MOSTAR'S BRIDGE FLYERS

Vjesnik, August 2005

(The famous bridge in Mostar, which was an UNESCO site of great cultural and historical importance, was destroyed in the war in 1993. and was reconstructed in 2004. Every summer there is an annual competition in jumping from the 23 meter high bridge into cold waters of the river Neretva.)

The summer sun was striking at full force that Sunday afternoon, so a glimpse towards the green Neretva beneath the new Old Bridge in Mostar was refreshing. 15 000 people filled the steep banks, settled on roofs of nearby stone houses and small terraced beaches to witness the unique spectacle – the jumping-from-the-bridge competition. Even though the commission for health proclaimed the waters filthy, nevertheless, crowds of people were swimming. Four dams further upriver, and all the canalization draining into the unfortunate river, did not stop them from bathing.

The event began with a line-up of all seventy jumpers on the bridge, followed by fatiha – a minute of silence in honor of the twenty three jumpers that had lost their lives defending the bridge in the war, and a throwing of purple lilies into the green water. Then speeches were held, exaggerated and superlative, in the style of the unfortunate Balkan fate that never formally accepts itself as it really is. The female voice yelled into the microphone: "The 439th jumps have been opened!" But the crowds, aware of the truth, smiled and disagreed. "What 439 years! There haven’t been more than fifty! Quit speaking nonsense!"

However, people have been jumping from here since a long time ago, but not in an organized level. The oldest historic script that mentioned jumps was written by the Turkish travelogue writer Evija Čelebija in 1664 who saw youngsters jumping feet first and diving. Without a doubt, brave jumps from the bridge were carved into Mostar’s identity, and have become proof of heroism and of the meaning of life to many locals. Also, they became one of the biggest tourist attractions of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Many unemployed young men are spending their youth on the bridge waiting for groups of tourists willing to pay some 30 euros for a jump, which is enough for several day’s worth of kebab and coffee until the next jump. "Life is a bridge," says Anes, one of them, who has been sleeping near the bridge for the past twenty years.

This year's competition was again named Icarus, after the character from Greek mythology that manages to fly to escape from his exile, and give the message to all future flyers: "If I cannot fly up, I can always fly down!" So all youngsters who jump for the first time and fly into the debts of the Neretva from the twenty three meter high bridge call that act "the liberation".

Benaid Kalajdžić, this year's winner in the category of jumping feet first and experienced jumper who has been competing for the past twenty six years, is an instructor for many beginners. "I 'liberated' Deni Ajanić only one day before the competition." He said. To the fifteen year old, it was the first competition in his life, and he already won second place among forty contestants. Benaid told me some secrets of the dangerous skill that he had whispered into Deni's ear prior to the liberation, or 'transfer into the bigger crowd'.

"What’s most important is concentration. Fear is only allowed up to the fence. Once you step over, you must not feel any fear. You must not look towards the water; you have to stiffen while in the air and watch out not to lose balance. In the air you must not think about anything, except for landing. If you don't land correctly, you can really break your bones. Landing speed usually exceeds 80 km/h." Deni learned the lesson well and performed an excellent jump. "I just wanted to be the youngest jumper; I did not think I would end up on the winner’s throne. But anyways…" Deni, Mostar’s surprise winner, bragged. That night and the following morning he was the main star in Mostar. He comes from a family of jumpers, his grandfather and his father used to jump, and the latter one died defending the bridge. Under aged people need signed approval from their parents, so Deni emphasized, "I owe the most thanks to my mother. She was very worried, and she was shaking all the time, but she proudly hugged me afterwards!"

It is much harder and more dangerous to jump head first, and the title of winner in that category was taken by Haris Džemat. This was his sixth time. "I never jumped feet first," he boasted. "When I jumped for the first time, at the age of 19, I jumped head first!" Nevertheless, he stressed that it is a very dangerous sport, so he didn't jump more than 30 times in his life. "You can break your neck and spine, and the chest always suffers from the force of the hit. On the other hand, if you don't position your arms properly, and you hit the water with your head, you die!" He couldn't answer why he always wins, but some passer by jumped in: "His 'lasta' (bird-like formation of the body while in the air) has the most personality. There is no better one; everybody knows that, it’s just something you’re born with!"

After they took their prizes and partied the whole night in Mostar’s famous pub 'Oscar', the next morning they all gathered in the rooms of the club 'Mostari' that is situated on the very bridge. They commented the jumps from the day before, and bragged about the night's "catch". Many girls from Mostar felt happy to throw themselves into the heroes’ nets. But after that, they took the water pump and started washing the bridge. "The members of the club are not just those who jump from the bridge, but those who love the bridge extremely! We wash it and clean it, scrape the chewing gum, we watch it and guard it." said Niško, the secretary of the club who lives and sleeps in the rooms on the very bridge. "Nothing bad should ever happen to it again!"