -- and what they found there was truly heart-rending."

'Impossibly Thin Children'

Diana Budisavljevic gives a vivid description of the visit to the Stara Gradiska camp for women and children, a part of the notorious Jasenovac death camp, in her journal:

"Something terrible met us inside. Rooms with no furniture of any kind, only chamber pots, and sitting or lying down on the floor were impossibly thin little children. One could already see death in each one of their eyes.... The doctor said they were beyond help. But the transport leader said we should take every child who could be moved somehow. A choice was made. Those who could still stand on their own feet were taken, while those who were stumbling, who no longer had the strength to stand, were left behind."

The experience was a shock, and Diana fell ill herself, says Matausic.

"She was a mother of two, and what she saw in the camp affected her health. She even started losing her hair."

After Zagreb was liberated by the Yugoslav partisans in May 1945, security officers visited the Budisavljevic residence. They took the family car, as well as files with photos and information on thousands of children who had been saved.

While Diana is credited by historians with helping rescue 7,500 children from various camps, she had kept records of about 12,000 kids who had been accommodated in convents or private homes throughout Croatia.

Most of the children were from the region around the Bosnian mountain of Kozara -- an area that had been "cleansed" in a joint operation by Nazi German and Ustase forces.

PHOTO GALLERY: Diana Budisavljevic And Croatia's Death Camps (click on image to open)

The child-rescue operation was not ignored after the war -- it was, in fact, hailed as a triumph of the liberating partisan forces. But Diana Budisavljevic, who had risked her life and those of her family members up to that point, was erased from the narrative, as were the names of most of her associates and helpers. She was not arrested or interrogated, but it fell to the victors to write the history of the children's delivery from captivity.

The Yugoslav communist authorities subsequently managed to locate many of the children's parents, and those who had been orphaned were left in the care of foster families in Zagreb.

Diana received around 4,000 inquiries from parents looking for their children after the war, but deprived of her archive she was unable to help.

"Nothing was known about Diana's role in the operation, or that she was its prime mover -- that it was she who obtained the crucial permit to remove children from Ustase camps, and from Stara Gradiska, where they were left alone after their mothers had been sent to Germany to perform forced labor," Matausic told RFE/RL.

In 2003, when the permanent exhibit at the location of the Jasenovac camp was being prepared, Matausic discovered a pile of children's photographs and some albums in the archive that had not been looked at in years.

"It seemed that everyone before me had been avoiding this harrowing topic. I set to work immediately. There were four albums with children's photos, all dated. The pictures were haunting -- images of children in distress in Zagreb hospitals or in the camp at Sisak," Matausic says. "At that point one of the members of the team saw the albums I was working on and exclaimed: ‘Those could be Diana Budisavljevic's albums!'" The man knew Diana's granddaughter Silvija Szabo, and was familiar with Diana's journals.

"While I was working on the albums I had many sleepless nights and frequent nightmares," Matausic says. "I can only imagine what it must have been like to see the children in person, as Diana saw them."


Diana was Austrian. She had met her husband Julije in Innsbruck, where he was studying medicine, and they married in 1917. Later, she used her connections in Zagreb high society to obtain permission for the removal of Serbian children from the Ustase camps. She was left undaunted even by the threats from the camp commander Luburic.

After the war she never spoke in public about the operation -- her granddaughter discovered her journal and the photo albums among her things by accident. Diana moved back to Innsbruck with her husband in 1972, where she died six years later.

The director of the forthcoming biopic, Dana Budisavljevic, says that Operation DB will be part feature and part documentary. The feature part is based on Diana's journal and will star Alma Prica, among others, while the documentary portion will include witness testimonies of some of the rescued children, who are now in their 80s. "Together they are meant to bring together on film that which politics and history have separated -- Diana and the children she rescued," Dana explained.

One of the film's working titles had been Diana's List, and Dana welcomes comparisons with the Spielberg epic Schindler's List -- which told the story of an ethnic German industrialist, Oskar Schindler, who is credited with saving the lives of mostly Polish-Jewish prisoners from the Holocaust -- if it means it will draw attention to Diana's story.

"The only thing that makes me uncomfortable is when people start comparing numbers -- Schindler saved 1,500, Irene Sandler (a Polish nurse who smuggled Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto) 2,500, and Diana 7,500 -- because all three operations were different in nature, as were many others.

"The important thing is for us to remember them all, and that it is possible and indeed imperative to stand up to such horror and destruction. In school we spend too much time learning about liberators, and not enough about those who strove to save lives and preserve peace."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.


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