I drive inland again, past the border and through Bosnia and Herzegovina’s faded little seaside town, Neum. The limestone hills, grey shrubs, and burnt, black trees of Herzegovina replace the blue sea, olive trees, oleander bushes, and Aleppo pines of the coast. The openness and quiet is a relief. It reminds me of driving through the desert.
After three hours or so, I meet up with the Neretva River, whose deep, abundant green comes as a shock. I follow it through the outer suburbs of Mostar, to my hotel, the Park Villa (much less glamorous than it sounds). I leave the car there and trace the river back by foot, past the old mosque, through the shopping district, to the Mostar Bridge, which arches impossibly high over the banks of the Neretva, like an an animal stretching its back. The old stone bridge, built by the Ottomans in 1566, destroyed in 1994, and rebuilt in 2004, connects the two halves of an increasingly polarised city. It reaches from the Bosniak ‘side’ to the Croat one. I don’t realise or recognise this while I’m there though. It’s only later, in Banja Luka, when a melancholy Serb veteran describes Mostar as a face ‘split in two’.
Even in late October, the bridge is full of visitors, who make their way across with tiny, tentative steps. I, too, am so concentrated on my feet that I barely register that I’m crossing the bridge at all. I prefer to look at it from a distance. The next day, I sit down on the river bank below and watch Croat teenagers leap from a nearby springboard and a group of Bosniak school children pick their noses and scratch sticks into the mud.
I am very touched by Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulić‘s book, ‘The Balkan Express’ (purchased by accident in Dubrovnik), especially her essay about the Mostar bridge’s destruction during the Bosnian war. Written immediately after the bridge’s collapse, it speaks of an immense collective sadness, a void, something more unimaginable than death itself. I wish I could ask her for her thoughts on its reconstruction: What it meant for the broken country then, and what it means for the divided country now. Perhaps one day I’ll have the chance.
I have three photos of Mostar in front of me. One is a postcard, a sepia-coloured photo printed on poor, cardboard-like paper. It is dated September 1953, when my father sent it to us on his first visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina. In the centre of the photo is the Old Bridge— all postcards of Mostar have that bridge on them, of course— and a part of the old city. ‘I think of you as I walk over this beautiful bridge,’ he wrote to my mother and me in Rijeka, Croatia. I can imagine him walking there on a warm autumn day. Coming to the middle, to the place where young boys used to jump into the river to prove their courage, he must have leaned over the stone railing and looked into the Neretva below, quick and silent as a snake. He must have stopped there, overwhelmed by the elegance of the stone construction. When his hands touched the bridge, he must have felt its smoothness and warmth, as if he had touched skin instead of stone. It was as if the bridge had a life of its own, a soul given to it by the people who had crossed it in its almost four hundred years of existence. It was erected in 1566 during the Turkish Empire and, the story goes, the stones were stuck together with mortar that had been mixed with the whites of eggs. Serbs and Turks, Croats and Jews, Greeks and Albanians, Austrians and Hungarians, Catholics, Orthodox, Bogumils and Muslims— all had stopped at the same spot, rested on the same stone. I was four when he wrote that postcard, and I know that he was certain that one day I would see and touch the Mostar bridge, too.
My father was wrong. I did not make it. I foolishly thought the bridge would be there forever. So I never went to Mostar, never walked from one bank of the river to the other. The bridge that saw so many wars, survived so many years, no longer exists. It collapsed in a second on November 9th. All I have to remember it by are these three photos: before, during and after. And I wonder what my father, dead for years now, would have said if he had seen this other photo, the last before the bridge was destroyed. Would he recognise it, ragged and pitiful as an old beggar, with a makeshift wooden roof, black automobile tires and sandbags piled in a futile effort to protect it from the occasional shelling that had started with the war?
When the bridge collapsed, it was Tuesday morning. A pleasant, sunny day, much like the one when my father visited Mostar. The town is only about seventy miles from the Adriatic Sea, so winter comes rather late. The bridge had been shelled since Monday afternoon. People who saw it say its collapse did not last long: at 10:30 A.M. the bridge just fell. As I look at the second picture, I try to imagine the sound of the Old Bridge falling down. A bridge like that doesn’t just disappear; its collapse must have sounded like a swift, powerful earthquake, the kind that people in Mostar have never heard before. Or maybe it sounded like an old tree splitting in two— a hollow crack surrounded by a long silence. Whatever the sound, the river swallowed it in a single morsel. A while later, it was as if the bridge had never existed.
The third photo of Mostar is one I cut out of a newspaper and carry around with me. It is in colour and, paradoxically, the most beautiful of the three that I have. The sun shines over the rooftops of the old city, painting the stone houses white. The slightly swollen river, a rich, deep green, rubs along its banks like a lazy, satiated animal. Absent from this beauty, however, is the bridge. There’s the beginning of its long stone arch, but if that portion were only ten feet shorter, there would be no trace of the structure at all. Only the sheer logic of the place, a feeling that a bridge belongs there, over the river, between two halves of a medieval town, tells us that something is missing. It’s been a little more than two weeks, and I’m still surprised when I look at this photo. When I remember what is no longer there, I feel a spasm in my stomach, a knot in my throat. I feel death lurking in its absence.
I’ve heard that the people in Mostar, even adults, cried when they saw the bridge had fallen. I believe the reports, for I have seen people who are not from Mostar cry as well. An elderly journalist. A lawyer. A singer, who wept for the first time since the war started. Not so long ago the newspapers published photos of a massacre in the Bosnian Muslim village of Stupni Dol. One picture showed a middle-aged woman with a long dark knife cut along her throat. I don’t remember anyone crying over that photo or others like it. And I ask myself: Why do I feel more pain looking at the image of the destroyed bridge than the image of the woman? Perhaps it is because I see my own mortality in the collapse of the bridge, not in the death of the woman. We expect people to die. We count on our own lives to end. The destruction of a monument to civilization is something else. The bridge, in all its beauty and grace, was built to outlive us, it was an attempt to grasp eternity. Because it was the product of both individual creativity and collective experience, it transcended our individual destiny. A dead woman is one of us— but the bridge is all of us, forever.
The Josip-Broz-Tito Club
In a bullet-riddled building in a side alley of Mostar, I stumble upon the Josip-Broz-Tito Club. Unable to hold back my curiosity, I step inside with the pretense of searching for a coffee shop.
Four men sit in the half-dark, murmuring to one another. They are spread into the four corners of the room, one man in each. A fifth moves between them, getting up occasionally to shuffle to the back room. Through a cloud of cigarette smoke I see a huge red tapestry with Tito’s profile: his rounded forehead, his slightly hooked nose, his small, curved lips. Next to it, on the wall, a calendar with all the special holidays marked with a red star: March 8th, May 1st, November 7th. The men fall silent when I enter.
‘Dobar dan, do you have coffee here?’ I ask with an idiotic smile.
The fifth man gestures to a seat near the window, pushes an ashtray towards me, and disappears into the back room. He comes back with a hot cup of Nescafe. The other four study me for a moment from their corners. Then they resume their conversation as if I wasn’t there. I study the tablecloth.
Every once and awhile the man closest to me turns in his seat towards me, and I expect him to say something, but he looks past me, into the street. His eyes are wide. They do not look at anything in particular, they just stare. They have both the frightenedness of a boy and the calm of an old man who has become accustomed to being frightened. I find it difficult to look at them.
It’s on us, the fifth man says, as I get out my wallet to pay.
The sky becomes dark blue and the street becomes black. The beggars along the Brace Fejica get up from their places and sit together on a bench, talking, laughing and crying. The air is not exactly cold, but the smell of autumn rises from the river to linger with the smell of roasting meat and freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. A nightclub plays Avril Lavigne. The Karadoz Beg Mosque sings the Koran. Pious men move in its direction and slip off their shoes at its door. I wall back to the Park Villa, slip off my shoes, and sleep for a long, long time.
On the dashboard of my car is a cardboard icon of a saint purchased at an Orthodox monastery next to a half eaten pomegranate, parking tickets, and a modest pile of zlotys, forinths, marks, euros and kuna. In the trunk of my car are fifteen cabbages from a roadside stand, fifteen rolls of film in a plastic container, and a mountain of my laundry, washed here and there along the way. The car is covered in an inch of dust, even though I’ve washed it twice. On the dirty bumper, two Montenegran boys have scraped 200€. They tell me with kind smiles that that’s what my car would be worth in the Balkans. They ask why I don’t have a German car instead (they are much more popular here).
The car sags. I sag. Six weeks of hotel rooms, mechanics, border crossings, bazaars, restaurants, invitations, stray dogs, hand gestures, steep mountain roads, gas stations, graveyards and monuments have taken their toll. I try to reassure myself that it’s okay to feel both lucky and grateful for my trip and at the same time, exhausted and ready to go home.
A weeks before, in Poland, I found a book in the library of the house where I was staying titled ‘CENTURY’. The width of its spine was easily that of my outstretched hand. Before I had even opened it, the construction of the book itself seemed a marvel. I carried it (with both hands) to my bed and spent two nights flipping through it in amazement and horror. It was a collection of 20th century photography unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The only question I could ask by the time I got to the last page was the following: How is it possible that so much happened in one little century?
I’ve asked a similar question (perhaps less consciously formulated) in every little village and in every ancient city I’ve visited on this trip. Except in the case of the cities and villages the weight of history was not limited to the twentieth century, but rather, stretched itself to include the nineteenth, fifteenth, sometimes the eleventh, tenth. Everything that played out in the twentieth: despotism, occupation, beauty, progress, recession, revolution, optimism, misery, and resilience seems contained in every century, every stone, every hotel room, border crossing, every face and gesture. That’s what makes me sag.
But I mind this much less than I expected. I think of Milan Kundera, who writes:
‘The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become… the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?’