Bridge of Hope

Hopes of reconciliation receive a boost as Mostar's Old Bridge rises from the rubble of the Bosnian war

Bridge of Hope

Hopes of reconciliation receive a boost as Mostar's Old Bridge rises from the rubble of the Bosnian war

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

Local and international experts and contractors have begun work on the reconstruction of the Old Bridge in Mostar - one of Bosnia's oldest and most beautiful monuments destroyed by Bosnian Croat forces in 1993. It is hoped the restored bridge will encourage reconciliation in the war-torn country.


"When you ask me what the destruction and revival of the Old Bridge means for me - I feel like crying," said 34-year old secretary Selma Petranovic. "When the bridge was destroyed, I thought that Mostar was dead. Its reconstruction means that the city will come alive and be as it was before."


The original bridge, completed in 1566, was designed by the Ottoman architect Mimar Hajrudin to span the magically-green Neretva river in a small town which was at the time a Turkish outpost in southern Bosnia. Legend has it that on the day it was unveiled, Hajrudin fled the town, unconvinced that the magnificent arch would hold. But it did hold and came to be known as the "Stari Most" or Old Bridge. The Turkish outpost grew into a city and took the name Mostar, or "keeper of the bridge".


The bridge survived the numerous conflicts which beset the region in subsequent centuries, including both world wars. But on December 9, 1993, as the world looked on in horror, the bridge - by then a UNESCO historic monument - collapsed into the river under fire from Bosnian Croat artillery and tanks.


The Old Bridge had no military or strategic significance, but had become over the centuries a symbol of historic tolerance and diversity among the peoples of Mostar and Bosnia. Hence it is thought Croat hard-liners ordered its destruction, hoping such an act of vandalism would see co-existence between Bosnian Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks (Muslims) crumble into the cold river along with the bridge.


Its destruction and the three-and-a-half years of war left Mostar divided between Bosniaks and Croats. Most Bosnian Serb inhabitants fled. But the spirit of co-existence represented by the bridge survived in the town, despite Stari Most's demise.


"The Old Bridge is the symbol of Mostar and its reconstruction will reconnect not only riverbanks but people as well," said Josip Blazevic, a 27-year old Bosnian Croat student from Mostar.


"The reconstruction means that the war is finally behind us," Sanja Rahimic, a 25-year-old Muslim lawyer agrees. "For me the Old Bridge means life itself. I was born next to it and wanted to die when it was destroyed. Once it is rebuilt, I'll be the happiest person in the world."


Six years on from the end of the war, some of Mostar's old beauty has been restored and experts from all three main ethnic groups are now working jointly to build the new Stari Most.


Real progress on the project only became possible last year following the election of Neven Tomic as deputy mayor of Mostar. Tomic is a moderate from the Bosnian Croat nationalist party, the Croat Democratic Union. His more hard-line party predecessors had blocked efforts to get rebuilding work underway.


Reconstruction was deemed so important that for the first time in its history, the World Bank launched a non-economic, cultural heritage project. The bank allocated $4 million, while the Mostar authorities, Italy, Turkey and The Netherlands have provided additional money for the $15.4 million scheme.


UNESCO inaugurated a special team of local and foreign experts to oversee the work and several other well-known organisations have leant their support.


Last year, site surveys got under way, and this summer the first concrete was laid for the foundations. Rusmir Cisic, director of the Project Implementation Unit, said the Turkish construction company Yapi Markezi has been contracted to fill in and reinforce the foundations.


Initially, engineers hoped original bridge stones recovered from the Neretva river could be used in. But fears they may be damaged or too weak to support the structure forced a change of plan. Keen to ensure the new Stari Most is as close as possible to the original, new blocks are being cut from the same Tenelija stone quarry used in the 16th century.


A local contractor has so far cut some 300 out of the required 1,088 stone blocks. The stone masons hail from Korcula, the same town as those who prepared the original blocks.


After the foundations are prepared, work on the bridge itself can begin. Cisic stressed the same materials and technology used in constructing the original bridge would be used in the reconstruction work. He said tender for a contractor for this phase should be published soon.


Zvonimir Jukic is reporter for daily Nezavisne Novine and ONASA news agency from Mostar.



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