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November 14, 2023

Remembering the Destruction of the Old Bridge at Mostar 30 Years On

Before ISIS and the attack on Palmyra, before the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban, came what was the greatest deliberate destruction of cultural heritage in Europe since World War Two during the 1992–1995 Bosnian War, a war whose reverberations were felt around the world. 

Far more than any other any other structure, the demolition of Mostar’s graceful sixteenth-century Ottoman Old Bridge, or Stari Most, became emblematic of the attacks on cultural heritage during the conflict. The intensive shelling of the bridge by the HVO  and the collapse of the bridge into the river Neretva on 9 November 1993 was a seminal moment in the intentional destruction of cultural heritage during conflict that provoked outrage around the world. 

A symposium marking the 30th anniversary of the Old Bridge’s destruction was held at the Society of Antiquaries of London on 9 November 2023. Among the speakers were Helen Walasek, author of Bosnia and the Destruction of Cultural Heritage (the event’s organiser), who gave an overview of the history of the Old Bridge, its destruction and reconstruction, while Professor Luke Moffett of Queen’s University Belfast spoke on legal protections for cultural heritage during armed conflicts using the case of the prosecution of the Herceg-Bosna leaders (Prlić et al) at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), looking at the original guilty verdict for the destruction of the bridge and how that verdict was overturned on appeal.

Heritage expert Robert Bevan, author of The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War and Monumental Lies: Culture Wars and the Truth About the Past spoke on authenticity in the restoration and rebuilding of historic monuments and the 'new' Old Bridge, while art provenance researcher Saida Hasanagic described what the destruction of the Stari Most and its rebuilding meant to her and her family, incorporating as well her recent interviews with local residents and international visitors to Mostar alike.

The event ended with Architectural Association lecturer architect Nerma Cridge speaking on Mostar’s vandalised and neglected Partisan Memorial Cemetery which lies a short distance from the Stari Most, whose huge and spectacular design was by famed architect and former mayor of Belgrade, Bogdan Bogdanović who died in exile in Vienna.

Films of the destruction of the Stari Most were screened, including from SENSE Center for Transitional Justice’s website Targeting History and Memory recording excerpts from the ICTY war crimes prosecution relating to the destruction of the Old Bridge, as well as recently released footage showing the Croatian Army’s (HV) active participation in the attack on the bridge. The event ended with The Forgotten a 2012 film by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) introduced by IWPR’s Managing Editor Daniella Pelled.

You can watch the proceedings published on the Society of Antiquaries’ YouTube channel below. 

By: Helen Walasek