The tale of Vitez, in Central Bosnia, is really a tale of two towns: one, of a now-collapsed socialist centre of arms production; the other, of a bustling trade centre with a new, rapidly expanding commercial development zone..
Vitez municipality was the site of bitter fighting in the war. The Ahmici massacre was planned here, at the old "Hotel Vitez". Today, however, inter-ethnic co-operation and astute development planning are the key to the municipality’s economic success.
In the late 1940's Marshal Josip Broz Tito chose mountainous and densely wooded Central Bosnia as the centre of Yugoslavia's new military industry. The area had all the qualities of a natural fortress.
Arms factories were established to produce weapons for the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) in a zone running from Bugojno to Novi Travnik and to Vitez. The establishment of modern Vitez coincided with the construction of the Slobodan Princip Seljo explosives factory, later also known as "Vitezit", in 1950.
"Vitezit" at its peak in the 1980's
The complex of the old combine covers 240 hectares. Its internal road network is 25 kilometres long. A visitor entering the huge industrial complex will be surprised to see that it is full of deer, rabbits, and badgers, more like a national park than an industrial zone. The reason is that the backbone of Vitez's pre-war economy has collapsed – and there is hardly any production.
988 people – including 550 Bosniaks, 435 Croats, 6 Serbs and 7 others – were killed or went missing in Vitez during the war in Central Bosnia. Bosniak citizens were driven out of most neighbourhoods after the town came under the control of the Croatian HVO. The only exception was "Stari Vitez" (old Vitez), a Bosniak enclave, where some 1,300 people endured 317 days of siege during 1993-1994. The frontline ran right through the town. Its bitter legacy has been difficult to overcome.
Dario Kordic, the political leader of the Croats in Central Bosnia, did everything he could to divide the Bosnian Croats and Muslims. A senior member of the HDZ party and military commander of the HVO, Kordic – now serving a 25 year sentence for war crimes in an Austrian jail – was memorably described by Laura Silber and Alan Little in their book, the Death of Yugoslavia.
"A cocksure young journalist-turned-warrior with an unshakeable conviction that Bosnia belonged properly to Croatia … The central Bosnian towns … were all, he said, part of Herceg Bosna."
(Laura Silber and Alan Little, The Death of Yugoslavia, 1996, p. 327)
Following the war Vitez’s surprising development was to completely undermine Kordic's vision. The local Croat business community has been at the heart of the town’s transformation. The trade and shopping centre built in the “PC 96” commercial development zone on the town's outskirts – a perfect contrast to the decay of Vitez's old industries – epitomises the recent change.
The whole complex now employs over 2,500 people. It consists of big supermarkets and department stores, warehouses and parking spaces, which line the main road linking the Sarajevo-Zenica highway to Travnik. The road provides access to the whole of western Bosnia and Dalmatia.
The PC 92 shopping complex from the air
Located in the geographic centre of Bosnia, Vitez became one of the most vibrant shopping centres in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Vitez is part of a new economic phenomenon in the Federation – the rapid development of the trade and retail sector.
Franjo Rajkovic - "Economic"
The idea of a building a commercial zone on municipal land outside the town centre was born in 1996, immediately after the war, during the mayoralty of Franjo Rajković, a leading Croat businessman and boss of the "Economic" company.
The current mayor of Vitez, Vlado Alilovic, is part of the new generation of HDZ leaders, full of ideas on how to expand Vitez's new business zone to make the town ever more accessible to its new customer base.
Vitez Mayor Vlado Alilovic – Pero Gudelj
The career of Pero Gudelj, the owner of FIS, one of Vitez' most successful companies, is an example of the dramatic changes that Vitez has undergone since the war. As a young man, Gudelj worked at the Vitizit enterprise for nine years. Before the war, he played accordion at weddings and opened his own café in downtown Vitez. Later on, he began running a small video store and founded his own TV station. When the war ended, he opened a shop, naming it – like his café – “FIS" (F sharp). FIS quickly expanded.
A Croat, Pero Gudelj was one of the first to break with the past:
"It was not easy at the beginning. There was a lot happening, threats, murders," he remembers, and adds:
"Immediately two years after the war we drew a line [with the past], so that persons of all nations could work here. About 35% to 40% of the employees are members of other nationalities."
FIS store in Vitez
FIS has since expanded rapidly and opened branches all over Bosnia, including in Republika Srpska, and abroad. Today, FIS employs over 2,000 people throughout Bosnia. Its existing centre in Vitez covers 75,000 square metres of shopping space, as well as garment and furniture production centres. Pero Gudelj is now planning another 75,000 sq. m. production complex in PC96, where he hopes to employ 1,500 new workers.
The dynamic changes in Vitez's fortunes stem from the long-term planning set in motion by local business leaders and the Croat majority municipality in this Bosniak majority region.