The iconic Old Bridge of Mostar, which for centuries was among the most famous sites in the Balkans before being destroyed in 1993 in the war that engulfed the former Yugoslavia, was re-inaugurated today by United Nations and local officials as a symbol of reconciliation and human solidarity in a broken land.
Flanked by two fortified towers, the single hump-backed Ottoman arch - four metres wide, 30 metres long and constructed of 456 white stone blocks between 1557 and 1566 - collapsed into the waters of the Neretva River after being hit by heavy shells during the fighting in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The bridge was destroyed for its symbolic value. For this same reason the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) pledged to rebuild it. Just four months after its collapse the agency called for its reconstruction.
Today UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura and the chairman of Bosnia and Herzegovina's tripartite presidency, Sulejman Tihic, inaugurated the restored span in the presence of leaders from southeastern Europe and other top European political figures.
"We are present in Mostar in order to breathe fresh life into an exceptional heritage which, after having been used as a target, needs to become a rallying sign, a sign of recognition, the powerful symbol of a plural identity founded on mutual trust," Mr. Matsuura said.
In 1998, UNESCO, the World Bank and municipal authorities launched a joint appeal for the reconstruction, which was answered by five donor countries - Croatia, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey - as well as the Council of Europe Development Bank.
While the World Bank was responsible for the financial part of the project and the city of Mostar handled the disbursement of the funds, UNESCO's main task was to ensure the technical and scientific coordination.