The New 'Old Bridge': A Story from Mostar

Article excerpt

Built by love and destroyed by prejudice, it proudly lent its shiny and uniquely arched back to us Mostarians for centuries. To a merchant, passerby or royalty, we were all the same to it. "Stari Most", the Old Bridge with its two towers, was built in 1566 in honour of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire. The Old Bridge was the first founding stone of Mostar, a fairy-tale city of poetry and sleepy, narrow and winding streets. Not surprisingly, Mostar derived its name from the medieval guardians of the Old Bridge, who were called "Mostari".

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The Bridge witnessed and symbolized four centuries of multi-ethnic life and cosmopolitanism of Bosnia and Herzegovina, connecting its east and west areas. Its old eyes have seen much of history unfold, withstood earthquakes, floods and warfare, but always remained, like its people, stoic in its beauty, serving as a living testimony to the unique tolerant civilization of Bosnians. It saw the Ottoman Empire blossom and crash, to be replaced by the Austro-Hungarian and Yugoslav Empires and Communist Yugoslavia. It has been a time machine of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a testimony to our long traditions, prosperity and culture.

Even the Nazi regime respected the "Old Father". A few of "our own" ironically were the ones whose hearts were poisoned by hate and whose minds were blinded by propaganda, who hated the Old Bridge because it represented our multi-ethnic coexistence. The Old Bridge stood as a thorn, a painful reminder of the truth to these propagators of "ethnic cleansing", who argued that my people never lived in harmony. If they could only destroy the "Old Father", they grotesquely believed that the spirit of Mostar could be forever crushed.

These attempts not only to physically but also mentally divide the Croatian and Bosnian populations of Mostar finally succeeded when the Old Bridge collapsed under fire from mortar shells in November 1993. Scattered reminders of the noble civilization sunk deep into the waters of the Neretva River. The people of Mostar, who remained strong in the face of constant shelling, persecution and even concentration camps, cried for the first time after the Bridge collapsed. The symbol of strength and immortality was shattered by ignorance.

Perhaps the pain of losing the bridge could best be described by the words of Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulic in the Observer: "Why do we feel more pain looking at the image of the destroyed bridge (in Mostar) than the image of the massacred people? Perhaps because we see our own mortality in the collapse of the bridge. We expect people to die; we count on our lives to end. The destruction of a monument to civilization is something else. The bridge, in all its beauty and grace was built to outlive us. It was an attempt to grasp eternity. It transcended our individual destiny." Fortunately, the story does not end with destruction.

The story of the Old Bridge and its people, whose lives are mystically interwoven, continues into the future to a new Old Bridge. Miraculously identical to the old one, the new Old Bridge was opened on 23 July 2004. To many in the outside world, the opening was a gesture of goodwill towards the reconstruction of the Old City of Mostar and towards erasing unpleasant traces of war, in what used to be one of the most popular tourist destinations in the region. The 1998 appeal of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for its reconstruction was positively answered by five donors--Croatia, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey--as well as by the World Bank and the Council of Europe Development Bank.

The opening ceremony brought together representatives of 52 nations and various organizations, including Great Britain's Prince Charles. The event drew well-deserved international attention, focussing on bridging both the physical and mental divide in Mostar. …

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