Monday 1 July 2019

Left Field: CHAPTER 37 - Behind God's Back

This hooptedoodle is something Anne Aylor wrote on her first trip to Mostar. The New Republic was interested in ‘Behind God’s Back’1. The editor asked for a shorter piece that focused only on the bakery. Anne felt a truncated article about a heroic city that had been under siege for so long would be a sell-out to the people of Mostar. She chose for it to remain unpublished rather than shorten it. Which is why it deserves an audience now. 

26th July, 1994. Midnight, Dover. I am on my way to East Mostar, invited by War Child to visit their operations in Bosnia. As we sit waiting for papers from customs, a lorry full of cattle can be heard lowing. The word is too gentle for the terrible sounds they are making above the rumbling engines of sixteen-wheelers driving onto the Calais ferry. It is the cows’ last night on earth and they know it.

Outside Nuremburg, I first see the white trucks of the UN, a sign that we are approaching a war zone. A bronze Buddha, which I have taken with me as a talisman, slides back and forth along the dashboard in the lotus position.
We are delayed for an hour and a half at the Austrian border because we haven’t been given the right customs’ stamp in Dover. In addition to transporting bakery supplies, medicines and parcels to people in East Mostar, War Child is carrying three bags of human insulin. Life in a bottle. Packed in melting ice, it is warming in the blistering heat.  

Driving through Slovenia, we pass fields of corn, sunflowers, hops. Names with unusual patterns of consonants and more Js than you would see in a dozen English dictionaries. We pass a road sign to Vrnijka. Almost rhymes with Guernica.

In Croatia, near Karlobag, the hills are bare and rocky. Centuries ago, the Venetians stripped them of trees to build their city and ships for their fleets, which is why we can find no shade during a three-hour traffic jam on the road towards Zadar. We hear rumours that the delay is because a helicopter has been shot down. A sun-shaded army officer paces back and forth, screaming and cursing in Croatian. Two lanes blocked with traffic: a fire engine behind us, a bus in front. Utter chaos with no one in control.

Two hours later, we are told to drive up a small slip road, but there is no room for our pick-up. We are the last vehicle blocking the traffic and our driver is understandably anxious. We are in hostile territory with boxes addressed to people with Muslim surnames, clearly visible in the bed of the truck.

When the road has been cleared and we are given permission to continue our journey, we see what has caused the delay: two overturned container lorries that had been full of pigs. The ones that are alive are being hosed down by soldiers. What is eerie is that the animals are completely silent. They are traumatised, dead or dying in the 40 degree C heat. I wonder if it is the first time in history that an army has been deployed to help animals on their way to slaughter.

We pass the toppled containers and see dozens of UN vehicles facing the other way. It has been seven hours since the accident and these drivers will be here for many more. Seeing our War Child sticker, one of them waves at me. I ask him if he speaks English so I can tell him what is causing the delay. He shakes his head, says that he is German. ‘Schwein,’ I say, one of the few words I can remember from my high-school German, and thumb in the direction at the overturned lorries.

At Maslenica we drive across a pontoon bridge because the steel bridge has been destroyed by the Serbs. Piled high on either side are hundreds of old tyres. As we roll noisily across the pontoon’s metal plates, the clanking sounds like shell fire.
On the other side of the bridge is an area which has been ethnically cleansed. Croatian houses damaged by the Serbs, or vice versa, have gaping holes or are roofless. Those belonging to the minority ethnic group in the area, the Bosniaks, lay in concrete heaps, dynamite charges having been placed at the four corners so that they collapsed neatly, like a pack of cards.

We arrive at our pansion outside Split where the UNHCR and other aid agencies have their headquarters. The family who own the pansion have been kind to Jim Kennedy, War Child’s Field Director, whenever he is in town: treating him like one of their own, feeding him and relaying messages from his London office. Since the mobile bakery operated by War Child moved from Me ugorje, where it had fed Catholic Croatian refugees, and is now based in East Mostar feeding Muslims, their attitude has been decidedly chillier.

When we arrive, Jim is sitting at a table in the dark, smoking. We are a day late and he’s been waiting for us. He tells us that there has been an attack on a UN convoy into Sarajevo; a British soldier has been killed. ‘Don’t look like you’ll get into Sarajevo with the insulin,’ he says. ‘The Serbs have no qualms. If they’ll fire at the UN, they’ll fire at anyone.’

The pansion where we are staying tonight is on the Magistrala. On one side the beach, the boats, the towels reserving bathing positions, vine-covered terraces, baked and sunburnt bodies, children skipping stones. On the other side, the war and the rumble of white-painted convoys as they roll into central Bosnia to distribute food and medicine to the ethnically cleansed, the dispossessed, the sick, the hungry. The street itself is a metaphor: of the peace that is so close to war.

The Magistrala is where you find the aid agencies, large and small. For some, but not all, this has been a good war: a little work, a lot of R&R. Spanking new white Land Rovers are parked along the roadside which seem to have rarely travelled into the war zone.

After picking up our UN cards, we enter the ‘Muslim’ ghetto that is East Mostar. We go first to the War Child bakery which has been installed on the HEPOK industrial estate. Pallets are stacked high with tonnes of US flour donated by the UNHCR. Stamped on the bags, in blue capitals, NOT TO BE SOLD OR EXCHANGED. USE NO HOOKS. On other pallets, sacks of Danish salt. 

Fourteen local workers and six War Child volunteers are covered in flour, their arms and legs magnolia white like the Wilis in Giselle. A gloved Bosnian is using a long pole to pull the hot baking tins out of the ovens. Another leans over for a woman to brush the flour dust from his hair.

There are five mobile ovens for baking bread, but only three are operational because War Child doesn’t have the funding to buy diesel to run the generator to provide enough fuel for all of them.
It is three o’clock in the afternoon and, after working since 5am, the bakery staff are ready to go home. In addition to the UN Spanish Battalion which is based close to the compound, there are soldiers from the Bosnian Republican Army to protect the bakery. The week before, there had been an armed exchange between the HVO, the Croatian army operating in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the bakery guards. The HVO had climbed into the compound early in the morning and there had been small arms fire. One of the volunteers said that the attack had been provoked by the thousands of gallons of wine and rakija which are stored on the estate, but I think it is because the bakery, first situated in Croatian-controlled Bosnia, has moved into a Muslim enclave. Before the bakery arrived in Mostar two months ago, there had been no regular supply of bread in this part of town for over a year.

Like all of East Mostar, life in HEPOK is primitive, basic, hard. No electricity, no fresh food, no running water. The only water available is from the bakery bowser. Washing is done in a bucket, or in the River Neretva in town. Serbs on the hills to the east, Croats to the west, SPANBAT at the entrance. Everyone wants the jewel that is Mostar. On a building adjacent to the bakery is written OPREZ MINIRANO. Beware of mines. 

I take my first drive into the city. Everywhere you look are cut railway lines dangling in space, UNHCR plastic on all the windows, a wall with STOP KILLING THE CHILDREN daubed on it. On the street are rows and rows of metal lockers. A flimsy barricade against snipers, they look like dented upright coffins.

We drive through terrible devastation to reach the one pharmacy warehouse that distributes medicine to all of East Mostar. The insulin we deliver, which should be refrigerated, is put in boxes on the floor. Two fridges have been donated to the warehouse, but they are empty because there is no constant power supply. A boxed computer also sits unused because a surge protector is needed to stop current spikes. The pharmacy doesn’t have a desk or enough chairs. Their ashtray is a Petri dish which is normally used for growing cultures.

Before the war, the building had housed a large organisation with 40 employees. After the school had been destroyed across the road, the pharmacy improvised one in their former office upstairs. We ask if there are plans to rebuild it. They smile and say, ‘Only in a basement.’

The director of the pharmacy tells us, ‘My father is Serb, my mother, Muslim. What am I? I am married to a Croat. What are my children? What are they supposed to call themselves now? On the other side of the city they have everything. We used to have everything. Now we have nothing. We have only our lives.’

He is a refugee in his own city. When the war started, he had to flee to the other side. He hasn’t seen his wife and children for almost two years. He says the Croats have stolen his flat.

They stole my family. They stole everything. If someone steals something from you and they say they did it because, to them, you are nothing but a dirty Muslim, then you shrug your shoulders and say, “Oh well, it’s unfortunate that that is what I am.” At least there is some reason for it. But when they steal from you and that reason is not real, and the reasons they give for it are phoney and illogical, then there is no way you can live with that because you can’t say, “I’m a Muslim, bad luck on me.” I’m not. That is the crime. We don’t want to be Muslims. We are so mixed. They want us to be Muslims.’

He adds that 90 per cent of Mostar wanted to live together; they always had. ‘It is the scum who started this war. The fascists are a minority. The majority of people go along with it because of fear, and a few courageous people resist it.’

As we leave, lying in a triangle of land outside their office is an architect’s blueprint with the lettering Nova Podruma. I carry it to the car and ask the driver what it means. He says, ‘New basement.’

We pass a graveyard on the way back to HEPOK. The word for it in Serbo-Croat is groblje, a word that sounds as if it were a JRR Tolkien invention. Amidst the ruins of the city, this old Muslim cemetery is miraculously untouched. I mention it to Jim and he says they wouldn’t waste a mortar on a groblje. But graveyards, I say, are the past, as much as any building. Destroy the graveyards, I say, and you destroy the memories.

Mortars,’ he says, ‘are designed to get people into the cemetery and once they have accomplished that, they’ve done their job.’

Despite the destruction, Mostar is coming back to life after two years of siege, first from the Serbs and then from their former allies, the Croats. Some shops and bars are open. There is even an improvised outdoor cinema screen in the middle of town that a city official walked to Sarajevo for and carried back by hand.

That night we sit outside the bakery to have our only meal of the day. To the east, the Serbs, and to the west, the Croats. There are candles on the table and the sounds of a raucous wedding which echo across the valley.

We slap our arms and legs. The mosquitoes are out.

Jim says, ‘They don’t like the smell of yeast.’ He brings a packet out of the bakery. I wet my finger and rub the dry yeast over my skin. The wedding grows louder: singing, clapping, shouting, laughter, then the sound of guns or firecrackers. War or celebration? It’s impossible to tell.

At night, we sleep on the roof of the building next to the bakery. Improvised beds laid on flour pallets, positioned so that you will be in the shade when the sun comes up. But now it is night and the sky is clear and beautiful. Even without my contact lenses, I can see the Milky Way, a white river of stars. There is a breeze, the sound of cicadas. An owl hoots in the distance. I think to myself that we are light years away from Alpha Centauri, the nearest star. We are looking at history, at stars that might not even exist any more because they exploded aeons ago, their light still racing towards us. It is peaceful and still and, for a few hours, the war seems distant.

In the morning, I see an ashtray at the bakery, improvised from the end of a loaf of bread. A hole has been hollowed out of the centre and four grooves cut to rest cigarettes on. I think about a gypsy woman I had seen once in London with her young daughter. The child wanted a roll that her mother had in her purse, but it was too dry and hard to eat. The gypsy explained this to her little girl, then kissed the bread before she threw it away. This precious bread that people had been starving for only a few months ago.

Paddy, a black-and-yellow tom, is the bakery cat. Paddy belonged to an American aid worker who was living in Mostar at the height of the fighting. One day a friend came to visit and took a flash photograph of the ruins outside the aid worker’s flat. Seeing the flash of light, an artillery gunner fired a shell through her window. She was cooking dinner at the stove when her body was torn in half. The photographer was unhurt. Paddy came to live at the bakery. In Bosnia, even animals have their stories.

Despite all this, what strikes me in this place is the struggle for normality in spite of everything. Another thing that strikes me is the number of toothless men. That is until I find out from Ahmet, one of the bakery workers, that his teeth had been knocked out by the HVO. He shows me his arms that are scarred where the Croatian soldiers had slashed him when they came to his house to take him away. Ahmet lied about his age, said he was 65, and was left behind with the women and children.

He limps a little when he walks because the canvas shoes he is wearing are too small. They belonged to his son and, along with a vest and the shorts he is wearing, are the only possessions he owns. His son, now safe in America, was taken to a concentration camp during the war. ‘My son has been lucky,’ Ahmet says, ‘because the HVO would take 60 people and lock them in a garage until they died like pigs.’
Ahmet says that he went out at night to find berries for his granddaughter because there was nothing for her to eat. His life had been in danger because of the snipers on the hillside. He says they killed everyone, even the women who went out at night to wash clothes in the river.

I ask him what was the worst thing during the height of the fighting.

Fear. You didn’t mind being hungry as long as you were free. But fear, that was much worse than hunger. People were so frightened they would take four times the recommended dose of aspirin because it helped to prevent heart attacks.’

He shows me the hand-written ration card issued in his name by the Bosnian government, OCTOBER written at the top and the numbers from 1 to 31 ruled out by hand. A cross over a number indicated the days he was able to get food, a small bag of rice or beans. I count the Xs, twelve days in every month. A 14-day stretch with no food at all. He carries the ration card in his wallet. ‘This,’ he says, holding the limp piece of paper, ‘shows what I have been through.’

Despite all he has witnessed and suffered, Ahmet is not bitter. He looks forward to the time when he can see his Serbian and Croatian friends again. He distinguishes between those who committed the cruelty and murder, and those who happened to share the same religion. I was reminded of something Martha Gellhorn wrote during the Spanish Civil War: ‘You have seen no panic, no hysteria, you have heard no hate talk. You know they have the kind of faith which makes courage and a fine future. You have no right to be disturbed.’

I ask Ahmet when he thinks life will be normal again. He shrugs, talking more with his shoulders than his tongue. Holding up both hands he says, ‘Deset godina.’ Ten years.

On Sunday they have the jump into the River Neretva. It is an annual event in Mostar, but they haven’t had one in the past two years because of the war. Competitors stand on the rickety suspension bridge that hangs where their beloved bridge once stood and jump, or dive, 24 metres into the ice-cold water. Most are Bosnians, but Matt, an Australian volunteer at the bakery, is participating as an act of solidarity with the local people.

After the competition, hundreds of men and women sit in the square at tables or on the marble steps. There is nothing to eat, but you can buy beer or juice if you are lucky enough to be an aid worker; no one else has any money. Disco music blares in the background.

At first it feels like a fiesta: women in their best dresses, waiters running up and down the steps with trays of drinks. It seems as if things are back to normal until you look more closely. At the tables people are talking, but there is no laughter. No one is smiling. All the children are quiet and, if you study the faces of the young men, they have the hard, dead eyes of soldiers. They are not looking at the pretty girls, but staring blankly into space. We are the only ones who look relaxed. After two years of living in cellars, they have put on a show for themselves. East Mostar is traumatised. This is an attempt at celebration.

On Tuesday we are invited to dinner by the foreman at the bakery. By three, the bake of 4,000 loaves is done and there is the possibility of a swim in the Neretva. We follow him through the narrow streets to his home. He pushes a bicycle (‘my car,’ he jokingly calls it), two half-kilos of bread under his arm.

His house is not his house at all. The flat he had had in Mostar has been destroyed, and the house he built in the nearby village of Blagaj was finished five days before the war started. His house was on the front line; he hasn’t seen it for two years and doesn’t know if it’s still standing.

The flat he is living in now belongs to a Serbian-Croatian family who fled the Muslim side of the city when the war began. This, too, is on what had been the front line. Three houses at the end of his street are in ruins. He says the people in them were killed when the HVO rolled tractor tyres filled with explosives down the hillside.

His flat is cool and tidy. As in all Muslim homes, we leave our shoes in the hall. There is the Koran on the sideboard and a copper plate on the wall of an Arab leading a camel.

His wife talks about the day their flat had been bombed. Her husband was in the toilet when three mortars landed. She says they sat in the ruins laughing because they were grateful to be alive. ‘You can cry,’ she says, ‘or you can laugh. Laughing is better.’

She has prepared a wonderful meal: evapc ic i, cheese and meat pies, barbequed chicken, a salad made from cabbage, tomatoes, onions and chickpeas. We are lucky to eat so well because in Mostar there is little food. Jim bought all the ingredients the day before from a Croat shop outside the city. It’s the first fresh food all of us have had in days, not tinned beef or soup or pasta.

Before the meal, I was shown every photograph the family possessed: from the parents’ childhood pictures to those of their son’s. I was taken through one family’s journey of 30 years. I was shown photographs of people who were no more, of a country that was no more. The old people had not died a natural death; they had died violently from sniper fire and mortar attack. Many of the young men smiling from the pages of her album – cousins, friends, a brother – had died at the front.

Proudly, the wife brought out a baby book that she’d made for her son. She had neatly written his family tree, his first visitors at the hospital, his first words. ‘Tata,’ she said a little wistfully, ‘not Mama.’ She turned page after page, carefully translating the captions she’d written. She brought out a lock of baby hair and the black stump of her son’s umbilical cord which she’d kept for good luck.

By the time we’d reached his fourth birthday, there were only a few lines: ‘We are refugees and things are very hard.’ No picture, only some words. ‘There was no photograph that year because we had no money for film.’

On her son’s fifth birthday, the pages were completely blank. She said, ‘Maybe I should try to write something.’ She slowly shakes her head. ‘No, maybe it is better that nothing is there.’

Now I understand why his father had said what he did when I first met his son. I asked how old he was and he said, ‘My son is six years old, but he has had only four years of life.’

The following day we visit Azra Ratkusic’s family in the middle of town. They are refugees from Stolac. Azra is a diabetic and has to inject herself twice a day. Her brother, Kamel, speaks English he taught himself from a book and Spanish which he learned from the SPANBAT soldiers based in Mostar since the beginning of the war.

We ask Kamel what it had been like for his sister during the fighting. He says that Azra had almost died twice after being in a diabetic coma because she couldn’t get insulin and didn’t have proper food to eat. We ask to see her insulin supply. The bottles she has been given by another charity are a year out of date.

Azra’s grandmother appears at the door in her slip and offers to make us coffee. She is an old lady, but still has a glint in her eye. She giggles about the slip, then tells us she was driven out of her home by the Croats wearing what she has on.

The family had been well off before the war. They had had cars, videos, a summer home, vacations abroad. Sophisticated, cultured people, the old woman’s children were doctors and lawyers. The ones that survived live in abject poverty, their homes and possessions stripped from them for no other reason than the fact they have a Muslim name.
That day the old woman’s son swam across the Neretva. For two years he’d been living on the Catholic side of the city in fear of his life. ‘He isn’t here,’ she says, crying. ‘He is walking up and down the streets. He can’t believe he’s free.’

Azra’s aunt comes in from work at the tobacco factory. Before the war, Zilla had been an economist. Now she does menial work to provide for her children. Like so many women here, she is a widow. She tells us that she watched as her husband was shot in front of her eyes. It is difficult not to cry with her. I do, hiding behind my dark glasses. 

‘How can you go on?’ I finally ask.

She smiles sadly. ‘Moramo biti herojia.’ We must be heroic.

The next day, a BBC reporter, who came to film War Child’s activities in the city, goes with me to meet Hamid Custovic, the official responsible for food distribution in the city. Over whiskey, Hamid explains his view of the war. ‘Before the war, the mosques were empty. Even now, after all this talk of us “Muslims”, there are still only a few old women there at prayer time. The bridge was our life and they took that from us. They took what was most important. This war has nothing to do with religion. When you hear the muezzin call, you can tell the time of day.’

He adds, ‘I used to live in West Mostar, close to the cathedral. I loved that cathedral and I loved its clock. I used to look out at it from my flat. When the clock stopped because some idiot damaged the building, I was very sad because I couldn’t tell the time any more. Something important had been removed from my life. You know,’ he said, ‘that clock on the cathedral and the call to prayer from the mosque are one and the same.’

The reporter asks Hamid what the plans were for rebuilding the city. He smiles sadly, ‘The people here don’t feel they have a future. The fighting isn’t over. They would like to think that it is, but they know it is not. That is the real sadness of this place. The West did nothing to stop this war, and they will let it happen again.’

It is our last day in Mostar. Earlier this morning, the UNHCR informed us that the town is on orange alert and that all aid agencies should leave the city centre and return to their bases. Sitting under the guns of both the Serbs and Croats, War Child is one of the few agencies that live and work on the east side of the river. It was advice that could only be ignored.

We sit with two bakery workers in the one black-market restaurant on this side of the city: fresh meat and salad in a town without fresh meat and salad at a cost that only foreigners can afford. None of us have eaten for two days and we are looking forward to the grilled trout, beer and vegetables.

We have just been served when the shelling starts, a loud explosion perhaps a street away. At first I’m not too frightened because one of the Bosnians explains that it’s a pat. A word that sounds innocuous enough until he says that it’s an air explosion that rains down shrapnel. ‘Probably a Serb gunner who’s had his first slivovitz of the evening,’ he says. ‘Nothing to worry about.’

Eleven violent explosions follow, one after another, causing masonry to fall into the street from a nearby building. My ears hurt; my stomach goes into spasm. Even though everyone has not eaten for days, the food on the table remains untouched. Conversation continues, everyone pretending to be unconcerned, but the much looked forward to meal remains unfinished.

Are you scared?’ one of our guests asks.

I am afraid I’ll be killed, but I look across the courtyard at a baby crying, then at the men and women still walking past, unconcerned, in the street. To the people of East Mostar, this is nothing unusual. I reply with the only words possible. ‘I have no right to be.’

There is a saying in the former Yugoslavia, that to be in a terrible place is to find yourself behind God’s back. East Mostar is behind God’s back. 


1 Letter from The New Republic, September 19th, 1994: ‘Dear Ms Aylor, Thank you for submitting “Behind God’s Back” to us for consideration. We enjoyed the piece, but in its current form, it is too long for publication. We might consider publishing a 1,500−2,000 word piece on the bakery, however, and we invite you to submit something of that length. Sincerely, David Greenberg, Managing Editor’. 

1 comment:

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