The green mountains are quite pretty in the early afternoon sun. A large contrast from the rocky, barren terrain of Croatia that I traversed earlier in the day. The white, dusty mountains almost instantly transformed to lush green ones upon crossing the tiny boarder outpost. The drive has taken longer than I expected. I am feeling a bit tired and am ready to be out of the car for the day. I check my map to see how much farther I need to travel, feeling a small ping of disappointment when I realize I still have a ways to go. Only a few minutes later, I absentmindedly check the map again. Smiling at my impatience, I turn my attention to the landscape around me.
The river that meanders alongside the road leads traveler towards Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Small clusters of men entertain themselves in the waters – these young boys are fishing, those are swimming. The largest group are a bit older – perhaps in their sixties – and are sunbathing and telling stories that are funny enough that their laughter is palpable from my car as I drive by.
Abandoned buildings are scattered along the way; roofs long gone, the land beginning to reclaim the structures. Earlier in my journey a Croatian local tells me one can tell the extent of the damage from the war that broke up Yugoslavia by the number of new roofs you can see – replacements for the ones that were lost in the bombing. Standing on the old city’s wall looking out at Dubrovnik, it was harder to spot the old roofs than the new ones. Unlike in the neighboring country, these buildings have not been repaired.
I wonder aloud about these structures peppered across the countryside. Surely they can’t all have been destroyed in the war. There are so many of them. I postulate that they are just old abandoned buildings, but I know better. The closer I get to Mostar the more frequently I see buildings crumbling in disarray. Several in each block now that I am in the city center. It takes a bit of time before I notice the bullet holes. Once seen, I realize they are everywhere. The heat of the spray long gone, the scars remain on nearly every building. My question has been unequivocally answered.
Mostar got its name for being the bridge keepers. The Old Bridge, as it is called today, dates back more than 500 hundred years and at one time was the only way across the river; the only connection point for the ethnically divided community of Muslims on one side and Christians on the other.
The bridge was completely destroyed during the war in which approximately 100,000 people, mostly Bosniaks, were killed. I can’t help but wonder about the impact on the collective psyche of this place of having their bridge destroyed. Unlike the buildings left in ruin, the bridge was rebuilt. Some of the materials reclaimed from the rubble. It stands as it did before, a renewed symbol of community.
A young man in his early twenties, dressed only in a light blue speedo, expertly navigates the throngs of tourists crossing the bridge. Upon reaching the center, he climbs up on the ledge. Taking a deep breath, he claps three times and plunges into the river below. A custom among the locals, the young men of Mostar demonstrate their courage by diving from the symbol of their home into the emerald waters below.