/ 12 December 2004

Battle over the bridge of lost souls

It is possibly Europe’s most gruesome bridge. Its foundations, legend has it, are built on the bodies of murdered twins. For more than four centuries, it has been the scene of beheadings, of slow impalements on its low, stone balustrade, and massacres.

The most recent was in 1992, during the war in Bosnia when Serb paramilitaries flooded the pretty little town of Visegrad to kill its men and rape its women. They slaughtered some of their Muslim victims on the bridge, pushing the bodies into the green waters below.

Its violent history was traced in a book for which the town’s most famous resident, Bosnian Serb writer Ivo Andric, won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Now the bridge over the river Drina, a 171m-wide span of limestone that gave its title to Andric’s book, is in danger of imminent collapse. And like so many things in Bosnia since the end of the war in 1995, its survival has become politicised.

It has been in peril before. The span and several pillars were dynamited and partially destroyed in World War I and World War II (and then rebuilt). But nothing before has threatened the whole structure with collapse.

Built between 1571 and 1577 by the Ottoman Empire’s most famous architect, Kodza Mimar Sinan, to link Bosnia with Istanbul, the bridge is under attack by the river itself.

The pillars supporting the 11 arches have been eroded and cracked, while badly undertaken repairs to the cobbled road that crosses the bridge have allowed rain to seep in and freeze, pushing the vast stone blocks apart.

”According to our preliminary investigations,” said Amra Hadzimuhamedovic, chairperson of the Bosnian government’s Commission to Preserve National Monuments, ”it can collapse at any time.”

In the former Yugoslavia, even almost 10 years after the end of the fighting between Bosnians, Croats and Serbs, monuments to sectarian cultural identity are the subject of fierce debate — the bridge’s Qur’anic inscriptions have been defaced with blue paint.

Hadzimuhamedovic says the Serb authorities in Republika Srpska, the almost exclusively Bosnian Serb political entity comprising the east of the country, don’t see repairing the bridge as a priority.

She suggests that there are some in the government of Republika Srpska — which, with the Bosnian-Croat federation, makes up the second layer of administration — who do not want to repair historic monuments that do not speak exclusively to Serbian and Orthodox culture.

The bridge is the ultimate expression of the mixing of cultures and ethnicity that offends those who still believe in racial separation. For although it is an Ottoman bridge, it was commissioned by Grand Vizier Mehmet Pasha Sokolovic, a Serb — taken from his family as a child — who rose to one of the most powerful positions in the Ottoman Court.

What is certainly true is that there is no money in the coffers of Republika Srpska to undertake repairs, and little more in the Budget of the Bosnian government.

But many Bosnian Serbs are campaigning most vigorously for the bridge to be saved. Ljubomir Mutapcic, an elderly journalist is one. His flat overlooks the bridge and he knows every moment of its history.

”You know the legend of the bridge?” he asks. He tells the story told in Andric’s book. How when the bridge was being built, the river would sweep it away until the two human sacrifices were put in its foundations.

”The bridge has had to have its victims, to stand up,” he says. — Guardian Unlimited Â