Vitez in Central Bosnia is really the tale of two towns: one of a socialist centre of arms production which has now collapsed, and another of a bustling trade centre with its new commercial development zone, PC 96, expanding rapidly on the town's outskirts.
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 in the municipality and astute development planning are the key to its 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 Yugoslavia National 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 in 1950, later also known as "Vitezit".
"Vitezit" at its peak in the 1980's
The complex of the old combine covers 240 hectares. It has 25 kilometres of internal road network. A visitor entering the huge industrial complex will be surprised to see that it is full of deer, rabbits, and badgers. It looks more like a national park than an industrial company. In fact, the backbone of Vitez's pre-war economy has collapsed and there is hardly any production.
While the war waged in Central Bosnia, 988 people were killed or went missing in Vitez; including 550 Bosniaks, 435 Croats, 6 Serbs and 7 onthers. Bosniak citizens were driven out of most of the town after it came under control of the Croatian HVO. The only exception was "Stari Vitez" (old Vitez), a Bosniak enclave where some 1,300 people endured a siege for 317 days from 1993-1994. The frontline ran right through the town, leaving a bitter legacy which has been difficult to overcome.
Dario Kordic, the political leader of the Croats in Central Bosnia, did everything to divide the Bosnian Croats and Muslims. He was a senior member of the HDZ party and also a 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 as:
"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, however, Vitez saw a surprising development that was to completely undermine Kordic's vision. The local Croat business community has been at the heart of the transformation of the town. Today the decay of the Vitez's old industries stands in contrast to the trade and shopping centre that has been built on the town's outskirts in the commercial development zone known as PC 96.
The whole complex now employs over 2,500 people. It consists of big supermarkets and department stores, warehouses and parking spaces. It lines the main road that links 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 shopping zone on municipal land outside the town centre was born immediately after the war in 1996, when Franjo Rajković, a leading Croat businessman and boss of the "Economic" company, was the Mayor of Vitez.
The current Mayor of Vitez, Vlado Alilovic, is part of the new generation of HDZ leaders, full of ideas about the expansion of the Vitez's new business zone, to make the town ever more accessible to its new customer-base.
Vitez Mayor Vlado Alilovic – Pero Gudelj
Pero Gudelj, the owner of one of Vitez' most successful companies, FIS, serves as a good example to illustrate the dramatic changes in Vitez since the war. As a young man, Pero Gudelj worked at the Vitizit enterprise for nine years. Already before the war he played accordion at weddings, opened his own café in downtown Vitez. Later he owned a small videostore and then founded his own TV station. When the war was over, he opened a shop and called it like his cafe "FIS" (F sharp). FIS quickly expanded.
Pero Gudelj, a Croat, 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 shops all over Bosnia, including in Republika Srpska and abroad. Today FIS employs over 2,000 people throughout Bosnia. Its existing FIS centre in Vitez covers 75,000 square metres of shopping space and production centres for making garments and furniture. Pero Gudelj is now planning for another complex of 75,000 square metres in PC96, where he hopes to employ another 1,500 people in furniture making and other production.
The dynamic changes in Vitez's fortunes stem from the long-term planning set in chain by its business leaders and by the Croat majority municipality in this Bosniak majority region.