Bridge Over Still-Troubled Waters Rises Anew in Split Bosnian City
Historic Span, Destroyed During Civil War, Rebuilt With Hopes of Reconciliation
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 22, 2004; Page A12
MOSTAR, Bosnia -- Just over a decade ago, Eldin Palata, a young soldier fighting on the Muslim side of the civil war here, had a hunch and a video camera to go with it. Croat gunners had been shelling Mostar's humpbacked Old Bridge, and Palata thought that before long, the stone span would crash into the swift Neretva River.
To Mostar's people, the bridge was the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty and Colosseum rolled into one. Palata wanted to record its end. "I crept down the cliffs below the bridge. Most of the shells missed, but some hit. Still, I couldn't believe it when it came down. Of course, you can say worse things happened in the war, but this was the sign that Mostar itself was dying," he recalled last week at a cafe in the medieval center of town.
His video images of Nov. 9, 1993, were broadcast across the globe, and the destruction of the graceful structure became an emblem of the viciousness of Bosnia's war and the wider conflict across the Balkans. Even beauty was a victim.
Present at its demise, Palata now expects to record the Old Bridge's resurrection. He is now a professional television camera operator. The bridge and surrounding neighborhoods have been restored at a cost of more than $15 million, provided by foreign governments and local donors, and on Friday, the Old Bridge, draped in festive white ribbon and silver spangles, will be officially inaugurated anew.
"A sign of reconciliation." "A bridge between peoples." "The rebirth of a united Mostar." The bridge is being called all these things in official descriptions of its reopening, but the reality is something different, Palata and other residents advise. At best, reconstruction of the Old Bridge is only part of the beginning of Balkan healing.
"In the true meaning of reconciliation, the bridge is not going to make the difference," Palata said. "It will be a long time before we Muslims and Croats just hang out with each other, before some sort of friendship grows. No one is forgetting, much less forgiving."
In the years since the end of the Balkan wars, Bosnia and other shards of the former Yugoslavia have settled into a relative calm -- enforced in some places by international peacekeepers -- with a desire to integrate with wealthy Western Europe. Yet the burden of unfinished business and continued resentment weighs on the progress of nearly every country.
The last section to preserve the name of Yugoslavia dropped it and now goes by the name Serbia and Montenegro, yet some Montenegrins push for independence. Kosovo, still officially a province of Serbia, remains rife with communal violence. War criminals remain at large in Serbia and in the Serb sections of Bosnia. Hundreds of thousands of refugees from Yugoslavia's dismembered parts remain displaced from their homes.
Bosnia itself is a single state only in name. Parallel institutions of government give the once-warring Serb, Muslim and Croat ethnicities plenty of opportunity to tend to their own affairs with little contact with one another. Mostar is a riddle of parallel structures: two sets of schools, utilities, hospitals and public transport under separate Croat and Muslim control. One professional soccer team is all-Croat, the other all-Muslim.
Croats make up about 60 percent of the city's 100,000 or so people, Muslims nearly 40 percent, with a smattering of Serbs. Before the war, the three groups were present in roughly equal portions, but most Serbs fled to Serb-dominated territory elsewhere.
In January, Paddy Ashdown, the internationally appointed high representative who oversees Bosnia's uneasy peace, reacted against the slow pace of Mostar's reintegration. He combined Mostar's six municipal governments (three Croat, three Muslim) into a single assembly with orders to keep the city from being permanently divided.
He fashioned a complex formula to keep any one group from dominating: Each political party can now have no more than 15 representatives in the assembly. Separate Muslim and Croat voting districts were gerrymandered in order to keep the Croats from exerting majority rule. Under the new system, Croats can gain no more than 42 percent of the seats in the assembly, an arrangement that rankles that group.
Ashdown defended the formula. "If the majority wins, it's back to war," he said in an interview.
Resistance to social integration is heavy. When the city government proposed to educate Muslim and Croat students in a single school on the Croat west side, Croat parents protested. The government decided that the students would study in the same bullet-blasted building, but in separate classrooms.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
People in Mostar observe the reconstructed Old Bridge, which was originally built in the 16th century by the Ottoman Empire but fell in 1993.
(Hidajet Delic -- AP)