Uniting a nation with bridge and brochure

January 18, 2002

Bosnia is not an obvious holiday destination, but Chris Bunting reports on a scheme that aims to use tourism to heal the country's ethnic rifts.

On the morning of November 9 1993, a tank shell slammed into the old bridge in Mostar. Another carefully aimed shot sent the structure crashing into the water below.

The delicate, ivory-coloured single-span bridge had linked the eastern and western banks of the river Neretva for 4 years. It had been an engineering marvel in its day - one arch thrown across 25m of water by the Ottoman master builder Mimar Hayruddin when it was found that the river's shifting bed would not hold a series of pillars. But it was the bridge's vulnerable beauty that caught the breath. Buttressed by massive stone towers, its white limestone tapered into a slender, gently pointed arch. Legend has it that Hayruddin fled Mostar on the day the bridge was unveiled, convinced that it would not hold.

But the old bridge stayed put. The 16th-century poet and Ottoman statesman Dervis-Pasa Bajezidagic marvelled at the "rainbow arch soaring up to the skies". Four centuries later, the British writer Rebecca West wrote simply:

"One of the most beautiful bridges in the world."

For local people, it was much more than that. Before the Bosnian conflict, it was a symbol of unity for Mostar's Croatian Catholics, Muslims, Jews and Serbian Orthodox Christians, held dear by all.

The Bosnian artist Afan Ramic said: "Besides its architectural beauty, the Mostar bridge linked not only two river banks but two civilisations that intertwine at precisely the point where the cultures of East and West have been destined to permeate each other for centuries."

In 1991, Serb artillery attacking the town's Croatian and Muslim defenders hit the bridge twice, but it stood firm. In 1993, Bosnian Croats fighting Muslims targeted it. After many weeks and about 60 hits, it finally fell.

If you visit Mostar, you will find a wire-and-metal construction draped between the two stumps that are all that remain of the original structure. Just as the old bridge was a graceful symbol of cooperation, so the ugly gap that has replaced it is perhaps Bosnia's most powerful symbol of the deep divisions left by the civil war. The towers on each side of it have been smashed by gunfire; mosques and churches nearby have been razed; and what was the front line, just west of the river, is still a scene of destruction.

Tom Selwyn, a professor of anthropology at the University of North London and an expert on tourism, has taken the reins of a European-funded Tempus programme aimed at reinventing this battered area and building up Bosnia's tourism institutions. Surprisingly, he has chosen not to ignore Mostar's bridge as an unpleasant reminder of the country's troubled past but instead to adopt it as a "guiding symbol" of the project.

"At first site, it is depressing. The bridge is not there. And yet it survives as an idea. After the war, the Muslim president of Bosnia, Aiija Izetbegovic, came to Mostar appealing for unity. He said it did not make sense to speak of cultural divisions in such a historically cosmopolitan country, but he said there was one division that did make sense: the division between the people who destroy bridges and the ones who build them. That is a powerful message, and the success or failure of my project will depend on whether we can get people building bridges again."

An international consortium is trying to rebuild the Mostar bridge, painstakingly relearning the techniques employed more than four centuries ago, but Selwyn believes the success of regenerating Bosnia's tourism industry will ultimately rely on recreating the traditions of cooperation across communities that the bridge symbolised.

"Bosnia cannot go it alone and hope to attract enough visitors. We have to have cooperation across the whole region, and that means forming a group of people who are comfortable talking to each other," he says.

With an initial £300,000 funding over three years, Selwyn's programme will join the universities of Sarajevo, North London, Bologna, Banja Luka in Serb-controlled Bosnia, University College London and eight other local partners in offering a postgraduate course, intended to be awarded at MA level, to an elite body of 24 students.

The course, which is expected to be accredited by Bologna University, will be in nine modules, each lasting a week, hosted in rotation by each university partner. Under the broad heading of "tourism, culture and civil society", it will look at the specifics of Bosnian tourism. Participants will be asked to produce a tourism plan for a section of the country as part of their assessment. They will also explore broad themes, such as the relationship between tourism and a thriving civil society and the development of a cosmopolitan society. Other modules will look at international networking and the creation of regional tourism strategies in the Balkans, southeast Europe and the Mediterranean. While the course has yet to be given its MA accreditation, the first module, a general introduction to the subject, was hosted in London in November. Next week, participants travel to Sarajevo for an introduction to Bosnian tourism.

Selwyn says: "Participants come from a wide spectrum of organisations - from banks, trade associations, the national library, there is an actress and there are civil servants. They are all English speakers and multi-talented. We hope that these 24 will, after three years, be able to take a part in leading Bosnia towards the development of a tourism industry, integrated with the regeneration of the cultural industries as a whole."

The difficulties are imposing. Selwyn notes that Bosnians are becoming increasingly disillusioned with American and European consultants who make a good living trading on their expertise but have passed on precious little of it to the local population. The programme organisers are scrabbling for funding to match the European Union's small grant. The Bosnian Serb authorities have promised £15,000, as has the Sarajevo administration, but richer western governments are proving hard to persuade.

While Selwyn points out that there is no magic formula for post-conflict cultural reconstruction in Bosnia, he believes any successful effort would need to be set within carefully planned, effective and inclusive programmes of economic regeneration.

He worries that he may have grasped a poisoned chalice. "The fear is that this is seen as another failed international intervention. But the possibilities are inspiring," he says. "It is a small thing, but I was giving a lecture in Sarajevo a few weeks ago. One of our people comes from Banja Luka and is a Serb, another comes from Sarajevo and is Muslim. The Serb, who might not ordinarily feel welcome in Sarajevo, phoned the Muslim and asked if she could stay with her. She stayed and that was good, but during the visit, the one from Banja Luka's mother telephoned the woman in Sarajevo to thank her for looking after her daughter. One felt there was a re-emergence of ties.

"It may not sound much, but if we can provide a spac e within which that sort of contact can flourish, then we could accomplish more than we may think possible."

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