“To be or not to be. That is the question. It was also the Sarajevo restaurant’s name, where we met Adem. He was our waiter that night. The first supper. Food and a question. Always a question. Adem told us how he had fled his hometown of Sarajevo as a teenager of 18 with his family. War was raging and people were desperate to escape. As fast as parents could grab their children and passports, those with a little money they had saved, were gone. After living in a refugee camp and obtaining German citizenship the family settled in Nuremburg. He returned to Sarajevo years later when the war was over,” Mrs. Rosanna Ross explains for Sarajevo Times.
“But why did you come back?” we asked. “Yes,” he said, “Life was good for us in Germany. But it was not my home. Here, when I walk to my work in the morning, I say Hello Neighbour, and have my first cup of coffee. Good strong Bosnian coffee. Then later in the day, I visit the kiosk across the street, and say Good Afternoon, Neighbour, and I have more coffee. Wherever I go, it’s ‘Hello, Neighbour’ I say and hear. This is my home.”
Now in 2007, passing the bridge where the historic assassination of Archduke Ferdinand had occurred, I walk towards the city’s old quarter. In the Basciarja, all nestled nearby, I pass a mosque, an orthodox church, a Catholic church and a synagogue.
As a Sarajevo Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) man put it,
“First the Catholics came, and we agreed to be Catholics – and then went back to doing what we have always done. Then the Orthodox came and we agreed to be Orthodox – and then we went back to doing what we had always done. Then the Muslims came, and we agreed to be Muslim – then we went back to doing what we had always done”.
But from May 2, 1992, no one could carry on doing what they had always done. With the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism, Yugoslavia was falling apart – splintering into various nations, including what would become Bosnia and Herzegovina. Sarajevo, as Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital, became a key war zone. The mountains around the city made terrific cover for snipers, and Bosnian Serb army troops imposed a blockade on all traffic into and out of the city.
What became the siege of Sarajevo, lasting 1400 days, had begun. It has been estimated that close to 14,000 were killed as terrorized civilians ran for their lives under continuous bombardment.
Wandering through these streets, mingling amongst present-day Sarajevan’s, I could not avoid gaping at ugly signs of war everywhere still, scars from countless rounds of sniper shots, literally thousands of shell explosions, creating unusual red patterns on the pavement.
That evening once again we were having dinner at To Be or Not to Be. I was almost too embarrassed to ask Adem about what we have seen. Should I not already know? Maybe it is in the nature of questions that they lead to more questions.
Adem tells us about the Sarajevo Roses, concrete scars caused by the explosions of mortar shells and later filled in with red resin. He describes the phenomenon in the neutral language of science. “Mortar rounds landing on concrete create unique fragmentation patterns that look almost floral in arrangement.” The Sarajevo Roses are disappearing as the asphalt is replaced, he says.
KEEP THE ROSES! I wanted to shout. Keep them so the past will not be forgotten. But on further reflection I wondered if my sentiment was not counter weighted by its opposite: Let us move forward, and not hearken back to the past. Keeping hold of the past to bear witness and not repeat past crimes vs. holding onto past grievances and grudges, thus possibly perpetuating the cycle of violence.
We were no longer server and served: that distinction disappeared when Adem saw we had returned. “I came back to build the bridge.” Adem says, out of the blue. He laughs. “It wasn’t only for the coffee I returned.”
His return journey home to Sarajevo began with studying geology in Germany.
“My father named me Adem, meaning earth, so maybe my destiny was to work with stone…Who knows? …But in Nuremburg while I was completing my studies, I heard about the plan to rebuild the Stari Most Bridge. I was tempted to come back home. But I was at first too afraid. All the past…We won’t talk about that now…It’s better to tell about the bridge in Mostar. Do you know Mostar?”
The old town of Mostar, recently named a World Heritage site is considered one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s loveliest cities, as it sits perched high on steep cliffs. In the late 16th century, Mostar was a major administrative city in this part of the far-flung Ottoman Empire. The town was fortified from 1520. Then, in 1566, as ordered by the supreme Ottoman ruler, Suleiman the Magnificent, the wooden bridge crossing the Neretva River was rebuilt in stone, becoming the crescent shaped Stari Most (Old Bridge).
“The Bridge to us is like the Coliseum to Rome.” Architecturally, Stari Most is legendary, not because of its dimensions now not so impressive, but because of the dizzying height of its arch. He explains the engineering feat and progressive nature of its construction.
When it was built under the direction of the Turkish master builder Mimar Hajrudin, it was provided with the biggest self-supporting natural stone arch yet constructed. Charged under pain of death to construct a bridge of such unprecedented dimensions, Hajrudin reportedly prepared for his own funeral on the day the scaffolding was finally removed from the completed structure. Upon its completion it was the widest man-made arch in the world.
Hajrudin designed the high parts close to the banks as hollow bodies, so the weight could be significantly reduced. “The hollow nature of the high parts close to the riverbanks was Stari Most’s secret.”
The Bridge became a wonder in its own time. Adem reads a passage:
“Listen to what, Evliya Celebi, a 17th century Ottoman explorer wrote: ‘The Bridge is like a rainbow arch soaring up to the skies, extending from one cliff to the other. …I, a poor and miserable slave of Allah, have passed through 16 countries, but I have never seen such a high bridge. It is thrown from rock to rock as high as the sky.’”
The name Stari Most, we learn, derived from the “Mostari” who guarded the bridge. For centuries, Mostar was considered one of the most tolerant towns – Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks living side by side. And Stari Most was a powerful symbol – for centuries, the bridge not only connected two town districts but also Christians and Muslims, the occident, and the orient.
Mimar Hajrudin had built his bridge to last until the end of time. Spanning centuries and amidst the chaos of many wars Stari Most was damaged several times, but always survived.
When the Bosnian war broke out the Croats and Bosniaks joined forces, resisting Bosnian Serb attacks. A little over a year later, however, the tide of war turned, and the Croats turned on the Bosniaks. During a 10-month Croat siege of Eastern Mostar much of the Bosniak population was forcibly expelled from their homes, their mosques destroyed, and hundreds of people were killed.
Adem speaks quietly of the bridge’s fate. It is as if he is talking about a human being.
“But the Mostari could not save Stari Most this time. For a long time it looked like the bridge would survive the war and the bombing: the houses of the ancient town centre were destroyed, the narrow streets lay in ruins, only the bridge was still existing, as if it wanted to defy all that.”
Stari Most had no military strategic importance. But the bridge was a symbol and therefore it had to be destroyed. Hajrudin had built his bridge to last until the end of time. For Stari Most the end of time came in 1993.
Adem recounts what happened as if it were his own story:
“Two days and nights the bridge resisted the shelling, until a traitor – people are saying that it was an engineer who once had worked at the bridge – gave the decisive hint to the enemy: he revealed the bridge’s secret, its hollow interior. The well-aimed shooting of its hollow chamber finally made the bridge collapse. And when the stones fell into the Neretva they colored the river blood-red…Imagine the symbolic power of this phenomenon! People said, ‘The war even makes the bridge bleed’”.
Yet the end of time had not come. “Eternity had only been interrupted…Stari Most rose from the ashes in July 2004.”
The Bridge, he explains was rebuilt under the direction of UNESCO with the participation of the Regional Industrial Association (LGA) of Nuremberg, Germany. By this time, as a professional geologist, Adem’s expertise was important to the rebuilding. The reconstruction of the new Stari Most became a memorial, a symbol for peace, a demonstration of exceptional international cooperation.
Today there are large memorial stones at both ends of the new bridge, constructed from the salvaged remnants of the original bridge. The words chiselled onto the stones are “Never Again”.
“Yes, I returned for the Bridge. This is how I came back. Rebuilding meant returning. But it isn’t really the why, the reason for which I returned. That answer is somewhat different, and lies years ago, in 1993 during the shelling. In the rubble of my city, in the place where I was losing my soul.
I was in a queue at a bakery, with some friends, when suddenly shells exploded all around us. Many were killed, including two of my friends. Many were injured. I wanted to be dead with them and yet I was alive.
After my hearing came back, I heard sounds like from another world. It was as if I was in hell, but somewhere outside hell I could hear a song of paradise. The song was Albinoni. His Adagio. After a while I realized I was not dead, but still alive, that the music was real and was here and now.
Vedran, the man who became known as the cellist of Sarajevo was playing for us out there in the rubble. He played every night, one for everyone who was killed there. Yes, sure the snipers saw him as a target; but Vedran didn’t care. He played for people burying their dead, and for people in hiding.”
This musician, whose soulful elegy revived him, gave Adem the strength of soul to withstand heartache and to not allow hatred and revenge to kill it. Vedran played his cello poignant and human, amidst devastation and inhumanity to help people keep their souls alive.
“The crazy Cellist. I was an angry young man with hatred in my blood and my family to look after. I left Vedran playing Albinoni as a memorial to my friends and went home to my family.
Later, much later, when I was in a place of safety and when I thought about it: as the
cellist played for his people, I too had to learn what I myself could offer. Vedran is a wonderful musician, a fine man, I thought, whereas what am I?
I would later decide to return to my homeland for my people. But that was much later. But now I had to escape. I had to leave Sarajevo, leave this heart of darkness.”
But getting out of Sarajevo was treacherous. The city’s main thoroughfare, locally called the Dragon of Bosnia, connects the industrial part, and further on, the airport, to the Old Town. The road’s many high-rises provided snipers extensive fields of fire and became known as “Sniper Alley”. “Pazi – Snajper!” signs “Watch out – Sniper!” were common.
People would either run fast across the street or would wait for United Nations armored vehicles, walking behind, using the vehicles as shields. Serbian snipers would shoot at civilians going about the daily business of trying to survive a city under siege, children included. Out in search of bits of food and water, Sarajevo’s civilians became moving targets. Apparently, snipers considered young children the best targets because they moved so quickly.
While the Serb forces may have known there was a tunnel, they had no way of being certain where its start or end points were. They shelled houses in the surrounding area, killing workers and engineers, but the exact location of the entrances remained a secret, allowing Sarajevo to endure the long years of siege.
Construction lasted from March to June 1993, the round the clock digging done by hand, with shovels and picks. Diggers worked 8-hour shifts, earning a packet of cigarettes a day.
The only area on the encirclement not full of Serb forces was the UN controlled airport. Adem’s father helped his family escape through the Tunnel of Hope, which connected sieged Sarajevo with the free Bosnian territories. Sarajevo’s only conduit to the outside world during the siege which lasted four years was this 800-metre-long, 1 metre wide, 1.6-metre-high tunnel running between two houses on opposite sides of the airport runway.
War supplies, food, water, humanitarian aid, pipelined oil, electric cables, communication lines – the tunnel was the city’s lifeline. It was also an escape route for those people who decided to take their chances of escape, and who had enough money saved. His father was one of the tunnel diggers, and Adem helped the excavation work.
It was now a year after the bakery massacre: Adem no longer had hearing problems or visible scars. Yet in his mind’s eye, he still saw his friends blown apart. The horrific image would only disappear when he brought to mind the picture of the cellist and heard anew Albinoni’s Adagio.
Now the tunnel was complete and Adem approached his father, with his fervent desire to leave Sarajevo. His father considered the matter from its many perspectives, deciding ultimately to help his wife and sons escape through the tunnel, but that he needed to remain in Sarajevo to be useful to his countrymen. He would join his family in the future, once the scourge of war was over.
But this was not to be. Adem learned from abroad of the terrible shelling that the Serbs unleashed one day, on the houses near the tunnel’s entrance. A friend said Adem’s father died bravely.
“Rebuilding Stari Most gave me back my soul.” Adem’s words resonated deeply. How to keep one’s spirit alive when your world has died?
Adem had reminded me of something my father – who lost family in the holocaust – once said, “Fortune lost, nothing lost; courage lost, much lost; honour lost, more lost; soul lost, all lost.”
Adem escaped Sarajevo and found safety in his destination. In time he came to see how he could return to his war-ravaged home, make peace with his ghosts, and regain his soul. “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” (Henry Miller). The new Stari Most stands as an enduring symbol of his journey.
The next morning, I dropped by for my morning coffee: “Hello Neighbour…” I said to Adem.