Please note that this is written as I experienced it, and as it was related to me.
It was dark. Like really dark, as I padded silently down Maršala Tita Boulevard late in the evening. I had just gotten off the train. Vaguely, I wished that there would be more street lights functioning. From the lights that were burning I surveyed the
shelled out houses. Some of them were missing the roof and had boards nailed over the windows and doors. Others had only a wall standing and everything inside in a heap. Still others were reduced to nothing but rubble. Everywhere I looked, everything in sight was riddled with bullet holes. Oh well, it is what it is. I wished there would be some road signs so I can discover my way. But there was no such luck. Quietly I walked down the desolate street, carefully skirting some people sleeping on the sidewalk and vigorously shaking my head no to a few old people who were trying to sell me things. But as luck would have it, when I actually needed to make a left turn the road sign was there, on the corner of a house that was not in ruins. But of course it had a gaping bullet hole squarely through the center of the sign.
Welcome to Mostar. Bosnia. A beautiful place. But, especially at that time, deeply damaged by the recent war. I had just arrived and was excited to see this place. I stayed in a quaint green and white house perched on the side of a steep hill where an elderly lady managed something of a hostel of sorts. I didn’t see any other guests, but that was okay. She fussed over me as if I were the long-lost grandson. She brought me tea and bread. Oh, and her neighbor Jakob will show me around.
The next morning Jakob showed up bright and early to give me a tour of the city. He about 30 years old and very pleased with the prospect of having something to do. Jakob took me to the top of the hill behind the house where he showed me an old church that was
demolished. He explained to me that this church was being rebuilt rock by rock to match the old one exactly. While we walked, we talked. His slight limp, he explained, came from when he was shot in the leg by a sniper from that hill over there, as he pointed to the top of a hill on the Croatian side. I was in the hospital for a while. But I was shot twice… his voice trailed off. His eyes glazed over with pain. We walked in silence.
He took me to a large cemetery and with tremulous voice explained that this is where the victims of war were buried. Only after the war
could the monuments be erected. It was now immaculately kept with beautiful white headstones and bright flowers. It was definitely a place of highest honor. Practically worship.
We walked past a nondescript building and he explained that it used to be a mall. Here were the first casualties of war. Two Serb soldiers chased two Bosniaks who escaped to the roof top. When the
soldiers caught up with them, they threw them to their death instead of arresting them. War began in Mostar.
We walked from the east part of town to the west part. We approached a large structure. Without a second glance I assumed it was a parking garage. Except wait, why would a small town like this have a 6 story parking garage? So I asked,” Is this a parking garage?” Even as the words left my lips, I knew the answer would be no.
Jakob looked at me with a hint of a smile. “Why would you think that? It used to be a bank before the war. It was beautiful with blue glass walls. But all the glass was blown out. Now it does look like a parking garage. It’s not legal, but come, let’s go up there. I want to show you something.” It was now the local hang out place for high school kids doing drugs, and for homeless people who needed a roof. Several grizzled old men looked at us strangely as we walked up the stairs. One flight after the next we took to the very top. there was a strong wind as we got toward the top, funneled in through the mountains on either side. The open stairs had no railing and I thought I would surely blow off.
It was such a beautiful day with a clear blue sky up there. Birds sang in the late fall sunshine. An occasionally puffy white cloud could be seen. Peace reigned. It felt good to be alive. But only several years before it was so different. As Jakob pointed out to me. He beckoned me over to a corner. “Do you see this hole?” He pointed to a small hole in the concrete wall at the very top of the building. “Now step on these blocks and look out.” I did as I was directed. I stepped on the concrete blocks and gazed out the hole overlooking the town of Mostar. He swallowed hard. His jaws worked. With a slight tremor in his voice he said, “This was one of the sniper points.The hole that you looked out of…many people were
shot through that hole. See the bullet shells?” Our eyes mutually dropped to the ground. Cold shivers ran down my spine, despite the warm sunshine. Hundreds of rusting bullet shells were scattered around, each one having killed a person. A person. A real person. A person with a family. A person with a life. A person with a dream. This shell killed a little girl. This one a 12-year-old boy who was desperately trying to get a liter of water back to his widowed mother. This one killed the kind old grandfather that every one loved. As the sniper laughed in glee at watching flesh and blood explode.
I felt sick on my stomach. Death. It was so close. I could almost feel it. Gingerly I touched several of the shells. My stomach felt like a cannon ball was inside. My legs felt like lead. In silence we gazed at the offending shells, as a way of respecting those who passed into the next world. Life is so short. It can be snuffed out so fast. Did they even know what happened? What were their last thoughts? Where did they go? Time stood still as Jakob and I stared at the shells. Without a word Jakob and I turned and left. I was relieved that we were on solid ground. Without even meaning to I kept looking to the hills and to the top of the buildings. Am I going to be shot?
It was as if we agreed to not look back. Not speak of that building. Instead he showed me a memorial for the Spanish soldiers that were killed in the war when they came to help. Proudly he told me how the King of Spain flew in for the unveiling. He showed me the big beautiful new town hall. The European Union had just built it. They held a beautiful ceremony and had a ribbon cutting. The keys were given to the mayor who locked it and never looked back.
Jakob’s eyes filled with pain again and he got this far away look. “Do you see the city center? I mean, we are right in the middle of the city. Every other city center is bustling with people everywhere.
Drinking coffee. Reading newspapers. Playing chess. Talking. Here there is nothing. His voice rose. “Nothing!” It was true. I looked around. We were practically the only people in sight. There was an eerie sense of artificial calm. He kept talking,”It’s because only several years ago we were divided into three sections. Bosniaks,Serbs, and Croats. We were all fighting each other. My father and all my brothers were killed. I was shot twice. How can I go to other parts of the cities and see the people who did this? I can’t! So we just stay in our part of the city. But the city reflects three groups and we won’t mix like that.”
“Come, I want to show you another place. We walked to a shelled out building. We entered and looked up and down the aisle. It was completely beat up. The ceiling was falling down. Sandbags were
everywhere.But strangest was the awful stench and the blood smeared inner walls. Jakob explained.”This was the very center of fighting. On the right side of the hall the Bosniaks were holed up. On the left side the Serbs were holed up. They fought. Front lines. Hand
and tooth. There was a heavy stench that hung in the air. I imagined it to be decomposed bodies. Again, we left silently.
Jakob turned me loose to be on my own. Starving with hunger I made my way to an a restaurant in Stari Grad [Old Town], and sat down in the stone courtyard.
It was a beautiful setting with the late fall sunbeams dancing through the grape plants. The waiter immediately focused his attention entirely on me-his sole patron. Remembering the words of advice from a young man I had met on the train yesterday I ordered ćevapčići, a stunningly delicious dish of pita bread stuffed with tasty little beef sausages and a pile of fresh
chopped onions. For good measure they threw a heaping pile of disgusting, thin cut, soggy fries on the side. No more had the friendly waiter set the dish down and walked away, than my table was bombarded with cats. There were big cats. There were small cats. There were middle size cats. There were cats of all colors. Between delectable bites of simmering goodness I kept swatting at the cats. It was a losing battle. The waiter stood in the door way grinning. Thoroughly enjoying the scene. An idea crossed my mind. I dropped several
fries on the floor. Boom! All the cats jumped on the floor and fought for the fries. Ahh, this was me, mastering the animal yet again. I dropped fries on the floor every 30 seconds and a dozen cats sat at my feet, shining eyes looking straight up, anticipating the next fry. Even so, I finished the ćevapčići before the fries ran out, so I let a skinny little cat climb onto my plate
and eat the remaining fries while we sat in companionable silence. Alarmed, the waiter came running to chase the cat away, but I halted him. I assured him that it is quite okay. He shrugged his shoulder and walked away, occasionally glancing back, with an air of perplexity
The day went on. I visited the iconic bridge of Mostar. It’s like the most important thing in the city. The old bridge stood for 427 years until it was shelled down by Croat forces in November 1993.
At the time it was built it was the highest and widest arch of any bridge in the world and was a renowned wonder of all who saw it. The original architect,Mimar Hayruddin was instructed under the threat of death to design this bridge. He did his best, but he expected it to fall when the scaffolding was removed. He even prepared for his funeral that day. Instead it stood 427 years and it took over 60 shells to bring it down. It took a few years, but a pain staking, awe-inspiring replica was built.
Then I decided to walk up into the hills and look over the city. I walked up the small streets on the east side of town, through the graveyard on the outskirts, climbed through a barbed wire fence and
threaded my way up through the bare mountain side. I climbed way up and sat down next to a cliff, watching the sun slowly set to the west with the last golden sunbeams dancing over Mostar. I could feel that I was going to leave a piece of my heart here. My heart
was full. I had experienced so much today. I had walked through the valleys of pain with my new-found friend and had felt a sliver of his agony. A sliver of his uncertain future. I looked at what he had. I thought of what I had. It wasn’t fair. Not at all. I looked down at the cemetery where thousands and thousands of victims were buried. Where every day a brokenhearted widow came and kissed a tombstone. Where a father with a bent back came and wept silently over his teenage son whose life was snuffed out in instant. Where a teenage girl came and respectfully planted freshly picked flowers on the graves of her parents, sobbing wondering why life was like this.
It wasn’t fair. A hot tear slid down my cheek.
I decided to go spend the evening with Jakob and his friends as they watched a foot ball game while they drank cheap beer and tried to make sense out of life. To show them that I cared. To show them that I embraced their pain. I would walk this road with them. I will be their friend. I got up and started down the mountain side till suddenly my entire body went cold. I had been expressly warned not to go into the hills. Live landmines lay everywhere. Unbelievable. In my anticipation of the over view it had slipped my mind. I stood stock still considering my options. I noticed several dogs running on a thin path. That is what I would do. Follow the dog path. Holding my breath, I resumed my journey.
To be continued…