The city of Mostar lies in the south of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a couple of hours from the Croatian border town of Imotski and close enough to the coast to allow day trippers to enjoy the glittering Adriatic waters.
These days border crossings are perfunctory, with guards giving documentation little more than a glance, but it was not too long ago when traveling around these parts meant carrying a rifle and risking your life.
Mostar means "keeper of the bridge" and refers to the stone structure built in the 16th century to link the two sides of the city. This allowed traders a swift passage between Turkey and Europe but also brought together differing cultures and religions, creating a melting pot which at times tended to overheat.
To consider Mostar as anything but a war zone is difficult considering its recent history; more chilling is the reality of how defenseless the town had been. Geographically Mostar sits at the bottom of a deep valley, ringed by mountains high natural vantage points from where armed forces could easily follow the firefly traces of mortar shells as they completed their violent arcing flights.
Boulevard Hrvatskih Branitelja, the main thoroughfare running north-south through the city, constituted the front line between opposing forces during the war. It runs parallel to the river and today clearly exhibits how the war was fought.
From positions behind stone walls, yesterday's neighbors-turned-soldiers watched out for any encroachment across a no man's land. Most facades facing onto the boulevard wear the evidence of gunfights. Bullet marks like acne scars cover most buildings, even those that have been rebuilt and re-inhabited.
Mostar is a thriving city again. At night the old city is a warren of restaurants, music and, most heartening, young people out and about, enjoying themselves.
It is poignant to walk through charming cobbled streets lined with outdoor restaurants and small stores selling local crafts then to realize that, less than 15 years ago, this same street was a bombed out stretch of destroyed buildings and shattered lives. Stari Most (Old Bridge) spans the Neretva River again after being entirely destroyed in 1993. Its reopening in 2004 symbolizes the re-connecting of East and West and a renewed attempt to foster community harmony in place of violence and anger.
On one side of the famous old bridge a photographic exhibition portrays the damage done to Mostar during the war. The photographs, compared to the reality outside, are thought provoking.
For centuries the bridge has been the setting of tradition. Even before its construction 450 years ago, locals would dive off buildings on the banks of the Neretva and, after the bridge was built diving from it became a Mostar tradition.
Today the western end of the bridge houses the Mostar Diving Club whose members make a living out of thrilling crowds of locals and tourists by jumping or diving off the bridge.
They charge 50 Bosnian KM to jump feet first. Those crazy/brave enough to dive head first rightly exact a higher fee.
A fellow traveler, a buoyant and enthusiastic American teen with a genuine sense of adventure, did something other travelers never consider for more than a second. He jumped from the bridge, on a whim, driven by the feeling that to leave Mostar without doing so was not to have visited at all.
Filled with something bravado, stupidity, testosterone he organized a couple of Australians to stand on the river bank with his camera while he climbed to the peak of the bridge, clambered resolutely over the still higher iron rails, and leapt, feet first, hands protecting testes in true cliff jumping style, into the waters below.
But our exuberant friend forgot one important thing. It was not his bridge. If you take it into your head to try it yourself you must also pay (25 euros). Except nobody told the young American.
Before he had time to pull himself from the water, at least 8 members of the Mostar Diving Club helped him onto dry land and proceeded, unceremoniously, to deliver a physical beating as a lesson to him and any other adventurous souls looking on. The Australians, needless to say, jumped to his aid, but it was still an unfair fight and soon enough the Allies had fled to the safety of a cafe on the outskirts of the old city.
This is where I found him, nursing a bruised face with an ice-filled towel, surrounded by languid Aussies in post fight poses and proudly scrolling through the digital evidence on his camera. Perhaps he made jumping look easy and called into question the bravery of Mostar divers, or it could be that too many young girls turned to watch the lanky American teenager it is said in Mostar a bridge diver is never without a girlfriend. Whatever their reason one thing was clear: the old bridge in Mostar remains occupied territory.