Building Bridges in Mostar
Two lessons that my wanderings keep teaching me are the resilience of people and the critical impact – economically and spiritually — travelers can have on a region. Almost exactly five years ago, an experience I had in Mostar poignantly captured both those lessons. Here’s the account I wrote at that time.
MOSTAR, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — I have seen the future, and it looks like a bridge. In fact, it is a bridge, the very structure I am admiring right now: the Stari Most, or Old Bridge, in the Old Town of Mostar, which spans the Neretva River and connects the Muslim and Croat communities in this venerable and poignant place.
On hearing the word “Mostar,” most people would probably not think “budding tourist destination” but rather “bombed-out war zone”. Mostar was in headlines around the world when it was besieged during the Balkan conflict of the early 1990s. The once charming and harmonious place was first bombarded by Serbian and Montenegrin forces in April 1992; that attack subsided half a year later, only to be replaced in May 1993 by brutal, bloody fighting between the Croats and Muslims who had co-existed peacefully before. Ripped apart along ethnic and religious lines, Mostar became a haunting site and symbol of the war’s destruction.
That destruction is still powerfully visible today. Walk for fifteen minutes in the Old Town and you’ll pass at least a few gaping, bomb-blasted, hulking shells of buildings and others with facades eerily pitted and pock-marked by bullet and shell holes. And you’ll no doubt pass a cemetery too, as I did just now, with row after row after row of flower-graced tombstones bearing poignant photos of handsome young men, with a numbing litany of dates: 1912-1993; 1967-1993; 1967-1994; 1969-1994; 1972-1994. They give mute eloquence to the pain at the heart of this place.
But look beyond the cemetery and you’ll see symbols of another kind: here a freshly painted restaurant with bright striped awnings and a red-tiled roof; there a meticulously reconstructed shop with elegant stone walls and flower-bedecked windows; and over there a cobbled terrace with immaculate wooden tables and benches arranged under new pine-green sun umbrellas.
The greatest symbol of all is the bridge. Originally constructed in the mid-16th century, for more than 400 years this ethereally slender, curving, 100-foot-long arch had been the icon of Mostar, a wonder people crossed oceans and continents to see. It had survived man’s invasions and nature’s earthquakes, but it couldn’t survive the heavy shelling inflicted on it Nov. 9, 1993, when it collapsed into the river. So it was of singular importance that UNESCO undertook to rebuild the bridge – using the same Tenelija stone and 16th-century methods as the original — and was able to officially reopen it on July 23, 2004.
The Stari Most is important literally as a connector between the two communities of Mostar, the Croats who live on the western side of the river and the Muslims on the east; today foot traffic flows ceaselessly between the two. But its importance is even greater as a symbol of connection, of reconciliation and rebirth, of hope. And for me, it symbolizes the potential of this lovely, historic, and once all-embracing crossroads to again become a magnet for travelers from around the world, and for tourism to help heal the wounds of the war and to help cultivate a new economy and culture here.
On this September day, the sky is a deep blue, the branches of the trees that line the emerald Neretva are waving in a gentle breeze, and the sun is glinting gloriously off the white and gray stone walls and streets of the Old Town. As my tour group listens intently to our guide, six Italians smilingly settle in at a riverside restaurant, a procession of Russian tourists snap photos of domes and minarets, three UN soldiers in green-and-brown fatigues stride toward the produce market, and a phalanx of French visitors amble from alley-side stall to stall, fingering their brimming jewelry, copperwork and other treats. Energy and optimism surge through the streets.
In the course of a morning walk through the eastern side of the Old Town I have been touched by an exquisitely simple mosque and an exquisitely elaborate Turkish house that illuminates the life of a Muslim family here three centuries ago. But mostly I have been moved by the juxtapositions – the beautifully restored building next to the windowless shattered shell; the desolate cemetery two blocks from the bustling café; the tales of utter brutality and despair you hear and read and the laughter and hope in the eyes of the shopkeepers and students you meet.
All this is embodied for me here in the engaging form of Lana, the vivacious twentysomething tour guide who has been leading our group through the Old Town, and who is now unfolding her own extraordinary tale. Lana was raised as a Muslim in Mostar, but before the war, she says, no one knew or cared about the religious beliefs of friends and neighbors; everyone got along. Then the war came and suddenly religion took on an inexplicable and chilling importance. One day, Lana says, she looked out her window and watched a soldier come and take away her bicycle. She cried and cried after that, she says. A few days later, soldiers came and took away her father.
He was imprisoned in a concentration camp. After a harrowing period of separation, as their world collapsed around them, they were able by good connections and good luck – eventually hidden in the bowels of a UN convoy — to escape as a family to Norway. There they were able to live out of harm’s reach, but they were determined to return to Mostar as soon as the hostilities ceased.
And return they did, Lana continues, only to find that their apartment had been taken over – by a judge. The only way to reclaim a dwelling at that time was to go through the legal system – that is, through the judge. So this situation posed a serious problem. But after a while, Lana finishes, a smile lighting her face, the judge moved out on his own and her family was able to move back into their apartment and begin the long task of rebuilding their lives.
As she relates all this, Lana radiates a youthful energy and optimism and innocence that are astonishing and uplifting. Somehow, she has not been scarred by this; her dreams have survived intact. “Among my friends,” she says, “we don’t even ask what our religions are. We don’t care. We want to move on with our lives. We want to live in peace with each other.” She pauses, then opens her arms to the city around her. “We want to rebuild our beautiful home.”
I look at Lana, and at the Stari Most behind her, and suddenly tears fill my eyes. How could people do such atrocious things to one another? And then, how could such a glorious flower take root and bloom in that wretched soil?
I had thought the Stari Most was the great symbolic bridge here, a bridge between Muslim and Croat, past and present, but now I think that Lana is a bridge too, between Mostar and us, and between present and future.
And as I stand on this cobbled square, watching the frothy flow of the Neretva below and the human flow above, watching the passion flame in Lana’s eyes, I realize that we are all bridges here – bridges from horror to redemption, from intractable history to unbound possibility – and that every single one of us visitors also plays a crucial role: Through the money we have the privilege to spend and through the values of tolerance, understanding, peace, and goodwill we have the opportunity to embody and extend, we rebuild Mostar; we buttress all the Lanas of this beautiful, poignant place – and become in ourselves bridges across the divide of despair.
I have seen the future, and it is here.