Bosnia's Bridge Divers Risk Their Necks for Tips and Thrills

For 450 years, people have been jumping off of Mostar's old bridge and flying for three seconds before hitting the water.

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Nov 22 2015, 3:00pm

Image via Flickr user Wendy Harman

Alen "Aki" Šahović stood barefoot in the doorway, wearing a white T-shirt, linen pants, and a floor-length gunmetal apron that flared like a dervish's skirt when he turned in the September wind. "After the exhibition, you come. Come to the most exclusive place in Mostar," he said.

Several sweating tourists, including myself, had just stepped off the Stari Most bridge, one of Bosnia's UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and headed up its tower to look at black-and-white images taken by the photojournalist Wade Goddard. Almost twenty years prior, Goddard had embedded himself in this area of the country during the Croat-Bosniak War, an episode of the larger Bosnian War that consumed the country from 1992 to 1995. Now we were here at Caffe Čardak, which Šahović runs for the Mostarski Ikari, a club of local bridge divers.

For how long have people been jumping off the 16th-century bridge? "Four-hundred and fifty years—an old tradition," Šahović explained matter-of-factly. And why did they name themselves after Icarus, a Greek mythological figure known for falling to his death? Šahović blinked. "Because, see? It's dangerous." His patrons nodded. They were eyeballing a local with a sculpture-like body who had just swung himself over the wrought-iron guardrail. If he slipped and didn't ready his body, the impact upon hitting the water below could kill him.

The city of Mostar's name comes from the mostari, the keepers first stationed at the wooden bridge spanning the gorge carved by the Neretva River. That preceded the Stari Most, the great limestone footbridge that was destroyed by the war in 1993 and replaced by a reconstruction. The Stari Most was built by a student of Mimar Sinân, a famed architect of the Ottoman Empire.

"It looks like the arch of a rainbow," the travel writer Evliya Çelebi remarked in the 1600s. To hear him tell it, he had passed through 16 kingdoms but "never beheld such a high bridge." Diving and other water sports became popular during Turkish rule: Mostarians were probably using the Stari Most as a springboard the same year it was built, in 1566. "Ya Allah!" (dear God!) they cried, and daringly pitched themselves into the blue-green, very strong and very cold current 80 feet below. Viziers and foreign visitors both watched from the čardak, an enclosed porch made of timber on the second floor of the bridge's castle.

"We are in the čardak now," Šahović said of the small space occupied by his café.

A photo of an Icari diver, hung in the Icari clubhouse

The divers formalized their club after the final ceasefire marked the end of the war in 1995, but by then the famed bridge, linking the east bank's Muslim community to the west bank's Catholic one, had collapsed during the nine-month siege of Mostar in 1993. The Croat forces shelled the structure from the green mountains that loom over the basin, destroying the longtime symbol of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a multicultural ideal.

"They celebrated when the bridge fell down," Šahović said. He drew a finger to his graying temple and twirled it. Crazy.

In the wake of the war, Icari dove from a platform they installed beside the temporary UN-built suspension bridge. They restarted an annual diving competition held in July, which involves awesome pikes, twists, and somersaults and is graded by juries on questions of "posture at the bridge," "diving in the air," and "contact with the water."

Two schools of diving had emerged centuries before: the headfirst and the legsfirst. The best-known headfirst style is the Lasta ("Swallow"), modeled on the native bird's sharp wings and dramatic dives. "You must open the water with your hands. Otherwise"—Šahović snapped his neck backwards—"say hello to someone upstairs." Easily the most iconic style is the legsfirst style called the Let ("Flight"), where divers hook their legs beneath them, push out their chests, and hold back their arms, like the hood ornament on a Rolls-Royce. The pose pushes the Icari forward so they approach the water at an angle.

The river is 15 feet deep. You fall at a rate of 53 miles per hour for a period of three seconds. "A little bit less than three, actually," Šahović corrected.

Caffe Čardak's floor is carpeted with bright kilim rugs and laid with banquettes and hexagonal wooden tea tables surrounded by matching stools. These sets are carved with the club's logo, which looks just like the Nike swoosh with the addition of an unattached circle. The circle is understood to be the diver's head, whereas the checkmark embodies his arms, torso, and legs. The logo is used both right-side-up and upside-down, to represent the headfirst and legsfirst styles, respectively.

The cafe offers the best views of the bridge's activity and the riverscape; Šahović floats between the open windows ("like TV," he remarked), the doorway, and the corner kitchenette, where the owner prepares the Bosnian coffee and fresh lemonade he serves with rose-flavored lokum and polyglot conversation—often play-by-play commentary on the dives. "Soon he'll jump," he says about someone on the bridge he's watching from his perch. "Adrenaline, you know, it's the best drug."

Šahović cannot remember how many times he's jumped. He retired from bridge diving seven, maybe eight years ago. But Stari Most has been a part of his life for years. Below the bridge is where he learned to swim. When he was a child, some of the older men tossed him into the patina waters but made sure that he kept his head up. He tells me an altitude dive from one of the regional bridges is still a right of passage for boys in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

"Most of us only do it once," another Bosian man told me. "I never jumped, don't tell anyone."

The Neretva is risky because of its whirlpools and rocks. The second time I went to see him, Šahović gestured at a red rescue dingy and squad of scuba men downstream: "They are searching for body of 19-year-old." What happened? Šahović leaned out a window and called down my questions to the divers working the bridge. "They say he was from north Bosnia."

"He was drinking."

"He went swimming at night."

"He was with his sister."

When the wind gusted, it blew a big hardback titled Mostarski Ikari off of a high shelf and onto the banquette. Šahović said the book is about "the old jumpers," and includes names, pictures, and biographical details of more than 300 Icari members, including a chapter about six women. (The club's 20-some members today are all men). It was published in 2004, when the Novi Stari Most, a perfect replica of the original bridge, was erected. "He died in the war," Šahović said of one face in the book. "He survived—he is an architect now." And another: "He also died." Šahović eyed the page and tapped another. "Dead. The father of my friend." Many of the names indexed at the back are noted with poginuo ("killed")—all due to the war.

It's been 20 years since the war ended, but Mostar remains deeply troubled by its ethnic fault lines. The east side, in the oldest part of town, where the Stari Most is, where the buildings are scarred by gunshots, is mostly home to Bosniaks; the restored west side is almost entirely occupied by Croats. West Mostar's buses do not service East Mostar. Schools are segregated—sometimes they even share a building at different times of the day. But the Icari include both people. Šahović, a Bosniak, pointed out a diver on the bridge in a red Champion T-shirt: "Igor is Catholic. Hello, Igor!" A diver's religion didn't matter to the club, he said. "Has nobody learned nothing?"

These days, the divers, clad in Speedo-style swim briefs, use an embroidered fez as a collection bucket. They ask for donations from day-trippers who descend from the tour buses that increasingly spill over from the Dalmatian Coast, eager to visit an authentic ex-conflict site. Though some locals don't like their begging, in a limited economy, diving has become a job. "They risk their lives for the show," Šahović said of the Icari, adding: "More rush, more fun, more money."

Seven of the club's beautiful men rotate diving days. For every 25 euro they make, one member takes the plunge, and they know how to work an audience. When they near their quota, a diver, not necessarily the one due to jump, will bound over the guardrail. He will lean forward and sideways, stretching his tan physique. His face is unsmiling and he seems oblivious to the audience's gaze, but Icarus is teasing you. He knows the suspense incentivizes onlookers to open their wallets, that by the time he or a colleague jumps, traffic on the bridge will come to a standstill. He extends his arms and leans into thin air; and because he cannot fly, he falls. A little less than three seconds later there is the faintest splash.

Foreigners are welcome to dive, pending approval from the club. First you perfect your form on the riverbank. Next you practice on a lower bridge that stands a few hundred feet downriver. The cost is ten euro for training with the Icari and another 25 euro for the privilege of jumping off the Stari Most. You must enter your name, birthdate, hometown, and jump date in a logbook kept in the Icari's clubhouse downstairs from the café. It is hung with enlarged snapshots of the divers caught in their marvelous free falls.

A photo of an Icari diver hung in the Icari clubhouse

In the Icari's clubhouse, I noticed a flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a first-aid kit, and towels, as well as a collection of brass artillery shell casings and pieces of 120 mm mortar bombs, the explosive type believed to have brought down the bridge. Some of these fragments, 22-year-old Edi Fink demonstrated, have found second lives as paperweights.

Fink, who resembles Justin Bieber, has been diving from the Stari Most since he was 14. He once jumped 16 times in one day. Last year, he had a portrait of the Stari Most tattooed over his heart. His father and uncle were bridge divers; their father was a diver; his father was a diver. Fink thinks his great-great-great-grandfather was probably a bridge diver, too. He hopes to become an electrician; the best jobs in the country are with electrical companies, the postal service, and hospitals, he said. In the meantime, he enjoys this.

But what do they do in wintertime? "We wait for spring," Šahović said—Herzegovina is beautiful in the spring and summer. The fertile region supports vineyards and apple, pomegranate, and fig orchards. Blue and purple glass insulators, on rusty transmission towers, glitter under the intense sun. Šahović likes to hike near and swim in one of the Neretva's tributaries, where he says multiple kinds of eagles fly overhead.

"You cannot go—there are still some mines. I know the way because I was on the frontline." He had been in mechanic school when the war started. "Shit happens," he said, and set down a copper tray of lemonade for his newly arrived guests. "Wait," the older woman asked, "is that man going to jump?" Her husband thought no, but Šahović set him straight. "Four-hundred and fifty years," he said once again. "An old tradition."

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