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Bosnia-Herzegovina: Reconstruction Proceeding Slowly In Mostar

  • Jolyon Naegele

Stone-masons this week carved the first stone block to be used in rebuilding the Old Bridge in the Herzegovina capital Mostar. The bridge was destroyed by Croatian forces seven years ago. Mostar Mayor Safet Orucevic told reporters the stone-cutting was a "symbol of the beginning of coexistence, reconstruction, and reconciliation" of Muslims and Croats. But on a recent visit to Mostar RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele found those goals remain at best far off ideals in a city that remains shattered and divided long after the barricades have gone.

Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina; 14 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- "The old poet is dead, Emina has also died, all that is left is the abandoned garden of jasmine." That's a turn-of-the-century Mostar lament by Serbian writer Aleksa Santic about his Muslim love Emina recorded by Croat singer Ibrica Jusic.

A walk through the city's picturesque Old Town today reveals an extraordinary amount of devastation from the 1992 to 1995 war -- and a near total absence of the ethnic coexistence embodied in Jusic's song.

The fighting in Mostar broke out in April 1992 between Serbs on one side and Croats and Bosnians on the other. A year later, fighting erupted between Croats and Muslims when Herzegovina's Croats established their own mini-state, called "Herceg-Bosna," with its capital in Mostar.

Mostar's Old Town suffered countless rounds of shelling that tore apart its old bazaar and medieval fortress-like complexes on both sides of the Neretva river. But the most recognizable architectural monument of Ottoman Turkish rule in the Balkans -- the town's Old Bridge, built in 1556 for Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent -- survived the fighting for six months.

Finally, in November 1993, Bosnian Croat forces shelled the bridge in a deliberate -- and successful -- attempt to destroy it. The single, graceful limestone arch, spanning 29 meters across a gorge, disintegrated and crashed into the Neretva River.

Shortly after fighting ended in 1995, workers began to salvage blocks of stone from the river in preparation for rebuilding the bridge. Now, dozens of large chunks of rock lie on a raised platform on a sandbar just downstream from the bridge site, undergoing examination, identification and measuring for possible reuse. But there's still a gap where the bridge once stood.

Zijad Demirovic is the director the Institute for the Preservation of the Cultural, Historic and Natural Heritage of Mostar.

He says it's better that the reconstruction of the bridge has not yet begun because that means more of the original stone can eventually be used in rebuilding the structure:

"Five years after the end of the war, the reconstruction and revitalization of the whole Old Town is remarkable, better than we expected -- because in these five years none of the unique objects in the Old Town has been rebuilt, including the Old Bridge."

The international community has repeatedly expressed frustration with the lack of substantial progress in Mostar. U.S. Ambassador Ralph Johnson is the first deputy to the international community's High Representative in Bosnia Wolfgang Petritsch.

"Something like 400 million ECU [that is, euros] in EU assistance have gone into Mostar physically to reconstruct the place even though the bridge remains largely in the water, I think [that's] in part because of political divisions within the town rather than any lack of desire or support on the part of the international community to reconstruct it.

Demirovic, Mostar's cultural preservation chief, acknowledges the considerable financial support from abroad for reconstructing the bridge. But he insists that to maintain the bridge's intrinsic value as a part of the world heritage, maximum reliance must be made on using original materials and technologies. And that, he says, takes time as well as money.

"When the Old Bridge was built, the preparations took seven years and it was erected in a single season. The [current] preparations for this bridge have already taken three or four years. It is far more complicated than building something all new. If we wanted to, we could get that built in just one year."

Demirovic says he expects the bridge to be reassembled within four years at a cost of about $8 million.

An expert team from UNESCO, with World Bank backing, is assisting in preparing the reconstruction. And the New York-based World Monuments Fund has set up an architectural studio in Mostar to work on a master plan for reconstructing the Old Town.

The Old Bridge and the Old Town are not Demirovic's only concerns. The town's postwar skyline is also a source of growing frustration. Only a few hundred meters from the bridge, on the Croatian side of the former front line, work is nearing completion on a Franciscan monastery's new clock tower to replace one damaged in the fighting.

The old clock tower was some 30 meters high. The new clock tower is 106 meters tall and dwarfs everything in Mostar except for the giant cross the Croats recently erected on a mountain-top overlooking the town. Demirovic says the tower is out of proportion to all other buildings in Mostar, but he is powerless to stop it as his jurisdiction does not encompass the Croat side of Mostar.

Ambassador Johnson suggests that the cross and recently reconstructed church buildings, mosques, and minarets represent very much a continuation of the war by other means.

"The fact is that this is an area where all you have to do is look. As you stand above Mostar and look on the one hand at the cross, this enormous cross which has now been erected up on the hill and at the minarets in the city -- [many] of which have been reconstructed -- it [the cross] epitomizes part of the problem. That is, that there are still hard-liners on both sides who remember the violence of the conflict and in this case obviously the worst of it was between Bosniaks (Muslims) and Croats, and the Serbs were sort of minor players in this episode, and that's taking a long time to eradicate."

A leading commentator in Mostar is Alija Behram, who is the general manager of state-owned Radio-Television Mostar. He suggests that rebuilding the Old Bridge and the Old Town is just of part of a large process of renewing Mostar's ethnic diversity.

"Mostar won't be Mostar until the Old Bridge is completely rebuilt, with the complete reconstruction of its environs -- that means the old Town. Mostar won't be Mostar until the [Serbian] Orthodox church synod returns, without which Mostar's diversity will remain weak. Mostar won't be Mostar until all those who want to return home are able to do so. You have thousands of people on the eastern [Muslim] side of town who are refugees in their own hometown."

Behram calls Mostar today a paradigm for the situation throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina. He notes Mostar has two local governments, two universities, two police forces, two water-supply agencies, two electricity distributors, two chambers of commerce, and two municipal bus companies.

"I want to be gray, I want to be old, my Mostar is forever" goes the song by composer and singer Dino Merlin.