Ducking and Diving

November 8, 2019

Image by Getty Images 

 

To 'duck and dive' is to use one's cleverness or resourcefulness to avoid or address problems or obstacles. A term that resonates when considering the perpetual challenges of 'social cohesion' in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Despite a celebrated re-construct of a major monument deemed culturally significant by the international peacebuilding community, there remain divisions unresolved and smouldering.

 

The 6th-century Ottoman bridge facsimile, attracts a great deal of interest from tourists drawn to its dark past, architecture and annual diving tradition where young men leap into the river Neretva. It has become so internationally popular that on the 8th of September the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series included it in its championship venues (Redbull, 2018).

 

On the face of it, the new bridge appears to be continuing the pre-war legacy of the original bridge which symbolised a diverse unity of the city of Mostar. However, when you consider the other reconstructions of the same period, such as the “re-constructed mosques and minarets of Muslim Mostar on the east bank of the Neretva and the highly visible Catholic markers on the western Croat side ” as well as, the imposing flood-lit cross on the hill above the town which, “marks the spot where it is said that the Croat shelling on the bridge took place,  hence seen as a celebration of its destruction” the situation does not look so clear cut, has it brought waring communities together? Has it improved the area’s sense of place and identity from a local perspective? To what extent if any, do the memories of the bridge and its associate violence impact the social and political relations in Mostar?

 

The Stari Most in Bosnia and Herzegovina is a remainder and reminder of a past conflict, or at least a reminder. Stari Most (meaning the old bridge) in the city of Mostar is a replica (therefore perhaps not a ‘remainder’ in the strictest sense) of the original which was destroyed on the 9th November 1993, under fire from Hrvatsko vijece obrane (HVO; Bosnian Croat) artillery (McDowell and Braniff, 2014) during the War in Bosnia and Herzegovina otherwise known as the Bosnia War.

 

This was a brutal four-year long civil war between Muslims and Croats (1992-95) that followed the fall of communism in Europe and witnessed the horrors of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Political pressure and intervention through NATO air strikes and sanctions by the United Nations finally helped bring all protagonists to the Dayton Cease-Fire Agreement (Taylor, 2012). The Bosnian war left millions displaced, hundreds of thousands dead and many more injured and traumatised. Seventy men were convicted of war crimes by the UN. Despite the cease-fire, Bosnia continues to appear divided, according to The Guardian journalist Julian Borger’s article, “[t]wo decades after the conflict started, Bosnia is divided more than ever as bitter memories permeate society” (Borger, 2012), a division that seems prevalent today as, “residents of Bosnia continue to struggle with political stagnation, sectarian tensions and trauma” (NewsHour, 2019).

 

Stari Most was a peacebuilding project by the international community supporting post conflict reconciliation efforts, “[t]he World Bank, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the World Monuments Fund formed a coalition to oversee the reconstruction of the Stari Most and the historic city centre of Mostar” (Hannah, Armaly and Blasi, 2004). The bridge was reopened, drawing a great deal of international adulation. The Director-General of UNESCO at the time, Koïchiro Matsuura stated at the opening "[w]e are present in Mostar in order to breathe fresh life into an exceptional heritage which, after having been used as a target, needs to become a rallying sign, a sign of recognition, the powerful symbol of a plural identity founded on mutual trust" (Sopova, 2004). However, an article in the Guardian Newspaper, ‘Bridge Opens but Mostar Remains a Divided City’, possesses an alternative perspective where,"[t]he life of ordinary people on this artificially divided space has become absurd," echoing the view of a report by the international authority overseeing Bosnia’s governance in December 2004 stating that "[t]he situation is unacceptable and unsustainable" (Traynor, 2004). A situation which perhaps strengthens Meskell’s observation that “international staging has at times, papered over the smouldering religious and ethnic tensions”, and that there is an inherent danger in believing that reconstruction brings about reconciliation (Meskell, 2018).

 

The city still appears divided, “with Bosniak Muslims choosing to live on one side and Christian Croats choosing to live on the other” (News Hour, 2017).

 

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