“The Serbs caught two Bosnian men. They threw them off the top of that building.”
“My mother used to work there. It was a shopping mall. ”
They were the first to die in Mostar. That started the fighting. There is a plaque with some words about them there and a Bosnian flag on the corner of the roof top, from where they were thrown. The grey walled building is surrounded by a fence. Abandoned. Devoid of any facade it may have once had.
My eyes wash away.
Now we stand in a room at the bridge. The Mostar Diving Club.
They jump from the bridge. The Mostari. A long tradition since the bridge was built. The bridge was a gift from the Turks. It was a main thoroughfare and connection between people and places. The locals walk on the ridges that run left to right across the bridge. Tourists don’t pay attention. The story goes that the king said if the bridge wasn’t perfect, the workers would be beheaded and if it was perfect they would be rich. Most of the workers fled before they removed the final scaffolding to see if the bridge would fall. Those that stayed leapt in joy from the 25 meter high keystone into the water below when alas, it stood on its own. This bridge is Mostar as much as the people are Mostar.
“We didn’t have time to cry when we lost our family and friends. We buried them here and put the stones on top. There wasn’t any time to cry.”
As the film footage shows the final missile that brought the bridge down he says “many many people cried when the bridge fell.”
I know very few collapses that have moved me so deeply. It’s as if I can hear the ghost moan of a city weeping in unison.
Now we are standing in a cemetery. “This was my best friend.”
His name was Bertan. Born 1976. Died 1993. As I look around I start to see…1991…. 1993….1991…..1992….1993 and I’m falling apart inside. “Do you see the flower I showed you on the old Bosnian flag? That symbol is forbidden. Do you see the gravestones? They are the flower. This is a Bosnian cemetery. People are angry. They come here every day. They lost a loved one. They cannot fix it. They are only angry. They will always be angry.”
I see a man sitting on one of the stones. He is old. He is wearing nice clothes and his head hangs low and still as he looks at a picture in his hand. He doesn’t look angry here. Here, he looks tired.
Now we are standing on the street, the main dividing line between east and west Mostar.
“West Mostar there. East mostar there. There is nothing in between. Only bad memories.”
“Do you think the city will ever reconcile?”
“Honestly…… no. We cannot forget what happened. It will always be like this now.”
Now we are in front of a building. Torn and ragged. Blown apart inside out. There isn’t a square foot that doesn’t have a bullet hole. Sand bags in piles line the windows. They have long since broken open and spilled into an ever degrading pile.
“The “army.” We were all volunteers. No training. This is my home. Do you understand?“
“I couldn’t fight because I was still recovering from the sniper that shot me. I became interested in mortars. I was quite good. They offered me an army contract after the war. I said no. I am not a soldier.”
Now we stand on the tallest mountain. Overlooking the city. You can’t see the scars from here.
The Croatian nationalists put a 20 meter cross on this hill and then painted a Nationalist flag on the back meant to provoke the Bosnians. A nationalist flag has the checker pattern of the Croatian flag except the first square that starts the pattern is white, not red. “This is how you can tell they are bad guys.”
“In the war crime trials not one prosecuted criminal is Bosnian. Not one. On this hill the Croatians. On that hill, Serbs. And see the middle? Bosnians. What could we do?”
“There was a trade embargo on weapons. The Croats could get them through the Hungarian border, the Serbs from the JNA and so it was in the end, only an embargo on the Bosnians. Our weapons were the ones we could take from the attackers. They would fire a mortar, if it didn’t go off, we would take it apart, rewire it and make it a grenade to throw back at them.
Now we stand in the city center. It is empty.
The EU has funded a school that houses both the Bosnians and the Bosnian-Croats in Mostar. It is a beautiful building with a lovely courtyard park. This is called Spanish Square in honor of the 23 Spanish UN soldiers that died clearing the area of land mines. The job isn’t done yet. The most recent death, 2008. “We changed the name to say thank you for helping us.”
“You see some of the buses have a red dot like the Japanese flag. Japan wanted to help and asked what they could do to aid our rebuilding process. We needed buses. They gave us a fleet of buses.”
“Do you see this? It’s a chess board, but there are no pieces. It’s symbolic. A city center with no people.”
There is graffiti that is meant to show what life was like before the war. Bicycles, children, cats, life. Behind it is an old tower building of communist architecture, built to withstand an atomic bomb, blocky and sharp lines. That’s where the snipers were. He was shot in the leg by a sniper when he was 17.
“Before the war, did you think something like this could happen?”
“Before the war we were all brothers. No, we had everything we needed. Life was good. It was normal. This isn’t a third-world country. We didn’t see this coming. We didn’t think this would ever be possible. For things to get so bad. For nine months we were cutoff. It was a no fly zone except for the Americans. They would drop supplies sometimes. But they would drop them in no-mans-land and you could die just trying to get to them. We would wait until dark and go looking for food. Anything. If you could catch a wild pigeon you could eat dinner. Sometimes the parents would have to prepare it elsewhere so the children didn’t know what they were eating. Sixty thousand people stuck here with no way to get out. For nine months. When President Clinton found out what was happening and finally decided to step in, the fighting was over in two weeks. What took them so long?”
I can’t bear to think of this for more than a few moments. I think about the home I love. I hear the story that someone was thrown off a building. I see the buildings of my beautiful city beaten by endless gunfire. I see the bridges collapsing. I see the people scared and helpless. I see the courage of the resistance forming in the faces of the young and able, and watch those same faces disappear and age faster than I would have thought possible. I can’t bear to imagine what it would be like to experience this. In my streets, outside my door and in my home.