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(E) Marcus Tanner on Mostar - The Independent
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  04/18/2004 | Politics | Unrated
(E) Marcus Tanner on Mostar - The Independent


A symbol of hope is reborn in Mostar


Relatively speaking, this is one of the most balanced
pieces concerning Bih Croats I have seen. In
particular, mentions Bosniak attacks on Croats in
Central Bosnia. Furthermore, sums up Croat concerns
over Ashdown's Mostar solution fairly. And - am I
reading too much into this? - seems to be slightly
skeptical over the Ashdwon solution. Shows the value
of putting forward your case.


The Independent

Bridge over the ethnic divide: a symbol of hope is reborn in Mostar
After 12 years and £7.5m, the famous Old Bridge at
Mostar - destroyed in the Bosnia war - has been
rebuilt. But is it too late to close the divide
between the town's Muslim and Croat communities?
Marcus Tanner reports
17 April 2004
After the passage of so many years it is not the sight
of Mostar's Old Bridge that I remember so much as the
touch of it. In the summer of 1988 I was in Mostar on
holiday with my mother. "Feel the stones!" I remember
calling out, as I padded across in socks, enjoying the
sensation of the smooth, almost silken white
flagstones cooling my sweaty feet. Boys were diving
theatrically from the side of the bridge into the
green waters of the river Neretva about 20 yards below
- some paid for their exploits by tourists.

Mostar was full of visitors then. Some came just to
admire the delicate-looking single-arched bridge built
on the orders of Suleiman the Magnificent in 1566, and
potter around the gift shops and restaurants clustered
around the squat towers at either end. Others were
nuns or Catholic pilgrims, stopping in Mostar before
journeying to the nearby Marian shrine at Medjugorje a
little way to the west. Some Bosnians who were
lounging on the bridge chatted to me as I glided
across. Generations of people had worn the stones
smooth by sliding back and forth just as I was doing,
they said, laughing. It was a miracle the bridge still
stood, they added, for the stones had been glued
together with nothing more than hair and eggshell. Yet
there it was, spanning the Neretva after more than
three centuries.

Fast forward to 1990 and I was back on the bridge as
correspondent for The Independent. A couple of hundred
miles to the north-east the sound of war in the making
was coming out of Serbia and the echo had reached even
here. But war, the Bosnians said, would never come to
their sleepy republic and certainly not to the city on
the banks of the Neretva. How could it, with Serbs,
Muslims and Croats scattered equally over almost every
large town? The conference we were attending - some
doomed intellectual forum devoted to "reforming
Yugoslavia" - had a relaxed air. The Bosnians did what
they always do at such events - talk themselves to a
standstill. At the hotel, I took a photograph of two
of the participants - the Kosovo Albanian intellectual
Shkelzen Maliqi and his wife, sunning themselves. I
still have the picture.

Fast forward again and it was September 1992. War had
come to Bosnia after all and I was back in a radically
changed Mostar, four months after soldiers of the
Bosnian Croat force known as the Croatian Defense
Council, or HVO, had retaken the city from the Serbs.
On the edge of the city, I went to see a pit full of
bodies the Serbs had shot during their few months of
occupation. Now the Serbs had fled and the
fine-looking Serbian Orthodox cathedral had been razed
- a sign of things to come, it turned out. The
Muslims, both those in the HVO and those living in the
city, looked cowed and reluctant to talk. "It is good
that the Serbs have gone but now the Croats want
everything for themselves," one whispered. The bridge
already looked battered and desolate. It had taken
several knocks when the Serbs shelled the city at the
start of the conflict, and the Serbs had also burnt
the mass of little shops and restaurants cluttering
either side of the bridge - the same shops my mother
had nosed around in, not many years before.

I never saw the Old Bridge again. And I never will see
it again, for the $13.5m [£7.5m] restoration job
managed by UNESCO and financed among others by the
World Bank and the Turkish and Croatian governments,
is a reconstruction. When the international
dignitaries who now govern Bosnia walk across it to
mark its reopening, they will be traversing a
beautiful copy, even if the stone has been quarried
from exactly the same limestone site as its
16th-century predecessor.

Suleiman's Old Bridge, the "Stari Most" from which the
town takes its name, has gone for good. It fell into
the Neretva on the 9 November 1993, when a Croat
commander ordered a tank to open fire on the weakened
and cracked remnants, then pathetically garlanded with
rubber car tires intended to limit the damage from
incoming shells. The blocks have since been lifted out
of the river but the bridge's modern restorers decided
reluctantly that most were too damaged to be worth

The Old Bridge was one of hundreds of Ottoman and
Islamic architectural gems that were blown to pieces
in the frenzied atmosphere of the early 1990s, when
Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats - the latter two
armed by their sponsors in Serbia and Croatia -
tussled over the corpse of the strategically important
republic in the heart of former Yugoslavia.

After the Muslim-led government in Sarajevo declared
independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, trusting vainly
and unwisely in the willingness of Europe and America
to guarantee its security, Bosnia's two "Christian"
communities descended on the Islamic heritage in their
midst with a vengeance. As symbols of the historic
presence of a Slav Muslim community in Bosnia,
hardline Serbian and Croatian nationalists decided the
whole lot had to go.

The Serbs who overran most of Bosnia in the spring of
1992 naturally did most of the demolition. Mostar
suffered a different fate, falling victim to a
smaller, Muslim-Croat war that spluttered on insanely
for a year or so from the spring of 1993 to the spring
of 1994. A a sideshow compared to the epic struggle
between the Muslims and the Serbs, it was nevertheless
bloody enough until the Americans snuffed it out in

It was this Muslim-Croat struggle that ripped Mostar
apart and sent the Old Bridge tumbling into the
Neretva. The Bosnian Croats had earmarked Mostar as
the future capital of a Croatian mini-state, named
Herceg-Bosnia. The trouble was that the city was full
of Muslims who objected. After the HVO failed to
dislodge them from the old town on the east bank, Plan
A - to grab the whole of Mostar - was jettisoned for
Plan B - to concentrate on the west and lock the
Muslims into the east by blowing up the bridge.

Radovan Ivancevic, a Croat art historian and member of
the UNESCO commission in charge of restoring the
bridge, wrote recently in the magazine Bosnia Report
that it was ironic that a Croatian tank had destroyed
the Old Bridge. "While the designer of the bridge was
indeed the great Ottoman architect Hajrudin," he
recalled, "it was actually built by stonemasons from
Korcula [in Croatia], so that in a way it is also a
Croatian cultural monument."

These historical niceties were lost on the Bosnian
Croats. When the Croatian commander who ordered the
tank to open fire on the bridge reportedly declared
that it was "not worth one finger of a Croatian
soldier," many local Croats in Mostar seemed to agree.
They made no outcry about the destruction of "their"
bridge, as most supported the separation of Mostar
into two cities.

Bosnia's international governors, now led by Paddy
Ashdown, have long since dismantled the Croatian
mini-state. But Mostar remains as divided as Belfast
or Nicosia. As a result, the renovation of the Old
Bridge, one of those symbolically-loaded grand
projects that the international community in Bosnia
love so much, is less significant to the local
community than it is to outsiders. Sultan Suleiman's
Mostar was a single organic community. Sultan Paddy's
Mostar is divided by a lot more than water. The city
has changed almost irreversibly since the early 1990s,
after waves of ethnic cleansing pushed Croats to the
west, Muslims to the east and Serbs out altogether.
And it will take more than a wonderful copy of the Old
Bridge to reunite them, whatever the international
politicians say.

The two communities have grown apart. On the west
bank, former Muslim homes have long been filled by
Croats who fled Muslim attacks on their old homes in
central Bosnia. The west is now richer than it was -
and far richer than the east as well - boosted by its
proximity to the tourist towns on the Croatian coast,
many of them now a favoured haunt of Britons and other
Europeans looking for second homes.

The HVO's superior firepower meant that west Mostar
was never seriously bombed. But now new shops and bars
line the streets and there are some profitable
factories too - a rare phenomenon in the economic
desert that is post-war Bosnia.

The westsiders have showed scant interest in the
prospect of crossing over to walk the somewhat
desolate boulevards of the east and meet the sullen
glances of their less fortunate co-townsmen. They face
resolutely westwards, towards Croatia, the land from
where they get their television and newspapers, where
they keep their money, where they send most of their
exports, which they look on as home.

Only the adults among them even remember the united
Mostar and the days when boys jumped whooping and
yelling off the Old Bridge. Time flies by and a new
generation of children born in the late 1980s has no
memory of the day-to-day contact with Muslims and
Serbs that their parents took for granted. If they
cross the new-old bridge at all, it will be as
wide-eyed tourists, exploring - much as I did in the
late 1980s.

A friend from Mostar reminded me of how fast this wall
of separation has grown up. She told me of two
families - one Croat, one Muslim - who had met up in
Mostar. But while the parents fell back easily into an
old conversational routine, their children were
flummoxed on meeting each other. "What kind of name is
that?" a curious Bosnian Croat girl asked, on hearing
the Muslim name of the other child. To her parents
such names were totally familiar. To those under 15,
they sound funny.

The two communities in Mostar have changed in size,
too. Pre-war Mostar was roughly 40 per cent Muslim, 40
per cent Croat and 20 per cent Serb. But the war drove
a coach and horses through the percentages. Apart from
the virtual disappearance of the Serbs, an influx of
Croats from central Bosnia and the departure of some
Muslims from the largely jobless east, it has changed
the ethnic balance. Mostar has a Croatian majority

The knowledge of this has turned many former political
calculations on their head. Until a few years ago, the
Muslim east - the larger of the two communities for
several years after the war - championed a reunited
Mostar with the Old Bridge at its centre. Now that the
Muslims have become a minority, enthusiasm for unity
has waned and the Muslim-led Party for Democratic
Action seems reluctant to embrace Mr Ashdown's
reunified city council.

On the other side, a shift in perception is equally
striking. Once almost paranoid in their opposition to
any contact with the east, the Bosnian Croats have
shed their fear of reunification now they know they
could outvote the Muslims in a city-wide election.
They no longer resent the Old Bridge, for its
symbolism has changed. It has become harmless - a
potential draw for the tourists who once flocked to
Mostar but have not been seen since the 1980s.

The suspicious gaze of the local Bosnian Croat
politicians is not trained on Sultan Suleiman's milky
white bridge, but on the complicated system of ethnic
"weighting" that Mr Ashdown's team has drawn up to
stop any single ethnic community from dominating the
reunited local council. Unable to resist the bridge
metaphor, Mr Ashdown has described this complex system
as the "political bridge that will reunite the city of

Perhaps. The restoration of the Mostar bridge is a
good project. The city looked daft without it - like a
face with its front teeth knocked out. Who knows, its
completion may even increase pressure on the Bosnian
Serbs to permit renovation work on some of the gems
that were lost on their turf in the 1992-95 war,
starting with the 16th-century Ferhadija mosque in
Banja Luka, or the (once) lovely Aladza mosque, known
as the "painted mosque", in Foca, which the Ottomans
erected in the 1550s and which the Serbs blew up in
the 1990s and built a bus station. Personally, I do
not think people should be allowed to get away with
acts such as this. They should be tormented by the
knowledge that what they have destroyed will one day
be rebuilt. At the same time, no one should kid him or
herself with loose talk about rebuilding lost
communities on the backs of architectural projects.
Long live the new-old bridge. But it will not bring
back the old Mostar.

Marcus Tanner is the Balkan editor of the 'Institute
for War and Peace Reporting', and the author of
'Croatia - A Nation Forged in War' (Yale University Press)


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