Rebuilt Bridge Becomes Symbol of Postwar Healing
By Amy Rubin
For more than four centuries, the Old Bridge in Mostar reigned as the Bosnian city's defining landmark. A masterpiece of Ottoman architecture commissioned in 1566 by Suleiman the Magnificent, the pedestrian arch bridge over the Neretva River gracefully connected the two sides of the city, symbolizing a link between cultures and religions that had coexisted for centuries.
But during the 1992-1995 conflict between Bosnian Muslims, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs, the Old Bridge became one of the war's most famous casualties. On November 9, 1993, Croat artillery hit the bridge's weak spot from the nearby hills, and the historic icon collapsed, plunging into the river below. The symbol of Bosnia-Herzegovina's cultural diversity lay in ruins.
"The Old Bridge had contained the meaning and the spirit of all Bosnia-Herzegovina," wrote Mostar architect Amir Pasic. "The essence of the bridge was meeting and joining together; the country, like the bridge, could be divided only by destroying it."
Though the end of the war was nowhere in sight, Pasic started to plan for the reconstruction of the bridge. Also an engineer and urban planner, Pasic had received international awards for his painstaking efforts to restore and rejuvenate Mostar's old town before the war. Now the old town had become the site of some of the war's most vicious fighting. Thousands were killed and injured, and nearly every building was destroyed.
Pasic decided to rebuild Mostar. To raise support for the rebuilding effort, he said, "You need a very strong symbol, and the bridge is the crown monument of Bosnia." His goal was to reconstruct the elegant, single-arch structure in its original design, using the same methods and materials employed by Turkish architects half a millennium ago.
At the time of the bridge's destruction, Pasic was living abroad, a visiting scholar at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. To promote his rebuilding plan, he traveled throughout the United States and Europe, lecturing and organizing conferences and workshops.
Pasic handed out colorful postcards of the bridge, optimistically inviting recipients to the reopening of the Mostar landmark on September 15, 2004 — 11 years in the future. He estimated that the war would last at least another year-and-a-half, and reconstruction efforts, inclusive of fundraising, would take at least another six years. But he decided to throw in a few more years to allow for delays. He settled on 2004.
"I thought that 2004 sounds good," Pasic said, "because it's an Olympics year and so people will remember it." He would have liked to finish the rebuilding sooner, but he knew there would be many hurdles ahead.
Many people did not take him seriously when he first handed out his postcard invitations and spoke of his vision for the future. "They were laughing," he said.
But his presentations started attracting media attention, which was instrumental for raising money, Pasic said. By July 1998, nearly three years after the war's end, UNESCO and the World Bank pledged their support for the reconstruction project and launched a joint appeal for additional funding.
In total, the World Bank, the European Bank and five nations—Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Turkey, Italy, and the Netherlands—committed funds to the rebuilding. Additional assistance came from international organizations such as the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in Geneva and the World Monuments Fund in New York; individual donors; and the many universities and professional schools around the world with which Pasic had formed partnerships.
"In the beginning, there was no consensus" to rebuild the bridge, Pasic said. But with the help of international pressure, agreement was eventually reached on the importance of re-creating the Old Bridge, in Bosnian "Stari Most," for which the city of Mostar was originally named.
"This was the first project [after the war]," he said, "where we reached consensus between Bosnians and Croats. The bridge was very useful in bringing people together."
Workers began to construct the bridge in 2002. From a technical perspective, Pasic said the project was easy. The 12-foot-wide span had been precisely mapped before the war, so builders knew the exact size, shape and placement of every stone. Workers had recovered some of the original stone from the river bottom after the bridge's destruction and cut the remainder from the same quarry used by the Ottomans in the 16th century.
In 2004, just as Pasic had predicted, the Old Bridge in Mostar rose from the ashes to reconnect the two sides of the divided city and provide a lasting monument to a healing nation. On July 23, eight weeks ahead of Pasic's original schedule, more than 2,000 people and several heads of state took part in the opening ceremony, including bands, singers and dancers from both the Bosnian Muslim and Croatian sides of town. Daredevil high divers celebrated the occasion by resuming their championship event at the bridge, jumping from its 90-foot-high arch into the Neretva River.
After an 11-year struggle, Pasic's ambitious campaign had prevailed. "I felt very emotional and very tired," he recalls. "In the middle of the ceremony, when everything was going well, I could relax. At that moment, I was free."
More than $13 million was spent on restoring the bridge, its towers and surrounding buildings. In addition, a museum was created under the bridge to present the structure's storied past.
The rebuilding of Mostar continues, and Pasic is involved with several ongoing projects. Significant challenges remain for the city of approximately 105,000 inhabitants. The west side of the river is largely Croatian and the east side is predominantly Muslim, with a Serbian minority. The school system remains segregated, and the Croat and Muslim communities largely keep to their respective sides of the river. Pasic hopes the restoration of Mostar will continue to attract new tourists and new money, and that economic development will eventually help the city to overcome its ethnic divide.
Though Mostar is far from a united city, the rebuilding and reopening of the 16th century bridge was heralded as a major step toward reconciliation and a victory for tolerance and coexistence in post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina.