In Tito's old hunting grounds, fans struggle to keep his spirit alive

Bugojno (Bosnia and Herzegovina) (AFP) –


Surrounded by forests in the heart of Bosnia, the town of Bugojno and its melting pot of ethnicities was once a showcase of the "brotherhood and unity" championed by late Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito.

But 40 years after the marshal's death, those values would have all but disappeared if not for a handful of devotees committed to keeping the spirit of their old country alive.

Tito, whose charisma and concentration of power helped bind former Yugoslavia's diverse peoples together, often retreated to a villa in Bugojno, where he was fond of hunting for bears among the fir trees.

At that time, the town was an economic powerhouse, home to an arms factory that employed thousands, including Croats, Serbs and Muslims.

But like their country at large, the mosaic of communities in this small town was shattered during the inter-ethnic war in Bosnia that killed 100,000 people between 1992 and 1995.

The conflict was one of a series of wars that unravelled Yugoslavia just over a decade after Tito died, when nationalist sentiments that were suppressed under his rule surged back with a vengeance.

- 'Happy country' -

Of Bugojno's pre-war population of 47,000, only about 30,000 are left, the vast majority of whom are Bosnian Muslims.

Today, Marshal Tito Street is named after the 17th-century Ottoman ruler Sultan Ahmet II.

Instead of a white marble monument dedicated to the partisan fighters Tito led to victory in World War II, there is a memorial celebrating soldiers from the Bosnian army, mostly Muslim, who were killed during the 1990s war.

But some signs of the past linger, thanks to the town's small Josip Broz Tito association.

One member, Dragan Mucibabic, is a collector of "Yugo-nostalgic" objects such as a bust of Tito, a telescope he once used and a bronze plaque with the prints of a bear he hunted.

The socialist federation "was not quite the country of unity and brotherhood" proclaimed by Tito's regime, Mucibabic admits.

But it was a "happy country in which everyone, if they worked hard, could find work".

"Finding a job today is like winning the lottery," he told AFP.

- Bears and busts -

A hunting enthusiast, Tito was said to be in a competition for who could snag the biggest bear with the Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu.

Rumour had it that bears in the Bugojno area were specially fed for him.

"Tito said he never ate anywhere and never rested anywhere as well as in Bugojno," says Viktor Dundovic, who leads the association of Tito fans and teaches "our language and literature" at the local high school.

Dundovic is careful to say "our language" because the 59-year-old prefers to stay out of the disputes between nationalists over the name of the same language which they now refer to differently: Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian.

Although the "fight has been tough", he said the local club had managed to install busts of three World War II partisan heroes in front of the high school with support from the town mayor.

Deliberately chosen to symbolise Yugoslavia's diversity, the Muslim, Serb and Croatian men had been decorated by Tito.

In a park where a large monument to celebrate Tito's partisans "disappeared" during the war, the association was also able to install a small pyramid-shaped monument which bears a phrase from the former leader:

"Brotherhood and unity are the guarantee of our existence and further development."

- The villa's fate -

Elsewhere in the region, hundreds of monuments dedicated to Tito and the partisans have been destroyed or damaged since the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Most of the streets and squares carrying his name have been renamed.

Bosnia carries some of the worst scars of the Yugoslav conflicts, with the country now carved into separate zones along ethnic lines, with Serbs in one half and Croats and Muslims in the other.

In the years after Tito's death, his Bugojno villa was turned into a museum where visitors could admire his hunting weapons and trophies.

But it was not immune to the violence either.

The building was burnt down in 1993 and its concrete carcass is now filled with garbage and splattered with graffiti.

For Dundovic, the house's fate speaks volumes.

"The treatment of the villa reflects the attitude towards Tito and everything he stood for," says Dundovic.