You can freeze-frame every moment of the final destruction of the Stari Most bridge. On the videotape timer, the moment is exactly 3.32pm on 9 November 1993. In its last milliseconds of existence, tank shells smash into the west side of the parapet in a cloud of brown dust. Then the entire 16th-century bridge – “a rainbow rising up the Milky Way”, as a traveller to Mostar described it 400 years ago – falls in a slow, lazy way into the waters of the Neretva to be met by a majesty of spray. The tape ends. Press the rewind button and you can rebuild the bridge, the spray falling back into the gorge, the old Turkish stones rising mystically upwards to recompose themselves in their magical span.
That videotape was one of the reasons I had returned to ex-Yugoslavia. I watched it 10, then 20 times, mesmerised by the killing of history, by that sudden act of “cultural cleansing” which erased Mostar’s 500-year chronicle of Muslim life. I had walked across that bridge many times. Over the past two years, flying in from the Middle East, from the centre of the old Ottoman empire, I had reported Sarajevo, visited the Serb concentration camps, interviewed the raped women, despaired of the United Nations. But something about the psychological mechanism of this war always eluded my understanding, a degree of evil that history alone could not account for. Why were the people of Bosnia and Croatia so much more cruel towards each other than the men fighting civil wars in, say, Lebanon or Afghanistan or Yemen? Where did it come from, this desire to kill and rape so coldly, to destroy each other in so brutal a fashion? Was it some quirk of history or upbringing that produced this epic slaughter? And if the 1941-45 civil war between Tito’s Serb-led partisans and Ante Pavelic’s Nazi Croat Ustashe had implanted cancerous cells in the body politic of old Yugoslavia, did no Bosnian Muslim or Croatian or Serb think of the future, rather than the past? And did they not realise that when the United Nations eventually deserts them, when the Europeans finally lose heart, they will still have to live on this land?
I had watched the destruction of the Stari Most so many times, but once I reached Mostar and stood by the smashed parapet, its absence took my breath away. The old piers of 1566 are now connected by a flimsy rope suspension bridge, a fearful thing whose narrow metal pathway sways from side to side, bouncing and jumping into the air when I staggered across it, as if angrily wishing to revenge itself upon human folly by hurling me into the frothing waters below.
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