Balancing on the slippery, shimmering stones of the breathtaking bridge, with the cold waters of the Neretva River glistening far below, Amir Hanic pokes his nose up and takes his last breath. Without looking up or down, only straight ahead, he leaps from the bridge, his hands and feet stiff like the outstretched wings of a swooping bird.
His descent lasts only a couple of seconds, but the audience surrounding him on the bridge has time to exclaim a collective “Ooh!” — a mixture of admiration and fright. Amir disappears beneath the surface, then, reappearing, quickly swims back to shore, as if nothing had happened. Within moments, he’s climbing back up to the bridge.
With his plunge in the southern Bosnian city of Mostar, Amir and his friends from the local diving club are honoring a tradition that goes back some 400 years — “to the Middle Ages, during the Ottoman era,” says Amir, wiping his face with a towel. “We are protecting our cultural heritage and keeping the passage over the bridge clean.”
“We are the guardians of the Mostar Bridge,” he adds.
The first recorded dive from the bridge in Mostar — known as the Old Bridge, or Stari Most — took place in the 17th century, around 100 years after its construction. Since 1968, the city has held an annual summer diving competition, which attracts participants from all over the world.
Braving the drop of around 75 feet (it varies with the height of the river), this extreme stunt requires a healthy dose of courage. But as Amir ascends from the river to the bridge, walking past the ancient stone stairs, the picturesque streets, the backdrop of musicians in the bazaar, he has another task. With a hat in his hand, he collects donations from the crowd of onlookers.
“I’m done with diving today,” he exclaims, still balancing on the edge of the bridge — but this time extending his arm toward the crowd. “Now I have to raise some money for our club.”
When I traveled to Bosnia with the photographer Alessio Mamo in July 2021, much of our trip took place in the shadow of the violence that tore through the region in the 1990s, when, as Yugoslavia broke apart, war erupted between three ethnonationalist groups: Orthodox Christian Serbs, Catholic Croats and Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims.
Our first destination was the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial, where we met a young generation of Bosnians, Serbians, Kosovars, Montenegrins and Macedonians who commemorated the brutal killing of about 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995.
We then drove to Sarajevo, the capital, and to Mostar, the bridge city.
Within the last year, many Bosnians have feared that the country was once again on the brink of being torn apart, though imminent fears have now calmed. Still, the bridge divers in Mostar offer a welcome sense of distraction and wonderment. I had previously seen them featured in a documentary, but it was only after arriving at the beautiful bridge that I could fully comprehend its architectural splendor and the value — and audacity — of the diving tradition.
When the bridge was destroyed by relentless Croat shelling in 1993, the attack was a blow to the heart of the Bosnian Muslim culture, to which many of the divers belong. As a way of continuing their traditions, a group of the divers used a makeshift gangway as a replacement platform.
Amir, who was 24 when I met him, was not even born then. But another of the men in the diving club, Admir Delic, was 18 years old at the time, and, seeing his peers diving from the platform, he felt compelled to join them — despite the risks.
“It was much more difficult and dangerous to dive from the gangway,” Admir tells me. “You had to take a run-up, with the risk of getting hurt.” But even today, every dive is still a challenge, he says, requiring the utmost concentration.
There are days when Admir dives as many as 10 or 12 times, he says, in the peak tourist season, between July and August. I speak with him during his break, while he sips coffee in the club’s lounge. Behind him on the wall are paintings and pictures of the bridge in different historical eras, and of divers during their marvelous feats.
“As a young man from Mostar, I almost felt obliged to dive,” he says. “Sooner or later, all of us males had to do it, like a rite of passage. I’m among those who never stopped. It’s my job.”
Today’s Old Bridge is a replica. Its reconstruction, which made use of Ottoman-era techniques, was completed in 2004 — “a symbol of reconciliation, international co-operation and of the coexistence of diverse cultural, ethnic and religious communities,” according to its entry on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
As the sunset approaches, it’s time for Admir’s last dive, before he returns home to his family. Amir, meanwhile, has already retired for the day. The young guardian, having yet again mustered the courage to dive, sits in a bar listening to some music, relaxing amid the bustle of a group of tourists.