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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 July, 2004, 11:47 GMT 12:47 UK
Bridging the Bosnian divide
Allan Little
By Allan Little
BBC world affairs correspondent

As the Mostar bridge reopens 10 years after it was destroyed by Croat nationalists, Allan Little considers reconciliation between Bosnian Serbs and Croats.

The new Mostar bridge
The bridge was originally built by Turkish architects in 1566
There was something spectral about the sight of the old bridge at Mostar - as though the normal laws of the physical universe did not apply to it.

A single span of shining white cobalt suspended high above a churning river pool of pale blue water.

As the wide sweep of the Neretva river runs down from the high ground, it enters the city of Mostar where it narrows between steep-sided river banks.

At the narrowest point, in 1566, the Turkish sultan had ordered the building of the bridge.

Rebecca West saw it in 1936. "It is one of the most beautiful bridges in the world," she wrote.

"A slender arch between two round towers, its parapets bent in a shallow angle at the centre. I know of no country, not even Italy or Spain, that shows such invariable taste and such pleasing results."

She also said that she was pleased that the spring had come late that year to Bosnia, for this had enabled her to see snow on the roof of a mosque, an image whose incongruity pleased her for it spoke of the incongruity of Bosnia itself - a European country where Muslims and Christians co-existed in apparent harmony, where the traditions of East and West had met and, over centuries, mingled.

Freedom and division

That is why the bridge is so powerful a symbol in Bosnia, a country that knows better than most about why divides - cultural, religious, ethnic - have to be spanned - that knows more than most the fatal consequences of divisions that cannot be bridged.

And that is why that same bridge came to be so detested by those whose artillery pummelled it again and again until it fell into the water, on 9 November 1993.

They were destroying the very idea of bridge building, the very idea that different national groups could, or should, try to live together
When I first went to Croatia at the start of the war there in 1991, the country was in the grip of a liberation fever.

Croats were free for the first time in half a century to assert who they held themselves to be.

"Listen to me," one young man said.

"Here in Croatia we are central Europe. We belong to the civilisation that produced Mozart. But cross the Sava River into Bosnia, or the Danube into Serbia and that is the east. That is the civilisation that produced Saddam Hussein and all that Asiatic way of thinking."

The Croat nationalists who destroyed the bridge in 1993 were in their minds not only destroying a detested remnant of the Ottoman civilisation they despised.

They were destroying the very idea of bridge building, the very idea that different national groups could, or should, try to live together.

Mostar's old bridge before, during and after the war

For them it wasn't only the Bosnian Muslims and the Ottoman legacy that was the enemy - they were at war with the very idea of multiculturalism.

My closest friends in Bosnia at that time were a family of five.

The husband, Ivo, was a Bosnian Croat, his wife, Gordana, a Bosnian Serb.

They had three children who were simply Bosnian.

The Bosnia that Ivo and Gordana wanted was a secular civic republic of citizens, in which the law recognised no tribal distinction.

The Bosnia they got was one that was divided up by a succession of Western-backed peace plans, into ethnically exclusive zones.

They could not live in such a place.

When I visited them in their Sarajevo flat under the rockets and guns, they used to joke about dividing their living room up into separate Croat and Serb cantons.

But the ethnic supremacists won the war in Bosnia.

Ivo and Gordana went to Canada where they swore allegiance to - and became subjects of - Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors.

Bosnians will live together again, because they always have and because ethnic separation has never made any kind of sense
Ivo was never reconciled to the loss of his homeland, and to the betrayal of the multiethnic - or, more properly the non-ethnic - ideal.

When he died, still in his 50s, a couple of years ago, a few weeks after I last saw him, he did so with a broken heart.


As the bridge reopens I think of them and the war they fought and lost.

Bosnians will live together again, because they always have and because ethnic separation has never made any kind of sense - not economic, not political, not cultural - and could only ever be achieved through the barrel of a gun.

The bridge will take its place again as an enduring symbol of something quite special about that part of the world - the incongruity that Rebecca West saw on the domed roof coated with white frost.

But not yet. Not for a long time.

And too late for all those who clung to the ideal a decade ago and were betrayed.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 24 July 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Mostar celebrates rebuilt bridge
23 Jul 04  |  Europe
Country profile: Bosnia-Hercegovina
20 Jul 04  |  Country profiles
Country profile: Croatia
20 Jul 04  |  Country profiles

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