From across the Atlantic, the Yugoslavian breakup was a confusing mess of television images and magazine covers. Stone houses, broken in the mist. Winter landscapes, tanks and bulletholes, grim politicians, tired soldiers of undefined nationality - whole countries of undefined nationality.
Mostar became a symbol of the Bosnian War. It was, by many accounts, the hardest hit and most bombarded city in Bosnia. Mirroring the larger breakup, neighborhood fought neighborhood, snipers fired from building to building, Mostar became a jumble of ruined houses on two sides of a divisive river. We in America were left with the enduring and emblematic image of an ancient bridge, connecting two cultures, being bombed and left in rubble.
In 2004, before international TV crews and with much symbolism, the Old Bridge (called Stari Most) was officially re-opened after a lengthy rebuilding project. The old town has been beautified again. Restaurants are open along the streams. It's a perfect day trip from the overpacked Croatian coast, and Mostar deserves the visits because it's beautiful, safe and historic - at least, in the pretty part of town.
Stari Most (the name literally means "Old Bridge") was built in 1566 by the Ottoman emperor Sulieman the Magnificent. It's an amazing structure, almost seventy feet high at midspan, but only a hundred feet long. Climbing its slippery stones, the views are magnificent. It was considered, once, one of the wonders of the Ottoman empire, a barely believable feat of engineering. Around the old town, the scene is bleaker.
We watched this group of young men fishing for scrap metal in the river. They used a heavy hook, cable and hand winch, dislodging stubborn bits of what looked like a bed frame from the rocks. Not far from where the tourists ate their meals and licked their ice cream cones, things haven't improved that much.
Even though people visit Mostar these days, a little tourism can only be counted as a small victory. Bosnia's national economy is still in shambles, the war crimes are still being sorted out. And, though they come, most of the tourists don't even stay the night.
Near two huge cemeteries, we passed garages full of rusting machinery, fenced away, wires and hoses drooping.
The rebuilding of Stari Most was supposed to mirror the rebuilding of Bosnia and the relative peace that's settled in. It makes for a pretty picture and a feel-good story, a vignette about the triumph of better blood in a broken place. It's difficult to tell, right now, if it represents the truth or a mirage.