The following long post is my personal account of what I experienced regarding the protests in Mostar on February 7th. I don’t claim perfect understanding of all the facets of this complicated situation, and I acknowledge the potential of a bias to my story. It’s just one perspective.
“Did you hear about Tuzla?”
I was sitting in my room working on Wednesday (Feb. 5) night, when one of my roommates, Ajša, asked this question to myself and one of my other roomies, Borjana. The two of them are both from BiH, so they started to tell me about how earlier in the day, there had been some significant protests in a city north of Sarajevo. I asked if it would spread to Mostar but they weren’t really sure.
“I know it’s kind of late but it would be quite cool if you went to the Spanish square at 16:00, because there will be (probably a small one) a protest going on. It’s organized spontaneously as a supprt for everything that has been going on in Tuzla.”
I received this email on Thursday in the early afternoon. I couldn’t go because I had a Skype planned at that time, but I heard later that it was pretty peaceful, just about 100 or 200 people blocking traffic on the busiest street in the center of Mostar (called the Boulevard). Again that evening, I talked with my roommates, who were excitedly showing me pictures and articles that were describing other spontaneous protests that had popped up in major cities across the Federation as a show of support. “Do you think this is it?” I asked. “What do you mean?” responded Borjana. “Is this it? Is this going to be the protests that start a revolution, that make changes in BiH?”
“It’s hard to know,” Ajša said, “but we’ve never seen anything like this before. Not since the Baby Protests in Sarajevo last summer.”
Friday afternoon, 3pm. I sat in the Spanish Room with most of the other B and ab inito level language students, working away on our our second trial Paper. As we wrote, we started to hear more and more noise coming from Spanish Square below. There was a feeling of anxiety, of impatience in the room, because we knew what it meant – there had been major protests announced for Friday, starting at 4pm. So from the sound of it, it was happening – people in Mostar were finally coming together and were going to make their voices heard. And all the while, there we sat, taking exams.
The noise got louder and more distracting – shouts, whistles, car horns. The students who were sitting along the wall in the Spanish Room with the windows craned their heads, fully turning their bodies and getting on their knees on the chairs so they could see the commotion below better. It felt so futile, sitting in that room working on exams; it was pointless as we thought of the significance of the growing momentum in the Square. Finally we were freed, and I hurried back to the residence with Rhea, my American co-year, to put down our backpacks. I grabbed my camera and we headed straight back to the Square to meet up with Borjana.
But when we arrived, the protestors had already gone on the move. We followed some people that seemed to know where they were going until finally we found the huge crowd, gathered in front of the building of the Government of the Herzegovina-Neretva Canton. We saw quite a few other UWCers, even some teachers had shown up. Everyone was waiting, it seemed, for a leader or something to direct the momentum.
A couple rocks were thrown at the windows of the building. Rhea and I wove our way through the people, getting closer, where we found Ajša and a few other girls from our school – Sunčica, Amina, Chloe, and Sarah.
Everyone stood around, eyes trained on the building; there were a few chants, such as “Mostar woke up.” Then, a few guys ran up the stairs to the doors of the building and threw rocks at the windows; a few more followed suit. Suddenly there was a rush, and while the people watched and cheered, more mostly young guys started to try to break the glass, demolish the alarm, and one even tried to pry the “Vlada” (Government) sign off the building. Something turned them back though, maybe the inner doors were too stubborn; regardless they retreated and joined the crowd again.
At one point, an older woman climbed the stairs, through a brick at one of the windows, then turned to face the crowd. She raised her hands with a triumphant pump, then crossed them and made a motion of being done, perhaps somehow wiping her hands clean of the mess of a government.
The tension in the air was almost tangible, and it didn’t take long for the raw emotions of frustration and desperation to boil over. Another group of men, possibly the same as before, rushed the stairs again, this time entering the building. Things started to be thrown out the windows – documents, printers, even radiators and plants. (Sarah, known for being eco-friendly, said “Not the plants!” which provided a good laugh against a backdrop that wasn’t very humorous.)
“Guys look, look at the top floor! There’s smoke!” We all looked up and sure enough, some gray smoke signaled that the people inside the building had started a fire.
As the flames began to billow out the windows of the building, one man, who had been demonstrating alone in Spanish Square with signs for almost a year, started to shout. Ajša couldn’t fully hear what he was saying, but it seemed like he was trying to tell people to stop entering the building, advocating for more peaceful demonstrations.
But the fire had already been started – literally. There was another one at the foot of the stairs; a desk and a few chairs were the biggest pieces of the growing bonfire. As the flames burned brighter and stronger, we moved around to the side of the building. Then Sunčica translated that the locals were saying the riot police were on their way to the building. We rejoined the crowd that was still in front of the building, and within a few minutes there they were.
The riot police lined up in front of the building and stopped. They didn’t do anything, just stood there for 5 minutes or so. A girl stood in front of them with a poster that read, “You’re human. I’m human. When you take off your uniform, in which way do we differ?”
Then, they took off their gas masks and raised the plastic visors on their helmets, causing the crowd to cheer and clap, and walked away. A fire truck showed up and started to attempt to put out the fire, but the people didn’t care. We began to move again, to Spanish Square and past our school to the Mostar City Hall.
We saw more UWCers there, just faces in the huge crowd that watched as the same process was repeated a second time. Throw rocks at the windows, force entry into the building, begin to ransack it and start fires. It was a scene that should have been troubling, but there was a feeling of disbelief that it was all actually happening that forced you to keep watching. I had never been in a situation like that before, never felt that amount of pent up energy radiating through such a mass of people.
On the crowd continued, working its way to the next building. One of the main office buildings for the City of Mostar, I immediately recognized this one – it was where we went to sign our “Aliens’ papers” during the visa process. By that point, there was a rhythm to the destruction, following the same pattern as the earlier buildings. Hooded, mostly young men entered the building as others outside threw stones. More fires were set, papers were strewn everywhere. Something new this time was that they overturned two cars parked in front. It was so loud – glass breaking, stuff being thrown, some shouting – yet it was also quiet in that there wasn’t one, unified chant. So many people were just observing.
Seemingly finished with the significant government buildings for the time being, the mass of people moved to the next target: the HDZ building. The Hrvatska demokratska zajednica, or the Croatian Democratic Union, is the largest Croat political party in BiH. At first was hard to know how to feel about this – was it a sign that the protests were about to take a nationalistic turn? We knew that we needed to leave immediately if they did, because that would likely spiral into a dangerous situation quickly.
But as I took pictures, two guys approached me and asked me a question in local. I couldn’t fully understand, so rather than attempt to try to respond I told them I couldn’t speak local. They were a bit taken aback, but then they asked their question in English. “Do you know what’s going on in the other cities? In Tuzla, in Sarajevo, in Zenica? Have you heard anything?” I hadn’t heard much, I said, only that there were some similar fires earlier in the day in Tuzla. Then they started asking me why I was in Mostar and what I thought of the protests. Unsure of who they were, I attempted to respond neutrally, just saying something about how the buildings will cost so much to repair, and that money will probably have to come from taxes.
“We don’t care,” they said. “Our fathers fought in the war. Our mothers sacrificed. Now they don’t have jobs. We don’t have jobs. We will remake the buildings, they don’t matter. We want to be heard.”
I asked them if the protestors would burn other political party buildings as well. They said of course, that it wasn’t about one group but the system as a whole. This was a good sign – at least in terms of nationalism concerns. Then another guy came up, and according to the translation from the two guys, he said the car that had been turned over in front of the building and was burning might explode soon. Not trying to take any chances, Hannah, Rhea, and I left the area. We took a pause near Mepas, at which point Rhea left to meet up with some other people. Hannah and I went to go find the protests again. As we crossed the bridge towards Musala Square, we saw another group of UWCers and stopped to talk with them for a bit. While we did, we saw a huge group of people going down the street we had just come from. Hannah and I went to join them, who stopped at a different government building that was also for the Canton. At this point we again found some fellow students, so we stood with them as the process of ransacking began again.
This building was located on the corner of a T-intersection. We were there for 15 minutes maybe, when without warning, people started running down one part of the T towards where I was. Then, just as quickly as they started, they stopped. My friend Ogi said that the riot police had arrived, translating what he could hear. Everyone was visibly confused, looking around, trying to understand what was going on. Suddenly, there were a few loud explosion-like sounds, and like horses out of the gates at a race, everyone took off again. They scattered every which way, fleeing some force that we couldn’t see. Frantically, we began to run as well, at which point we began to realize what was going on. We had unknowingly run straight into a line of the tall, buff, and armed riot police. As we tried to turn to run the other way, I saw a couple of the police grab the hooded guys who had been participating in the destruction and begin beating them with riot batons. In my attempt to get away from that as soon as I possibly could, I almost fell but I managed to catch myself, hearing Ogi shouting at me to follow him. It was chaos.
As we fled, I managed to stash my camera in my purse, and realized that I couldn’t see. The loud sounds from earlier were tear gas canisters. Everything was a blur like when you open your eyes under water without goggles, and I desperately clawed at my face. I had never been exposed to tear gas before. It was burning, and true to the name, causing my eyes to tear uncontrollably. I clung to Hannah’s shirt as we got away, slowing to a quick walk to join the other protestors. We realized that it was a coordinated attack; the riot police had gone down two parts of the T intersection, only allowing one way to escape. Within a few minutes, the sensation in my eyes faded away, and we stood in a cluster of UWCers in shock of what had happened. According to our count, there were seven buildings burned that night; why had the police waited so long to finally respond? Then someone said that our headmistress sent an email earlier in the evening telling us to stay in the residences, so we should get back. This was news to me – I hadn’t checked my email since before my exams started that afternoon. But we did go back, and we stayed in the rest of the night.
I take full responsibility for being exposed to what I was – tear gas and all. It was a learning experience in some way, and I wasn’t about to sit around while history was made. It was captivating, observing and being part of a mass catharsis. It seemed that maybe Mostar had woken up – maybe they were going to make their voices heard for once. Yet it somehow felt futile as well – what good was burning some buildings going to do to fix the immense, fundamental, structural problems of the system?
That night, there were ten or so people in my room, mostly internationals, discussing the protests, their purpose, and if they would be successful. Finally Borjana spoke up, mentioning the underlying feelings of cynicism and disappointment. “I had the wrong picture when I went to join the protests today. I thought it was so great, that Bosnia was waking up finally, la la la. But no, it’s not like that. Its hard for me to explain because you don’t understand the language, you haven’t lived here. […] You know what will change in Mostar? Nothing. In Tuzla, maybe. But in Mostar, nothing. Even if they overthrow this government, the next one will be the same.
“It’s been more than 20 years and nothing has changed.”