The Bridge – Mostar

NHK (Japan) & HD Thames – 09-1994

In 1994, NHK Japan commissioned a 20-minute documentary featuring some aspect of the Balkan wars. It was to be made in the new High Definition, wide-screen (1125) format as a showcase production for screening in Japan on 25-11-94 – and worldwide thereafter.

Christopher Long, as associate producer, proposed an examination of the fiercely divided city of Mostar, concentrating on the effects of the Serb and Croat bombardments (1992-94) on the civilian population and using the destruction of the 16th Century 'Stari Most' bridge as a metaphor for the pointless tragedy of the war.

Despite excellent ingredients, fascinating contributors, the superb location provided by the shattered city and the best efforts of editor Alan Ritchie, the finished documentary was disappointing. This largely resulted from a crew unaccustomed to the flexibility needed when filming in a war zone, their failure to capture the immediacy of events on the ground and, maybe, an inability to recognise that what they and the camera were seeing was all too real.

By Christopher Long

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A bridge destroyed. A country torn apart.

Men, women and children slaughtered by their neighbours.

Desperate and terrified families, driven in minutes from their burning homes, abandoning even the corpses of their loved ones.

Their only crime being the wrong name, the wrong faith, the wrong traditions.

In the eternally explosive and warring Balkans, 'Yugoslavia' was always an idealist's dream.

For thousands of years the Balkans was a trouble-spot on the edge of someone else's empire. So, when the great Habsburg and Ottoman empires collapsed in the First World War, Yugoslavia was invented to unite Catholics and Orthodox Christians with their Muslim neighbours, melding together an extraordinarily complex web of petty republics, tribes, cultures and beliefs.

Fifty years ago the dream became a nightmare.

As the Second World War drew to a close, Croat fascists, with their Croat supporters in Bosnia-Hercegovina, were locked in another vicious and bloody civil war with predominantly Serbian Communists and anti-fascist partisans.

The Muslims of Bosnia-Hercegovina – many of whom were European Slavs who had converted to Islam to appease their Turkish masters several hundred years earlier – found themselves on both sides in the conflict.

Then, for 35 years under the Communist, anti-fascist and authoritarian régime of Josip Tito, Yugoslavia was re-united. His atheist, homogenous republican ideal found itself on the borders of two new empires, the Communist East and the Democratic West.

For 10 years after Tito's death in 1981, Yugoslavia survived, – as always fearing and flirting with giants – the Cold War guaranteeing Yugoslavia's fragile unity.

During those 35 years the people of Yugoslavia proclaimed themselves – publicly at least – one nation.

They lived side-by-side, read the same books, watched the same films, shared the same schools and married each other across ethnic and religious divides.

Those who opposed this secular, one-nation view – and there were many – suffered merciless supression by a ruthless and authoritarian police state.

But, following the collapse of the Iron Curtain, and as so often before, the peoples of Yugoslavia have again turned on their neighbours in an orgy of killing, destruction and recrimination.

Memories of the Second World War and its atrocities have not been forgotten.

In the past three and a half years the body of Yugoslavia has been dismembered again – region by region, town by town and house by house.

The vacuum has been filled by cynical politicians, warlords and petty thugs.

Tens of thousands have been killed. Hundreds of thousands displaced.

Old-fashioned terror and propaganda have re-kindled ancient hatreds and turned neighbour against neighbour.

Here, in Mostar, such bigotry tried to rip a still-beating heart from a dismembered corpse.

Five hundred years ago, Sulleiman The Magnificent built a beautiful bridge on an ancient trade route.

At the narrowest point on the River Neretva, it linked East with West and united religions, cultures and traditions.

This year mass insanity destroyed it.

Much of the scope of this introductory script was lost in the filming and subsequently in the editing/post-production stages, though through no fault of the editor.

The Old Bridge – the Stari Most – in Mostar was destroyed by artillery of the Republic of Croatia and paramilitary members of the HVO under the command of Slobodan Praljak, a Croat from Zagreb. Eye-witnesses report that the barrel of a tank or heavy artillery piece was aimed through the window of a ruined house on the crest of a small hill at the foot of Mount Hum. A sustained barrage of around 75 shells eventually blew out the centre of the bridge which residents had vainly tried to protect with mattresses and old car tyres. Although it was only one of several bridges blown up, it's destruction was one of the single most deliberate and pointless acts of wanton vandalism in the Serbo-Croat-Bosnian war.

The bridge gave its name to the entire city of Mostar ('most' meaning 'bridge' in most Slavic languages) and was generally regarded as the finest architectural monument in Bosnia-Hercegovina. It's construction by Hajrudin, a pupil of the architect Sinan, began in 1557 and was completed in 1566. Near the bridge Croats also destroyed the renowned Mehmed Pasha Koski mosque and Karadjoz Bey mosque, along with other mosques and the Serbian Orthodox church. Virtually every building in the old East Bank quarter of Mostar was destroyed either by shelling and mortars or, more commonly, by the systematic use of dynamite. The declared aim of this scorched-earth policy was to make the East Bank uninhabitable for its predominantly Muslim population and to wipe out all traces of the city's Turkish/Muslim heritage. The policy failed. By 1998 much of the area was being reconstructed with European and World Bank aid and stones from the old bridge had been raised from the river bed. A plan had also been agreed to rebuild the bridge at a cost of around $6 million.

Another bridge destroyed... In 1992 and 1993 many bridges along the Neretva were destroyed, effectively cutting off whole communities and making efforts to get aid to them very difficult. For long stretches the river formed a disputed front line.

Picture from: Zeljko Kvesic. Looking from the predominantly Croat west bank to the predominantly Muslim east bank of the River Neretva in Mostar, in 1993. It was this bridge which was replaced in 1994 by the famous British army Bailey bridge which was an attempt to link the two sides in a viciously divided city. The east side of the city was almost entirely destroyed during 1992-93 by systematic shelling or mortaring from Serb military positions on the surrounding mountains – though the greatest damage resulted from the deliberate use of dynamite by the occupying Croat forces. The aim was to drive Muslims from the city or at least to wreck their economic potential – the east bank having always attracted huge numbers of tourists. The author spent two nights beneath the ruins of this bridge which seemed at the time far more secure than the picture now suggests! He shared his humble lodgings with an eternally smiling cardboard cut-out air-hostess lying on her side on the concrete floor amid broken glass and happy holiday brochures...

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The author would like to express his deep gratitude to many many good friends in Mostar who, in the years 1992-95, offered him shelter, great kindness and support under appalling circumstances. Special thanks go to: Zehra and Laila Oglic; Asim, Dzevahira, Selma and Sabina Segatalo; Anka & Lazo Lazetic; and Fatima & Ismet Memic. Sadly Ismet Memic died in 1997 as a consequence of the torture and abuse he received while in both Serb and Croat concentration camps in 1992-93.

© (1994) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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