The Stari Most
Most means a bridge, and though four or five bridges cross the Neretva River in Mostar, there is only one that really matters. It’s the Stari Most, the Old Bridge. Though it connected the east and west banks of the river for 400 years it was destroyed by Bosnian-Croat artillery in November 1993, in an act of deliberate and provocative vandalism, targeted because it was a beautiful, graceful symbol of a proud city. A local man tells me that when it was blown apart, it was for Mostarians ‘like they have lost their child. Everything that Mostar represents was represented by the bridge.’
What Mostar represented, and had done for several centuries, was an economically and culturally thriving town in which Muslims and Christians, both Orthodox and Catholic, lived side by side, firstly under the Ottoman empire, and afterwards under the Austro-Hapsburgs and then as part of Yugoslavia. History was turned on its head in the 1990s as score-settling nationalism asserted itself throughout the Balkans. Mostar was attacked by the JNA, the Yugoslav People’s Army (largely Serb and Montenegrin) and defended by a combination of Bosniak (Bosnian Muslims) and Bosnian-Croat forces. In 1993 the Bosnian Croats turned on their former allies and Mostar’s agony intensified. Under ceaseless and systematic bombardment, bridges were destroyed and the eastern bank, populated largely by Bosniaks, was besieged for eleven months.
Kamel, a twenty-eight-year-old Mostarian, was a teenager during the siege.
‘As a fourteen-year-old-you get old pretty fast, because you don’t think about normal things that you should be thinking about, like having fun, playing football, chasing girls. You’re thinking how to stay alive, how to bring fresh water to your family, or where to find wood to burn for heating. People ate grass, which we boiled and cooked.’
Ironically it took the destruction of the bridge, relayed on television across the globe, to force the outside world into taking notice and the Washington Agreement of March 1994 brought an end to the fighting. UNESCO put money into rebuilding the devastated old town and in 2004 their efforts were crowned when a meticulously re-created Stari Most rose once again.
I first see it from down on a rubbish-strewn terrace of the river bank, its single stone span a creamy-white stripe dividing the clear blue sky above from the shimmering green waters below. When the original was first built by the Turkish architect Mimar Hajrudin in the 1560s, it was such an unprecedented piece of engineering that a sceptical Sultan threatened to execute the architect if it fell down on the day the wooden frame was removed. It stayed up for 427 years.
Already this morning there is some commotion on the bridge. A young man in a swimming costume has mounted the narrow parapet, and seems about to dive in. A half-scream, half-cheer goes up from a party of schoolchildren on the sandy beach 70 feet below, as he poses, Tarzan-like, flexing his muscles theatrically and peering down from his precarious perch. But then, as we are all willing him to leap, he nonchalantly steps back onto the bridge and walks away.
‘The diving tradition began centuries ago, and it’s maintained, and strictly controlled, by the 100-member-strong Mostari Divers’ Club.
Their President is Emir, a trim, barrel-chested, silver-haired seventy-year-old who first dived from the bridge when he was sixteen, since which time he’s represented Yugoslavia at the Olympics, been a film double for Richard Burton (who hasn’t round here?) and been depicted on a postage stamp. We talk outside the clubhouse, in one of the handsome, rebuilt stone towers at the side of the bridge.
In the approximately three seconds between leaving the bridge and hitting the water ‘the diver must feel he is flying,’ says Emir. ‘It’s not long but for a diver it feels like a century.’
The most important things for a diver doing the lasta (the swallow dive) are to break the water with his hands and never his head, and to enter the water at an angle of no more than 35 degrees.
Emir explains rather starkly, ‘In Olympic swimming pool, the depth of the water is 10 metres. Down there’, he peers over at the swirling green waters of the Neretva, ‘the depth is around 5 metres.’
Whilst someone else collects contributions from the crowd of tourists now swelling the bridge (150 euros a dive, 40 euros a jump), three young men strip down, and one by one terrify and thrill the onlookers by mounting the unprotected 12-inch-wide parapet and, focusing their gaze straight ahead, push themselves outwards and down towards the river. There’s just time to catch your breath before they slice into the water and reappear to howls of applause.
Emir is justly proud of their skills.
‘This is extreme sport. Only other place in the world where you see this is the cliff divers in Acapulco.’
Though he can remember only one fatality from diving, twenty-three members of the club died in the war of 1993.
The area around the bridge has been well restored, with the inevitable cobbled streets and orderly tidied-up markets, but you only have to climb up into the back streets to see the extent of the war damage. Burnt-out hulks of buildings pitted with shrapnel, the windows of the Union Bank building smashed and the gouges of pre-stressed concrete still hang down the walls. A richly decorated Hapsburg-style building that used to be Mostar’s best hotel is roofless and empty.
Kamel, who lived through the siege, who ran for water for his family at the risk of his life, refused to be bowed. He taught himself English and worked as a runner for the UN force that saved the city. Now they’ve gone he’s retrained into computers.
He thinks it will be a long time before Mostar can once again become the prosperous, tolerant, lively city it once was. Many people who could be helping to rebuild it have left and gone abroad, and the tripartite Croat, Muslim and Serb administration of Bosnia & Herzegovina, with its colonial-style, EU-appointed High Representative is a reminder that of all the countries of the Balkans, this is perhaps the most serious casualty of war.