Bosnia: Fears for Mostar's bridge with past

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The Independent Online
THE stone bridge of Mostar, which was one of Bosnia's best-known architectural treasures before the war, is thought finally to have succumbed under the relentless siege of the ancient Ottoman city by Croatian forces.

About two-thirds of Mostar's 80,000 residents fled the initial siege of the city by Serbian forces in April 1992, while the remaining Croats and Muslims held out, with minimal food supplies in underground shelters.

Virtually every building in central Mostar, including the grand old hotels and the centuries-old mosques along the high banks of the Nereteva river were destroyed at the time. For almost a year, only the Stari Most, as the celebrated old stone bridge is known, remained of the city's five bridges. Driving from the Muslim side to the Croatian side of the city took an hour or more.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees believes that there are now about 30,000 Muslims trapped in the eastern half of Mostar.

Croatian forces, who want the city to be their new capital, have ringed the city and already control its western half.

Before the war the breakdown of the area's population was 35 per cent Muslim, 34 per cent Croat and 19 per cent Serb.

The crescent-shaped Stari Most, which crosses the deep rushing gorge of the Nereteva River in a single span, was considered one of the most elegant anywhere, until it was blasted by besieging Croatian forces at the end of last month.

Footage from Bosnian television showed the bridge being hit by shells fired by Croatian militia tanks, cutting off the last remaining link beteeen the Muslim eastern side of Mostar and the Croat-dominated western side.

Whether it is still standing is not known, because Bosnia's second-largest city has been cut off from the outside world by the Croats for the past six weeks amid bitter close-quarter fighting for control of the city.

The name Mostar itself comes from the word for bridge-keeper and the Stari Most survived intact for 427 years.

Before the war tourists came in their coachloads to Mostar, which is about 50 miles south-west of Sarajevo, to walk through one of the most beautiful Ottoman cities in the country and visit the 17 mosques on the left bank of the river and the old kujundziluk, or bazaar.

Along the eastern side of the Nereteva were found several fine Ottoman houses, which were painted different colours to distinguish them, instead of having numbers.

The Karadjozbeg dzamija was considered the most beautiful mosque in the city. Built in 1557, and with an impressive dome, it was one of the early victims of the siege of Mostar.

In the days when sightseers came to Mostar, none of them would leave the city without visiting the Stari Most, which was designed and built by the Turkish architect Hajrudin in 1566 amid controversy.

The townspeople petitioned the Sultan for a new bridge to replace a rickety wooden and chain structure where the Romans had first spanned the river. Hajrudin's first effort collapsed and he was told by the Sultan that he would lose his head if his second effort failed.

The mortar which was used to hold together the stone for the bridge was made from a composite of eggs and goats' hair and it is hardly surprising that Hajrudin fled in terror before the scaffolding around the bridge had been removed.

He never returned to see the structure, which remained standing for four centuries, and may now have been destroyed.

(Photograph and map omitted)