Bridging history in Bosnia and Herzegovina | Inquirer Opinion
Second Opinion

Bridging history in Bosnia and Herzegovina

/ 05:13 AM June 21, 2024

Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina—It’s simply known as “The Bridge,” and it’s the centerpiece of this town along the Neretva River in the country’s southern Hergezovina region. Normally crowded with tourists and young men offering to dive to the river for 50 euros (apparently a long tradition), sudden rain momentarily cleared the view, and from the café where I’m writing this, there is a stillness in this town interrupted only by the call to prayer from the town’s minarets.

Commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1557 and built in 1566, the stone bridge—Stari Most in Bosnian—witnessed centuries of Ottoman rule, during which the area slowly thrived as a town inhabited by both Muslims and Christians. Centuries later, it would become part of Austria-Hungary and then Yugoslavia, experiencing periods of industrial development interrupted by various wars. Throughout this long history, one constant was the bridge itself—until 1993 when it was destroyed through shelling by the Croatian Defence Council, amid the Bosnian War (1992-1995).

Plans to rebuild the bridge were floated as soon as the bridge fell, and by 1999, the reconstruction was underway, designed to be as faithful as possible to the original, using the same blueprint, technology, and even the same local quarry. Five years later, the bridge was inaugurated: An emotional ceremony marked by a young man diving from the bridge while holding flares.

The bridge’s history of glory, destruction, and reconstruction may well symbolize this country’s own aspirations. Like neighboring (and more prosperous) Croatia (see “Neighboring countries, different trajectories,” 6/14/24), Bosnia and Herzegovina is looking at tourism as an economic lifeline, and Europeans are taking notice, with travel magazines calling the country an underrated “hidden gem,” and travel bloggers marveling at its relative affordability.


In my brief stay in this Balkan country, I saw enough to wish I could have stayed longer, from the mesmerizing Kravica waterfall to the Roman ruins of Mogorjelo. The cuisine, too, is impressive with its Ottoman and Mediterranean influences; I greatly enjoyed the Bosnian coffee and the wines which, as in Croatia, come from local varieties, like Žilavka and Blatina. If I had the chance to go back, I would explore its famed mountains and visit Sarajevo, but even here in Herzegovina—the southern region—alone, I could have stayed for many days.

Basking in the Balkans’ natural and cultural richness, one can easily forget the troubled history of strife, struggle, and war of a country of mostly Muslim Bosniaks, mostly Catholic Croats, and mostly Orthodox Serbs. Even today, artillery holes in Mostar can be seen as scars of the civil war that turned this country into one of Europe’s poorest. And locals—like tour guide Filip—still find it inconvenient to publicly discuss the war, except to say that “We all know whose fault it was.”

Just a few blocks away from the Bridge, the Museum of War And Genocide Victims offers a more pointed reminder of how the Bosnian War led to the destruction not just of bridges, but to genocide. In the Srebrenica massacre alone, on July 1995, more than 8,000 male Bosniak Muslims were murdered by the Bosnian Serb Army of the then breakaway Republika Srpska, following years of ethnic cleansing. The museum—just one of the many efforts to make people “never forget” the horrors of war—curates quotidian items and how they were turned into instruments of horror: from a pail that was used for defecation, to actual items found on victims’ bodies: wallets, IDs, watches, even what looked like a Nintendo game console, a stark reminder that many of the soldiers who fought—and fight—senseless wars are young people. Alongside such artifacts are anecdotes, from concentration camp inmates’ account of trying to drink coffee from garbage, to civilians’ tactic of tying something in front of them to “buy a few seconds of life” from snipers.

Perhaps it is a sobering reminder of the frailty of remembrance that I was one of the few visitors in that small museum, at a time when the city was packed with tourists. And I was left to contemplate the messages left by people from all over the world, including expressions of solidarity with Palestine and many other genocides that are just as marginalized in our imagination, if not our politics. As an anonymous placard in the museum reads: “War is about counting


Everyone can be turn into a number

Every state is only the number line


Evil don’t care about numbers

Do not allow to be counted one day

This is what you can become

We don’t wage a war against each other

There is enough pain in our hearts

We don’t need visible scars”

Can Bosnia and Herzegovina—diverse in its ethnicities and fragile in its unity—be an example of healing from war and bridging cultural and religious differences? Amid an uncertain future, Mostar Bridge stands as a symbol of hope and, in the words of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, a testament to “human solidarity for peace and powerful cooperation in the face of overwhelming catastrophes.”


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