Before the early 1990s Mostar was a pleasant town where restaurant lights danced on its rivers to the delight of tourists who visited its famous Medieval bridge. By the end of the decade it was a visitor attraction again. When I arrived there, against my will in 1993, it was a hell hole and a testimony to man’s inhumanity to man.
In Bosnia in the early 1990s the Bosnian Serbs turned against the Bosnian Muslims and implemented a policy of ethnic cleansing. In Mostar the Croats fought the Serbs and later turned against the Moslems, splitting the old town in half.
In a basement in eastern Mostar, we slept and woke to the rhythm of the mortars. The whine of the shells and the shrieks of the injured were all part of our daily routine. Mostar was testimony to the fragility of peace and how when things go bad, they can go bad quickly. The kindness of the strangers who had let Jacques and I share their cars back in France, was a distant memory, as was the turquoise waters of Greece.
Each day swarthy men would put their faces next to mine and urge me in a foreign tongue to get out and fight. Each day my body was unwilling to move and I was racked with thirst due to the shortage of water. Sometimes there was even a beauty to these sun drenched streets despite the jagged and wrecked buildings. The mountains above me held a serenity. Then I would be forced to fire at dusky figures at the end of the street. Sometimes woman and children would pass the ever shifting front line. There would be screaming and livid red pools would split the grey in two.
The only fighter who took an interest in me was called Drago. We would share fire water liquor in a bunker and he would tell me about how the Serbs were pulling down the minarets to the south of us and how his cousins were raped by the neighbors they had drank coffee with for the last 30 years.
“It is war and it is the worst thing I have ever seen,” he told me. He would pump his large first in the air. “Give me boredom any time. Even my wife, God forbid.”
Drago told me the Muslims were constrained by international restrictions on getting arms and were pitted against regular soldiers. Yet their ranks were being boosted by sullen bearded men from Afghanistan and the rest of the Middle East.
“Mujahideen. They have cold eyes and even colder hearts. They would shoot me in the head without a second thought for not bending down far enough when I pray. You might think this war is bad but it’s tame compared to the atrocities they have seen. “
I wasn’t convinced. One Friday they sent me out down a narrow defile known as “sniper alley.” From the morning there had been a steady boom, boom of gunfire. Our objective was to force our way down the alley and take out a Croat position on top of an old bakery. We could see the shadowy figures up there, moving across the barbed wire. We could hear shouts and screams. A harsh rattling of a machine gun fire sounded down the alley and we flattened ourselves against a wall. I saw the bullets pushing up dirt and mud.
Then I saw him in the mud and the filth of the alley. The child must have been only four but he had the face of someone older. It was contorted in a rictus of pain. The child was holding his stomach and black liquid was swelling out and running into the mud and the slime of the street where the shelling had blasted apart the sewers months ago. I ignored the shrieks from my company and found myself running into the alley to scoop up the child. He looked at me intently, his eyes were already whitening over and saliva ran down my arms. The black liquid continued to pump from him. I was close to a doorway when I heard the deadly rattle of the machine gun resume. Something that felt like the jagged edge of pain was searing at my leg, gnawing and biting. I went crashing to the floor and the guns resumed. After that there was nothing; just a numbing darkness and a vision of a bloody skein being pulled over the moon.