Over the Rainbow Bridge
By Lisa Hammond
It was morning, and the air was
thick with moisture from the mountains as we boarded
an old Yugoslav bus from Sarajevo to Mostar. Gwen
and I were heading off to see the famous rainbow bridge,
rebuilt after the Croats blew up its predecessor,
an act of war with no strategic objective except to
demoralize the local Muslim population. That day we
also had a second destination, a visit to Gwen’s friends,
the Gozos, for an afternoon Bosnian coffee.
“When we get there, be sure to kiss
the old woman. She doesn’t speak, and she won‘t know
why you are there, but if you kiss her on the face,
she will feel safe and you will see her lovely smile.”
Gwen was my coach, a Welsh-Brit who had been everywhere,
lived in a tribe in Kenya, worked in Siberia and Jordan,
and had chosen to make her home in Bosnia for the
past ten years. As the bus climbed up the mountains
and snaked the canyons around the emerald Neretva
river, Gwen recounted the story of the Gozos.
Mostar was a town caught in the
crossfire. Inhabited mostly by ethnic Croats and Bosniaks
(Muslims), divided by the river Neretva’s steep banks,
it had been shelled and bombed by both Croats and
Serbs. Everyone wanted to own it, and in the name
of ownership, they destroyed it. Ten years later,
there were still whole boulevards of burned out buildings,
with gaping acne scars of bullet holes in their stone
facades. But the stone bridge connecting the old Muslim
quarter had been rebuilt exactly as it was, a feat
of masonry and international largess costing eight
million Euros. Even Coca-Cola had gotten in on the
opening ceremony, replacing the cafe umbrellas on
both sides of the river with their own red and white
logo versions. But the local Catholic bishop refused
to come. It was an Ottoman bridge, a Muslim symbol.
It was his parishioners who had celebrated the explosion
that buried its 600-year old stones in the river,
and this was an unwelcome resurrection.
We stood on the bridge, Gwen and
I, watching strapping young divers somersault into
the narrow channel, as they had done for centuries
before the war. “Before the war, after the war,” those
were the terms of measurement, the currency of everyone
who survived to tell the story.
On May 8, 1992, as shelling from
the surrounding hills became unbearable, most of the
Muslims fled Mostar. The Gozos, a brother and sister,
had been left behind with their 75-year old mother.
They were taken in by Serb neighbors and smuggled
as Serbs on a lorry with Montenegrins, then relocated
to a weekend house owned by Muslims. On June 17, the
Yugoslav Army withdrew, leaving the fight to local
Serbs from Zuljevo, who were shooting Muslims and
burning their houses. The Gozos retreated to the foothills
of Crnje, higher and higher into the mountains, reaching
the far side of Velez before they were left behind.
Mama could not go further. They had to choose.
For forty-seven days they were alone,
sleeping in the rain, then a shed, with no food and
only a small spring for water. Forty-seven days with
no food, until their joints swelled, their hair and
nails fell out, and Zebra, the daughter, began to
lose her eyesight. And yet they stayed with their
mother. They were rescued; but the war was not over.
The Croats had yet to attack Mostar. The Gozo house
was yet to be bombed.
I was about to meet the Gozos. What
would I say to them? Would we talk about the war?
Would I label them unselfish, courageous, heroic?
I had been in Bosnia for two years. I had heard all
kinds of stories, tales of self-sacrifice and tales
of extreme evil. There was the Bosnian Special Forces
guy who held a friend’s severed head together so his
wife could kiss him goodbye. There was the story about
the Mafia guy who chain-sawed a boyhood chum into
pieces and dropped his limbs out a window so his friends
could catch them.
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