Mostar is a divided city. It’s divided by a river – the Neretva – but also by post-war nationalism. The West side of the river is the Croat side – which flies Croatian flags, sells only Croatian beer, and has renamed all its streets after Croatian places. The East is the Muslim side.
The city is united by a bridge – Stari Most, ‘The Old Bridge’. Construction on the original started in 1557 and finished nine years later. The man who designed it, Mimar Hajruddin, is renowned for being a genius; The Bridge defies physics, and yet the single tenelija arch over the Neretva stood solid for 427 years.
It took intense shelling from the Bosnian-Croat army to bring it down in 1993. No matter how many times I see footage of that moment, it never fails to break my heart.
‘Stari’ means ‘Old’, says Bata, but in a grandfatherly way. Everyone in Mostar lost their grandfather the day the bridge fell into the river.
Reconstruction of the bridge started in 2001, finished in 2004. Because it was a UNESCO world heritage site, the architects had to recreate it exactly – using the same materials and with precisely the same dimensions. The mortar that holds the bridge together had to be of the same consistency. Hajruddin had no computers to design the arch – at that time the biggest in existence – only intuition. As the modern builders recreated the Old Bridge, they had to recreate the designer’s mistakes – they were what made the bridge what it was.
Now, as they did for hundreds of years before the destruction of the original, men flock to the arch to fling themselves off the bridge into the water 22 metres below. There is a jumping-off-the-bridge competition at the end of July each year, but every day you can see members of the Mostar diving club, or just random tourists, plunging into the Neretva.
Several times this week I’ve missed calls from Majda on my mobile, and each time I call her back she says ‘Please, Aasa, I thought you’d jumped off the bridge’, or ‘Please, Aasa, get out of the river’.
For Bata, the reconstruction of Stari Most is representative of the Bosnian spirit. To the people who destroyed the bridge, Bosnians say ‘Ha ha! We rebuilt it! And this one will be even OLDER!’.
Up on a hill on the Muslim side of Mostar is a white outline of the Old Bridge, and the words ‘BiH, Volimo Te’ or ‘Bosnia and Hercegovina, We Love You’. Bata describes this as a message to Bosnia’s ‘enemies’, or to those who seek to provoke conflict: “You hate us? Oh yeah? Well we love you. Take THAT.”