Excerpts from "On the road to Sarajevo"

(a dispatch from Bosnia originally printed in the June 8, 1997 Bimingham News)

On May 14, I flew into Split, Croatia, and found myself killing time in the airport, waiting for a flight that would bring my colleague, Dr. David Johnson, a noted professor of Landscape Architecture at UT-Knoxville and former Fulbright Society president. It was a belief in the power of our profession to aid in conflict resolution, and an urge to pursue innovative "distance learning" initiatives, that three years before had led David to become a key supporter of an organization I had founded to enlist academic aid for the rebuilding of Bosnia. That organization has grown into The Global Network for Rebuilding; and we now count among our allies some of the top software providers in our field.

When GISDATA, Inc., Balkan rep for prestigious Environment Systems Research Institute, Inc. offered to provide free training to fourteen Sarajevan planners of our choosing, we jumped at the chance to help organize the classes. It would be a perfect opportunity to renew old friendships, network new ones, and gather site data for projects in need of the services our network can offer.

While I had spent a month in Sarajevo during the siege in 1994 and another month traveling throughout Bosnia last summer, David had experienced Sarajevo several times before the war, consulting with architects on city master plans and taking students there for study. His input would be invaluable. But first we had to get there again.

A large man was stalking the airport, eyeing foreigners. His khaki pants and stern expression gave him a military look. He walked by me several times, close enough that I could see deep scars on his hands and arms. I was apprehensive, especially since Croatian militias in that area have a deservedly unsavory reputation, so I smiled broadly when he passed again. It stopped him in his tracks.

His name was Gorin. He asked me if I was the Canadian he was supposed to meet, and then explained that his family ran a small inn in Medugorje that catered to the Catholic pilgrims who come from all over the world to visit the site where local youngsters had seen a vision of the Holy Virgin some years before. By the time Dr. Johnson arrived I had negotiated room, board and travel for half what we had expected to spend in Split. Medugorje would be an unplanned first stop on our itinerary, but Gorin had agreed to take us on to Mostar after Mass the next day.

We piled into a van with pilgrims from Korea and Seattle, perhaps as unlikely a collection as Gorin had ever ferried up the tortuous mountain roads that lead from the idyllic Dalmatian coast to the bleak Hercegovinian wilderness. Even after nightfall, the spectacular view back upon the distant sea invoked exclamations in tongues strange and familiar alike.

We awoke early the next day and ventured out to find ourselves in a boom town. The Holy Virgin had indeed been good to this remote mountain area that before the visions and subsequent tourist traffic was said to have grown little else than "rocks, hardheaded people, and Ustasi (fascists)." I met people from Latin America, the Orient, Canada, France, and the United States. And though the frenetic growth of the last few years had produced an unruly urban jumble that more closely resembled a Balkan version of Dollywood than a place of veneration, I could see in their faces that most of the pilgrims had been enriched by their stay.

We trekked, two among many, up a rocky path that climbs the "Hill of Apparitions," location of the original vision of the Virgin. Some penitents made the walk in bare feet. Their contrition was painfully sincere, for thorns were so plenteous they could not be avoided.

Later, we attended Mass. Each day, one of the seers communicates with the Virgin. Those worshipers whom the church can not accommodate sit outside atop a low stone wall or on park benches, praying in deep concentration, most of them holding a rosary bought at one of the many local shops and boothes that feature religious items.

During a prayer the priest referred in a non-specific way to war and suffering, ending with a Freudian slip that thanked God "for our sins." Among those sins, seemingly known to all but the pilgrims, is a terrible history of Ustasi concentration camps in this area both during World War Two and in 1993, after the Croats launched a surprise attack against their Bosniac (Bosnian Muslim) former-allies. There is also a long history of Mafia activity, which benefited greatly from conditions of chaos and extreme need created by the recent war.

Only the black market rivals tourism as a source of hard currency in Medugorje, but the local parish and an affiliated orphanage receive contributions from Catholics the world over. Rome does not officially recognize the "apparitions" in Medugorje (though it seems favorable to the pilgrimages). Nor is there clear accounting for the funds that pour in. On a visit to the orphanage I saw no children, only a few new buildings that looked like condominiums.

On the way to Mostar that evening, Gorin explained that the scars on his hands came from Serb bullets, those on his arms from Bosniacs. He told us that he had friends among the Bosniacs, the war was political rather than ethnic, and that he feared it would resume again if the American soldiers left soon. But he was ready if it did, he said. And in that instant I could picture his sad eyes staring down the barrel of a gun.

In Mostar we found a similar balance between hope and fatalism. Structural damage seems to mirror the lives of the inhabitants. Though many buildings are still sound, and some are being rebuilt quite beautifully, the arteries that connect the town's Croat west side and Bosniac east are still mostly wrecked, symbolic of a community that has yet to come together.

The Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniacs had been friends and allies here for hundreds of years. They were united when they repelled an invasion by Serb nationalists in 1992. But the alliance was not to last. One morning, without warning, artillery controlled by a Croat army opened fire on the beautiful historic quarter where the majority of Bosniacs lived. When I asked Gorin why this happened he could only shrug his shoulders and say, "politics." Gorin, like many others, was forced to fight against his friends, who were forced to fight against him.

This was my third stay in Mostar at the house called Mladi Most, "Unity Bridge," a community center staffed by college-age volunteers from all over the world who seek to balm the wounds of war through bringing together the children of the combatants. The seeds of peace planted by their activities extend beyond Mostar. But these brave people are watched closely by those that benefit from disunity. Last year, a former Croat sniper came by the house and shot the staff's dog, in front of everyone. It was a clear message.

This year I sensed less tension at Mladi Most. The group has had success with a theater group that included children from all the ethnic groups. Though the children were from towns in entities that are politically hostile to each other they have developed friendships and stay in touch via email.

Still, there are formidable opponents to rapprochement. The Croatian government continues to promulgate de facto partition of ethnic Croatian areas within the Bosnian Federation through supporting separate Croat police, currency, public health and transport in places like Mostar. The effect of such policies is only too evident. Last March Croat police in west Mostar set upon a peaceful Muslim religious procession, shooting and stabbing twenty-one, including the mayor and Imam of east Mostar.

Nevertheless, living conditions and commercial relations continue to improve for most people. The vast majority on all sides recognize that even an uneasy peace is better than war.

David and I visited the High Commission of Rebuilding to obtain specific information on reconstruction progress. We hope someday to be able to provide Mostar's planners with the kind of software and training we are bringing to Sarajevo.

Later, I showed David the town and we had dinner by the River Neretva at an outdoor cafe only a few feet from the ruins of the once beautiful and famous Mostar Bridge. Inside the cafe a Turkish wedding party was just ending. As the groom carried his beautiful wife to a car decorated with flowers, escorted by jubilant friends and family, I sensed that normalcy was indeed returning to Mostar. But as they sped away, horn honking frantically, I was jarred by a memory from my first trip to Bosnia--of cars pressed into ambulance duty, rushing through the streets of Sarajevo with horns blaring, carrying sniper victims to hospital.

On the bus ride to Sarajevo next day we passed villages that had suffered severe destruction. Many had been ethnically cleansed and were populated by refugees who had been cleansed from other parts of Bosnia. The formerly Bosniac town of Pocitelj, just outside Mostar, is an example of such cleansing. A cross surmounts the minaret of its 100-year-old Mosque, which now is used for church services.

This macabre game of musical chairs has been played out all across Bosnia. It's time to straighten the furniture. Like the detention of Bosnia's war criminals, return of her refugees to their rightful homes is an essential part of the Dayton Peace Plan that has not been implemented. To do the right thing will be a tricky and arduous task, but the recalcitrant Croatian government is particularly vulnerable to demands from NATO nations that send thousands of tourists to Adriatic resorts. To do nothing is to invite more of what went before, because in Bosnia, as in Belfast or Birmingham, there can be no peace without unity and no unity without justice.

Jay Craig

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