My introduction to Bosnia-Hercegovina started with a bang. I am painfully ignorant of the history of this region, but managed to get an excellent tour of Mostar with a local who grew up here, and gained an impressive insight into the Bosnian conflict and the history of the town of Mostar.
The Ottoman empire expanded into this region in the 16th century, leaving behind it a wealth of mosques and Turkish culture, and a magnificent stone arch bridge, the stari most (old bridge), for which the city is known today.
For centuries this point was the only way to cross the river Neretva, making it a key gateway for trade and commerce. The bridge keepers, who lived in the tower on the west side, charged for passage across the river and kept out enemies of the Ottomans. It was they who led to the name Mostar, which means ‘bridge-keeper’. Today the mostari are still here, in the form of thrill-seeking jumpers who plunge from the apex of the Old Bridge into the cold waters below. This tradition runs through the generations, dating back hundreds of years.
Recent events, however, shattered this peaceful town in more ways than one. After the fall of Yugoslavia, a bitter civil war broke out in Bosnia, with the Catholic Croats on one side and the Orthodox Serbs on the other each trying to claim a slice of the region for themselves. Poor Mostar became caught in the middle, and became a key strategic battlefield in the ensuing conflict.
I stayed at Hostel Nina, who put me in touch with Žika, a local who was here from the beginning, and gives guided tours of the city, recounting his view of events for interested visitors. Žika suffered the scars of the war, both physical and emotional: not only was he hit by shrapnel from exploding grenades (twice), but he lost many friends and witnessed first-hand the destruction of the famous and beloved Old Bridge. This fine example of Ottoman construction took over sixty rounds of 20th century artillery fire before it finally succumbed to gravity and was lost forever.
Mostar was almost annihilated in the ultimately pointless bombardment. Only one of the 27 mosques was left standing, and many buildings of cultural heritage were destroyed. The rebuilding process is ongoing. Reconstruction work began after the war, with help from many countries, perhaps feeling public pressure for not acting sooner. Scars of the conflict remain dotted around the city, with many a ruin squatting between restored buildings like a decayed tooth.
The central square of the city is now eerily quiet, the once integrated cultures of Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox Christian having retreated to their own districts. Today the renamed Spanish Square honours the 21 Spanish soldiers who died here in the early 90’s trying to restore peace.
The Old Bridge was rebuilt using stones hewn from the same rock as the original, and using the original plans. The city unveiled the finished bridge in July 2004, in the presence of many foreign dignitaries. It was an emotional time for Bosnians. A moving video playing in a museum in the Old Town documents the destruction and eventual rebirth of the iconic bridge. A longer version (45 mins) can be found here.
As for the mostari, their tradition lives on. Even after the bridge fell, a temporary platform was set up so that they could continue to jump. The unveiling ceremony was followed by fireworks, children releasing doves symbolising peace, and local man Enej Kelecija hurling himself into the river to cheering crowds. After my tour with Žika I enjoyed a traditional Bosnian coffee from a little room at the top of the tower in the diving club, the very room where important state guests are welcomed. From there I had a great vantage point of a bridge diver doing what he does best.
Broken Mostar will rebuild, eventually; and the wounds will heal, eventually. In the meantime, there’s nothing stopping you from taking a trip down to Bosnia-Hercegovina to check out this delightful little city for yourself. Be sure to stay at Nina’s and get Žika to tell you his story.