Bad Metaphors and The Mostar Bridge

Twenty years ago, the bridge in Mostar was destroyed by Bosnian Croat forces, since it has been rebuilt nearly ten years ago. In the mean time, the bridge became the symbol of Bosnia and countless books and posters of Bosnia feature the bridge. The bridge has become overburdened with symbolic value which does not reflect the bridge or Bosnia. The bridge was not a symbol of multiethnic Bosnia, but part of the country’s Ottoman heritage that remains strongly contested. When it was destroyed it did not link two communities, but two parts of Mostar held by Bosnian government forces with a Bosniak majority. Its reconstruction thus neither  mended interethnic ties, nor could it be an appropriate symbol for it. Furthermore, a bridge is an ill-fitting metaphor for cooperation. Bridges are edifices to get from one place to another, but they are not a place to stay, a meeting point. I remember asking a Slovak diplomat some 15 years ago whether he saw his country as a bridge between East and West and he dismissed this suggestion quickly, noting that one does not want to live on a bridge, it is neither here nor there. bridge4Beyond being a bad metaphor, should the Mostar bridge have been rebuilt. I understand that the reconstruction of the bridge sent the signal that the ethnonationalist leaders and they militias cannot destroy the countries heritage. Yet, it is a fake. Just like the Berlin Stadtschloss or the Old theater in Skopje, it is a re-construction of a building that had disappeared. In this sense, the building pretends to be old, but it is not.

In addition to being disingenuous, it also is a reflection of the larger “reconstruction” paradigm that has been dominant in Bosnia and in other post-conflict countries. The “reconstruction paradigm” focuses on both the physical and societal reconstruction after the war. However, the reconstruction might be possible in the material sense (and even here it near impossible), the societal reconstruction is not possible. Instead the emphasis should be more on construction, i.e. on the ways in which a post-war society and country can be built and build itself. Thus, most of the focus on international policy makers has been on refugee return in the first post-war decade, but little thought went to other ways in with divisions could be overcome based on the post-war realities.

As such, the bridge is Mostar is not a symbol of reconstructing Bosnia, but rather of faking the past that was destroyed rather than building a new reality.

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