Monday 15 July 2019

Left Field: CHAPTER 17 - Five Hens

Chapter 17 - Five Hens

In 1975 I travelled through Bosnia with Renata and two-year-old Ben. The first night we camped at Jajce beside one of the town’s six picture-postcard lakes which fall from one to the next. Between these lakes are a series of small watermills. 

I remember waking to the sounds of falling water, the clop-clopping of a horse getting closer and the heart-stopping voice of an old man singing ‘Na Klepeci Nanulama’.

After Sarajevo, we drove to Mostar along a mountainous alpine road, except that mosques, with their elegant, stone- needle minarets, stood in place of churches.

The town took its name from the bridge which spans the turquoise waters of the Neretva River. ‘Most’ means bridge, and ‘star’, old. Rebecca West was there in 1936 and wrote in 'Black Lamb and Grey Falcon', ‘It is one of the most beautiful bridges in the world. A slender arch lies between two round towers, its parapet bent in a shallow angle in the centre. To look at it is good; to stand on it is as good. Over the grey-green river swoop hundreds of swallows, and on the banks, mosques and white houses stand among glades of trees and bushes.’

Constructed in the sixteenth century by order of Suleiman the Magnificent and designed by his architect, Hajrudin, the stones were held together with horsehair and manure. When the scaffolding was removed, the architect had disappeared. The Sultan had threatened to cut off Hajrudin’s head if his bridge fell into the river. For many centuries, and despite earthquakes and wars, it didn’t.

We spent a boiling afternoon walking through the narrow streets of the Old Town, trying to keep in the shade. After drinking at a riverside caf, we walked onto the bridge and it was pleasant to stand at its centre, as Rebecca West had done, and feel the breeze from the mountains.

The tourist office had told us there was a campsite west of the town on the road to the Adriatic coast. We couldn’t find it and, as it was getting dark, we drove off the highway down to the river. In the middle of this wilderness we met a family from Tuzla. They had pitched an old canvas tent and beside it was a chicken coop with five scrawny hens. The father told us that they holidayed at this spot every year.

I asked how long they had been there, and he looked at the hens.

We came with ten,’ he said, ‘and eat one a day.’

Are there wild animals in the woods?’ I asked.

Yes,’ he said, ‘wild boar and some say there are wolves. But it’s the people you should watch out for.’

I thought it was an odd thing to say, but I would have good reason to remember his words.

Eighteen years later I came back. War Child had recruited an ex-army officer as field director for the mobile bakery. I can’t remember how he came to us. Perhaps he was recommended by the ODA.

He and I made plans to travel to Bosnia to check out where the bakery would be of most use. We arrived in Split on the Croatian coast and spent a few days there, planning our recce.

He had a soldier’s routine and carried on him military field equipment. His blue-twill trousers were a fiesta of pockets and zippers in which he kept his Swiss Army knife, fork and spoon, tea bags, compass, maps, a miniature radio tuned to BBC World Service, Elastoplasts and bandages, calamine, various pills and much more I didn’t get to see. I asked him where he kept the cyanide tablet. ‘It’s up my arse, you bloody fool.’

Pockets’ would wake each morning at 0700 hours, turn on the radio, set his tiny kettle over an even tinier Primus stove and make tea. 

When I asked on the first morning if I could have any he said, ‘Sorry, old chap, not enough for two. You should be better prepared in a war zone.’

One evening in Split, after sharing a bottle of wine, I asked him if he had any idea about my politics.

Of course,’ he answered. ‘If we left this bar now, Wilson, you would shamble off to the left and I would march smartly to the right.’
Pockets clearly knew more about me than I did of him.

We went to the daily UN briefings and it became clear that East Mostar was where we should place the mobile bakery. The town was split between the Croat ‘West’ side and the Bosniak ‘East’. Those with Muslim names had been driven across the river into the old Ottoman part of town, one of the most heavily bombarded communities in Bosnia-Herzegovina, pounded first by the Serbs and then by the Croats. People were living in basements and caves and were without food.

Split was full of NGOs, working in and on the fringes of this war zone. One of these was Marie Stopes and Pockets told me they had three spanking new Land Rovers in the UN parking lot. He said he had persuaded them to lend us one for aday.

On a hot August Sunday morning, he and I removed the brand new plastic covers from the seats and set off along the road to Mostar, the Stopes’ logo on each side.

At Pocitelj, almost precisely at the spot where Renata and I had camped all those years before, we came across a long line of refugees. We could hear gunfire and explosions and saw smoke rising from houses on the hillside.

With support from the Croatian government of Franjo Tuđman, in Zagreb, the Bosnian Croats were busy emulating the Serbs and attempting to carve out a purely Croat segment from Bosnia-Herzegovina. They had turned on anyone with a Muslim name, never mind whether or not the name represented a mixed marriage. In the areas between Mostar and the Croatian border, villages and towns were being emptied of these ‘Muslims’. In Mostar itself they were being driven into the old city, turning that part of East Mostar into a ghetto which could then be grenaded, besieged and starved.
A spot of bother, Wilson,’ said Pockets. 

It was a scary sight. I felt fear for myself and sorrow for the plight of these people. When I looked at them, they could have been refugees in any war: suitcases tied with string, a live animal if they were lucky. No one carrying a TV. No one driving a car. Only the old, young women and children. The young men were fighting, had been taken prisoner or killed.

Accompanying them were soldiers from the HVO, the Bosnian Croat army. They looked as if they’d been watching too many Rambo movies with their multi-coloured bandanas and AK 47s, cartridges held together with masking tape. 

We showed our UN passes and told them we were heading to Mostar. They laughed. ‘No chance of that,’ said one. ‘We’re moving these Muslimani up there today.’

Pockets told me to turn left off the main road. There was rubble all over the asphalt and, in the shimmering heat of midday, I could see what looked like a blown bridge in the distance.

Stop!’ Pockets banged his fist on the dashboard. ‘Reverse on your tracks, Wilson. This road may be mined.’

You’re the military man,’ I said, climbing into the back.

At the junction, Pockets turned east on the Mostar road. ‘But we won’t get there,’ I said. ‘Remember what those bastards told us.’

He sensed my alarm. ‘ Capljina is only a few more kilometres. We’ll go into town and have a coffee before we return to the coast.’
We found ourselves in the middle of deserted streets. The only people around were militia standing on the street corners, laughing and smoking.

I don’t think we’re going to find any coffee,’ I said.

Pockets didn’t reply, but parked close to the church. I could hear singing. Was it possible that Mass was taking place at a time like this?
An old woman wearing a hijab was standing outside the vestibule door, crying. Pockets asked me to find out what she was doing there.
I am waiting for the priest to come out,’ she said. ‘He is a family friend. My husband and sons have been taken away and only he can help. Please tell the world. They are being held at Dretelj.’

There was nothing I could do except remember the name of the camp.
We set off back to Split, overtaken by speeding cars with no number plates.

The fruits of war,’ said Pockets as they hooted their way past us.
These were the weekend soldiers, returning home to Croatia on this sunny Sunday afternoon after a couple of days shooting in the hills. I hoped that their marksmanship was as erratic as their driving.
It was a silent journey. This had been my first experience of ethnic cleansing. For my partner, I think it was all in a day’s work.



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