Mostar, the fourth largest city in Bosnia-Herzegovina, is considered the unofficial capital of the Herzegovina region of the country. At less than 300 feet (90 meters) meters above sea level and less than 40 miles (60 km) from the Adriatic, Mostar is said to enjoy a Mediterranean climate. Although our January 2006 visit didn't offer much chance for swimming or sunbathing, we did notice that Mostar was considerably warming than the areas around Sarajevo and Goražde where we had been a few days earlier.
Mostar is famous for – indeed named after – its 16th century "Old Bridge". The bridge (or most in Serbo-Croat) is flanked on either side by two towers that housed the bridge keepers or, in Serbo-Croat, mostari. The bridge was built in the mid-16th century on the orders of Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire that controlled the region at the time. It is believed that, when built, the bridge was the largest single-span arch bridge in the world and, hence, considered quite a feat of engineering. The legend is told that the architect Hayruddin, fearful that the bridge might collapse and he would incur the Sultan's wrath, had prepared for his own funeral on the bridge's opening day when the supporting construction scaffolding would be removed.
But the bridge stood, and remained in place for more than four centuries until the early 1990s, when it was first damaged by Serbian bombardment then completely destroyed on November 9, 1993 by Croatian forces. Mostar, which had been a crossroads of culture for centuries, had suddenly become a collision point of ethnic hatred. First Yugoslavian and Bosnian-Serb forces laid siege to the city. When they were finally driven away, fighting erupted between the Muslim Bosniaks and Christian Croats. The Bosniaks were "ethnically cleansed" from the western bank of the Neretva River, then subjected to heavy artillery fire that killed many civilians and intentionally targeted cultural landmarks on the eastern shore. The Croats even operated a concentration camp where thousands of Bosniaks were held under gruesome conditions not seen in Europe since the Nazi era.
Finally, in February 1994, a peace agreement was signed that has held ever since. Meanwhile, the city of Mostar has tried to rebuild both historic landmarks (like the Old Bridge) and relations between the Croat and Bosniak communities. In 2004, reconstruction of the Old Bridge was completed and offered as a symbol for the joining together of Mostar's ethnic groups. But there is still work to be done. The physical scars of war are still painfully visible throughout the city. One can only imagine the mental and emotional scars left by a war that turned once-friendly neighbors into vicious and hate-filled enemies.
Today, Mostar is quiet and it is an interesting city to visit. But the population that is almost evenly divided between Bosniak and ethnic Croat stays physically separated by the Neretva River. It is, perhaps, too much to ask that stone bridge could span this divide.