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The Croat Fortress and the Cave Dwellers: Nationalism, Faith, Identity and Football in a Post-Conflict Bosnian-Herzegovinian Town

Maidano, Massimiliano (2021). The Croat Fortress and the Cave Dwellers: Nationalism, Faith, Identity and Football in a Post-Conflict Bosnian-Herzegovinian Town. (Unpublished Doctoral thesis, City, University of London)


What follows explores the relationships between a football club and its supporters and the role both have played in the post-conflict re-construction of a town in contemporary Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH). Some 25 years after the cessation of an armed conflict that was the most serious in Europe since the Second World War. This dissertation is essentially a study of a people and a place and various performances in a post-conflict milieu that was once known as the state of Yugoslavia. A war between three armed militaries between 1991-95 was ended with the Dayton Peace Accords (DPA) and whilst the fighting stopped the grievances remained and that we will address as the politically liminal became the permanent state of being in what was now referred to as the former Yugoslavia, the demise of which realised (initially) five new European nation states (and later seven- with the possibility of further breaks). Blame for the conflict was apportioned equally amongst the constituent people of BiH – a term that describes the three dominant ethno-political groups of the nation; Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks), Serbs Orthodox Christian and Croats Catholics. Each had its own interpretations as to the causation and escalation around the conflict; as will be evident each have memories, structures and individuals revered and reviled from those years. The war is long ended but the peace is still being fought over.

One town was the focus of the research. The 30,000 strong town of Široki Brijeg (SB) is located today in the regional political entity called the West-Herzegovina Canton of the Federation that constitutes BiH. This canton has an almost entirely Herzegovinian-Croat demographic the few villages and towns evidencing Bosniaks and Serbs generally live separate lives from the Croats. The town today is calm, immaculate, and relatively prosperous but it was a battlefield for just a few days of the conflict, most notably for two days in April 1992 when the Yugoslav Air Forces dropped bombs on the buildings and citizens. The same citizens will inform the curious that regardless of how little military action entered the town’s boundaries that they shed blood defending Croat territories first against the Serbian-led Yugoslav Army (JNA) and later against the Bosnian-Muslim ARBiH military, mostly in and around the nearby city of Mostar. The towns buildings, walls, bridges, and thoroughfares reveal no signs of war; a sense of normality -that we can call “civil society”- has long been evident. A stroll around the town however reveals tombstones, commemorative plaques, and monuments for the War Fallen in dedications to what the Croats refer to as the Homeland War. The memories of the war years and the actions of the war dead are readily articulated to the curious.

This dissertation is the outcome of -staggered-20 months of ethnographic research that explores the Široki Brijeg NK (SBNK) football club who play in the Premier Division of the BiH football pyramid. The club is a vehicle for the expression of both civic pride and wider Herzegovinian Croat identity. Because of this correlate Croats from other parts of BiH and Croat diasporas across Europe support the club. The football club is the kernel of something greater in a town that has long sought to preserve and celebrate Croat identity and considers itself a Croat fortress. Football provides for the largest regular agglomeration of citizens; the SBNK club can attract crowds of up to 7,000. Amongst them are a 50 strong hard-core fan group who are the focus of this inquiry and who gather under the nomenclature of the Škripari (Cave Dwellers). At various times over the course of the football season another 400 peripheral Škripari join the core. The self-applied title they use to describe their gathering originated from a Croat nationalist militia of the same name active in Herzegovina in the 1940-1950s. The latter’s guerrilla warfare tactics were launched from the caves located in the limestone hills of Herzegovina (hence the name). Their fascist sympathies saw them resist both the Allied Forces and the later Socialist Partisan forces of General Josip Broz Tito. The correlate between the two Škripari entities is complicated.

The present-day Škripari are Croatian nationalists and support a football club explicitly of that political persuasion. Around the match day when the situation is considered necessary the Škripari are willing to utilize violence in defence of their football club and implicitly the town they are drawn from. Semantics are crucial to their existence and activities. They admit they are in many ways a derivative entity and are Italian inspired ultras when supporting their club but become English inspired hooligans when they perceive they must respond-with violence-to a challenge. This dualism and the sense of necessity is not always agreed upon, which is a crucial aspect to this research which fundamentally asks; who in this post-conflict political milieu might compromise- and how and with whom- and in the face of what reasoning? Such postulations seek further answers around what were- or might be- the structures, contexts, and issues- and even the individuals- who frustrate or might facilitate the pursuit of a post-conflict civil society.

The Škripari consider themselves the vanguard of a football inspired ethno-political nationalism that has at times centuries old antecedents and is ever - informed by the theology of Roman Catholicism. The football club has become the vehicle for the most public celebration of what the town is - and more importantly - is not. Citizens will inform the inquisitive they are-in many ways- resisting their enemies whom they argue in recent times have tried to kill them or at least homogenise them into a Bosnian-Islamic culture. In such a milieu the SBNK football fixtures incarnate the metaphoric concept of a Croat fortress. The social function of SBNK in both minimizing ethno-political conflict and at the same time maintaining Croat identity in post-war BiH means that the thesis is simultaneously a political narration of a small corner of a contemporary post-conflict European nation and an ethnography addressing an institution and a people which whilst integral to the reassembling of attempts at political normalization also carries the fractures and fissures of that which once led to a military conflict.

The leitmotif that informs so much what follows is the concept and practice of boundaries and boundered identity. This issue, as will be illustrated are the vehicles for issues of injustice, discrimination and political autonomy that dominate the political narratives of contemporary Herzegovinian-Croat identity. As research will illustrate such sentiments are magnified in the frontier town of SB. The central thread to all that follows is that known colloquially in contemporary BiH political debate as “the Croat Question”. What answers football might provide to the process and practices of contending ethno-political nationalisms and conflict-resolution does not provide for simple answers, funded via both Centralised and Municipal political structures, political and football spheres are intertwined in BiH and have been for over a century.

Publication Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HM Sociology
Departments: Doctoral Theses
City, University of London (-2022) > School of Arts & Social Sciences
School of Arts & Social Sciences
School of Policy & Global Affairs > Sociology & Criminology
School of Policy & Global Affairs > School of Policy & Global Affairs Doctoral Theses
[thumbnail of PhD City Massimiliano Maidano.pdf] Text - Accepted Version
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