Nine years later…

When I was in Mostar 9 years ago, it was 3 years after the time that the vicious fighting, shelling, destruction had ended. I remember at the time thinking that this was quite a long time after. Now it is twelve years on, and it seems to me that that is hardly any time at all. It is interesting to remember myself then and recognise how much I thought I understood, but how little I really did understand what had taken place for people.

I can see now that people had barely even begun processing what had taken place. Three years after is hardly any time at all. I think that I understood things in theory – I had read a lot about the war before I arrived here in ’98, and was well-informed in one sense – but actually had very little concept of what this meant, or felt like, or actually was

On my last night in Mostar a friend described the early days of the schools’ music program that we all worked on. He had gone straight from school into the Bosnian Army and when it ended he had no idea what he could do with himself. But he was then, and is now, a talented musician – a singer and guitarist. A group of young people formed an arts NGO and began to do music workshops in schools, supported by some visionary people from Edinburgh (Nigel Osborne in particular). He said, when I saw him two nights ago, that it was the most amazing lifeline. He didn’t know what he would have done if it hadn’t been thrown to him.

At the end of the first period of working together, money was raised to send the group of young musicians to summer camp in Italy. T described getting to the camp and find a juke box in the main room of the camp.

“I couldn’t believe it – a juke box!” he said. “I sat myself down in front of it for two days and just played it the whole time, for two days non-stop.”

I tried to understand. “But didn’t you have music, during the war?” I asked. I had heard them talk at other times about music and songs, and generators being found in order to play music, as a kind of salve or balm, or release, or escape, in the midst of ugliness.

T stared at me. “No, no, it wasn’t about the music. I mean, it was – juke box! You know, juke box!” His emphasis.

N, another friend from this time, was also there and he too nodded and tried to explain. But they could see me struggling to build the picture, and in the end T said kindly, “No, you don’t understand. That’s okay.” And he was right. I didn’t quite have the picture.

I met with a number of people from the Music Centre. I had a lovely long chat with M, who used to be the Building Manager but is by profession a structural engineer. He worked as part of the team that built the Music Centre and described how important he flet that project was, and so how happy he was to be able to continue having a role there in its early days. M has since moved on, and has his own engineering partnership. But we talked for a long time about the Music Centre, about things that happened while I was there, as well as events from after 1998. In fact, this was probably the longest conversation M and I have ever had! We were both alwasy so busy when I was there in 1998, and our paths didn’t cross so often. But he was a big-hearted, gentle soul and this conversation felt like one we always should have had.

In some ways I look back on that time and see myself as having been very idealistic, very naive. I wanted to contibute and felt I had things to offer, and a role to play. I felt I was a reflective and sympathetic enough person to have some kind of insight into the glue that holds this city and people together… At times I look back at myself as I remember myself and squirm a little.

It was lovely, therefore, to hear people remembering things that I did during my time in Mostar and tell me unequivocally that I did a good job, that I did make a contribution, that the work of the schools team was hugely valuable. N and T mentioned the visit to Mostar of the Geminiani Orchestra, which I had organised, and pulled together entirely on my own. This young orchestra, from Melbourne, was taking part in the Dubrovnik Summer Festival and I invited them to come to Mostar, to make a detour enroute to Split.

N said to me, about this tour, “That was just amazing. You know it is the first and the last time I have seen this kind of orchestra perform. I still can’t believe it, I still remember it.” Or words to that effect.

My time in Mostar this time round went quickly – just three days altogether. I saw most of the people I’d hoped to see. One or two – people I had long lost touch with, and who were separate to my larger circle of friends and work colleagues – I was unable to track down, sadly. It was interesting too, to see how some had changed, or how my memory of them proved somewhat wrong. Perhaps that is the case of my own rose-coloured glasses, or the passage of time (and times still being hard), or of them not being still connected to the relationship we had had, nine years ago, and so somehow acting as if it wasn’t there. Hmmm. I am trying not to be too specific here, which means I am being hopelessly cryptic. Apologies.

The last person I saw was N, who is a dear, most excellent man, one of the most honest people I have ever met, funny, smart… We met late in the afternoon and went up to Blagaj to sit in the courtyard of the 16th Century Tekija (Sufi House) there and drink Turkish tea, and chat. It is a special place, very beautiful, and very peaceful. My few days in Mostar were quite intense, seeing so many people, so it was good to come here and simply sit and be recharged by the environment.

Later that evening N collected me from my apartment in town and we went to a trendy noisy new bar to hear T perform, solo with guitar. It was wonderful to hear T again (I wished I’d brought my clarinet with me to the bar – though whether that would have been apprpriate or not is another question)…. then afterwards we three went back to the old Big Ben bar (where I used to play backgammon, and which is now owned by N’s cousin who is a friend of my Bosnian ex-boyfriend… Lots of familar faces and places… Mostar is a small place still), and chatted about our lives into the wee small hours. N dropped me home and told me how happy he was to see me again, that he doesn’t think this about everyone, but that I just fit easily into Mostar, and with them, I am so relaxed and it is like I am one of them, he said. I felt very warmed by this indeed.

When we first arrived in Mostar, and walked down Fejicova St, Kenet and I both commented on the way people looked at us so intently.

“Maybe that is because we are so well-dressed,” we mused. “Maybe because we are so good looking?”

Within just an hour or so of arriving, Kenet had bumped into several people he knew. He also recognised a number of others that didn’t stop to talk. It became clear to me to that, in a place like this, that is quite small in terms of population, and from which so many people have left, you wouldquickly notice unfamiliar faces. Maybe also you look more intentlybecause those who have left to make lives elsewhere, in other countries, still return from time to time. You stare in order to work out if you know them or not. I found myself doing it too, wondering if I would come across anyone just by chance.

At one time I was making a call from a public phone at the side of a residential building. An older woman came out. She glanced at me as she walked past, then she looked again, then she stopped walking and turned and stared at me. I looked back at her (it is odd even here to be scutinised quite so blatantly) and eventually hung up the phone and smiled and greeted her, “Dobar dan…?” with a slightly questioning tone.

She smiled slightly, then said to me in Bosnian, “I’ve never seen you before. Who are you, where are you from?” I replied that I was just visiting, that I was a tourist, and she just nodded slightly and continued on her way. It seemed to me that she was just speaking out what everyone else who stared at me in this way was thinking.


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