On one side was the mountain, on which you could see a giant cross; on the other side, a minaret: two ancient faiths, coexisting on the same landscape. It was evening, and the sun rested on the cross, making it gleam, while a muezzin’s call pierced the sky, now darkening over the town of Mostar. The minaret, too, shone in the calm glow of lights.
A few residents standing nearby burst into unexpected applause. We were sitting in a restaurant looking at the river Neretva and, near us, engineers had just slotted the last white stones in their perch, to complete the delicate arch which would hold up the rebuilt bridge of Mostar, called Stari Most (old bridge).
The bridge was not as spectacular as the Lakshman Jhoola or the Howrah Bridge; it was modest and small, but had a fond following because it was symbolic and vulnerable. It owed its origins to the expanding Ottoman Empire, which once commanded territory from Turkey to Hungary. Constantinople became Istanbul in 1453 and, by 1467, the Ottoman Empire reached Mostar.
Ninety years later, during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, an engineer called Mimar Hajrudin was given the task of building a bridge over the Neretva. It took nine years to build and withstood the Austro-Hungarian era and two World Wars. And it took one mad commander to bring it down.
Resurrected: Stari Most represents not just the history between the two sides but the dawn of a new era.
When the war between the Croats and Bosniaks began in 1993, the bridge’s fragility became more visible. Bosniaks saw it as a symbol of unity; Croats saw it as an affront, linking them to a past they wanted to tear asunder. Bosniaks hung tires and plastic sheeting along the main span to protect the bridge from snipers. But that November, a Croat commander, Slobodan Praljak, ordered his tanks to destroy it; the white stones came crumbling down into the river. When, a few years later, Hungarian divers recovered fragments of the bridge from the river, it was clear that, well, you could not put together the bridge again.
When the international community took over administering Bosnia-Herzegovina, rebuilding the bridge seemed a symbolic act, a priority. Appropriately, a Turkish firm got the deal to build it. As Michael Ignatieff points out in his moving account of the Bosnian war, Empire Lite: “It has become a metaphor, a bridge from the past to the future, a bridge between Croats and Bosniaks...and a bridge between the Muslim world and Europe. The problem with all this metaphorical weight is that the promised reconciliation hasn’t occurred. Instead of symbolizing reconciliation, the restored bridge will be there to provide a substitute.”
The bridge now stands, in pristine glory, a symbol of a resurgent Bosnia-Herzegovina.
For a fractured state, with further splintering still very much a reality in that part of the world— witness Kosovo—bridges are important. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed by Gavrilo Princip, a Serb extremist, at the foot of the Latin Bridge along the Miljacka River running through Sarajevo, plunging the world into World War I. The seminal novel about the country is The Bridge over the Drina, whose author, Ivo Andric, won the Nobel Prize in 1961. A moving portrait of a time when bridges united people, the novel describes the bridge thus: “This great stone bridge (in Visegrad), a rare structure of unique beauty...was the one real and permanent crossing in the whole middle and upper course of the Drina and an indispensable link between Bosnia and Serbia and further beyond.”
By the time I was in Bosnia-Herzegovina, bridges were known for the divisions they fostered. In Sarajevo, on another bridge, I could see a plaque—and dried flowers—commemorating two young women, a Serb and a Muslim, who were shot by a sniper, plunging the city into the war. In calmer times, teenagers jumped off them into the icy waters of rivers such as the Drina and Neretva, lovers strolled along them and businesses sprouted around them. And, chillingly, during the war, bodies were dumped off them.
Then?one?evening in Sarajevo, we joined Sarajevans along the pedestrian plaza that stretches from the opera house to the elegant mosque. The street seamlessly takes you from the Austro-Hungarian part of the old town to the Ottoman part, reminding you that it is an integrated whole, a city without borders, without any identifiable marker, where bells toll in churches and muezzins call from their minarets, and nobody seems to mind. Musicians were on the streets and children played in the park.
The lights came on in homes on the green hills and, at that time, with the sky still blue, Sarajevo looked beautiful. And it was possible to forget the war, when guns boomed from those hills and snipers shot at pedestrians who had taken a wrong turn.
The bridge in Mostar is now open again and it is a major cause for celebration. On our last night in Mostar, as the sky darkened and the starlit night glowed, we saw its silhouette. The scaffolding no longer dominated the image and it was still possible to see the fragile beauty of what Bosnia used to be like once. Now wounded and heavily bandaged, the bridge stood again. In the grand scheme of things, it mattered.
(Write to Salil at email@example.com)