bosnia report
New Series No: 41 August - September 2004
 
The bridges of Bosnia

The festive reopening of the Old Bridge at Mostar on 23 July 2004, a decade after its destruction by HVO units, was widely welcomed as an important symbol of B-H’s renewal. The fact that Croatia had contributed to the reconstruction, and that president Mesić and premier Sanader attended the ceremony, sent a clear signal that relations between the two neighbouring states should henceforth be neighbourly. But serious reports of the occasion did not fail to describe Mostar’s continued partition on an ethnic basis, as well as its altered national composition as a result of the war. The river Neretva, which for centuries bound the city together, now serves as a border between two separate zones, one controlled by the HDZ, the other by the SDA. The Old Bridge, for all its reborn beauty and the efforts invested in its resurrection, is thus at best an ambiguous symbol. Mitrovice in Kosova provides another bridge whose divisive symbolism currently far outweighs its unifying potential. The bridge at Višegrad, made famous by Ivo Andrić, has likewise gained additional dark connotations during the war of 1992-95, with numberless fresh bodies thrown into the Drina to join those cast there by the Chetniks of World War II. And does Andrić himself not partake in striking measure of this symbolic ambiguity? Bosnia’s no doubt greatest and certainly most famous modern writer, his relationship to the country and its interwoven confessional and national identities is nothing if not fraught. He moved from a Catholic Croat youth, via Yugoslavism and Mlada Bosna (like Gavrilo Princip), to an interwar diplomatic career tainted by anti-Albanian prejudice and loyalty to an unpalatable regime, only to emerge in postwar Belgrade as a pillar of the Communist establishment. Yet his great works, which eloquently evoke the glories and the horrors alike of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Muslim heritage, also espouse lofty humanist ideals. Like the bridges he celebrated and endowed with ambiguous symbolism, he too is part of the country’s complex heritage. The Old Bridge once again spans the Neretva, but the city it was meant to serve remains divided. So long as this is true, the bridge will symbolize not unity but division. The dignitaries who rejoiced in its reopening now have a duty to ensure the rebirth of the old Mostar too, as a place where Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs could all once again live together. But it is hard to imagine how this could happen, without the country being released from the constitutional fetters imposed on it at Dayton.

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