The cobblestoned old town of Mostar is a must-see destination in Bosnia & Herzegovina. Its charming stone buildings line the Neretva River, connected by the high-arched Stari Most bridge (the one pictured below). This iconic bridge was originally built in 1566 under Ottoman rule, and is one of Bosnia & Herzogovina’s most recognizable landmarks.
The Stari Most bridge is not only a symbol of Bosnia & Herzegovina, but also of the tragic events of the Bosnian War and subsequent healing process. Mostar suffered greatly during the war in 1992-95 after the disintegration of Yugoslavia. This war is extremely complex to understand; but here’s the gist of it in a very basic nutshell, as I understand (keeping in mind that I’m no historian, I’m just an outsider trying to make sense of the history):
Since the world wars there were always deep nationalistic tensions between the Croats and Serbs; these tensions were suppressed under Tito’s rule under a unified communist Yugoslavia. After Tito’s death, poor economic times and lack of strong leadership led to a renewed rise in these nationalistic divisions. The Croats, who had felt persecuted under Tito’s regime, were eager to form an independent Croatia, while the Serbians viewed Yugoslavia as a type of “greater Serbia” and resisted the breakup of “their” territory. Bosnia (with its mix of Serbs, Croats, and Muslims) was culturally and geographically at the center this tug of war, and once Croatia and then Bosnia voted for independence, the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and other Serbian paramilitaries responded brutally, occupying much of Bosnia and committing atrocities of ethnic cleansing not seen on European soil since WWII. United Nations forces were sent in to “keep the peace” by attempting to disarm both sides, but in reality their policy of “neutrality” meant that they did nothing while the much more heavily armed Yugoslav army continued their massacres.
In 1992 Mostar was attacked and bombed by the JNA (Serbs), until a UN-brokered agreement moved the JNA forces out. The defense of the city was left to the Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) and Croat armies, while Serbs from Mostar were forced to leave and many Serbian cultural and religious monument were destroyed. In 1993 the allied Croat and Bosniak forces turned against each other, due to the unwillingness of the Bosniaks to form a confederation of Bosnia and Croatia (with large parts of Bosnia carved off for the Croats), resulting in a brutal 11-month siege against the mainly Muslim east side of the Neretva River, which was almost completely destroyed though never captured. In November 1993, after 427 years of spanning the river, the beloved Stari Most bridge collapsed after tank shelling from the Croat side. In March 1994 the Washington Agreement was signed, which ended the Croat-Muslim confict. The broader war continued until finally NATO conducted air strikes that crippled Serbian networks and the Bosnian and Croat armies were able to retake large portions of land. In December 1995, the Dayton Peace Accords were signed, formally bringing an end to Bosnian War.
The Stari Most bridge was reconstructed in 2004, once again connecting the two sides of Mostar.