He stands alone at the edge of the Old Bridge, at its center, where the stone arches up like the spine of cat. He is one smooth, straight, skinny line. Then he raises his arms. It is the wingspan of a man whose job isn’t to fly, but to fall.
He jumps. It looks more like a pull forward, as if tugged off his perch by an invisible hand. His birdlike shadow slips past the arch of the bridge. Gravity takes over and he hurtles down. About halfway into his descent — a second, if that — he comes back to life. In one unbroken motion he curls into a cannonball and lengthens out, drilling downward, feet-first.
He meets the water with a splash you can feel.
* * *
The water knots itself into circles in the space where the man disappeared. Anyone who saw the man go now stares down at his wake. It’s a beat, then another, but it’s a beat too long, that second straining like breath squeezed from a lung. The water ruptures again. This time, a head pops up.
The jumper, Ermin Sarić, resurfaces. He always does. It’s his job. He is a professional bridge-jumper with the Mostari Divers Club. Three, five, sometimes ten times a day he plunges from the top of the Stari Most — in English, the “Old Bridge” — into the Neretva River, which cuts through the city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“I jump every day, every time, every morning, in summer, in winter,” Sarić says of his schedule in clipped English. Sarić is one of six Mostari divers, all men, who take turns jumping off the bridge for tourists — or, at least, for their euros. The divers will also, for a fee, train thrill-seekers who want to add a seventy-foot drop to their travel itineraries.
On a mid-morning break, Sarić sits at a café table with a red-checkered cloth near the entrance to the Old Bridge. He is harried and fidgety, as if diving has kept his bones pinging from the water’s constant impact. Across from Sarić are Admir Delić, another diver, and Delić’s young daughter. Only Sarić is on shift today, but he and Delić look on-call: no shirts, bare feet. Both are tanned and dark-haired and wiry. An image of the Old Bridge is tattooed on Sarić’s upper torso. “Every jumper have bridge tattoo,” Delić says, nodding toward Sarić — “Symbol of Mostar, the bridge,” he says.
The Stari Most, or Old Bridge, is the city’s symbol, its most recognizable landmark. The city’s name comes from the word mostari, meaning bridge-keeper. The Old Bridge was built during a thriving period of Ottoman rule and completed in 1566. The bridge’s tan stone and dramatic single arch stood as an architectural feat, and an economic boon to the city. Divers also became part of that history. Onlookers dubbed them lasta, meaning swallow, and gave them small gifts for their courage and skill. A long tradition, Sarić says, almost 500 years.
But the bridge that stands today is not the original. Despite its name, it is not old. It is a replica, a prosthetic. The Old Bridge was destroyed November 9, 1993, felled by fire from Croatian forces. On that day, the more-than-400-year-old structure imploded into a cloud of blasted stone, and disappeared.
The bridge had been under siege shortly after the start of the Bosnian War. The conflict cleaved the country along ethnic lines — Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims; Serbs; and Croats. The war began after the Bosnian Serbs rejected Bosnia and Herzegovina’s declaration of independence from Yugoslavia. Violence first erupted in Sarajevo in April 1992 and soon spread. At first, Bosniaks and Croats allied themselves against the Serbian paramilitary. But in 1993 that coalition fell apart. Mostar, a city in the southwestern part of the country, was split between Croats and Bosniaks. The city turned on itself. Mostar fractured and became a bombed-out and bloody front. Much of the city was destroyed. The Old Bridge was its most infamous victim, its implosion the cry of a country collapsed.
* * *
Sarić, now in his late twenties, first jumped into the Neretva River when he was about 15, from a makeshift platform built off the severed span of the Old Bridge. He dove from this board for three years. In pictures, a temporary bridge is strung a few feet behind the platform. It was one of four makeshift structures put up since 1994. The last was taken down in 2004, after the Old Bridge, and much of the historic Old City that surrounds it, was rebuilt.
The Bosnian War ended in 1995 with the signing of the Dayton Accords, which established the independent state of Bosnia and Herzegovina and created a power-sharing agreement between the three ethnic groups. It brought peace, if hesitant and imperfect, and the more difficult goal of trying to make the country and its people whole again. Plans to rebuild Mostar began in earnest in 1998, when international partners funded UNESCO to establish a committee to oversee the restoration of Mostar’s damaged Old City and its centerpiece, the Old Bridge. Construction on the bridge’s foundation started in 2001, with builders using traditional techniques and materials to recreate the structure as authentically as possible. Mostar unveiled the new Old Bridge in July 2004. A year later, UNSECO named the Stari Most a World Heritage site, calling it a symbol of reconciliation.
Almost ten years later, the Old Bridge is thick with slow-moving tourists who fan off on either side into the narrow stone streets of the bazaar, the čaršija. The area is full of cafes and shops that brim with scarves and painted plates and jewelry.
But the city’s past has a way of revealing itself, a shining scar on porcelain skin. Shops sell clicky pens made of shell casings. Beat-up combat helmets sit on the ground near one souvenir stand. Other clues emerge further from the Old City’s center: Buildings are freckled with bullet holes, even though life goes on inside of them. Hanging plants curl down to kiss pock-marked walls. Then there are the skeleton structures – roofs gone, insides blasted-out and gutted. Saplings and weeds push through crumbling stone, a stubborn life that embroiders graffiti and strips of paint and holes where the pipes used to be; all of it ancient ruins of a modern war.
But on the rebuilt Stari Most, that part of Mostar blends into the hills that roll up on either side of the river. Spires of mosques poke up into the sky and the city climbs up, cliff-like, around it. “Mostar have bridge, have river, have jump,” Sarić tells me. “No have bridge, no have river, no have jump — no have tourists.” This is the deal, and Sarić knows it. So when a man in a straw hat comes over to the café table, Sarić rises as if on cue. “I go now. Jump.”
Sarić walks to the bridge’s entrance and picks up a dripping garden hose. He strips off his baggy shorts to reveal a black Speedo and rinses himself down. The Neretva is cold and this lessens the sting.
Saric passes under the bridge’s arch, hops onto its ledge, and climbs over its metal parapets. Usually more drama accompanies this moment; the diver paces the bridge, asking tourists to pay for a chance to see him jump. But this is a business transaction already finalized, likely on behalf of a group of English-speaking tourists.
“Dobar Dan,” Saric yells — ‘good day’ in English — to a group clustered on the rocky shore below the Old Bridge. Sarić claps and pumps his arms. “Welcome to Mostar, U.S.A. and people of Australia and New Zealand and Canada.” A few tourists hoot back. It’s hard to make them out from the top of the bridge. The sun reflects off camera lenses and smart phones, all poised and waiting in front the tourists’ faces. They may not see Sarić jump, but they will always remember it.
* * *
The onlookers cheer and clap once Sarić reappears above the water’s surface. With looping strokes, he swims to shore and clambers up the rocky beach. People snap pictures as he marches past. He looks woozy and tired and a little angry, a sleeping man woken up in the middle of a dream.
He dries off with a white towel and enters an open doorway at the corner of the Old Bridge. It leads to the Mostari diver’s clubhouse. Outside, Delić’s wife, Vanessa, sells souvenirs and acts as the club’s unofficial bouncer. Blonde, with a fanny-pack around her waist, she shifts magnets and postcards and key chains. Nestled between the knick-knacks is a large stone painted with the words: “Don’t Forget: ’93.”
Inside, the diver’s club smells like a lifeguard station: damp, sunbaked, sweaty. There are ashtrays full of cigarette butts and empty coffee cups on little wooden tables. There is a puppy, Bella, who mopes by a small bowl of water. Framed photographs of the divers line the walls. They capture men mid-flight, their bodies flat and solitary like kites in the air.
“This is a dangerous job,” Sarić says. More than once he rubs his shoulder and neck, a diving injury that has left an ache that rarely stops. But he has to do it. This is his job, and jobs are hard to come by in Mostar, and across Bosnia and Herzegovina. His wife, who is from Barcelona, can’t always get work here. And Sarić has slow days, too; when the crowds aren’t there, or won’t pay up. Summers are usually good to him. Red Bull hosts a diving competition each July, bringing media hype and money. Europeans take their vacations. The possibility of that changing seems to worry him.
Sarić flips open a big book that looks like a photo album. It’s full of signatures of one-time jumpers, from countries across Europe, as well as Australia and a smattering from the U.S. Sarić first says he takes the jumpers to a practice platform, about ten meters high, and about half the height of the drop off the Old Bridge. The amateurs swim in the river, get used to its temperature, and practice jumping over and over again: feet first, arms wide, bending legs, straightening out. When Sarić thinks his tutees are ready, he tells them it’s time. “I go down to the rocks. If you have problem, I help you.”
Saricć says two or three tourists die every year. The figure seems high, though I am convinced of the jump’s potential to bruise or break bone. Sarić says you enter the water “with a big problem” at 200-kilometer (125-mile) speed. Earlier, Delić described the fall as eighty kilometer speed. In reality, it’s probably closer to 20 mph. No matter what, it will hurt. Sarić says nobody in the signature book has died, just those who didn’t want training.
Of them, Saric says: “Fuck you. Go, jump.”
* * *
By that afternoon, it’s clear Sarić will not come close to ten jumps. Still he paces across the ledge of the Old Bridge, working the crowd. The sun is baking the stones he walks across. It is hot to the touch. If he feels it burning the soles of the feet, he does not show it.
He holds out a white skullcap to the tourists, tipping it over so they can see its emptiness. Beat-up and finger-printed, it looks of slightly better quality than those sold for a euro at the gift shops nearby.
“It is not possible to jump for free,” Sarić calls out. The crowd squints up at him, but no one moves. No one wants to miss this moment—the jump—and they glimpse at each other, hoping the other guy will be the one to give the cash so the show can go on.
One man finally comes forward and drops a ten-euro note into Sarić’s cap. Sarić usually aims for thirty euros. He seems buoyed, hopeful by this generous donation, and he cajoles the crowd, trying to show them that they are almost there.
But no one else comes forward. The crowd begins to realize the jump will not happen and resumes the march across the bridge.
The man who donated the ten euros also starts walking away. Sarić sees him moving under the arch of the bridge and rushes to track him down. When he does, he stuffs the ten-euro note back in the tourist’s hand.
The man tries to wave the dollar away. Saric refuses. His insistence is hard and sharp. He did not jump, so he will not keep the money.
The man relents and takes back his money. Sarić disappears, likely back inside the shade of the club. He will probably light a cigarette and wait until it’s time to try again. Wait to climb up the ledge again, where the sun will stripe ghostlike shadows over the Old Bridge. Up there, everything falls away.
“It is I, the bridge, the river, the jump,” he says.
He doesn’t think too much. This is water, he reminds himself. Not cement. There will be wetness and coolness after the impact. The river will swallow him up, but it will also save him. It will always let him come back.
* * *
Jen Kirby is a writer based in New York City.
Ashley Devick is a freelance writer and photographer, an avid traveler and business owner. You can find her roaming around Chicago with a pen and camera in hand at all times.