Decades after bloody fighting between Catholics and Muslims tore Bosnia’s Bugojno apart, a new church offers a rare opportunity to bridge the rifts in the deeply fractured Balkan country.
Still under construction, the Catholic place of worship in the central Bosnian city will be built on land donated by Husejn Smajic, a 68-year-old Muslim resident, after he discovered the foundations of a medieval church on his property.
For Smajic, the new church represents a small step in an effort to restore the communal harmony that was common in Bosnia before the 1990s war.
“I did this so people can see that we can all live together. Without the mix of communities there can be no beauty of life here. It is our wealth,” Smajic told AFP.
Amid the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia, a vicious civil war erupted in Bosnia, pitting the country’s Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Bosniak Muslims against each other in a conflict that killed around 100,000 people.
Bugojno was hit hard during the war, which was marked by ethnic cleansing, mass expulsions and atrocities committed by all sides.
Most of the city’s Catholic Croats, who made up more than a third of Bugojno’s 47,000 residents, were driven out by Bosniak Muslim forces.
– life after the war –
Nearly three decades later, many of the divisions exacerbated by the conflict have largely hardened, and Bosnia’s three main factions rarely mingle.
A peace deal that successfully ended the war has divided the country and controlled by ethno-religious political parties that have exploited Bosnia’s divisions to retain power.
With few economic opportunities, hundreds of thousands have moved abroad in search of a brighter and more stable future.
The breakup of Bosnia was particularly painful for people like Smajic, who is intermarried with his Catholic wife.
Before the war, intermarriage was common throughout Bosnia, but like many aspects of life, it is becoming increasingly rare.
But the discovery of the medieval church on his land – which was probably plundered during the Ottoman invasion of Bosnia in the 15th century – presented an opportunity in Smajic’s eyes.
After donating part of his property to the Catholic Church, Smajic has provided a guiding hand in completing the project, proving that the country’s communities can still work together to build rather than destroy.
Smajic – who owns a nearby sawmill and two small hydroelectric plants – has funded much of the operation, while members of the Croatian, Muslim and Serbian communities have also donated money and supplies.
– ‘We can live together’ –
During a recent church dedication ceremony, hundreds attended the celebration and subsequent celebrations, including a barbecue with traditional Bosnian sausages and dancing.
“We can live together if we respect each other,” said Vinko Puljic, the former head of the Catholic Church in Bosnia, who oversaw the dedication of the new church.
Smajic’s efforts have proven to be an inspiration to others.
“If we were all like him, if we all had this love for each other, I think this country would be so happy and nobody would move to Germany, Austria or Switzerland anymore. We would make Switzerland here,” said resident Mihovil Klisanin.
“People like Husejn are rare in Bosnia, especially after these tragic conflicts. He has a heart as big as a mountain,” added Frano Glavas, a 58-year-old Croatian from Bugojno who now lives in Croatia.
For Smajic, rebuilding Bosnia and the ties that once bound the nation will require both vigilance and empathy, while avoiding the country’s divisive political scene that continues to fan the flames of separatism.
“If you love this country and if you love this people, I mean all its people, you have to work against the politicians,” said Smajic.
“From this valley will come messages of peace, love and respect for all peoples.”
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