In the heart of Europe's war-torn Balkans, a land where it's hard to get people to agree on anything, there's one point of common ground...
MOSTAR, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — In the heart of Europe’s war-torn Balkans, a land where it’s hard to get people to agree on anything, there’s one point of common ground: The new Bruce Lee statue will point north.
When it is unveiled in Mostar Saturday, the 5-foot, 7-inch bronze likeness will be the world’s first monument to the late, great martial-arts star — edging out by one day a new statue going up in Hong Kong. Bosnia-Herzegovina is about as far as one can get from the Hong Kong streets where the Chinese-American film legend unleashed his fists of fury. But, in some ways, that’s the point.
“He’s far enough away from us that nobody can ask what he did during World War II, during World War I, or what his ancestors did under Turkey. He’s … not Catholic, not Orthodox, not Muslim,” says Veselin Gatalo, head of Mostar’s Urban Movement group. “Bruce Lee is part of our idea of universal justice — that the good guys can win.”
While it may prompt some snickers, the tribute will stand as the only monument raised in postwar Bosnia without an uproar. Bruce’s greatest virtue — beyond his two-fingered push up — is that he had no dog in the Balkans’ centuries-old religious fight.
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That separates him from Alija Izetbegovic. Sarajevo International Airport was nearly renamed last month after the late Muslim leader. Muslim war veterans said that the airport and Izetbegovic symbolized Sarajevo’s resistance to the three-year Bosnian Serb siege of the city.
“Mr. Izetbegovic led an army and politics that wanted to unite Bosnia,” says Muhamed Svrakic of the Green Berets veterans’ organization in Sarajevo. “From 1992 to 1995, the future of this town was that airport. It was the only way to get any kind of food aid, or journalists, or the wounded in or out of the city.”
But Bosnian Serbs were outraged. They pointed out that Izetbegovic had been under investigation by the U.N. war-crimes tribunal when he died in October 2003. They therefore welcomed the ban of the name change by Bosnia’s top international official, Paddy Ashdown, who also decreed that such changes had to be approved by the government.
New structures that commemorate the 1992-95 war are even more sensitive. Serbs were accused of provocation after erecting a monument to their dead outside Srebrenica last summer, on the 10th anniversary of the Bosnian Serb massacre of some 8,000 Muslims. Survivors of a Serb-run detention camp at Omarska are awaiting international mediation about their proposed monument.
Rebuilding mosques, churches and bridges also invites squabbles over whether a place was historically Croat, Muslim, or Serb. Moderates say these sites belong to everyone.
“To talk about cultural heritage in these terms is totally wrong,” says Amra Hadzimuhamedovic, an architect on the state Commission to Preserve National Monuments.
The Bruce Lee statue is something everyone can support, Gatalo says. But in a town where Croats are concentrated in west Mostar and Muslims in east, Gatalo’s group had to consider which way the icon would face.
“If he faced west he’d be defending east Mostar from west Mostar, or west Mostar from east,” Gatalo says. “And he can’t face south, because that’s Croatia. Facing north, he looks nowhere.”