Built in 1566, supposedly with mortar made from egg whites, the Stari Most was once compared with a rainbow rising up to the Milky Way, but war turned it into a battle-scarred monument to the gap between the Croats and Muslims fighting for Mostar.
In Sarajevo, dead and wounded children littered a playground and classroom when mortars wreaked havoc on an infant school.
From Croats destroy Mostar's historic bridge by Robert Block and Christopher Bellamy
for independent.uk, November 9, 1993.
The 1990s conflict in Kosovo is old news. Photos of ethnic Albanian refugees stumbling barefoot across the border toward Macedonia in 1999 have morphed into TV footage
of Aleppo residents running from death, streets littered with rain-soaked corpses,
the sound of children crying out from underneath rubble. The destruction of The Old Bridge in Mostar by Croat mortar fire is mirrored by Syrian Arab Army forces who flattened the 400-year old Eliyahu Hanabi Synagogue in Damascus — destroying thousands of irreplaceable Jewish artifacts — and the imminent loss of the ancient Central Synagogue of Aleppo which served as one of the Jewish world’s oldest houses
In his book, Killing Memory, Andras Riedlmayer writes, “When a person dies, it is that person’s life, that person’s family that’s affected. When a culture is killed, it forecloses the future and destroys the memory of the past. Even if the people to whom those monuments and documents belong survive, they’ve lost their anchor, their connection to who they are, of how they belong to a particular place . . . . I think that you cannot separate the sufferings of people from the destruction of monuments of culture. The killing of memory is as great a tragedy as the killing of people.”
My memory of a trip to Kosovo is very much alive. I often flash back to 1972, to the time my husband and I visited there, and remember one rainy evening when we got lost on a dirt road in the mountains while trying to find a dot on the map spelled P-E-C.
Peck, we reasoned. Where the heck is Peck?
Stymied, we sat in our rented red Fiat -- a pair of American tourists wearing jeans and fringed western jackets -- when out of the rain came our Messiah. A shepherd wrapped in an honest-to-goodness sheep’s skin, its tail and four empty legs flapping in the wind. The shepherd’s flock pressed against our car as he peered inside. We showed him the map. Pointed to P - E - C. But it was clear. The shepherd could not read.
PECK! we shouted. PECK!
Finally, a look of blessed understanding came over the shepherd’s face. He grinned so wide we could see his three remaining, tobacco-stained teeth.
Ah, he laughed. Peh-TCH! Peh-TCH!
Triumphantly, he pointed his stick towards Peć. The sheep pointed their wet noses towards Peć. The shepherd smiled and waved and we smiled and waved and even the sheep, I swear, smiled as we drove off towards Peć that evening in the mountains of Kosovo, before the war.
When the Taliban, in 2001, dynamited and destroyed two sacred 6th Century Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush, I flashed back to the morning we parked the red Fiat and walked to the the Old Bridge in Mostar. Stari Most, the fabled, stone bridge that was the city’s treasure and to which we came like pilgrims to a shrine. In our jeans and fringed western jackets we walked on the bridge over the Neretva River alongside horse-drawn wagons piled high with cabbages. On top of the cabbages, Gypsy women rode like princesses in howdahs. Unthinking, I lifted my camera. The women covered their faces with their gold-ringed hands, shielded their babies with their shawls and turned their backs.
Oh, no. You will not capture our souls today. Oh, no.
But one small girl, still too young to recognize danger, smiled at my camera. She smiled and waved, but I could not bring myself to shoot.
Today, without leaving my condo in Omaha, I access social media and see the body of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian Kurdish child washed up on a Turkish beach. Youtube offers pictures of The Ambulance Boy — five-year old Omran Daqneesh, injured in a Russian air strike on Aleppo, sitting stunned, covered with ash and blood. I read tweets from seven-year old Bana al-Abed. “I am talking to the world now live from East #Aleppo,” she writes. “This is my last moment to either live or die.” Are Bana’s messages authentic or fake news? Who cares. Our eyes bear witness to the truth. Innocent civilians, innocent children, are caught in the Syrian slaughter.
Such a leap from 1972, from the waterfalls and glacial lakes near Uroševac, the mountain town in Kosovo where we bought plates of steaming ćevapčići from a vendor in the park. Cevapčići -- those sausages of ground lamb -- skewered, charred -- shaped like fingers. We sat on the grass, eating, and watched a group of boys approach us. How old were they? Ten, perhaps twelve. School boys with book bags. Young boys in short, wool pants and thick, hand-knit socks. They came nearer, walked slower and tried not to stare at us in our jeans and fringed western jackets. I held out a pack of gum. Smiled. The boys stopped and the bravest of them, the tallest, inched towards me like a cautious puppy, sniffing at offered bones.
My smile said, Don’t be afraid. Nothing bad will happen. You are safe. The boy smiled back.
Juicy Fruit, I said, still smiling. Juicy Fruit.
The boys gathered around us, another flock of sheep.
Ah, the brave boy said. Joo-cee Froo-dt. He took the gum and pointed at my fringed jacket.
John Wayne, he said, proudly. He pointed his index finger at me, his thumb up.
John Wayne, he said. Bang, bang!
The other boys pointed, too, and laughed. We all smiled and laughed and the brave boy pointed his finger and said, John Wayne, bang, bang! and all the boys pointed fingers at one another and said, Bang, bang! You’re dead! Bang, bang! and fell down, laughing, that day in Kosovo, before the war.
Stari Most has been rebuilt, and the New Old Bridge is considered, by some, the symbol of reconciliation and human solidarity. Bosnian political activist Predrag Matvejević might not agree. "When a bridge is broken,” he wrote, “there often remains, on one
side or the other, a sort of stump. At first, it seemed to us that it had crumbled entirely with nothing left behind, taking with it a piece of the mountain, the stone towers on either side, lumps of Herzegovina's soil. We saw later, on both sides, real scars, alive and bleeding.”
I see pictures of Aleppo’s children and remember those school boys we met in Uroševac forty-four years ago. Are they now grown men, albeit broken and scarred? Or do they lay buried in Herzegovina’s soil.
copyright 2016 Ozzie Nogg