I was in what is now the former country of Yugoslavia in 1988. In trying to deal with the wonderful time I had there at that time and what has since transpired, I began a series of very short essays. The first was on Dubrovnik. The following story on Sarajevo won Honors in the 1993 issue of Bayousphere magazine.
Time contains as many bumps and convolutions as the sharp limestone terrain surrounding Sarajevo in what was once Yugoslavia. Sarajevo is a city with a brief, bright moment of Olympic glory sandwiched between displays of human devastation.
I once walked through the streets of Sarajevo feeling the strange turbulence of time through my eyes. Less than a decade had already tarnished the Olympic glory. The symbols and architecture had begun the transition into ruins of an ancient past.
I strode deeper into Sarajevo's past to Princip's Bridge where Archduke Ferdinand rode his horseless carriage into an assassin's bullet. World War I began its race of destruction with that shot. Except for a simple sign, the unimposing bridge bore no distinction to warn of its special place in time.
Across the street, there was a gray monolith of a museum, solemn in its pose and duty. It held the region's history of ethnic conflict, the fatal bullet of war. The museum was closed on the only day I had to visit Sarajevo. Imagination had to take its place.
In the sidewalk beside the museum, a pair of shoe imprints were dutifully embedded to mark the place where Gustav Princip stood when he fired the fateful shot. I stood near the spot and gazed at the bridge, squeezing my eyes and mind to see the crowd gathering to greet or jeer Ferdinand. During my moment of concentration, two girls hopped over to play. The older one leapt gleefully into Princip's "footsteps" to play the assassin's role.
"Pow! Pow!!" she laughed as her mischievous hands fired at my imagined Ferdinand. The past and personage seemed irrelevant in her young life.
It was only four years later that Sarajevo erupted. The events contained in the mute gray museum spilled out into the streets once again. The monochromatic past painted a vicious red upon the walls and sidewalks of Sarajevo. The future exacted its due.
History is a game played in the safety of the present. And Sarajevo is really not far from any of us.
The Death of a Bridge
For more than four centuries, the historic bridge in Mostar, Bosnia-Hercegovina served as a symbol and a link for its diverse peoples. The elegant, crescent-shaped bridge united the Moslem and Croatian sides of the city in their daily activities. Mostar actually means "old bridge" in Serbo-Croatian for the city's sixteenth century architectural servant. In 1988, I, too, was a part of its human history. Five years later, I saw its destruction on television, and watched its flesh and blood connections fall into the river along with its stones.
When I toured Mostar in 1988, the city's historic Turkish section appealed to me. I was curious about mosques and the Moslem faith. On the day I visited, I was the sole person in the one mosque open to the public. The guide, Salih, fascinated me with his description of the building and explanation of the Moslem religion. Sensing my interest, he offered to give me a tour of the city. While he did not look like someone a young woman should be alone with--a stranger with worn clothes and shadowed face--I did not know his city and I did not have a map. However, my curiosity and a sense of adventure compelled me to accept his invitation.
Salih introduced me to many shop people along the banks of the Neretva River. He bought pastries for us to snack on and we enjoyed a soft drink in the old toll house tower overlooking the bridge. Still, I was cautious those three hours I spent with him; he may have suspected as much. Even crossing the street, I looked both ways. Salih said, "We have a saying, 'The West worries about terrorists while we worry about the drivers who drive like terrorists.'" He taught me about the different architectural styles in the city, explained the memorial papers pasted on public walls, and told me the story of the old bridge.
In 1556, the sultan commanded that a bridge be built that was guaranteed to please him. He told the bridge designer that if the design was to his liking, the designer could have the sultan's daughter in marriage. If the bridge did not please the sultan, the architect would lose his head. Thus, the architect was motivated to come up with a bridge to satisfy the sultan. So, he incorporated the Islamic symbol of the crescent moon into the bridge's design via the arch. The sultan, "being a very devout Moslem, could not refuse it." Needless to say, the story ended on happy terms all around. During construction, the bridge collapsed seven times until towers were built on either side of the Neretva River. No cement or other binding materials were used, and the bridge stood elegantly for centuries.
The old bridge was a lovely arc over the icy rush of the river. Salih said that in the summer, young men leapt off the bridge as a show of bravery. We crossed the bridge several times during our tour. It had a smooth, stone surface with narrow, sloping steps which were easy to stumble on. On the first crossing, he told me, "If a man meets a pretty woman in Mostar and they cross the bridge, he must help her across." When I balked at such outmoded chivalry, he added, "At least a little." I relented to share a custom in the name of friendship as he symbolically took my hand.
At one point, I asked Salih about politics in Yugoslavia. He said the people, generally, are not interested in politics. The events of concern to the people are those which will affect them most adversely; it really did not sound all that different from my own country. Yet, they feel like pawns, since there is nothing they can do to effect change. Salih spoke of the turmoil in the world and told me: "In this season of decision, the world looks to America and America watches TV."
At the end of our time together, I tried to thank Salih by giving him a photo magnet I had made. He refused it at first but when he saw that I wanted to share something personal with him, he accepted it. He had never asked for money for the tour and he wanted nothing now. He said, "I ask for nothing except that we meet again."
For more than two years, I watched the war escalate in a nation once known as Yugoslavia. Last spring, Mostar was the city captured by the media for our television screens. I, like other Americans, relied on television to see the outcome of the destruction. Salih's words have echoed through my mind for months but I only watched the darkness of the hills thrash across his city.
I thought about the family I stayed with who I now know lived on the Croatian side. The son, Marsala, had a great interest in the U.S. and Texas; I was inwardly embarrassed that he knew more about my country's governing principles and details than I. The wood sculptor, Mitchell, shared a fine meal of dried goat's meat, local dishes, and apple juice with me. Vislav, the Swedish-Polish tapestry artist, lived with his work in the tall tower by the bridge; we shared a few halting words of German and a tiny cup of thick, Turkish coffee--a warm moment beside the ancient stones. Television cannot tell me what happened to any of the people I met. From its images, I can only guess the gruesome possibilities and hope for their safety.
Thus, the story of the bridge did not end happily. Though, there were several bridges in Mostar, television taught us more. I did not know at the time of my visit that there were divisions within the town other than the architectural ones but television thrust that devastating reality before our passive eyes. Disappointing myself, I watched Mostar's destruction as one more viewer immobilized by the scenes. We were silent and the old bridge was blown up. The centuries of footsteps and friendships sank into the deep turquoise Neretva River. It was the last bridge to go, the most beautiful, and the most symbolic. It is more than a river that divides that land; it is a blood bath. In this season of decision, I watched Mostar's destruction play on the screen as if it were just another television show or newscast. I was moved but did not move.
And all Salih hoped for was that we meet again.