A bridge that spans hatred and hope
Vesna Peric Zimonjic | Mostar, Bosnia |July 23
Its destruction symbolised the bitterness of the Bosnian war. Now, after more than a decade, it has been rebuilt.
Independent – Eleven years after it was destroyed by Croat shells in the savage Bosnian war, the reconstructed Old Bridge of Mostar proudly overlooks the emerald waters of the Neretva river again. It is to be opened for pedestrians today in a magnificent ceremony intended not only to bring some 50 heads of states and top international officials here, but also help the badly needed healing process in this country.
pic below the fold
People in Mostar observe the reconstructed Old Bridge, which was originally built in the 16th century by the Ottoman Empire but fell in 1993.The Old Bridge connected the two sides of Mostar since 1566
Mostar’s Old Bridge before, during and after the war in pictures(BBC)
A bridge that spans hatred and hope
Its destruction symbolised the bitterness of the Bosnian war. Now, after more than a decade, it has been rebuilt. Vesna Peric Zimonjic reports from Mostar
23 July 2004
Today a dozen men will fall from the bridge that became a symbol of death and destruction. They will flail and yell, but their cries will be filled with joy. For theirs is to be a leap into the future; a leap from the new Mostar Bridge – a bridge that carries hopes of unity.
Eleven years after it was destroyed by Croat shells in the savage Bosnian war, the reconstructed Old Bridge of Mostar proudly overlooks the emerald waters of the Neretva river again. It is to be opened for pedestrians today in a magnificent ceremony intended not only to bring some 50 heads of states and top international officials here, but also help the badly needed healing process in this country.
The final stage of the ceremony will be a collective dive of 12 young men into the quick and chilly Neretva river, some 20 metres below. They will dive with torches in their hands, but otherwise in a manner made traditional by their fathers and grandfathers.
It’s an elegant dive, head on. It signifies that the man is brave, that he confronts both his fear and the forces of nature, like the river. The tradition died with the old bridge in 1993.
“We’ll start the diving contest again to attract the tourists,” the mayor of Mostar, Hamdija Jahic, promised, as he told me about today’s ceremony. Among those watching will be Emir Balic, now in his seventies, the most prominent diver of Mostar. His career spanned decades.
“I’ve always loved the bridge,” he said. “I cried when it went down. As for those who think it might unite us once again, this is a thing that should happen in our heads first.”
There is much to overcome. Memories don’t come much more bitter than in the Balkans. Bosnian Croats and Muslims fought for Mostar in 1992-95. The Croatians’ claim to the town was backed by Zagreb and the regime of late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. Altogether, Croatian army shells destroyed some 5,000 buildings in eastern Mostar and more than 26,000 people were evicted from the western part. Most of them were Muslims.
Previously, this town was the home of some 120,000 Croats, Muslims and Serbs. The small number of Serbs who lived here fled during the war and only a few have returned since. The Muslims who returned to the city tended to settle on its eastern bank. But many decided never to return here. The memories are too bad and life is better abroad. “We’ve found a new life,” said 43-year-old Vanja, who has returned to his former home for the bridge ceremony. “Children go to school and we have put some roots in Denmark.”
Vanja comes from a mixed marriage of a Muslim and a Serb. “That is why I won’t say my surname. That is what really ruined this country – this insistence on who comes from what nation. I come from a mixed marriage. My wife is a Croat from Mostar. We and our children are Danish now. No more talk about who is who.”
The scars of war can be seen across this town – especially in its eastern, predominantly Muslim, part. I was granted the privilege of being allowed to walk across the bridge yesterday. On the eastern bank, buildings without windows, some with trees growing from within their walls, stared at me, an ominous reminder of how war does not bring victory or solutions, but only devastation and human suffering.
More reminders of war were gazing back at me from the Old Town as I watched my step on the steep, narrow, picturesque pathway of the bridge. Suleiman’s Old Bridge, the “Stari Most” from which the town takes its name, has gone for good. Built in 1566, it fell into the Neretva on 9 November 1993, when a Croat commander ordered a tank to open fire on the weakened, fractured structure. It had been pathetically garlanded with rubber car tyres in a futile attempt to limit the damage from incoming shells.
The Old Bridge was one of hundreds of Ottoman and Islamic architectural gems that were blown to pieces in the frenzied fighting of the early 1990s. But the Old Town of Mostar still clings to its own life on the eastern bank. Craftsmen still make oriental plates or “dzezva”, with their own hands. Dzezva is the special pot used for cooking sweet Turkish coffee here and the sound of the craftsmen beating the metal with their tiny tools and hammers mixes with the noise of the Neretva river.
Streams of tourists fill this part of the town from the early hours, despite the stunning heat. Hundreds of them are visiting Mostar these days, either to see the reconstructed bridge or simply to enjoy the unique atmosphere.
The Tourist Association of Mostar, yesterday announced it expected to earn €25m once the bridge is officially open. This is a large amount of money in a poor country like Bosnia and especially in this part – Herzegovina. But among the Croats, across the Neretva river, it is possible to find those who are not so keen to visit. Some of the teenagers in western Mostar admitted they never went to the “Muslim part of town”. Some were even pretty sure that the Neretva river was running next to Mostar and not through it – implying that the Muslims were not part of their town.
A giant cross stands on the hill of Hum, overlooking the western part of Mostar. It was built at the end of war, in memory of the Croats who fought.
“I think that people know exactly who did what during the war,” says Katarina Rajic, a middle-aged Croat. “Every family has at least someone dead to remember. That is why it is hard to forget and forgive”.
In western Mostar, high school curricula are Croatian. In eastern Mostar they are Federal, meaning under the auspices of the central government in Sarajevo. The result is that students learn different histories, depending on the nation to which their education system belongs.
But there are some, like Safet Orucevic, a former mayor of Mostar, who insist there is a future for a multi-ethnic Mostar. He says that the everyday reality of war was traumatic for everybody, regardless of their nationality. “Everyone has learned that war brought no prosperity or improvement,” he said. “People in Mostar have come to the conclusion that living together remains our only choice.”
Mr Orucevic was the mayor of Mostar from 1994 to 2001, during some of the worst fighting. He now heads one of the most prominent non-governmental organisations here, the Centre for Peace and Multi-ethnic Cooperation.
“About 12 years after the war started, people finally saw how senseless it was. I think that Mostar should become the model for the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina in its effort to restore the multi-ethnic life,” he said.
His optimism was echoed by Izet Ibric, a shopowner in the Old Town. “We all hope for the best now that the tourists have started coming in. And the re-opening of the bridge should help. It was the soul of Mostar.”
Paddy Ashdown, the European Union Special Representative in Bosnia, said yesterday that the destruction of Old Bridge in 1993 symbolised “the momentary triumph of evil”. “Its reconstruction represents a permanent triumph of will, the will to do whatever is necessary to ensure the ultimate victory of civilisation over primitivism, ” Mr Ashdown told a seminar in Mostar.
Security ahead of today’s opening ceremony has been strict. Divers have checked the Neretva riverbed and banks close to the Old Bridge, making sure that there were no underwater explosive devices. All yesterday afternoon, Nato helicopters circled over the town. Policemen were present on the streets in numbers obviously larger than usual.
But, wherever one goes in Mostar, the lovely single arch of the Old Bridge remains in view. The townspeople like to tell you that it is made out of 456 blocks of stone, most of them recovered from the river after the bridge went down in 1993. The rest was brought from nearby Mukosa quarry, the very same as that used by the Turkish architect Mimar Hajrudin, who constructed the bridge back in 1566.
Although city officials insist the new stones were cut in the exact manner as the originals, quarried more than 400 years ago, they remain coy as to whether the mortar is a mix of egg whites and horse hair, as Hajrudin is said to have employed back in the 16th century.
According to legend, Mimar Hajrudin did not wait for the opening of his bridge. Afraid the single arch might collapse under the very weight of hundreds of stones, he fled Mostar fearing that his sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, might decide to punish him.
Thousands of people will attend the ceremony tonight for what will undoubtedly be a highly emotional occasion.
They hope the bridge will act as a magnet, bringing people back to their magnificent city. And perhaps bringing the two halves of Mostar together once more.