bosnia report
No. 4 February - March 1994
 
The Smell of Lavender and Acacias
by Emir Stradnjak

"In my town there are no longer
parks, they have been transformed into graveyards

In my town there are no longer
trees, they have been transformed into firewood

In my town there are no longer
bridges or the smell of lavender and acacias

There is no light

In my town the town no longer
exists"

I come from Mostar, or, more accurately, from the town that was once called Mostar.

In Mostar I worked on the evacuation of children and mothers, as well as on the collection and distribution of food for those citizens of Mostar who had not the luck to have left that hell. The organisation in which I worked was called the Children's Consulate. My most difficult moments in the Consulate were watching the convoys leave with small children, two or three years old, leaning their heads against the windows and silently crying. In those days children matured fast. The childhood and youth of young girls and boys from Mostar passed quickly without return.

It was unbearably difficult explaining to a mother that her five-year-old child was "too old" for the first evacuation. Babies had priority. They, God willing, will not remember all this. Living in Mostar at that time was a real lottery. Or rather surviving, for in those days there was no living done in Mostar. Hundreds of shells fell on the town each day, the snipers shot at everything that moved. Over 700 children were killed and several thousand wounded. Killing warriors and soldiers is one thing, killing children something else entirely. To kill children is to kill the future.

In order to survive in Mostar, it was necessary to develop a special technique. How much time is required for a gun to be loaded (30 seconds)? How long does it take for a shell to land after it has been fired (velocity 800 m/sec)? A special technique had to be developed even for walking in the town. My everyday departure for work looked more like a sprint than a normal walk. I had to run from one tree to another at different speeds and in different positions in order to avoid being hit by the snipers. I succeeded, but many didn't.

They say that this war started because we could not live together. Yet we had been living together for over seven hundred years. Now our parks have become graveyards. Mostar dead, of all religions and nationalities, are buried thereÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌà together just as they had lived together. We never knew any other way.

My town was destroyed with precision, street by street, building by building. The town archives, the Hotel Neretva which that year was celebrating its first centenary, the bridges one after another.

The people of Mostar mourned them all.

I shall never be able to understand the reason for that kind of destruction of the city and its culture. If the idea was to kill memory, then it has failed. Let us recall the Vandals and the sack of Rome. Rome remains to this day where it always was, but there are no longer Vandals. This is bound to happen also with this town and the people who have destroyed it. Memory of - and love for - a town cannot be killed by its destruction. Memory and love are in the people, not in the buildings.

I cannot help recalling one woman, more than eighty years of age. It was the beginning of May 1993 and shells were falling on the city at the rate of one shell per second. We found ourselves inside a destroyed house in the vicinity of the Old Bridge, when the old woman appeared from nowhere and slowly crossed the bridge to the other side. She was carrying a travelling bag, shifting it from one hand to the other. She had reached the middle of the bridge when a sniper hit her and killed her on the spot. She only wanted to cross to the left bank of the River Neretva, where she had lived all her life. A part of Mostar was killed with that old woman. Nor is the Old Bridge there any longer. It too has been killed.

Over 2,000,000 Bosnian refugees are scattered throughout Europe and the world. Over 2,000,000 human lives implacably and fundamentally transformed. Everything has been taken from us except our love for our homeland. This they cannot take away from us. Many of us are bound to return, moreover, since there is no more beautiful place on earth than Herzegovina rocks and the forests of Bosnia.

We shall certainly return and start from scratch.

It will not be the first time.

I fear for Europe. It seems to me that Europe is ruled at present by politicians who resemble the British Prime Minister Chamberlain, back in the 1930s. My only fear is that we shall have to wait a long time before another Churchill comes along.

Emir Stradnjak now lives in Dublin and works for the charity Cradle.

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