MOSTAR, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — TEARS glazing her hollow cheeks, Dila Husic stares into the watery grave of the 16th century bridge once famed as one of former Yugoslavia's greatest monuments to ethnic amity.
``I have spent my entire life here,'' the Muslim widow murmurs, transfixed by the green Neretva River slashing through the deep chasm at her feet. ``This bridge was like an old friend.''
It was the first time she had visited the shattered ramparts of Stari Most, or Old Bridge, to mourn the graceful Ottoman-built stone arch blasted apart by Bosnian Croat tank fire last November. ``I hope it can be rebuilt,'' Ms. Husic says.
Such hopes would have been dismissed three weeks ago, when it would have also been impossible for Husic to stand where she was without being hit by Bosnian Croat gunfire.
But to the amazement and relief of combatants, civilians, and international aid workers alike, peace seems to be taking hold in what was Bosnia's bloodiest urban battlefield.
``It's incredible,'' exclaimed Kirsten Young, a UN High Commissioner for Refugees official. ``The change is so rapid. It is very difficult to envision this happening. You have to be optimistic, but it has to be guarded optimism.''
The transformation began after the United States sponsored a Feb. 25 cease-fire between the Muslim-led Bosnian Army and the Croatian Defense Council, the Bosnian Croat militia funded and armed by neighboring Croatia and known as the HVO.
The truce takes
The truce has become more secure with progress at the US-brokered peace talks in Vienna; a Muslim-Croat federation plan would create Swiss-style ethnic cantons that could eventually confederate with Croatia.
Enticed by US promises of political, economic, and financial assistance, the two sides are expected to sign a new constitution this week. On Saturday, they agreed to merge their armed forces.
Nowhere was a truce more unexpected than in Mostar, the main city of the Herzegovina region. The prewar population of Mostar of 127,000 was 35 percent Muslim, 34 percent Croat, 17 percent Serb, the rest others.
The Muslims and Croats together drove out the Bosnian Serbs in the first half of the 23-month-old war. But they began fighting each other in mid-1993, when the HVO tried to carve a self-declared Bosnian Croat state out of central and southern Bosnia.
Bosnian troops and thousands of Muslim civilians were encircled on Mostar's eastern side and a slice of the Neretva River's west bank reachable by the Old Bridge. The HVO cut food, water, and power and incessantly shelled the Muslim enclave.
HVO soldiers swept thousands of Muslim men from western neighborhoods and nearby towns into concentration camps. Their families were herded into east Mostar, its population swelling to some 55,000 people.
The struggle degenerated into a stalemate in which more than 2,000 Muslim soldiers and civilians were killed and 6,000 wounded before the truce.
The HVO puts its losses at 450. Croatian civilian casualty figures are unavailable, but they are believed to be a fraction of those on the Muslim side.
Suddenly the shooting has ended, the whispering breezes that sweep down the towering heights of the surrounding Neretva River Valley broken only by occassional sniper fire.
The change has been so abrupt that many on both sides are bewildered by their political leaders' decision to reconcile after so much suffering.
``Seven of my relatives were killed by the Croats,'' says Eso, a Bosnian soldier. ``I was expelled from the other side, and from this side I watched my house burn down,'' he says. ``How am I supposed to feel? I don't want to go back to the right bank and live with them anymore,'' he adds.
Blaz Stojicic, who commands HVO front-line positions around the shattered city swimming pool, also says he is pessimistic.
``People on both sides have lost family. It's difficult to explain to them how everything is going to work,'' he says, peering at Bosnian Army positions some 200 yards away.
But like many others, Mr. Stojicic grudgingly concedes that ``Bosnia-Herzegovina's destiny is for people to live together.''
Safet Orucevic, the deputy commander of the Bosnian Army's Mostar-based 4th Corps and the local head of the Muslim Party of Democratic Action, agrees.
Mr. Orucevic says that local leaders are already forming joint teams to restore electricity, water, and food supplies. More importantly, they are discussing rebuilding demolished bridges.
``Rebuilding the bridges implies restoration of commerce,'' Ms. Young says. ``If that is the way things are going, it also means potentially the return of people from east to west Mostar.''
HVO spokesman Vaso Vegar says that Muslims would be allowed to return home, but ``it is going to be controlled and by agreement.''
The two sides have also agreed that suspected war criminals would be tried by the tribunal set up by the United Nations.
The talks, however, are at an early and tenuous stage. Many unresolved issues remain potential sparks for new conflict, including Mostar's political status.
Both sides have accepted a plan for two years of European Union administration. But after that, Bosnian Croat leaders propose that Mostar become the center of a Bosnian Croat-dominated canton. A Muslim-controlled district would be created in part of the city.
Muslim leaders reject this idea. ``Mostar should be an open city without Muslim or Croat enclaves,'' Orucevic says. ``It should be an open town in which all three people live together. The Croats must accept this because they will have to fight us again if they don't. They have committed genocide,'' he continues. ``How can this be a Croatian city?''
But for ordinary folk, most important right now is that the killing has stopped. On both sides of the river, a holiday-like atmosphere prevailed this weekend, enhanced by soothing spring sunshine that seemed to reinforce hopes of a new beginning.
While regular Bosnian troops remained vigilant on their side, the HVO lines were held mostly by middle-aged and elderly men.
Young men enjoy families
Their youthful counterparts were at home with their families, out strolling with girlfriends, or relaxing in sidewalk cafes in the relatively undamaged west side. Discos were packed for the first time in months.
``I just want to take my uniform off,'' says Drazen, an HVO trooper, as he munched pizza at the Hollywood Cafe. ``I have a feeling the Muslims know they will have to live with us again.
``There is still a great sense of mistrust,'' he says. ``It's possible to get over it. I see that day coming. But how long that will take, nobody knows.''
The east side is another world, still encircled.
There are no cafes or stores. Every building has been damaged or destroyed. Parks and cemeteries are overflowing with graves. People remain dependent on humanitarian aid, which is now flowing unimpeded.
Most still live in dank, overcrowded basements. But spirits are high, and many people savored the truce, strolling or bicycling in the shell-blasted streets, or waiting patiently to fill water jugs or receive food handouts.
Others aired soiled rugs and mattresses, swept rubble from their homes or gardens, or chatted animately with neighbors.
Fatima Zujo smiles as she clutches some flowers plucked during her first visit in almost a year to her favorite park. ``I don't know about the future,'' she says.
``For now, I am happy that the fighting has stopped, and innocent people are no longer dying.''
Expressing a wish voiced by people on both sides, she says: ``I live in the hope that the politicians will reach a final agreement. This war is not a solution to anything.''