Balancing on the slippery, glistening stones of the breathtaking bridge, with the cold waters of the Neretva River glistening far below, Amir Hanic raises his nose and breathes his last. Without looking up or down, just straight ahead, he leaps off the deck, his hands and feet stiff like the outstretched wings of a swooping bird.
His descent lasts only a few seconds, but the public surrounding him on the bridge has time to exclaim an “Ooh!” collective. — a mixture of admiration and awe. Amir disappears under the surface, then, reappearing, quickly swims towards the shore, as if nothing had happened. In a few moments, he goes back to the bridge.
With his dive in the southern Bosnian town of Mostar, Amir and his friends at the local dive club are honoring a tradition that dates back some 400 years – “in the Middle Ages, in the Ottoman era”, says Amir in wiping his face with a towel. “We protect our cultural heritage and keep the passage on the bridge clean.”
“We are the guardians of the Mostar bridge,” he adds.
The first recorded dive from the Mostar Bridge – known as the Old Bridge or Stari Most – was in the 17th century, around 100 years after it was built. Since 1968, the city has organized an annual summer diving competition, which attracts participants from all over the world.
Braving a drop of approximately 75 feet (it varies according to the height of the river), this extreme waterfall requires a good dose of courage. But as Amir ascends from the river to the bridge, passing ancient stone stairs, quaint streets, the backdrop of bazaar musicians, he has another task. Hat in hand, he collects donations from the crowd of onlookers.
“I finished diving today,” he exclaims, still balancing on the edge of the bridge – but this time stretching his arm out towards the crowd. “Now I have to raise money for our club.”
When I traveled to Bosnia with photographer Alessio Mamo in July 2021, much of our trip took place in the shadow of the violence that tore the region apart in the 1990s when, as Yugoslavia broke , the war broke out between three ethnonationalist groups: the Serbian Orthodox Christians, Croatian and Bosnian Catholics, or Bosnian Muslims.
Our first destination was the Srebrenica-Potocari memorial, where we met a younger generation of Bosnians, Serbs, Kosovars, Montenegrins and Macedonians who commemorated the brutal murder of approximately 8,000 Muslim men and boys by the forces Bosnian Serbs in July 1995.
We then went to Sarajevo, the capital, and Mostar, the bridge city.
Over the past year, many Bosnians have feared that the country is once again on the verge of being torn apart, although looming fears have now subsided. Still, deck divers in Mostar provide a welcome sense of distraction and wonder. I had seen them in a documentary before, but it wasn’t until I arrived at the magnificent bridge that I could fully understand its architectural splendor and the value – and audacity – of the diving tradition.
When the bridge was destroyed by relentless Croatian bombardment in 1993, the attack struck a blow to the heart of Bosnian Muslim culture, to which many divers belong. In order to perpetuate their traditions, a group of divers used a makeshift gateway as replacement platform.
Amir, who was 24 when I met him, hadn’t even been born at the time. But another of the men in the dive club, Admir Delic, was 18 at the time and, seeing his peers diving from the platform, he felt compelled to join them, despite the risks.
“It was much more difficult and dangerous to dive from the bridge,” Admir tells me. “You had to start, with the risk of injury.” But even today, every dive remains a challenge, he says, requiring the utmost concentration.
There are days when Admir dives up to 10 or 12 times, he says, during peak tourist season, between July and August. I talk to him on his break, while he sips coffee in the club lounge. Behind him, on the wall, are paintings and photos of the bridge at different historical times and of divers during their marvelous exploits.
“As a young man from Mostar, I almost felt compelled to dive in,” he says. “Sooner or later, all of us men had to do it, as a rite of passage. I am one of those who never stopped. It’s my job.”
Today’s old bridge is a replica. Its reconstruction, which used techniques from the Ottoman era, was completed in 2004 – “a symbol of reconciliation, international cooperation and the coexistence of diverse cultural, ethnic and religious communities”, according to its listing. UNESCO World Heritage. .
As the sun approaches, it’s time for Admir’s last dive, before he returns home to his family. Amir, meanwhile, has already retired for the day. The young caretaker, having once again worked up the courage to dive in, sits in a bar listening to music, relaxing amidst the bustle of a group of tourists.
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