As I have mentioned already, when I got to Milton Keynes, I found it was well-endowed with book, writing and poetry groups. I joined one of these and with such clubs, we were set various tasks to do and this and the next few stories stemmed from the tasks we were set to write about. This one was to write a short story or poem based on an old photograph. I had been interested in Yugoslavia and its wartime experiences; I had known both Serbs and Croats in London and I also knew British people who had been in Yugoslavia when it collapsed and were evacuated. So this seemed like a good venue for a story. I had been disappointed when I had read Alastair MacLean's 'Partisans' (1982) set in the fragmented Yugoslavia of the Second World War. I liked the fact that he included references to the different factions in the country at the time, but it was too twisty in the narrative, there was so much double-crossing that you utterly lose track and after a while you cannot be bothered, it seemed a wasted opportunity and apparently was unpopular with even his established fans. Anyway, the news about rebuilding the bridge at Mostar was current in the mid-2000s when I wrote this story. However, looking back on it now, I feel very uneasy about this story, feeling that I should have stayed away from this subject area and certainly not produced a story for my own benefit out of it. That is despite my view that everyone should be free to write on any topic, but perhaps it was just too recent for me to be comfortable with.
The view through the grimy lorry window was of an old landscape, unchanged. It was just the buildings lying derelict amongst it that showed me how much trauma this land had experienced. I glanced at my watch, it was two-thirty. We could not be that far from the town now. I glanced over at Milan, but his eyes were fixed on the road. It was a shame that the weather was not better, the plateau we were driving across could be glorious in sunshine but maybe it was suitable, maybe it was a time to be sombre. From the lorry everything still seemed second-hand, just as when I had seen the events on ZDF. I worried what I would feel when I stepped down from the cab and faced it for real. Would I feel the ghosts around me? Would I just feel empty? Would I just become swept up in the introductions, the welcomes, the business? We passed another charred skeleton of a house. I stopped my thoughts running from wondering if its occupants were now in some mass grave and switched my focus to a repaired house, one with a girl by the door toying with a cat.
For the thousandth time my fingers reached into my jacket to touch the old photo. It was like a scab I could not leave. I wondered if I had been right to bring it, my sole tangible connection to this place. This time I took it out. The back side appeared first with its faded writing ‘September ’39’. Already the continent had been at war, but it had impacted little on us down here. It took another couple of years and a coup before Hitler became interested in us. I flipped the photo over. I knew the image well, though I doubt I had looked at five times in the past five decades. It shows two teenage boys, myself and Abid, grasping hands as they stand on top of Mostar bridge. They were hesitating whilst Zdenk, my eldest brother, took three shots with his brown box camera. Seconds later we were proving our courage, plunging into the cool water of the River Neretva below. The dream of that summer did not die for almost another three years until we dragged Zdenk’s body farther down the same river, sodden and with three dark circles of German bullets staining his shirt.
I shook myself. I had begun to think how many other corpses had ended up in the same waters, both then and through more recent murders. Each one has to be pulled out by someone, each one has to be missed by someone. Burying Zdenk was the end of the adventure for us. The next years were serious and they have remained like that. Though we saw little action, the war set Abid and myself up for good positions in Tito’s Yugoslavia. We were the proudest of the victors, the only country in Eastern Europe to kick out the Germans without needing the Red Army, but we were radical too and Communism was the only creed. United by conflict, Abid and me worked closely in our years at Mostar’s technical school, but our objectives were different. He was the keen one in the marches through May the First Square; I just came to be seen. I wanted to build on my skills; he looked for a post in the administration. Ultimately, we both got what we wanted.
I know how my life went, a ‘gastarbeiter’ in the West Germany of the economic miracle. Despite my qualifications I started as a building labourer: long hours spent in soulless German cities, rebuilding their industrial might. At least I was part of a community, other Yugoslavs, Italians and Turks, we kept to ourselves but all knew we were in the same position: living in scummy rooms, a population that despised and exploited you. The only way out was hard work: during the day on the site and studying at night. It took me years, but I got far enough to become a West German engineer. Now my work directs the new cheap labour: Ostis and Poles, the odd Lithuanian and Russian.
By the late Sixties I had become part of the system, with a flat of my own, a lovely Italian wife, Carina and our twins. As for Abid I could only guess, I pictured a trajectory through the local party and maybe on to national celebrity. I did not know. I did not know if he lived or died a peaceful death. I prayed he was not rounded into a barbed-wired camp and had a Kalashnikov bullet put through his head.
Mostar. Our journey was almost at an end. There was a cluster of people around the shattered bridge. I saw Hungarians from the NATO engineering team that had pulled many of the bridge’s 427 stones from the river below. Milan parked the lorry and I had the door open and was out on the street. The language, the accent around me was familiar, welcoming. I shook a dozen hands without thinking. It was the bridge that drew me. Once the link between East and West, it was now the dividing line between Bosnians, Bosnians of the Muslim and Croat variety. I shook off other well-wishers and strode past the Halebija Tower to the ragged edge. People clustered around me, but I was blind to them. My eyes strained to see the other side. We were mirrored by a group of people over there. I recognise Izetbegovic from the press photos, but my gaze continued to hunt, until I saw the slender old man among them. I tugged the small photo from my wallet and wave it above my head. He stepped forward, the press of people seeming to part before him. He smiled and fumbled in his pockets. He too waved a browned photograph. Yet, the bridge between us remained smashed and the Neretva continued relentlessly flowing in the divide.