A crowd gathers around a tanned man perched on the edge of the bridge in a blue speedo. Pointing at the precipitous drop below, he drums up support from curious tourists. Eager to see the famous spectacle, they press some Euros (and perhaps, Bosnian Marks) into his hands. This is clearly not his first dive. Satisfied, he raises his arms and elegantly plunges over 20 meters into the chilly waters of the Neretva River below. 

We watched this centuries-old ritual of bravado play out on a sunny day in Mostar, a small city in the Balkan country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Originally built by the Ottomans in the 1500s, Stari Most (Old Bridge) has long been the city’s symbol. The image is iconic: framed by two small towers, the bridge arches high over the river and its lush banks, a series of minarets rise above the dense cluster of red-roofed buildings that comprise the old core. But this postcard-perfect scene, which attracts buses of day-tripping foreign tourists staying on the Croatian coast, belies the city’s troubled past. At once, Stari Most represents Mostar’s darkest days – and its rebirth. 

One of the iconic views of  Stari Most , taken from  Lucki Most  to the south.

One of the iconic views of Stari Most, taken from Lucki Most to the south.

It doesn’t take much looking to find its scars. Just off the main tourist alley lined with stands selling Bosnian coffee pots and Turkish lamps, shelled-homes sit forlorn next to newly renovated ones on quiet, leafy streets. A metal gate riddled with bullet-holes sits pulled closed and padlocked in front of one of the ruins, as if to seal in the past. On one apartment building, the laundry hanging from the windows partially conceals its pockmarked facade.

These are remnants of the Siege of Mostar, a brutal period in the city’s history that spilled out from the wider conflict sparked by the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 90s. From 1992 to 1994 the city was plunged into chaos as the Bosnian Croats and predominantly-Muslim Bosniaks fought.

During the bitter conflict, characterized by ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the Croats against the Bosniaks, a large percentage of the residents were forced to flee their homes, countless buildings were destroyed, and thousands were killed. Many Muslim cultural artifacts were destroyed during the violence, including over a hundred mosques. The Stari Most itself was shelled to oblivion and crumbled into the Neretva. 

Located just outside the old town, this shelled property still wears scars from the war.

Located just outside the old town, this shelled property still wears scars from the war.

To get a glimpse into this period, we visited an exhibition housed in the tower overlooking the bridge (it also happens to double as the hangout for the local diving club). It displayed a collection of photos taken by Wade Goddard, a New Zealander who, at only 22, risked his life daily to document the turmoil endured by the local residents during the heavy bombardment of Mostar’s Muslim enclave.

The images are jarring: a young girl rides her bike through an alley of rubble; a boy walks nonchalantly past the ruins of Stari Most, a wicker grocery basket in hand; two elderly women with hair curlers share a cigarette in front of the wreckage of a truck. The resilience of the people peering into the lens is palpable. As we moved from photo to photo, we saw people strolling happily across the bridge below from the tower windows. Another diver was getting ready to jump. It was hard to believe this was the same place shown in Goddard’s black and white images. 

The bridge was rebuilt in 2004 using Ottoman techniques and original stones retrieved from the water below. With the old connection between the ethnically-divided river banks of Mostar restored, the city was able to take another step toward reconciliation. However, according to our guest-house owner Dado, the deep wounds will take much longer to heal. A Bosniak (Muslim Bosnian) who was forced to flee the country and seek asylum in Scandinavia, Dado talked about a line – one invisible to outsiders – that still divides the city today. He said that before the war, Bosniaks and Croats had lived side-by-side peacefully for generations. But the conflict, fuelled by nationalist propaganda, had changed all of that. 

A small reminder of the city’s history found in the touristic old town.

A small reminder of the city’s history found in the touristic old town.

On our last morning in Mostar, we ventured out at 6 am to watch the city wake up. Along with twenty other tourists, we tried to capture that perfect shot of Stari Most. After snapping from a couple of different spots, we gave up and went in search of a strong coffee and burek, a savoury Bosnian pastry we had become addicted to during our time in Slovenia. We wandered quiet backstreets until we saw a group of older men sitting outside a tiny shop – a sure sign you’ve found something authentic. Greasy, delicious pastries in hand, we crossed to the other side of the river.

With some historical context from the previous day, the sights took on a different tone. We looked at the graffiti scrawled on the walls of decrepit buildings, some of it clearly political in nature, and tried to discern its meaning. We wondered if the beautiful mosques we passed were original or if they had been rebuilt. But Dado was right – it was virtually impossible for us to see the line he talked about. Friendly faces greeted us on either side with a dobro jutro (good morning). 

Traveling to cities with a recent history like that of Mostar can be conflicting. As visitors, we can’t begin to fully understand the experience of the locals and what they have endured. But perhaps, by hearing their stories, whether face to face or by visiting museums, we can help new conversations take place. And those conversations do not have to focus only on the past. Despite some underlying tension that may sometimes bubble to the surface, Mostar feels like a city with an eye on the future.

As we sipped a thick, foamy coffee at a cafe overlooking the river, we sat back and enjoyed the sounds of Bosnian mingling with a multitude of other languages as locals and tourists alike crossed the Stari Most on a sunny summer morning.

Discover this small city and its powerful history.