Old Bridge or, if you say it in the native language, Stari Most, was one of the oldest structures in my country. The construction began in 1557 and lasted nine years. It is said to have been completed in the period of 1566/67. The greatest architectural work of its time connects two parts of the old town of Mostar, the city that was named after it. Upon its completion it was the widest man made arch in the world, standing about forty feet tall at its highest point. This timeless, beautiful architecture made of stone stood there for 427 years, crossing the most stunning river you will ever see, Neretva. Allowing only pedestrians over, this bridge stood there in all its glory until it was destroyed in November of 1993 during the ethnic cleansing war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The story I am going to tell you is about a little girl nicknamed Zela who grew up there, and what this magnificent bridge and this stunning city meant and still mean to her.
This was my favorite place to be. I remember, on many occasions, telling everyone I was going to move there as soon as I finish school, regardless of anyone’s objections. I was very proud to be hercegovka (a girl from Herzegovina) and the plan was to spend the rest of my life there…
The majority of my childhood memories are connected to this mystical place. No matter where I was, I could always smell the dry air, feel the heat on my skin, and see this striking bridge and old town in my head. My life there was filled with fun and amazing memories, among them my first broken heart. Most days I spent with my cousin Amina, who happened to be only five months younger than me. We did everything together, from sharing the same bed, eating all meals together, watching our little cousins, and of course getting in trouble together.
Summer days were spent down by the river. All the neighborhood kids knew to meet down there each day. The path going down to the river is very steep and on the edge of a cliff. The cliff is about fifty or sixty feet above water, so we had to be real careful walking down. We had to remain alert not to fall. No one ever did, but there was always that fear that we could. Going down the path, I could smell ripened figs and of course I looked around and picked some to eat on the way. Wild flowers were all around, sometimes reaching two to three feet tall. As I got closer to the bottom, I could see the paved platform through the trees and could definitely hear my friends talking. As we emerged from behind this huge rock that was blocking the view I could see everyone was already there, swimming, and enjoying the day.
Zlatko, a sixteen-year-old, dark haired boy, whom I had known for most of my life, came with his arms wide open to give me hug. As he called my name, everyone else turned around to greet me. This was the first time this summer that I saw them, so it was very special. Of course they all came to Indira and me to see us, chat, and just enjoy the company.
Then I saw this new kid sitting on a boulder. He was so handsome; he had brown spiky hair, nice luscious lips and brown eyes that were tentatively looking at me. My face got hot, I got a bit light headed and sweaty… I knew I was blushing big time. I turned around to walk back to the paved opening when Sasa greeted me and took one look at me; he slightly turned to look behind me, and with a smile on his face said:
“I see you met Elvis.”
I looked down sheepishly and said quietly, “I did not meet him, I just saw him. Who is he anyway?”
“He is a new kid in the neighborhood. He actually lives across the street from you, you can see his window from yours, over Nada’s little house.”
“Oh”, is all I could say.
We went on visiting, chatting and laughing. After we all moved to the other side of our little hand- made pond where it was still sunny, I found out the cute boy was Elvis C. He was seventeen, an only child and also joined kayaking with the rest of the clan. I kept looking over to where he was sitting and every time I did I would catch him looking at me. Most of my friends saw this too and eventually they decided they should just bring him to meet me. Even though I did not agree with their decision, deep inside I was glad. He came over smiling, shook my hand and introduced himself. I remember very clearly my heart skipping few beats at the warm touch of his hand. I didn’t know this at the time, but this summer was going to be the best and the worst time of my young teenage years.
The next day my uncle took me fishing. We got everything ready and walked down to join his friends. After we set everything up I got my fishing pole, put bait on, and cast my rod. To my surprise it went over the big boulder that was to the left of me and got stuck on something. I tugged at it, and as I was trying to figure out what to do, a red kayak showed up. I looked up ready to complain, just to realize it was Elvis, and the hook from my fishing pole was stuck on his kayak. First, I was embarrassed, but shortly after everyone saw what happened, we all started laughing. My uncle helped me “unhook” Elvis so he could go on with his training, but not before he secretly winked at me and made my heart skip few beats. Then everything went back to normal, or, so I thought.
For the next few days, Elvis and I started hanging out. In the beginning it was just at our meeting place, down by the river, but before long it turned out to be an all day, every day thing. We became best friends. I can’t say I didn’t like it, but as soon as I wanted to go out after dinner to hang out with my new best friend, whom I secretly fell in love with, I was told no. There were many nonrealistic explanations of why I couldn’t, which did not make any sense, until one day the truth came out. “You are a girl, and we don’t want the neighbors to start talking”, my family said to me. I was very hurt that no one believed or listened to what I had to say. We were friends and I wanted to spend time with all of them. That was it, all of it. There was no hidden truth here.
So for the next month or so, I became very angry with my family for not trusting me. Every time I left home I was told to be careful and not hang out with my “boyfriends” because that would give me a reputation, and not a good one at that. I was furious. For nobody trusted my judgment or believed me. I then realized my brother, who was only eleven, had a girlfriend. I confronted my parents: “How come Dario is allowed to have a girlfriend and I can’t even spend time with my friends down by the river?”
“Aren’t they cute together”, was not the response I expected at all.
“No, they are not cute together. They are only eleven. I wasn’t even able to be alone with a boy when I was that age. What is wrong with you people? How can you have such different rules for us? It is not fair!” I complained.
Nothing I said made any difference. I could have ranted on until I was blue in face, it would have not changed anything. Sitting in my room crying for days made me become more independent and rebellious, as well. I snuck out to be with my friends. One day Amina and I told our parents we are going to the library when we actually went into the old town to meet our friends on the Old Bridge. I remember standing in the middle of the bridge feeling free. The wind was blowing through my long hair, the sweet smell of an ice cream shop, different flavors of grilled food from surrounding restaurants, even sweet fruit aromas coming from piazza made me realize it was a bitter sweet moment. This bridge witnessed everything, from a young girl, with no worries, living a care free life to this same young girl becoming a woman where everything changes. It felt good that I was smart enough to find a way to be with my friends, but I also felt betrayed and sad that I had to lie to my family to accomplish that.
Four years later I was living in Copenhagen, Denmark, as a war refugee, when I watched the Old Bridge get bombed and eventually crumble into the river. The noise of flying bombs with the blast of them exploding, once they hit the arch of the bridge, and clatter of the stones falling into the roaring river I will never forget. I sat there in front of the TV hugging my little girl and crying. There was just this numbness. I could not believe what was happening. The moment that bridge fell, many memories went through my head. Finally, my childhood was gone. At that instant I have lost part of my life, my first love, my happy place. Part of me was gone. As a nineteen-year-old mom of an eight-month-old little girl, I had lost so much that day. Thinking about my friends and wondering if they were still alive, or if they were there fighting, made the old memories of happy mischievous times overcome my body and my soul. I recalled that bitter-sweet day when I hugged my little girl a little harder as I whispered in her ear: “I will never treat you different just because you are a girl, and I promise you that I will try my best to be a good mom and to have a loving relationship with you!”
The Old Bridge was rebuilt and finally, after eighteen years, I had enough courage to go back to visit. Since the bridge is only five minutes away from the house, I went there every day. Usually, I had to go to the Internet Café so I could talk with my family who stayed in the US. After my chat with everyone I would get ice cream, a different flavor each time, and just go to the middle of the bridge to stand there and savor everything.
The actual structure of the bridge was new; kind of white and shiny and not as slippery as the old one. The wind still felt the same in my hair and all the flavors surrounding the area still smelled the same. I would close my eyes and go back in time when everything was much simpler, when I was a young girl meeting my friends there, and yes I could still see my first love’s handsome face smiling at me.
People there have not changed much. Even though I am thirty-five years old and I can take care of myself, my uncle still called every night to check up on me and make sure I was safe. I often think about my promise to my little girl. She is almost eighteen, just a bit younger than I was when I made that promise. I can honestly say that I have kept it all these years. Partly, because life in America is somewhat different than in Bosnia, but mostly because I did not want her to go through the same pain of being a girl growing up in Bosnia, not being able to do things just because she is a girl, as I did.
copyright 2011 by Sanela Kubiak. All rights reserved.