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
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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.

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 Defence 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 reusing.

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 1994.

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 now.

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 Mostar".

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)