Thursday, June 05, 2014

a bridge to elsewhere

“People pray directly to God.  They do not need priests and saints as intercessors.”

It could have been Martin Luther speaking.  But it wasn’t.  It was Silmer, our Muslim tour guide in Mostar, assuring us that the western press -- and President Obama -- tell nothing but lies about Islam.  According to him, Islam abhors violence, honors women, and is not an idolatrous religion like Christianity.

In most circumstances, I would simply say Gepetto’s little boy was telling whoppers again.  But these were not most circumstances.

I thought I was going to spend yesterday walking the streets of Dubrovnik.  Over breakfast, I changed my mind.  I decided to abandon the coastal jet set in favor of witnessing the current condition of one of Europe’s most recent horrors in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

That, unfortunately, meant violating my “no more bus tours” vow.  So, off I went with 42 of my fellow passengers, who dropped faster on the cobblestones of Bosnia than a herd of caribou under Sarah Palin’s rifle.

My focus of the trip was going to be on the 1991-1995 war that sliced up the former Yugoslavia into “countries” that make little sense.

From Austria south to Albania, the Balkans are made up of Slavs who speak the same language.  When Woodrow Wilson and the boys at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference started playing Pin the Tale on the Doctrine with the pieces of the former Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, they decided the principle of “self-determination” meant that the people who spoke Serbo-Croatian were actually one nation and should all be corralled in the new hybrid kingdom of Yugoslavia -- an experiment in multi-culturalism that was doomed to fail.

The French and British, of course, had euchred Woodrow the Naive.  They both wanted a large nation-state in the Balkans to further their own national interests -- knowing full well that the constituent parts of Yugoslavia were no more compatible than pork roast at a Muslim wedding.

The Bosnians were primarily Muslim.  The Croats were Roman Catholic and used the Latin alphabet.  The Serbs were Orthodox and used the Cyrillic alphabet.  Oh, yes.  One other slight detail.  They all hated each other for historical reasons.

The stew held together only because one group or other dominated the rest for a couple of decades.  At the end of the Second World War, Tito brought the nation together with old-fashioned communist oppression.

When he died and the rest of the communist Europe started unraveling like a Bulgarian rug, Yugoslavia had a nasty divorce.  Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia split off.  Serbia and Montenegro (what was left of Yugoslavia) attacked the secessionists.  The most difficult of these violent births happened in Bosnia.

Bosnia had been a province of the Ottoman Empire for 300 years and became part of Austria’s imperial holdings just before the First World War.  The Turks left behind a heavy slathering of their culture -- including their religion. 

A majority of Bosnians are Muslim.  A large minority are Orthodox Serbs.  About 10% are Catholic Croatians.

In an attempt to create a Greater Serbia, the Serbs tried to seize all of Bosnia -- indulging in a series of ethnic cleansings.  In most of the country, the Bosnians and Croatians allied to fight the Serbians.

But not in the ancient town of Mostar.  The Bosnians and Croats went to war against one another.  First, they destroyed 90% of the old city.  And then divided up the ruins with the city’s river -- once a symbol of the city’s unity -- serving as a border between them.

Bill Clinton helped the parties to come to come to a settlement -- of sorts.  The country was divided into Muslim and Orthodox administrative areas.  The Serbs, Croats, and Muslim inside the country’s borders still bear deep wounds.  I could hear it in Silmer’s voice.  Our Croatian guide, Tomas, regaled us with almost 30 minutes of how evil the Serbs and Montenegrins were as evidenced by their repeated shelling of Dubrovnik.

On the surface, things have changed.  Mostar’s old city has been rebuilt.  Buildings constructed in the 15th and 16th century have been rebuilt.  But, like most reconstructions, they lack the soul of the original -- in the same way that Las Vegas and Disneyland try to reproduce foreign experiences.

I could hear that same “papered-over” tone in Silmer’s voice when he told us about the vacant lot that once housed the Jewish synagogue before the Germans arrived in Mostar.  The city is now building a replacement.

Silmer rolled his eyes and said: “For 46 Jews.  We are doing this for 46 Jews -- when we have so many needs.”

I would like to say that when Mostar rebuilt its old bridge, which had been built in 1556 to honor the greatest of Ottoman rulers, that its restoration was a symbol of hope for Bosnia -- and the other republics surrounding it.

But, I can’t.  Nations cannot be created from the top down.  In its current form, Bosnia is simply an administrative unit.  Not a nation.

You might conclude my pessimism appears to suffer from a flaw in inductive reasoning.  But I hear more than the voices of Tomas and Silmer.  The history of this region speaks far too eloquently.

I am glad I could see Bosnia, though, on a clear sunny day when the restored bridge offers the illusion of a promising future.  I wish it would always be so.


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