Dear fellow travellers
In territories dissected by great ravines, bridges become the very symbols of civilisation. And nowhere more so than in Bosnia. In The Bridge on the Drina, the epic Nobel Prize winning novel by Bosnian writer Ivo Andric, Mehmed Pasha's bridge over the Drina at Visegrad is the artery that sustains an entire region. "Men learned from the angels of God how to build bridges", writes Andric, "and therefore, after fountains, the greatest blessing is to build a bridge and the greatest sin to interfere with it."
We have been travelling through Bosnia and Herzegovina this past week, a region of Europe where bridges, be they on the Neretva, the Drina or the Sava long symbolised the productive co-existence of Serbs, Muslims and Croats. When a mortar round caused the bridge at Mostar finally to collapse into the Neretva gorge in November 1993, it wasn't just bricks and mortar that tumbled into the abyss. With the bridge went the last vestige of hope for many of Mostar's inhabitants. The old structure, one of the most striking pieces of Islamic architecture in all Europe, had something of the spirit of Bosnia. For observers in western Europe, who had tired of media pictures of mass graves and long lines of displaced refugees, the painful gap where once had stood the bridge at Mostar became the symbol of a country that was being rent asunder.
All wars eventually run their course, and Mostar today is a very different place from the dark days of the nineties. The sullen roar of war has been replaced by peace, and Mostar's old bridge has been rebuilt - a delicate arch that spans both the Neretva gorge and the pain of recent history. The bridge links communities and acts as an affirming flame for the values of civilisation. The bridge and the cafés that cluster in a jumble on the banks of the Neretva are happy spots to linger, enjoy a Turkish coffee, and ponder the common misfortunes of the communities that make up modern Bosnia and Herzegovina.
the end of Ramadan
The tempo of our Bosnian journey was mediated by the calls of the muezzin from slender minarets and by quiet moments by fountains in courtyards with tumbles of bougainvillea, the first of the new season's figs and luscious ripe pomegranates. But it was not all tranquility. The end of Ramadan early on Friday morning, in the central Bosnian town of Donji Vakuf, was a noisy affair. Scarcely had the muezzin proclaimed the end of the month of fasting than the town erupted in a frenzied explosion of firecrackers. By the time morning prayers in the town's blue-domed mosque were over, kids throwing firecrackers had ensured a heavy pall of smoke hung over the main square. That, and the pervasive smell of burnt explosives, must surely have reminded more than a few of the town's citizens of the times, not so very long ago, when it was not kids playing with firecrackers but armed militias who dominated life in this mountainous region. Peace may have returned to this valley, but the end of Ramadan in Donji Vakuf, as throughout the Islamic world, still comes with a bang.
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