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feature 23 Oct 17

Bosnia’s ‘Hero Town’ Dies on its Feet

Drvar once thrived on its timber industry and its reputation as a symbol of the Partisan struggle against Nazi occupation- but now it is withering away.

Igor Spaic
Photo by Igor Spaic/BIRN.

When Boro Plazic looks down the main street of his hometown of Drvar in northwest Bosnia, he sometimes imagines it packed with people, locals and tourists, as the sound of old Yugoslav Partisan songs echo in his ear.

Then he wakes up from the past and sees the current emptiness. Almost nobody is there. “Sometimes, I feel like crying,” the 62 year-old retired hotel director told BIRN.

The town of Drvar was once a popular tourist destination throughout Yugoslavia on account of its role in the liberation struggle in World War II.

But the 1992-95 war within Bosnia has since killed it. The war drove out most of the residents, while the subsequent peacetime unemployment drove out the new youth.

The pensions of those who have stayed are insufficient for a decent life, the pre-war industry is in ruins and “those who are still healthy and who would want to work, don’t have jobs,” says retired railway worker Jova Tomazovic, now in his eighties, summing up the causes of Drvar’s sad emptiness.

“It used to be loud here, full of people, music everywhere,” he remembers, gazing down the empty street from a bench. “Now everything is dead.”

Of the mainly elderly population that has stayed on in Drvar, every day someone dies. “Soon there will be nobody to bury them,” the old man adds.

Drvar takes its name from the word “drvo”, which means “tree”, and the first thing a visitor notices is the smell from freshly cut timber, the countless wooden sheds and the stacks of firewood piled in front of the houses and buildings. Surrounded by forests, Drvar was known for its timber industry.

But it was also known as the “hero town” for its role in World War II. Drvar’s moment of fame came in 1944, when the occupying Germans launched “Operation Rosselsprung” in an attempt to corner and kill the Yugoslav resistance leader Josip Broz Tito, who was then based in a nearby cave.

Drvar’s image became linked to the story of 16-year-old Milka Bosnic, which the older generations in former Yugoslavia know well.

During the battle in the town in 1944, German soldiers threw a blanket over a Partisan tank, obstructing its view and endangering the wounded soldiers inside who risked falling into German hands.

Bosnic was walking among a group of captured locals, led by German officers, when she jumped out of the group and pulled the blanket off the tank, enabling the Partisans to keep fighting. The Germans cut her down with bayonets on the spot.

“Milka the shepherdess fell, but Drvar survived,” Yugoslav children choirs would sing for decades to come.

The war left the town in ruins, but it was quickly rebuilt and began to thrive. The timber industry was restored and expanded and new factories were built. “There were so many factories here that whoever wanted to work could find a job,” Plazic recalls.

Over the next decades the town got new power lines, a water supply system, roads, schools and a hospital that served the entire region. “It had everything,” Plazic remembers.

“People from Glamoc, Kljuc, Petrovac, Grahovo, and from all over the area would come to Drvar hospital for their medical conditions. We had a childbirth department, there was a surgery – we even had a department for mental illnesses,” Plazic lists.

What he also remembers well, as someone who has been around in the hotel business since the age of 19, is the growth in tourism. People flocked to see “Tito’s cave,” and Tito, now Yugoslav President, visited the town many times. In 1981, Drvar was renamed in part after him, becoming “Tito’s Drvar” – a name Plazic likes to use when speaking of his town.

“From April until mid-October it was packed. Tourist agencies would bring many groups here, to the point where it was difficult to pass by on the sidewalk,” he says.

In 1991, Drvar had a population of 17,500, 98 per cent of whom were Serbs.

But then came Bosnia’s bloody 1992-95 war, which ripped the country apart. Plazic believes Drvar was sold out in an agreement between the three main sides in the conflict.

The Serbs were expelled, or fled, when Croatian forces took over in the summer of 1995. At the same time, Croats expelled from Central Bosnia began moving to Drvar.

The 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement divided the country into a Bosniak-Croat half and a Serb half, and the dividing line cut straight through the Drvar area.

Some eastern districts found themselves in the Serb-majority entity, Republika Srpska, and were renamed “Eastern Drvar.”

Most of the town now belonged to the mainly Bosniak and Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This administrative muddle made Drvar everybody’s territory but nobody’s responsibility, and whatever life was left in town started draining away.

Groups of Serbs started returning to the town but faced harassment from the Croats who now inhabited it. In 1998, Croat nationalists broke into the mayoral office of Mile Marceta, the Serb who had won the mayoral election thanks to Serb absentee votes. They  beat him to the point where he had to use a wheelchair.

Since the war, nobody has invested much in the town’s future. Major companies that used to be the lifeline of Drvar, such as the carpet, paper and cellulose factories, were not rebuilt. Other businesses, including hotels, were the subject of controversial privatizations, which led to their subsequent closure and the loss of hundreds of jobs. “They gave it all away for peanuts,” Plazic says.

The hospital was never reopened. Instead, a “medical centre” operates in part of its old building, where doctors from other areas come a few times a week. For emergency situations or more serious illnesses, locals must go to nearby Livno, which is 104 kilometres away.

“You could die several times over while waiting for the ambulance to come for you from Livno,” Plazic maintains.

The unemployment rate in Bosnia is high enough already, at up to 40 per cent, but in Drvar it is about 80 percent. The number of residents has correspondingly shrunk from the pre-war peak of 17,500 to only 7,036 in 2013.

Most of the Croats who came after 1995 have gone. Of the current residents in the main part of town belonging to the Federation, 6,420 are Serbs, 552 are Croats and 11 are Bosniaks. Only 66 people live in Eastern Drvar, 65 Serbs and one Croat.

In 2013, locals organized a mock funeral for the town, designed to highlight its bleak prospects. They lit candles and put up funeral placards.

“Only sadness and unemployment rule here,” says Bogdan Runic, a humanitarian activist. “If you don’t belong to one of the ruling parties, you can’t even get a proper job, not even to sweep the streets,” he adds.

“Most people are trying to find ways to get out of here.”

Indeed. In most towns in Bosnia, the number of lights makes it hard to see the stars in the evening. But in Drvar on an October Friday evening, the sky is magically dotted with bright stars, and there are almost no lights or people the main square.

It is quiet, apart the sound of a sawmill in the distance, a rare car passing by and the occasional coffee shop where music is playing – but only for the few people occupying two or three tables.

Lights were shut off long ago in hundreds of abandoned houses, and in the months of January and February, for days, “only dogs and cats can be seen on the street,” Plazic says.

“I am still trying to figure out if I should stay here or leave,” he adds. “I love this town more than anything, but I don’t know if I can take this anymore.”

The story of Milka Bosnic is fading from memory. The tradition of teaching it in Bosnian schools stopped long ago. The country’s three major ethnic groups have their own separate curriculums, each learning their own version of history.

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