This weekend the people of Mostar will mark the twentieth anniversary of the destruction of Stari Most, an elegant single-span bridge that arched across the turquoise river.
Mostar had once been regarded as one of the jewels of central Europe and was a favourite haunt of tourists who would pay the local children to dive off the old sixteenth-century bridge.
Originally commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent, construction began in 1557 and took nine years. The architect, Mimar Hayruddin was ordered (under pain of death) to construct abridge of such unprecedented dimensions that he is supposed to have prepared for his own funeral on the day the scaffolding was finally removed from the finished structure. Upon its completion it was the widest man-made arch in the world and certain associated technical issues remain a mystery: how the scaffolding was erected, how the stone was transported from one bank to the other, how the scaffolding remained sound during the long building period. As a result, the bridge is considered one of the greatest architectural works of its time.
The name of the city signifies “bridge-keeper”, as a bridge has always been at the heart of the town’s identity. By the sixteenth century, Bosnia had become part of the Ottoman Empire and the city was transformed from a minor river crossing to a thriving imperial crossroads.
Mostar had always been a multi-ethnic multi-cultural society and when the Bosnian conflict began in 1992, the predominantly Catholic Croats fought alongside the Bosnian Muslims.
By the time I arrived in Mostar in May 1993, things had started to change. Disillusioned with the Sarajevo government and supported militarily and financially by Croatia, the Bosnian Croats were planning to establish their own ethnically-based state. The armed forces of the Croatian Defence Council known as the HVO began their own ‘ethnic cleansing’ campaign in an attempt to create a homogenous Croatian population in parts of Herzegovina which included the strategic city of Mostar.
As with all civil wars, people found themselves fighting those who had once been their friends; neighbours who had always lived in harmony were now bitter adversaries and families were being divided according to ethnic origins.
Thousands of Muslims were rounded up and driven into camps or forced across the river to the east. The city was divided along ethnic and religious lines and Mostar’s famous old bridge soon became a haunting symbol of the war.
The siege went on for nine long months, by which time the city lay in ruins and of the seventeen mosques only two remained standing. There was no running water or electricity and people were using their furniture for fuel to cook and boil water. The front lines were no more than ten metres apart in some places, so the enemy was half a street away. Fortunately, the houses were built very close together so those brave enough to venture out would use each other’s kitchens and living rooms as cut-through routes to avoid the snipers. More than three thousand people were killed and many were injured. Patients were housed in the basement of a makeshift hospital where two surgical teams worked day and night in shifts desperately trying to save lives. There were no antibiotics or pain killers and people were dying for want of the most basic medical supplies.
On the morning of November 9th 1993, the bridge, which had hitherto survived centuries of conflict, was destroyed. As the shattered stones fell onto the river bed, the people of Mostar wept, for not only was it an intrinsic part of the city’s identity but throughout the conflict it had served as a symbol of strength.
In August 1995, following the Srebrenica massacre in which 8000 Bosnian Muslims were killed, NATO ordered airstrikes against the Bosnian Serb Army, code-named Operation Deliberate Force. Two months later the Dayton Peace Accords were signed, bringing an end to a conflict that had claimed at least 100,000 lives and driven around two million people from their homes.
Plans were made to reconstruct the Old Bridge and it was decided to build it as close to the original as possible. Materials such as Tenelia stone were brought from local quarries and divers from the Hungarian Army recovered stones from the original bridge that had fallen into the river below.
Sadly twenty years on the city of Mostar remains divided, with the majority of Croats living on the west side of the river and Muslims and Serbs in the east. Poorly targeted international assistance, lack of international co-ordination and suspect foreign investment by western companies have cemented the ethnic divide. Residents pay taxes to parallel ethnic governments that administer separate infrastructures, public services, healthcare and police. The schools are segregated, apart from the School of Nations where children from both sides study beneath the same roof – but even there, Muslims attend in the morning and Croats in the afternoon. In Mostar, young people watch movies, listen to iPods and surf the net much as any other teenagers might do; but they rarely cross the river after dark.
There are graveyards where there used to be parks and row upon row of headstones. Yet despite the damaged buildings and the graves, parts of Mostar are thriving and tourists flock there in the summer. The narrow cobbled streets are like something from a middle-European fairy tale, and people who once ran past the snipers in terror now linger over coffee in sidewalk cafes.
The famous old bridge has been restored to its original magnificence and although for some it stands as a monument to the war, to others it is a symbol of unity in an otherwise divided city.
Sally Becker is an author, peace activist and Goodwill Ambassador for Children of Peace. She carried the Olympic Flag at the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympic Games.
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