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.
"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."