Comment: What it means to burn our bridges

Writers on the war
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THOSE WHO have had their land torn from them will always talk of the past with regret in their voices; they tell stories of those glorious days gone by, of their riches and, above all, of the homes they were forced to abandon. My grandmother was one such refugee, a repatriated settler from the Balkans. Like many Turks in Macedonia, she had been forced to flee her home during the Balkan wars. My ancestors had fled massacre and had been crammed into refugee camps. I grew up hearing this story of exodus, famine and horror, which differs little from the story of the exiled ethnic Albanians today.

Did the men who sowed the seeds of the "Great Serbia"idea after the rupture of Yugoslavia in 1991, realise that in 1922 the Greek army which had advanced as far as central Anatolia to achieve their "Great Idea" had also provoked catastrophe by displacing entire populations? The answer has to be yes, as this history is still all too vivid not just in the collective conscience of the Balkan peoples but also in the minds of the intellectuals.

I for one will never forget the time a Serbian writer at a literary festival introduced me to the press as the representative of the victorious camp of the battle of Kosovo. Writers had travelled the globe to Belgrade for our autumn literary festival, which happened to fall on the 600th anniversary of the battle of Kosovo. But this battle, which had become the founding myth of the Serbian nation, had taken place six centuries previously. Not only that, I come from Turkey, which wasn't even in existence then.

By autumn 1989 Milosevic had already managed to rally a million Serbs to exalt their nationalism and, by doing so, justify his aggressive policies. None of us at that time had any inkling of his "ethnic cleansing" plans, which were already in preparation at the very heart of the Academy of Belgrade.

The Turks also celebrate each year, with possibly slightly more enthusiasm, the anniversary of the Istanbul conquest. I was recently the target of the Islamic press for having written that these celebrations of a bloody victory five centuries after the event smacked of "collective pathology" and had nothing at all to do with a "feeling of belonging to a nation".

What really did bowl me over in Belgrade during that autumn of 1989 was not just the sweeping escalation of Serbian nationalism but also the premature death of Damnil Kis, a great Balkan writer and translator. The Union of Serbian writers buried him amidst great pomp according to orthodox rites. But his father was Jewish and he would have called himself a citizen of the world. It took a bloody war in Croatia and another even worse one before I uncovered the meaning and resonance of that funeral ceremony, with its interminable prayers and icons. And I also witnessed the destruction of a city dear to my heart, Sarajevo.

It was when returning from a trip to Mostar during that interminable war that one night I was woken by the telephone. A native Croat friend of mind from Mostar was calling. "You built it; we're coming to destroy it," he told me.

I immediately understood. He was talking of the "vieux", as we called it - the marvellous bridge built by the Ottoman architect Hayreddine, which was like a silver necklace draped across the Neretva river. When Yugoslavia existed, the bridge gave much pleasure to Bosnians, Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox Yugoslavians. To friends.

In his book Le Pont Sur la Drina, Ivo Andric describes so well the place that monuments take in the destiny of men. In spite of time passing, and civilisations succeeding each other, the bridge stays. In the Balkans, bridges don't simply link two banks, they also bring men together. They defy both nature and history. Today I see pictures of human shields on the bridges over the Danube in Belgrade; these people are ready to die to protect not just stones but the symbols of Balkan memory.

Today the Kosovan Albanians are in turn the victims of the Serbian aggression, just like the Bosnian Muslims a few years ago. But these Nato men, great strategists and specialists of the type of war even my own country's airplanes are joining in, are bombarding the civilian population and destroying the bridges. Perhaps they don't realise that by destroying the bridges, they are destroying all hope of dialogue between the Balkan peoples.

The International Parliament of Writers, created by a global network of authors in 1994 has no set stand on the Kosovan war. At the request of its members, however, it is producing a series of articles to give voice to their responses