Soldiers winched the first stone of Mostar's Ottoman bridge out of the Neretva river yesterday, launching its reconstruction four years after Croat artillery fire sent it plunging into the waters below.
Hungarian engineers, serving with the Nato-led peace-keeping force in Bosnia, salvaged the first stone of the bridge from the waters of the Neretva river, which it had spanned since 1566.
It will take a month to lift all the blocks, some weighing 30 tonnes. They will be left to dry for six months before being refurbished and, experts hope, used to reconstruct the graceful arched bridge.
It endured wars and invasions over four centuries but did not survive Croat-Muslim fighting during Bosnia's 1992-95 war.
Its destruction in November 1993 by Croat forces caused international outrage. Built under the Turkish rule of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, the bridge linked the Muslim interior of Bosnia with Catholic Croat trading towns on the Adriatic coast.
It was constructed with local limestone cemented with horse hair and eggshells. Earlier in its history, bridge protectors, or Mostari, were on duty 24 hours a day to protect it.
Yesterday a few hundred locals gathered on both banks of the river to watch the lifting ceremony with the Muslim chairman of post-war Bosnia's collective presidency, Alija Izetbegovic.
"From that cold November morning when we heard that the bridge was destroyed we couldn't wait to start reconstructing it," he said. "This is a symbol of a link not only between people but between civilisations."
The broken arch became a symbol of the division of Mostar between Croat inhabitants on the western side of the river and Muslims on the east. They are still split, despite diplomatic efforts to reunite them. The initial lifting of the stones is being done by the Hungarian engineering company and reconstruction will be undertaken by a civilian Hungarian bridge-building company with local experts.