Tuesday, August 17, 2004

article about Bosnia

For some locals from Bosnia, rebuilt bridge a peace symbol

By Katherine Sather Seattle Times staff reporter

There is a small bridge in the city of Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, that connects people as far away as Seattle.
It's known simply as the Old Bridge, and today thousands of Bosnians, along with a few from this area, will gather there to celebrate its reconstruction.

The 500-year-old landmark was destroyed in 1993 during the country's civil war, furthering the division between the mostly Catholic Croats, who lived west of the bridge, and the Muslims who lived in the east.

Its reopening today is symbolic of growing peace between the two groups. It's a time for celebration for Bosnian families, including that of Dragan and Amra Kondzas in Redmond, who fled their home in Mostar after the war began. Bosnian refugee Hava Jazvin, who works at the Refugee Federation Service Center in Seattle, returned to Mostar this week to witness the event in person.

"I feel obligation to be there just to see," said Jazvin, whose English is halting. "I just think this is kind of birthday for Old Bridge. I believe now it's starting to build trust between people."

Jazvin is from the town of Capljina, just a short distance from Mostar. In 1993, she and other Muslims were forced to evacuate the city by former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's nationalist forces, who sought to create a "Greater Serbia." Jazvin said her brother and nephews were initially taken to concentration camps, while she hid in a greenhouse. She later helped her family escape to Croatia.

It was in Croatia, on the television news, that she watched the Old Bridge fall as Croats and Muslims, who had worked together to battle Bosnian Serbs at the outset of the war, fought for control of Mostar. Croats hit the stone structure with artillery fire on Oct. 9, 1993, sending it crumbling into the Neretva River.

"I can hardly control myself. I just put my hand over my mouth. I want to scream," Jazvin said. "I was thinking, 'We cannot have peace no more. We broke the bridge.' "

That morning, Dragan Kondza, a Croat, heard the artillery shells strike the bridge from miles away. The attack lasted until the afternoon. His wife, Amra, was staying with his family in Croatia.

"Nobody believed that would happen," she said. "We were all in a state of shock for days, even months."

Though it's not the only bridge in Mostar, the Old Bridge is the most treasured. It was constructed in 1566 and is known as one of the finest examples of Turkish Ottoman architecture in the Balkans. In the five centuries it arched over the Neretva, it withstood wars, invasions and earthquakes, said Marie-Paul Roudil, a spokeswoman for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

The city of Mostar was named after the bridge. "Stari Most" means old bridge in Bosnian. After the Dayton Peace Accords were signed in 1995, UNESCO pledged to restore the landmark. The $16 million project, which began in 2001, gained sponsorship from the World Bank and five donor countries.

Political leaders and heads of state from throughout Europe will attend today's opening ceremony.

"This is also a reconstruction of the link between the two populations from each side of the river," Roudil said.

The Kondza family revisited Mostar last summer, when all but a small gap in the middle of the bridge was left to be rebuilt. They recalled the times they'd taken their daughter across the stone surface, which had grown slippery over the centuries, to shop at the market.

"The goal with rebuilding the bridge is there is hope some connection might develop over time, but it won't be easy," Amra Kondza said.

The couple immigrated to Tukwila in 1995 because Mostar had become too dangerous for their family. They later moved to Redmond. They plan to watch today's ceremony as it is broadcast on the Internet. Amra Kondza said there's still tension in Mostar.

"People can't relax and live like we do here, thinking about daily routines," she said. "They can't relax and for one second forget about what happened."

Jazvin immigrated to Seattle in 1995, where she lives with her two nephews. She now helps other Bosnian families make their homes here. Her desk at the refugee center is surrounded by crayon-colored drawings of rainbows and smiling faces created by Bosnian children she's helped.

She wants to return to Bosnia for good someday.

"I miss the river," she said last week. "I close my eyes and imagine I can see everything. I can't wait to be there."
Katherine Sather 206-464-2752 or


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