It’s interesting how ones perspective changes.
At the time I wasn’t all that interested in the war. I remember hearing about it on the nightly news and wondering what reason there could be for it. I remember casually glancing at headlines as I worked my way to the sports page in the Kansas City Star each morning. But being a Midwestern boy in my mid teens, I generally concentrated more on sports than on the issues affecting people half way around the world. People I would never meet.
But now I’m here, in the Balkans, meeting some of those people (the ones that survived) I readily forgot about as a teen. If you haven’t guessed I’m in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where any direction I gaze, there are the ruins of war. Still. Shells of houses and office buildings, large and small, still left standing as a of cruel reminder of a war that ended almost 18 years ago. Both Sarajevo and Mostar (the two cities in which I’ve stayed while in country) have more than their share of these abandoned, empty monuments to an ugly, not so distant past. Like leaning stacks of Jenga blocks it’s almost incomprehensible how some still stand all these years later.
For me now, about 20 years on, the fleeting teenage curiosity which was easily dismissed in favor of MLB box scores has returned. So I’m here, learning the chronology of events which occurred while I was memorizing Green Day song lyrics…all but oblivious to the world’s ‘big picture’.
Since this happened in the 90’s it’s well documented with thousands of photos and hours of video. Not the grainy, reel to reel type video you may think of from the Vietnam War but decent quality late 20th Century cable news type video. The images displayed in the Bosnian Historical Museum and Siege Exhibition (both in Sarajevo) will not soon leave my mind and they make it easy to feel emotional pain and sadness about events that took place here only a generation ago.
But an even stronger emotion I’ve had the last few days is one of shame. Shame it took me two decades to learn about things I’m old enough to remember. And shame such events took place in my lifetime (and still are in other parts of the world).
Perhaps I feel more connected to this because my brother was here, off the coast in the Adriatic, while in the Navy. Perhaps because boys just a few years older than me, living within the Siege of Sarajevo, would be initiated into the Bosnian Army in 1992 and their Serbian counterparts could have been responsible for civilian deaths, murders really, in ‘Sniper Alley’, the road that connects industrial Sarajevo to its cultural and historic Old Town.
As someone traveling long-term, I take photos of many things (that’s what we do) but for some reason I haven’t taken too many while in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Below is one of the few. It’s a picture of a nail and some paint. The most important nail in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The nail and red paint was the marker used, on the out-of-town side of the Tunnel of Hope, to help guide the builders of the tunnel. I don’t know the logistics, but suffice it to say that looking from one side to the other, almost 1000 meters, through binoculars and seeing this nail somehow gave the engineers enough directional information so the two sides met in the middle, five meters under the airport runway.
The one question I asked my Tunnel Tour guide was, ‘What would have happened without the tunnel?’ The look on his face was at the same time stoic and frightened, thankful and worried. And it spoke volumes. Without the tunnel the hopes of people within the city would surely have declined. And a weakened resolve could have been enough to….well, I don’t want to think about it.
To me the nail symbolizes the cold, steely resolve of these people and both contributed to their survival.
Who knew a nail could mean so much?