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Bridge over the Neretva Volume 51 Number 1, January/February 1998
by Jerrilynn D. Dodds

[image] The loss of the sixteenth-century bridge at Mostar remains a powerful symbol of a collective heritage destroyed by war. (Maria Daniels) [LARGER IMAGE]

On Tuesday, November 9, 1993, at 10:15 in the morning, Croat militiamen serving in Mostar, Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, shelled and destroyed a sixteenth-century Ottoman bridge which had connected the eastern and western sectors of the city. It was a stone footbridge, with no military value. Designed by the Ottoman architect Mimar Hayruddin in 1566, during the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent, it was the largest single stone span in the world.

Against the backdrop of the war in Bosnia it was a small thing. In time 200,000 Bosnian Muslims would be killed, more than two million people expelled from their homes, and countless others tortured, raped, and killed for their faith or ethnicity. Searching for reasons why people who had suffered so much grieved so deeply over the bridge's destruction, journalist Slavenka Drakulic later concluded that, "with all of its beauty and grace, [it] was built to outlive us. Because it was a product of both individual creativity and collective experience, it transcended our individual destiny."

The Stari Most, or Old Bridge, had once linked the eastern and western banks of the Neretva, a lucid jade river that cuts deep through the oldest part of the city. It connected the Stari Grad, or old town, on its eastern bank with the new town across the river. For generations the bridge had symbolized a Bosnia that included Muslims, Jews, Croatian Catholics, and Serbian Orthodox. It had withstood shelling and rocket attacks during the first battle of Mostar in 1992, when it was targeted by Serb-led Yugoslav army forces fighting Croatian and Bosnian army defenders. The following year it survived months of Bosnian Croat Militia (HVO) shelling. Some say the HVO brought in architects to determine which stones should be targeted to assure the collapse of the 400-year-old bridge. When it finally fell, after being shelled by a tank at point-blank range, militiamen cheered and fired their guns in the air, celebrating the destruction of a span that had come to symbolize the idea of a multicultural Bosnia.

The Foundation for the Reconstruction of the Old Bridge and Old Town (also called the Stari Mostar Foundation), established last June, has accepted a financing plan proposed by Mostar architect Amir Pasic under which no single group will pay for the bridge. Instead, work will be financed by multiple donors who, in order to participate, must also contribute to the cost of reconstructing a destroyed or damaged structure in the old town. "The cutting and placing of the keystones of the bridge itself," Pasic says, "will be funded by the people of Mostar. We will do this because it is our city, our bridge."

Restoration of the bridge will cost an estimated $5 million. Last July, an American-led NATO delegation offered to help recover hundreds of stones from the Neretva. A Hungarian bridge construction company and Hungarian peacekeeping troops, with assistance from American advisors, raised the first stone this past September.

Jerrilynn D. Dodds is a filmmaker and professor of history and theory at the School of Architecture at City College of the City University of New York.

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America