Monday 8 July 2019
Left Field: CHAPTER 24 - Mostar Sons
When I arrived in Mostar as Director of the PMC, I rented a small two-bedroom house and offered the spare room to Teo and Oha, two musicians working at the Centre. Oha’s mother still lived on the west side of town which he could not visit safely and Teo’s widowed mother had no space for him in her tiny flat.
Close friends, they had both been soldiers and had both realised, in Oha’s words, ‘that the “enemy” was bullshit. They feed you enemies.’ While the war was still going on, they helped set up Apeiron, a group of young people who got together to play music.
The three of us spent most of our time outside since the house itself was damp and dark. The plumbing had given up in the kitchen and dirty dishes would pile up at the only other source of water – the bathroom. If you wanted to take a shower, you first had to do the washing-up.
The toilet was not fixed to the floor and, when you sat on the pan, there was more than one movement. There was always a puddle at the base and you could never be sure what it was. Common to all toilets in south-east Europe, the S-bend had yet to be adopted so to the smell of damp was added that of excrement. It was a mystery where it all went, if it did at all. The road bridge at the end of the street had been blown up at the start of the war and the sewerage pipes with it.
Despite the smell and discomfort, we had happy times there. We’d sit on the terrace while Teo played his guitar and sang his sad songs.
When Teo returned home from teaching in local schools, he would smile at me and pace the living room, distractedly clicking his fingers to some inner rhythm. He would then turn and give me a second smile as he opened the fridge door to take out a beer. If there weren’t any, he would tease me and offer to do me a favour: take my money and fill the fridge again. By the end of the evening we’d be out of booze, but he would consider that he’d repaid me by beating me at endless games of backgammon. The game is called tavla there and arrived with the Ottomans. It is as much a part of the culture in Bosnia as the ritual of serving coffee. There is always time for coffee and tavla. In Teo’s case, most of the night.
After multiple victories, he would open the last beers and insist on a final game. ‘Come on, David. You can beat me now. I’m drunk.’
Hearing him slur his words, I thought my time to win had come. It never did.
One morning, not long after he’d moved in, I woke at 4am and went to the kitchen to get a glass of water. Teo was sitting at the table, staring at the wall. I asked him what was wrong and why he wasn’t sleeping.
Sleep?’ he said. ‘I haven’t slept for four years.’
I looked at him in shock. ‘Four years? Why?’
'Let’s drink some of that English tea of yours and I’ll tell you.’
I knew he’d seen terrible things on the front line, but had known nothing of what he was about to tell me. How, at midnight on August 10th, 1993, Croat militia arrived at his house. ‘They asked me where my father was. I was scared and so I told them he was upstairs. Then we were all ordered into the street. Me, my mother, my father, my younger brother and grandfather. They pushed us into the back of a van, but a guy was shouting at my dad, “You’re staying with us.” That’s the last I saw of him. We were driven to the front line and told to cross over to the Bosniak side. All this time, I was thinking how I had given my dad away. We later heard he’d been shot. They said that some of the soldiers who came to our house were shocked that he’d been killed. He was a well-known singer. He wasn’t a soldier.’
I thought how terrifying it must have been for Teo, who’d been 15 at the time. How the guilt must be unbearable.
‘How old was he?’ I asked.
Nine years younger than I was when we sat in that kitchen. That night, over the Typhoo, was the only time Teo ever spoke about the war and about his father. Despite his personal tragedies, Teo was typical of many young Bosnians, wanting nothing more than to return to pre-war days when no one took any notice of religious or ethnic differences. Knowing his history makes it more extraordinary that he was one of the first to take his guitar into the communities of his former enemies.
Many journalists who ran stories on the Centre were fascinated by Teo, but only the US writer Nancy Shalala managed to coax something out of him for the Japan Times when they travelled together to a schools’ project in Ljubinje, a name that translates as ‘place of love’.
She wrote that the presence of Teo, a former Bosnian soldier, in this Serbian village, represented a small but significant challenge to the formidable social and political lines that carved up post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina:
‘... trading his Kalashnikov for an acoustic guitar, Teo now plays for an agitated mob of 60 three-year-olds in the kindergarten of his former enemy. “Three years ago I would have said that another 20 would need to pass before I would even consider entering [a Serbian village],” says the blond, burly Teo, who himself is barely 20, but already ancient in life experience.’
After I left Mostar, Teo spent much of his time looking for his father and, four years after returning to London, I got a call from him. He was laughing and I thought he was ringing from a bar or a party. He would often call me when he was drunk just to say hello and ask when I was next coming to Mostar.
‘They’ve found my dad.’
After completing DNA tests, Teo had been told by the International Commission on Missing Persons that his father’s remains had been located. His body had been part of an exchange of the dead which had taken place between the Bosniaks and the Croats. He’d been buried in a cemetery Teo had walked past every day on his way to the Centre.
Oha is a two-metre giant. You couldn’t meet a gentler man. Aged 14, he had been the youngest fighter in Mostar. I once told him that, as a former soldier, he was entitled to a war pension. ‘I know that, but I won’t take it. I feel guilty for what I did. The money should go to the widows and the wounded.’
He would never speak about the war: what he had done and what had happened on the front line, but he carried the scars of it inside him. I would sometimes see him sitting alone, rocking back and forwards in a chair, in time to some inner anguish, yet always in time. Twenty-five years later, he still does this. I hope it’s now just a habit.
Oha became a talented djembe player and, within weeks of the opening of the Centre, was assisting Eugene with the drumming workshops. I think he had found a way to release his distress with percussion as he pushed away his ghosts.
One of the PMC’s outreach programmes was to a mental hospital in Pazaric , ten kilometres west of Sarajevo. The hospital had been caught between two front lines, the patients left unattended and starving. They were forced to bury their own dead.
The road from Mostar was mountainous and still pockmarked with war damage. In winter, snow chains were essential. Nevertheless, Oha would go there every Thursday and never missed a week.
When I first visited the place immediately after the war, it was a Bosch vision of hell. It smelled of urine and vomit because they’d had to operate with a skeleton staff. When I went there later with Eugene and Oha, I was pleased to see that it was very different.
As the two percussionists climbed out of their car, they were treated like pop stars, mobbed and hugged. One patient, who claimed he had been President Tito’s ambassador in Morocco, was pointing at Eugene’s dreadlocks and shouting, ‘Marley, Bobby Marley.’
It was scary to watch these deranged people getting so excited, but Oha stood there, towering above the tallest of them, beaming.
The percussion session opened with a cacophony of thuds as Oha handed each patient an instrument taken out of his old army bag. Then Eugene worked his magic and came in over it all with his djembe. Oha answered him with a call and response on his drum. Then a sudden stop. Eugene stood up, smiled at everyone, sat down and said, ‘Follow.’ They did. The room was immediately in rhythm with them.
The only person who didn’t join in was the ‘Ambassador’, who stood by the door picking his nose, then placing the thumbs of each hand against his ears and making a waving sign at the group.
But madness doesn’t mean stupid. Oha told me that one day a UNICEF Land Cruiser broke down outside the hospital. One of the wheels had fallen off and spun down a steep slope. The driver didn’t know what to do. He jacked up the vehicle and fitted the spare tyre, but he needed four nuts. He sat down, lit a cigarette and started to call HQ for help on his satellite telephone.
Above him, a Pazaric patient was sitting on the hospital wall and shouted to the driver. ‘Hey, you.’ The driver was scared to respond to this crazy man. ‘Take one nut from the three other tyres,’ shouted the patient, ‘Use your brain.’
Oha’s enthusiasm for people was marked by equal enthusiasm for music. When he heard a performance he liked, his face would break into a smile as he grabbed the nearest person to him to hug. I have even watched while he hugged a JBL loudspeaker in appreciation.
One image of Oha remains indelibly in my memory. Michael de Toro of the Office for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Mostar, arranged for Oha to take a couple of DJs from the Centre to perform one Saturday evening at a gig in Trebinje. Like Ljubinje, this was in the Serb-controlled part of Bosnia, enemy territory for Oha. The town is in the hills behind Dubrovnik, from where the Serb bombardment of the old walled city had been organised.
The musicians travelled to Trebinje, escorted by OSCE. I was staying in Dubrovnik that weekend and met Michael in a café. He asked if I’d like to go and see this first music collaboration between Bosniaks from Mostar and Bosnian Serbs. I told him I’d left my UN card, which I needed to cross the old war borders, in Mostar.
‘No worries,’ he answered with a wink. ‘I’ll put you in the trunk.’
We set off from Dubrovnik. Halfway up the hill and a few kilometres from the border, he stopped the car. I climbed into the boot and we crossed to the Serb side without any problems. I was back in the front seat by the time we reached Trebinje.
When we arrived at the venue where the gig was supposed to be taking place, we were told it had been moved out of town to an old mill in the countryside. By the time we got there, it was 2am.
As Michael parked his car, the sounds of drum and bass could be heard in the distance. We walked along a river and, in the middle of the night, the music was in competition with thousands of croaking frogs and birds singing in the trees.
We arrived at the mill and there were hundreds of young people dancing. Oha was striding towards us, one arm around a young man and his other around a young woman. ‘Hey, David,’ he shouted, ‘these two were at school with me.’ He bent down from his tallness and planted a kiss on each of their heads. He then picked me off the ground. ‘How the fuck did you get here?’
When I left the PMC in 2000, I expected Oha to leave Mostar and the country. He was too dynamic for this broken, segregated city. But Oha is no quitter. He set up a club, 'Growing from Music', and was the first person to bring bands together from both sides of the city. ‘Every time a project of mine collapsed,’ Oha said, ‘things became lighter and lighter. Nothing was going to be a catastrophe for me. The war had been that. So each project was better than the one before. I hadn’t been defeated in the war and wasn’t going to be defeated by a good idea involving music. And fuck them. I don’t have much money, but enough to invest. I have time for everyone. The rich, the poor, the good, the naughty. War taught me not to screw up.’
Today, he manages the rock school and the recording studio at the Centre and is producer of the annual Mostar Blues and Rock Festival.
The rock school employs five teachers and an administrator. Students come there from all over the region and it is recognised as a place where division and bitter memories are parked outside.
The Blues and Rock festival is in its thirteenth year and performers have included Dr Feelgood, Snowy White, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Sugar Blue and many local groups.
When I asked Oha about his hopes for the rock school he told me,
‘Mostar people lost hope. The internationals came and went. Always with a beginning and end. Too much starting and shutting down. The rock school is like a kitchen. They can learn not just music, but video making and music administration. Most important of all is, fuck it, they don’t even have to be musicians. If they go home with new friendships and new hopes, they can take this into their families and communities. They will have made links which will make renewed divisions and conflicts more difficult for those bastards to organise. I have a long-term view. Fast success is not good success. It’s better to be slow. Maybe in ten years I will be mayor of Mostar and finally fuck up their plans of dividing people.’
He laughed as he told me of two recent initiatives organised in Mostar. Using Facebook, emails and word of mouth, a 16-year-old created an event called Chocolate Mess. Young people were asked to come to Spanish Square on the old front line and bring chocolate to give away to strangers. Over 300 turned up with their chocolate. On another day, 200 high- school children stood outside the old Mostar music school with signs, WILL YOU UNITE US? IF NOT, FUCK OFF.
Oha has, of course, been at the forefront of the recent protests that broke out across the country against corruption and the political establishment. He is a powerful representative of what could be a better future for his country.
Oha and Teo now have families and both have made a success of their lives in different ways. Oha as a musician and impresario; Teo as a musician who now performs in Ljubljana cafés, but whose main task is to be a full-time father to his two sons.
Oha laughs when he tells me the story about taking Teo to the bus station in Mostar to join his Slovenian wife, Sanja, in Ljubljana. ‘He was wearing an old T-shirt and was carrying two plastic bags, one with socks and pants, the other with more T-shirts. His only other possession had been his guitar which he’d left with his mother. Four months later, I was performing in Ljubljana and was told that Teo was waiting for me at the front of the hall. He was standing there in a smart black coat and behind him, a brand new Toyota.’
Oha and his wife, Massa, have two daughters named Luna and Zoe. Luna, the Roman goddess of the moon. Zoe, meaning ‘life’ in Greek. Teo and Sanja have named their oldest son Anej, a shortened version of Anemoi, Greek gods of the winds. Given that Teo’s family name, Krili , translates as ‘wing’, this name is doubly appropriate. Their second son has the name Elis, also of Greek origin. All four names make it impossible for any future nationalists to decide their children’s religion and ethnicity.
Teo told me that Anej’s aunt gave him a toy gun and he had no idea what to do with it. The aunt pointed it at a cartoon cat on TV and said, ‘Look, I am killing the cat.’ The Bosnian word for kill is ubi. The word for love is ljubi. Teo laughed when he told me that Anej went up to the TV set and kissed the cat.
When Anne and I married in April 2008, Teo and Oha couldn’t be there. Teo had recently moved to Slovenia and Oha was busy preparing for that year’s Blues’ festival. Oha asked that their message be read to our wedding guests:
‘First, we want to say hallo to everyone there and we are really sorry to be unable to come and share this special moment with all of you great people. In the case that someone don’t know who we are, we are David’s two sons called Teo and Oha. We would like to ask all of you good people to give Anne and David big hug and make them feel good. We want to say few words about David so you know what is the man that you are dealing with, haha, but we are sure that you already know, right? We met David in 1996 for the first time. I was 18 and homeless. And Teo was all the time with me. David invited us to his place and offer us food. He gave us jobs and introduced me to Eugene Skeef who healed me my war hurt soul and he teached me to play music. This combination of this two people in my life was sat by nature. If there is God, he sat them, or it was their assistent, I can’t remember now, haha. I was feeling so close to David and I asked him one day if is ok if I take him as my father. After while I felt that David is very proud of Teo and me and he speaks of us as his sons. I cryed 100 times in front of David and I never did in front anyone else, even as a soldier with my 14 and a half. I got out all my unsolved rage from the war and all bad feelings went out. Father, thank you for being so patient listening my stories and my harmed soul. Teo and I will never forget where we come from and we come from you. We know that this is very special day for Anne and you and it is for all of us too. We wont bother you guys anymore. We want to tell you that we love you very much. And please, one more time we want to ask each of you, tonight, when you think the time is good for it, just give Anne and David a hug or at least touch them. It feels warm and we all need that. Have a good time and don’t drink more then seven beers if drive ;-) Big Love, Teo and Oha.’