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Friday, July 23, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Guest columnist
Bridge can't heal Bosnia divisions

By Peter Lippman
Special to The Times

AP
Mostar's reconstructed Old Bridge is decorated in preparation for today's ceremony.
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Today in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the grand opening of Mostar's reconstructed Old Bridge is taking place. This historic monument's reconstruction is being heralded as a significant event in the recovery of Bosnia and the reconciliation of the warring ethnicities of that country. However, it will require much more than the symbolism of the Old Bridge to knit Bosnia back together.

During a recent visit to Mostar, I viewed the Old Bridge, whose reconstruction was nearly finished. I heard Turkish and Bosnian workmen yelling across the Neretva River to each other, just as they must have done four and a half centuries ago. The bridge, just like its previous incarnation, rises gracefully, high over the rushing blue water. It hovers 90 feet up in the air, a stone sculpture of astonishing grace and lightness.

Built in 1566, the Old Bridge was one of the most prominent symbols of the cultural richness of Bosnia. Young men dove from it for a few dollars or deutschmarks, and sweethearts arranged dates on its smooth-worn marble steps. The bridge was the soul of Mostar. But in 1992, Serb forces attacked the city, and the next year, a war broke out between local Croats and Muslims. Toward the end of 1993, Croat forces bombed the bridge, and its great stones went down into the river.

At the end of the war, Mostar was a divided city, with the historic east bank dominated by Muslims, and the modern core to the west dominated by Croats. Eventually, many governments, together with the World Bank, contributed to the reconstruction of the Old Bridge, a UNESCO monument. Now, after four years of work, the bridge has been fixed, using some of the old stones and others mined from the same quarry used by the Ottomans in the 16th century.

Peter Lippman

In recent announcements, the director-general of UNESCO, Koïchiro Matsuura, asserted that the rebuilt bridge will be "a symbol of reconciliation" and a "way to restore the dialogue between the communities on either side of the river." It is unpleasant to disagree with Matsuura, but the idea that the Old Bridge will bring about reconciliation in Mostar is the platitude of the month.

The Old Bridge alone will not heal the damage wrought by the ethnic cleansers and separatists of Bosnia. It is true that with the bridge's reopening, youngsters will once again dive from the bridge's guardrail, and tourism will increase. But retired professors will still dig through garbage containers — their pensions less than half of the cost of living — and young folks will still scheme about emigration.

Mostar remains split in very concrete ways. The educational system of the city is divided along ethnic lines. So are the utilities providers, the health system, and even the sports clubs. Unemployment approaches 40 percent, and work is scarce, if you are not a politician or a smuggler.

Sadly, the atmosphere in Mostar is not ripe for reconciliation. Soon after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, I read some graffiti in Mostar: "Bin Laden, send them a 767." I won't specify the target of this curse, as the sentiment is similar on both sides of the city.

The vandals who painted this graffiti, and people who agree with them, are probably in the minority in Mostar. However, those who rule the two sides of the city only cooperate to the extent that they are compelled to do so by the international community. The respective local political infrastructures benefit from wielding power over ethnically homogenized communities.

Stronger acts than rebuilding a famous bridge are needed in order to open the way to reconciliation in Mostar. Bosnia's constitution, drafted in Dayton, Ohio, established two ethnically based entities, one ruled by Serbs and the other a Muslim-Croat federation. The Dayton agreement legalized the separation of ethnicities accomplished during the war, and left the separatists in power. They rule to this day, blocking any real progress toward reconciliation. That is why symbolic acts and lofty declarations are just a distraction from the real needs of recovery.

Recently, Paddy Ashdown, the international envoy in charge of postwar Bosnia and the nearest thing to a governor of this semi-protectorate, fired 60 uncooperative, extreme nationalist officials in the Serb entity. Even stronger moves than this are needed. Bosnia's entities, and all other political divisions, must be completely abolished.

It is high time for the international community to show some will where the recovery of Bosnia is concerned. Only then will there be a chance for reconciliation in Mostar.

Peter Lippman is a Seattle resident who has spent about half of the past seven years in the former Yugoslavia working as a human-rights researcher and writer.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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