As I stood on the cobbled streets of Mostar’s old town, on Stari Most bridge, with my camera pointing at the turquoise water, I suddenly became aware of a figure next to me leaping over the iron railings and precariously walking along the edge of the stonework. If he fell he would undoubtedly be killed. The 20-metre drop into a shallow riverbed lined with rocks would dash his brains out on impact.
Stari Most bridge looks like something out of a Game of Thrones set. Unfortunately, the only battle the 16th-century Ottoman bridge and the surrounding turrets saw was not a fictional one in Westeros. The city was engulfed in the Croat-Bosniak war from 1992 to 1994.
The city was divided down the middle, the Croat army held the western side of the city and the Bosniaks were pushed into the eastern side. The Neretva river represented the division of the two forces, and the bridge the precarious connection between them. In 1993 that connection was severed altogether when, on the 9th of November, a Croatian tank destroyed Stari Most. The stalemate would continue until the signing of The Washington Agreement in 1994, which brought an end to the conflict.
Today the city still bears scars. Despite widespread reconstruction, bullet holes litter the facades of empty buildings and the stories of 1992 to 1994 are told in graffiti across the city. As Mostar recovers, it certainly hasn’t forgotten.
One of the side-effects of regeneration has been the return of swathes of tourists to Mostar. The bridge itself is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Bosnia, and this has allowed for an interesting enterprise for the local men.
As I stood on the bridge, wondering if I was about to witness a man throw himself off the bridge in one last suicidal gesture to the gawping tourists, almost without ceremony, he raised his arms and stepped off the stone precipice. I’m not sure which was louder, the collective gasp from those in attendance, or the collective click of all the camera shutters racing to capture the moment.
He hit the water, and there was a moment where everyone craned over the railings to get a better look at the macabre result. But they were to be disappointed. The man broke the water smiling and gesticulating wildly. The tourists burst into a round of applause and once the jumper had returned to his starting point, the tourists thrust shiny metallic coins into his hands and couldn’t wait to pat him on the back.
Igor is part of a 450-year-old tradition of bridge divers, naming themselves the Icari, after the figure in Greek Mythology who flew too close to the sun and fell to his death. Like Icarus, they are taking risks, only for these men, the danger isn’t bred from their own excitement, but from their desire to cash in on the tourist’s tips.
There are two styles of diving from Stari Most. The head-first swallow dive, or the more common legs first. Get either of them slightly wrong and you will meet your maker. The Icari do both. On the day I was there, there was the murmur of a tourist who had jumped a few weeks before and broken his legs. Tourists can pay 35 euro and spend the morning practising on a smaller diving board, then throw themselves off the real thing. Each jumper is immortalised in the log book in the Icari clubhouse with their name, hometown and date that they jumped.
Today there are around 20 members of the Icari Diving club. A mixture of nationalities and ethnicities, no small feat for a city which remains divided by both the heavy burden of the war and the banks of the Neretva. The west side of the city remains predominantly Croat, while the east side remains Bosniak. Schools are separated for the most part, and public transport doesn’t even service both sides of the river.
7 of the club members take turns jumping for the tourists, one each day of the week. In a country where employment is limited, the 25 euros that can be earned from risking your life jumping off a bridge is not to be scoffed at.
The Icari will continue to perform their impressive feat, regardless of who’s watching. 450 years of tradition die hard. But for these brave men, the return of the Bosnian tourist industry represents a new financial lifeline, even if it comes at the risk of a painful death.