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(E) The Bridge over the River Neretva
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  07/28/2004 | Politics | Unrated
(E) The Bridge over the River Neretva
The Bridge over the River Neretva The opening of the reconstructed Old Bridge in Mostar was, of course, always going to be accompanied by much official hoopla. Top regional and international officials flocked to the city on 23 July for what was essentially an elaborate photo opportunity at a bridge that will, it is hoped, become a symbol of a better future for Mostar, Bosnia and the region. Messages of goodwill poured into the city from all over the world. Bosnians at home and abroad rejoiced, many of whom glued to TV sets that evening.It was also a day that perhaps radiated more positive energy than the present-day Mostar and Bosnia can absorb in one go. This may be true in particular of the exaggerations about the Old Bridge’s historic and possible future meaning. Unsurprisingly, the exaggeration favored by foreign dignitaries was that the bridge has the real and metaphorical power to connect and reconcile not only the divided local communities, but also the Islamic and Christian worlds.A SYMBOL STRETCHED TO BREAKING POINTStrictly speaking, the Old Bridge never fitted the bill. Sulekiman the Magnificent, on whose orders the bridge was built in the 16th century, may have sought to demonstrate the power and refinement of the Ottoman Empire. But rather than connecting two worlds, the bridge was primarily built to serve the much more mundane purpose of connecting the two banks of the River Neretva, both of which were deep inside the Ottoman Empire. Since then, the region of Herzegovina, of which Mostar is the biggest urban settlement, has been part of many different states, all of which spanned both banks of the Neretva.While some historical figures may have toyed with the notion of the Neretva as a border between states or even civilizations, the idea was first acted upon in 1992 when Serb nationalists proposed to their Croat counterparts that the river become the border between their own future states. When the Croats refused, the two sides fought a brief war in the river valley, with the Croats, aided by the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), prevailing with surprising speed. That coincided with the equally effortless capture by the Serbs of the northern region of Posavina, an area with a Croat majority. Suspicion of a secret trade-off was born.When the Croats and the Bosniaks turned against each other toward the end of 1992, neither saw the Neretva as the desirable future border, but the winding river did become the frontline in a number of places in Mostar and its outskirts. The Old Bridge area, however, was not one of them, as the Bosniak forces controlled both ends of the bridge and the surrounding areas. Those former frontlines, not the bridge, are today’s invisible, but powerful dividing lines that separate the Bosniak and the Croat parts of the city.That the reconstructed Old Bridge, which connects two Bosniak parts of the city, attracted so much international attention was always going to irritate some Croat nationalists, whose army destroyed it in November 1993. “It’s a Muslim bridge, nothing to do with us,” said one.Local Bosniaks poured scorn on the international obsession with the bridge’s alleged wider meaning, such as the one voiced by the international community’s high representative, Paddy Ashdown, who said that the bridge is a cornerstone of the reconstruction of Bosnia as a multiethnic society. As if that was not enough, according to Ashdown, Bosnia could become a symbolic bridge between Islamic countries and Europe, helping the two worlds overcome misguided and stereotyped views of each other. Apart from any other consideration, Ashdown ought to have learned by now that not all Bosniaks are necessarily thrilled to be viewed as representatives of the Islamic world. “That may be too much reconciliation for one bridge,” said a local Bosniak.TRUTHS AND SYMBOLSBut while the locals’ occasional frustration with the international hijacking of the cause of the Old Bridge does deserve to be noted, it is largely beside the point. Even though it may never have served the lofty purpose of being a crossroads of civilizations, the Old Bridge’s beauty and architectural brilliance meant it belonged to the world. The UNESCO-listed bridge was perhaps the single most important historical monument in the whole of the former Yugoslavia. While the many atrocities involving the loss of human life were obviously the most tragic moments in the war, the deliberate destruction of the Old Bridge, filmed by a local Bosniak fighter, became the defining image of the senselessness and futility of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. Accordingly, for the outside world its reconstruction was always going to acquire an equally strong meaning of restored reason, reconciliation, and purposefulness.The reconstruction project itself was an impressive goodwill exercise, bringing donations and assistance from many international organizations and governments, including those of Croatia and Turkey. The end result is a perfect copy of the bridge and its surroundings.The spectacular and largely tasteful opening ceremony looked like a reconciliation fairytale. Performers from many parts of Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Croatia took part, rubbing shoulders with dozens of international dignitaries, including an impressive collection of Balkan and European presidents, foreign ministers and royals, complete with the British heir to the throne, Prince Charles. Most importantly, no Balkan leader failed to stress that a new era of reconciliation and cooperation has dawned. And while the political pasts and current profiles of some of them leave room for skepticism, there is no obvious reason why their words should not be taken at face value.The truth is that, in the uppermost echelons of political power in the Balkans today, even former extremists profess and often practice moderation. Reconciliation is actually happening to a very great extent at the top. As far as their governments are concerned, Serbia and Croatia are today two friendly neighbors. The same can be said of Sarajevo’s relations with both Zagreb and Belgrade, or of those between Skopje and Tirana. All the governments in the region--and nearly all the major parties--are committed to peaceful and active cooperation. That their mutual affairs are not always sorted out in the most efficient of manners is more often caused by a lack of skill than of will.The question is how much of this newfound positive energy trickles down to local level, especially in multiethnic places such as Mostar that are burdened with a bad recent history. While the consequences of the war are often still tangible and some are perhaps permanent, changes do happen locally as well, even though locals themselves may be reluctant to acknowledge them. The absence of any incident before, during, and after the Old Bridge opening ceremony in a city that has seen some of the most vicious examples of communal violence during and after the war testifies to this. Yes, the two communities viewed the bridge project in different ways. To be sure, there was a lot of Croat recalcitrance and Bosniak exultation to be found, but very little of it was displayed in public. Local Bosniak and Croat officials and their media for once behaved responsibly, for the most part steering clear of stereotypes and strong words. It could, then, perhaps be concluded that the two communities were shamed into behaving themselves by the enormous regional and international attention that the bridge attracted.But it could also be the case that significant reserves of positive energy do exist locally, only they need a lot of external encouragement to show. Even though the new Old Bridge is unlikely to bridge all the differences between the two largest communities in Mostar, maybe the attention, goodwill and orderliness surrounding the opening ceremony will reawaken many to the truth that it doesn’t hurt to be civilized with one another. Although the opening of the reconstructed Old Bridge is a big event by any measure, maybe the true value of such gatherings is exactly in encouraging small steps at local level. "The Bridge over the River Neretva"
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