Where Rivers Divide More Than Land
April 2016
illustration

© 

Mostar, November 1997

As the bus rounded into the valley, following the main road into the city, the scene from the murky and frosted windows of the bus took my breath away. The ragged, wild rust and ochre coloured mountains stretched far into the distance, and like a diamond necklace nestled elegantly upon the dips and mounds of an exquisite woman's neck, lay Mostar, running either side of the Neretva River. It was beautiful, even in its destroyed state, because from a distance I could clearly see the missing roofs of the houses and the walls with gaping holes in them.

I turned to my student colleague, Alistair, who had organised this day trip from Sarajevo with such anticipation of seeing the famous sixteenth century Ottoman Stari Most bridge. The look of shock and devastation on his face, in spite of the weeks of reading and research we had done about the Bosnian War, told me that he too had not been prepared for the Mostar we found. I don’t think he ever imagined the bridge itself would turn out to be both the most important and least important symbol of what the war had created in Mostar.

The bus station was located in the east of the city, the Muslim side, so we followed the main cobbled street towards the bridge, which was the nearest place where we could cross the Neretva. To my right, there was an almost solid line of ‘Missing Persons’ posters stuck to the walls of buildings that were effectively a barrier between this neighbourhood and river, and of course the Christian Croats who lived west of it. I could catch only glimpses of the water sparkling in the sunlight and the buildings on the other side along the vistas created by the tiny side streets leading down to the water’s edge.

The posters showed pictures, sometimes of whole families, with children as young as three or four years of age. Others were of friends, sons, husbands, and fathers. No one knew if a ‘missing person’ had been killed, displaced, or simply left the country, so it was difficult to know whether to mourn or not. Yet, as we walked, the raw grief on the faces of this community was lucid and transparent. It became unbearable to stop in one place for more than a few minutes, and the few times I took out my camera, I immediately felt self conscious and disrespectful. People stared at Alistair and I as though we were violating them. Who the hell did we think we were, waltzing into their city on a tourist day trip to take photographs? How dare we attempt to capture their pain on film, torturing their already broken spirits for the sake of an architecture project?

Alistair and I had somehow, instinctively, understood that we should not speak or say anything to each other. We simply waited when the other wanted to stop and photograph something. The silence around us was suffocating. I wondered whether they would ever move beyond the pain and horrors of war, beyond the memories that would never be forgotten.

The cobbled street led us into a square, where the noise of people shouting and cheering suddenly lifted me out of the viscous fog I felt I was drowning in. There was a mosque on the opposite corner with a group of men sitting on the low wall talking. A group of teenage boys were playing football. The noise and movement motivated me to pull out my camera and start filming. Young boys in bright, white trainers, running around and having fun, while on the sidelines the women and girls stood in purdah (full face veil and dress to the feet), whispering to each other with their heads bowed and their eyes revealing in brief moments, centuries of male oppression. I felt a flash of anger course through me and well up inside my stomach.

I moved the camera to focus on the boys playing football, and as I followed the movement of the ball, zooming in on their faces, I realised they were not really boys at all. Their expressions looked hard, lines of grief etched around their sunken eyes. It was as though the war had stolen their innocence and left them in no man’s land, wondering whether they were boys or men. When Alistair and I were filming the different groups around the square simultaneously, I noticed we drew attention to us very quickly. I felt nervous and didn’t want to remain there too long. I guessed it was strange for them too, to see an Indian woman who had been mistaken for a Muslim many times in London, wearing no purdah and walking with an Englishman through Mostar.

To Alistair's dismay, most of the Stari Most bridge was destroyed. Metal poles and wooden slats had been used to make a temporary netting to patch up the missing bits of the bridge, so people could cross to the other side of the river. It was in the process of being rebuilt and there were soldiers working on a platform floating in the river below. A couple of people scurried across as we approached and I saw Muslim eyes following us to the end of the street, watching and waiting until we crossed over and disappeared out of sight. Standing at the centre of the bridge looking north and south along the river, the tension in my muscles eased. I turned to Alistair and said, ‘This point of the bridge is a moment of harmony, the only point in the whole city that doesn't belong to a side.’

The Croatian side of the city was utterly devastated and still looked like a war zone. All that remained along the main road were parts of walls; I had no idea how some of them were still standing. The scale of the city changed. The Muslim side was compact, with a traditional village feel and tightly knit community. Here in the west, there was not a soul in sight, no one walking along the pavements except Alistair and I, and other than the occasional car zooming past on its way to somewhere else, the dual carriageway was deserted.

We walked slowly, past wall after wall, full of bullet holes, taking our fill of photos and video shots. Wire fences surrounded everything, keeping it just on the edge of crumbling. After an hour or so, I realised there was no point. How many photographs of bullet holes and empty places with no people and no movement was I going to take?

Then, a car came racing out of nowhere along the dual carriageway just as we were halfway across it. As it passed where we stood, three young men in the passenger seats stuck their heads out of the open windows and started shouting at us. Though I didn’t understand the language, my whole body froze hearing the rage and aggression in their voices. I was frightened. In Mostar, the hostility between the two sides was real and tangible. There was so much about Bosnia that I could never understand, I thought. It was not just one war, but thousands of years of war and conflict and tension; so many differing values and traditions clashing in one big, messy melting pot. How could anyone understand the craziness of what humans do to each other?

We left the deserted streets and found a café to have a bite to eat. When we stepped through the doors, there was the buzzing chatter of people. It was a large café, decorated in a kitsch 1980s style with mirrored walls, Formica covered tables and plastic garden chairs. The old and young, sitting in big and small family groups, were all dressed in western clothes, a stark contrast to east Mostar. However, they were not friendly here either; simply polite in a cantankerous sort of way. The tension was so heavy and palpable, it seemed that at any moment someone would leap up and kill another person. I was glad Alistair was with me because I didn't want to look at anybody else, just in case I antagonised them.

This was the real consequence of war; the fear and anger that former neighbours and friends had towards each other. They were waiting for the slightest provocation to justify triggering the explosion that lay just beneath the surface. It was terrifying.

As we had been warned in Sarajevo, it was dangerous to walk anywhere on the grass in Mostar. On the way back to the bus station, across the bridge that marked the northern edge of the city, we found a UNFOR (United Nations Force) office tucked off away from the road. A Dutch soldier was there, who spoke some English. He was part of the team rebuilding the Stari Most bridge and was also involved in a community project to set up neutral meeting places for the two sides to begin talking to each other. He was completely flabbergasted that we had come to visit Mostar, let alone spent the day wondering about the city without an army escort.

We told him about our project in Sarajevo and he gave us a map of the city that was to change my entire relationship with Sarajevo upon our return. He laid the map out on the table and explained that each of the black dots that covered most of the city centre and surrounding districts represented an area where landmines had been detected by the mine clearance operation in Bosnia. The cemetery in Kovacici, where I had been wandering among the gravestones the previous evening, was obliterated with black dots.