As the Battles Raged, We Hid and Laughed

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Apartments Destroyed by Shelling, Mostar (April 2013)

I was born in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1991, and spent the first few years of my life surviving the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which raged from 1992-1995, and after the war I have many memories of destruction, destitute people and post war poverty. Speaking from first-hand experience, war is a truly terrible thing. There is nothing even remotely “fun” about homes being looted and destroyed or people being injured and killed by shelling and snipers. However, there is another side to all this: us normal people DID manage to have some fun and laughter during and after the war, believe it or not. And while many connections between people were severed (mainly due to one party either dying in the conflict or escaping the violence, never to be seen again) great new connections were occasionally forged and friendships sometimes formed for life. I realised that these little every day details are rarely mentioned in literature about any war, so I decided to share some of them here.

We returned to Mostar from Croatia just days before May 9th 1993 and got caught up in the Croat-Muslim conflict. * However, a new friend came into our lives at this time: Kadira. She lived in the flat directly above us. Our community in Western (i.e. Croat controlled) part of Mostar was a mixed one. Just in our block of flats there was a good mixture of Muslims, Croats and Serbs; Kadira herself was a Muslim married to a Serb, while my mother is a Croat. While the battles raged, my mother and Kadira formed a wonderful friendship that is still strong to this day. My mother and her regularly cooked together during the war; they especially liked to make piroške, stuffed deep fried pastries that taste rather like fried pizza, as well as many other dishes. They laughed together-Kadira has an amazing sense of humour-while shells literally exploded at the nearby front lines. Kadira could make a good joke about anything and she never failed to create a happy atmosphere. Despite what many foreigners say, nationality never bothered most people in Bosnia and Herzegovina before the war; we all lived in harmony. All the neighbours helped each other; Muslims, Croats and Serbs alike, and old friendships rarely died. After all, no one was seriously pushing for war apart from nationalist politicians and their cronies.

One story that never fails to make me laugh is that of Ibrahim and Sevleta, an elderly couple who lived in one of the ground floor flats in our building. Ibrahim-or “Ibro” as he was known-was a physically small, polite man who was nice to everyone. However, Savleta was the exact opposite. She was bigger and louder than Ibro, and was a bit of a “dragon” as everything seemed to bother her and she had no qualms about telling people off, especially children. “She had a very poisonous tongue,” my late grandmother recalled many times.

Well, it is very ironic how this “dragon” changed in the war. When there was shelling she and Ibro-like many other residents-escaped to the basement, which acted as a bomb shelter. It was now that the dragon was subdued. In fact, she took the word “pathetic” to a whole new level. “Please Ibro I need it, please!” she would whine when she wanted something from their flat, whether it was her favourite blanket, a drink or anything else. Poor Ibro had to then run to their flat-while shells crashed outside-and retrieve these items. But the times she asked for her medication were truly legendary. Ibro would come back with the tablets, Sevleta would close her eyes, open her mouth wide and loudly moan “Put it in, Ibro!” Everyone else in the bomb shelter promptly burst out laughing; with some shouting out “Put it in, put it in!” Lets just say they weren’t thinking about just tablets…

There were many ruins in Mostar after the war; unsurprising considering it was the worst damaged city in the entire war. There was a big ruined restaurant next door to our block of flats, which was looted and torched in mid 1993. Heavy fighting subsided in Mostar by March 1994 and I would go with Kadira’s two boys, Nemanja and Uroš, to play in the yard by this ruin. When we got a bit older we began to venture inside the ruin itself. My poor grandmother came so close to having a heart attack with what we got up to! “There could be unexploded bombs in there! Do you want to lose your legs and arms?” she would shriek. But while this usually did put us off, our curiosity had to sometimes be satisfied and we always ended up venturing inside again. Other children used to come out to play with us too, though it was only us three boys that ever went into the ruin. There was a female dog, a mid sized terrier type called Buba (pronounced Boo-bah) that belonged to one of our neighbour on the ground floor. We used to regularly play “fetch” with this dog by first finding rocks and stones for her to lick before throwing them deep within the ruined restaurant. Buba would run madly in after it, and more often than not she would run back out with it, leaving us in awe.

In fact, it is fair to say that many of us children never really knew that there was a war going on as we were so effectively shielded from it by the adults. This meant that fun and laughter simply continued. Though Kadira was especially famous for it, adults also found time to laugh and they made jokes about everything when they got together, even about gruesome things. As mentioned earlier, most neighbours in our community, regardless of nationality, continued to help each other throughout the war. We all shared each others pain and grief while laughing together as the battles raged on.

*The Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA; essentially the Serbian army) and Serbian paramilitaries started heavy bombardment of the city in early April 1992, and quickly occupied the eastern half of the city as well as the city centre. This caused a mass exodus of the non-Bosnian Serb population, including my family; we ended up as refugees in Makarska, Croatia for a year. A Croat-Bosnian Muslim coalition retook the city at the end of June 1992, causing many local Serbs to flee in turn; the Serb forces retreated to the mountains east of Mostar. But the Croat-Muslim coalition fell apart in April 1993, and the early morning of May 9th saw the start of all out war between Croats and Muslims in Mostar; the main front line was in the city centre and Mostar was literally cut in half by the fighting.  A ceasefire-with American insistence-was signed between the two sides in February 1994, and there was no significant fighting in Mostar after that, though Serbs occasionally shelled Mostar on a less intense scale. The war ended in November 1995 with the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords.

 

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