Bridge Over Still-Troubled Waters Rises Anew in Split Bosnian City
"Things have got better in one respect," said Palata, eyes widening under eyebrows that arch much like Mostar's bridge. "A Muslim can walk over to the Croat side without getting killed."
It is against this backdrop that the Old Bridge has been reborn, with much official hoopla. Two weeks of seminars have preceded Friday's gala. World leaders have been invited. Prince Charles, a fan of old architecture, is planning to attend, event organizers say.
The bridge is more than a symbol of Mostar; in centuries past it was Mostar's reason for being. The name Mostar means "bridge keeper."
First there were wood and chain structures at the canyonlike spot. Then, in the 16th century, came the Old Bridge, a marvel of engineering of the Ottoman Empire, which then controlled the region. It was built under the reign of the expansionist sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. One of his other prominent monuments is the wall around Jerusalem's Old City.
In Mostar, his architects enclosed hollow vaults within the bridge's seemingly solid stone structure to reduce its weight. Each of the bridge's 1,088 limestone bricks was attached to others by iron clamps encased in lead.
From the start, people found it a thing of beauty as well as function. "Viewed from a distance," wrote an early visitor, "this bridge looks like an archer's bow with which an arrow has just been shot, forever leaving the bow in its stretched position."
"The grand bridge with its wondrous arch," poet Dervis-Pasa Bajezidagic wrote, "seems to be the colorful rainbow itself."
The bridge also became a lure to the daring. As early as 1568, youths began to make the 90-foot dive into the Neretva. Clubs formed and competitions flourished, up to modern times.
"You would sit on the banks of the river and then one day decide, 'It's time to dive.' I went up when I was 15," said Emir Balic, 69, whose "swallow" dive made him famous. (It also won him work as a stuntman in movies about partisan resistance against the Nazis. In one called "The Battle of Neretva," he briefly played the Yugoslav leader Tito.)
The swallow dive is performed with arms stretched wide, the body forming a pronounced arch. The diver is supposed to hit the water with his upper chest -- miss by a few degrees and he'll have at least a bad headache.
Balic, a Muslim, last dived at the bridge seven years ago from a platform erected beside the gap where the bridge had been. A postcard sold in Mostar celebrates the feat. "I was in mourning," he said. "Twenty-three divers had died fighting in Mostar. It was for them I dived."
He was taken prisoner during the civil war, and Croats debated whether to kill him because of his fame. One former disciple intervened and he was eventually freed. He fled the city and later heard about the bridge's destruction. "They destroyed the bridge because they could not drive us from the city," Balic said. "In my opinion, happiness for the bridge will only come from our side. There are too many problems for one bridge to solve."
He has declined an invitation to perform on Friday. "I'm too old. Too brittle. I might disintegrate in the air," he said.
Mayor Hamdija Jahic, also a Muslim, plays down the bridge's abilities to heal the old divisions, but says that its reconstruction nonetheless gives the city its first chance to celebrate something in common.
"Mostar exists because of the bridge. Everyone who comes here comes to see it. Everyone who lives here has stepped on it," he said. The bridge might attract tourists from Croatia's Mediterranean coast, he said. Mostar has precious little industry: a tobacco factory under Muslim control and an aluminum plant operated by Croats.
Croat officials say they will attend the bridge's inauguration -- as long as no one tries to pin blame on them for its destruction. "I don't have any regrets," said Deputy Mayor Ljubo Beslic, a veteran of the civil war. "The Bosnian side wants us to feel guilty, but we don't. It would be a bad message not to show up, so we will. If someone tries to make us responsible for the destruction, we will leave."
Organizers had tried to enlist a popular singer from Croatia to perform on Friday. Then word got around that someone requested he sing a love song titled "I Am Sorry." Croats in Mostar complained about the possible double interpretation of the song, and the singer pulled out of the festivities.
The participation of Croat children is also in question. A television station in Sarajevo, the capital, broadcast police remarks that Islamic terrorists might attack the ceremony. Parents then began to say they would keep their children at home.
Organizers are preoccupied with security for the event. Hidden TV cameras record activity on the bridge and its approaches 24 hours a day. "If they had these in place when they blew it up, I would not have had to take my shots," said Palata, the cameraman. "If something happens this time, there will be plenty of pictures."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company