The scars of war

There can be few places where the scars of the Bosnian War remain so evident today: buildings pocked with bullet holes, split by shells or shorn of their roofs, and the quaint old town, with its iconic medieval bridge, looks as sparkling new as a Vegas imitation.

Of course, the immediate aftermath of the Bosnian Serb onslaught was far more dramatic; what remained then was more rubble than town. Sites of recent wars and atrocities serve as memorials to the fallen but also as cautionary reminders of the horrors of war in general, perhaps boosting a collective human consciousness and mitigating against future conflict elsewhere in some immeasurable way.

If so, the locals I met in Mostar played their part. A garrulous lady not only insisted that I have a cuppa in her coffee shop perched atop the medieval bridge tower but also that I thumb through a tatty photo book crammed with dramatic post-war images. The curator at the city museum added his own commentary to a war documentary that included archive footage of the bridge collapsing under the weight of shelling. In both cases, landmark buildings were unrecognizable from the Mostar that I tramped through on a crisp winter’s day some thirty years later.

Material destruction is not the principal tragedy of course; buildings can be repaired or even reconstructed like the bridge was but lost lives will never be recovered and the trauma of survivors cannot be erased. Though long-contested, the consensus among scholars today is that some 100,000 people died in the Bosnian War, with many more displaced. Such a toll is all the more stark considering that it happened within the living memory of large swathes of the population; no wonder the locals still have photos and stories to share with their visitors.

War in Europe’s own backyard was also a wake-up call for Western leaders asleep at the wheel, complacent after fifty years of peace, a reminder of how ineffective global conflict resolution mechanisms could be in the face of local politics and sentiments. Valuable lessons could be learned now that the drums of war are echoing again around Europe. But history teaches us that this is unlikely.

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