It was during this part of the trip that I finally came to understand why this country maintains such an awkward-sounding name. I mean, why can't we all just agree to call it Bosnia? Certainly easier to say and spell. Leaves plenty of space on official forms, too.
It isn't just that there used to be a place known as Herzegovina at some point in the convulted history of monarchies and conquests that define the Balkans. There's a distinct place called Herzegovina right now that really is like a country within a country.
It starts with the climate. As we drove our "space bus" through the mountains of the Bosnia part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the jagged peaks were very green, lush and tree-topped. A verdant river snaked through the valleys. Fog huddled in the low areas as the morning sun rose. It felt a whole lot like driving along a county road through the pretty parts of Tennessee or West Virginia. Then there were some tunnels. And then, on the other side of the mountain range, the land utterly changed. It was like being teleported to Arizona or New Mexico. The terrain began to flatten out and open up. More distant, rocky ridge lines were spackled with scrub brush instead of being carpeted with trees. The air was dry. The sun was hot.
Then war came. During the Bosnian conflict, combatants made a partly strategic and far more symbolic battle out of destroying this bridge. They succeeded. And they got it on tape. Visitors can watch the surprisingly depressing video right there next to the bridge. There was a level of spite to the effort. Previous shelling had rendered the bridge utterly impassable. All that was left were a few twisted and shattered strands of metal-laced stone connecting the two sides. No "army" vehicle or soldier could possibly pass. But that wasn't enough, was it? The fighters devoted several more rockets to the task of finishing the job. And sure enough, you get to watch the final stones fall into the river below. Separation had been achieved. In dust and blood.
And yet, here we were, standing by a new "old" bridge, walking on ancient cobblestones, standing among ancient stone-roofed buildings. How could this be? Well, it was a restoration effort of significant scale. The government of Turkey put up millions to restore this Ottoman icon. And they did it right. They sent divers into the river to pull out the old rocks. Then they used traditional methods, including the poured lead, to rebuild the bridge and the surrounding towers and buildings stone by stone. The reconstruction also is shown on the video. Its completion was hailed as a symbol of recovery, reconnection and peace. It was quite a celebration. Exciting to see, even several years after the fact.
This symbolism wasn't lost upon Dr. Azizkhan, the pediatric surgeon who has devoted 15 years to helping rebuilding the health care system in Bosnia. He actually saw Mostar in ruins when he first visited the country in 1996. It meant something to him to walk across that rebuilt bridge. It meant even more to the people who lived through those times.
The importance of that bridge was why he selected Mostar to be the location of the very first post-war conference involving the pediatric specialists of the former Yugoslavia. These were people who had trained together, who had developed deep personal friendships and robust professional relationships. Yet thanks to war, it had been years since some of these people had seen each other. It was a conference that was about much more than medical science.
Dr. Azizkhan was helping them rebuild bridges.
For me, it was an honor to see this place.