In the off-season, Mostar’s legendary bridge divers take it easy. It’s February when we gatecrash their headquarters and they’re lying around, watching movies, looking like the last thing they want to do is deal with a couple of nosy tourists. It doesn’t take much to stir them into action, though. One mention of their beloved hobby and they’re straight to the computer, downloading us video clips of last summer’s Ikari diving competition.

The footage is of a very different Mostar to the deserted, snow-sprinkled town outside. Thousands of spectators line the riverbanks, shielding their eyes from the sun so they can see the divers poised on the bridge-wall. As each of the 75 participants (local heroes and international cliff-diving champions alike, including Australian Joe Zuber) takes their turn to swoop and pirouette gracefully into the water, the crowds whoop and clap from every possible vantage point.

It was fucking amazing,” says one member of the diving club, Dado. Simply put, but there’s no underestimating just how amazing it was.

In November 1993, after continuing bombardment from Croat tank shells, Mostar’s Stari Most (Bosnian for Old Bridge) gave up the ghost. The bricks of the famous single-arch span tumbled into the swirling Neretva River below, embodying for many the lowest point of the civil war.”

I cried like a baby,” says Dado, who like many a Mostar boy first jumped from the bridge as a rite of passage into manhood. “You can’t even imagine what it felt like.”

Built by the Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Great in 1566, the bridge, which gave the town its name (Mostar means keeper of the bridge), became a globally recognised landmark and a national symbol for Bosnia-Herzegovina. Standing strong through centuries of conflict, it survived both world wars and proved that, whatever happened, the mainly Christian west bank and mainly Muslim east (Orthodox Serbs make up a mere 10% of the population here) remained united. When the Croats swapped allegiance to the Serbs and began attacking their neighbours, that unison was torn apart, as shown most poignantly by the destruction of the bridge.

In July last year, though, Stari Most was resurrected. Built as a replica of its precedent, its opening represented the hope that Muslims, Croats and Serbs could once again live side by side. At the inauguration ceremony, attended by 70 foreign dignitaries, the dancing, singing and fireworks went on late into the night, but perhaps the most symbolic moment came when nine local divers brandished torches as they leapt 21m into the water.

A week later, the world’s oldest high-diving competition, Ikari, was back. For 438 consecutive years prior to the war it had taken place, and the return of this institution was a sign things at last were returning to normal.

In the last weekend of July, Ikari will happen again, and anyone who goes will see the second city of Bosnia-Herzegovina even further down the road to recovery.

The wounds still show: the gutted buildings sprayed with shell marks, and the ubiquitous construction work; and some will never heal (as former diver, Njaz, loads up more images on the computer, his left arm remains by his side, partially paralysed by a grenade. Down the road, Muslim cemeteries are filled with fresh gravestones, commemmorating lives that ended in the early ’90s). Elsewhere, though, the signs are more positive.

In the Old Town on the east bank of the Neretva, it’s business as usual with shops spilling rugs, copper coffee sets and other Turkish handicrafts onto the street while artisans busy themselves inside. Most of the mosques have been repaired and, on the west bank, the 30m steeple of the old Catholic Church has been restored. At night, even in winter, the bars are packed with drinking and dancing students and the cafés with a more sedate crowd drawing out their potent espressos.

While tourist numbers are still far off what they were, visitors are slowly coming back. Sami Tanovic, our pensioner, fled to Germany during the war because, he willingly admits, he was scared. Returning after the war he built a small hotel and now, in peak season, every room is booked.

“For 10 years Mostar was Catholic and Muslim, now it’s one city again,” he tells us, and now the only thing he’s scared of is leaping off Stari Most, something he’s yet to do.

Back at the diving club, our new friends will jump given half the chance, even in February if we pay them enough. When the Ikari video finishes, one diver shows us his Stari Most tattoo, the distinctive arch bulging with his biceps. They’re common among locals, apparently, although Dado has yet to get one. “Soon,” he says, “soon. In time for next year’s Ikari.””