Observations on Bosnia by Salil Tripathi

  Late in the evening, as the muezzin's call pierces the darkening sky over Mostar and the mosque's minaret brightens in the calm glow of lights, roughly 30 local residents standing on a suspension bridge burst into applause. A few feet away, engineers test the setting of the last white stone in its slot, to complete the graceful, delicate arch that will hold up the rebuilt bridge of Mostar, called Stari Most ("old bridge").

Bridges are important in Bosnia. Teen-agers jumped off them into the icy waters of rivers such as the Drina and Neretva; lovers strolled along them; businesses sprouted around them; and, during the war in Bosnia, bodies were dumped off them. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated at a bridge in Sarajevo in 1914, sparking off the First World War.

  With rivers gurgling down rolling hills and towns settling on either side, bridges connected separated halves; and in a country as culturally diverse as Bosnia, they acquired a special resonance. In his novel The Bridge on the Drina, the Nobel Prize-winner Ivo Andric wrote: "This great stone bridge, a rare structure of unique beauty . . . was the one real and permanent crossing in the whole middle and upper course of the Drina and an indispensable link between Bosnia and Serbia and farther beyond." Andric was writing about Visegrad; Mostar's bridge is no different.

  Stari Most, which spans the blue-green Neretva River, was built in the 16th century under the Ottoman empire. It withstood the Austro-Hungarian era and two world wars. But it was destroyed by Croatian tanks in 1993, and when, four years later, divers recovered blocks and fragments from the river, it was clear that reassembling it would not be possible.

  So a $15.5m international rebuilding project began, led by a French engineer, Gilles Pequeux, with the help of a Turkish construction firm. As Michael Ignatieff writes in his book Empire Lite, "it has become a metaphor, a bridge from the past to the future, a bridge between Croats and Bosniaks . . . and a bridge between the Muslim world and Europe". But the problem, as Ignatieff points out, is that the promised reconciliation has not occurred: "Instead of symbolising reconciliation, the restored bridge will be there to provide a substitute."


The international community yearns for the instant gratification of instant reconciliation. But Mostar does not seem ready yet. "The bridge won't solve problems," says a Croatian businessman. "We were like brothers and we fought bitterly. It takes time to heal those wounds."

Mostar is full of parallel structures. Rubbish companies, schools, government departments, cultural centres, universities, hospitals: one for Croats, one for Bosniaks; one in the west, the other in the east. Many Croats still fly the Croatian flag. At a cafe in western Mostar, I am given a bill that seems unusually large for a cup of coffee until I realise that the waitress has written the bill in kuna, the Croatian currency, even though Bosnia's convertible mark is more stable. "I am not comfortable with the other thing," she explains.

Before the war, Bosniaks and Croats accounted for about one-third each of the city's 120,000 inhabitants (the rest were Serbs, Jews, Roma and others). Today, with the population down to 110,000, nearly 70 per cent are Croats. Worried about being swamped, the Bosniaks are reluctant to unify the city's structures.

  The cost of parallel structures is huge. The Croatian part is more prosperous, but the east has the bridge. Once the tourists return, they will dine in the east while admiring the bridge, and retire to the smarter hotels in the west, beyond the haunting Bulevar, the one-time front line, with its pock-marked shells of buildings that nobody has repaired since the war.

  When the bridge formally reopens early next year, it will be the cause of celebration. But do not expect it to bear the burden it is being asked to carry.

  "There is really no way back to the [old] bridge," writes Ignatieff, "just as there is no way back to the way Mostar was before the madness came. How do you build bridges between people? How do you help people to heal?" In Berlin, the people tore down the wall, but many residents said the wall in the mind remained. In Mostar, the people have rebuilt the bridge, but the chasm remains.