A LESSON IN COURAGE - A SHORT STORY FROM MY TIME IN BOSNIA

crossing5oceans.com | Published January 20th, 2020 | Last Updated January 20th, 2020

Part One - The Journey


There can be no good that comes from this. I gaze out the window, fearful yet oddly mesmerized by the dark swirling clouds rolling silently over the wings of our plane. How can something so beautiful cause so much anxiety? The turbulence from those dark clouds causes perfect strangers to make prolonged eye contact and I can read their thoughts without them uttering a word.


I am aboard a plane bound for Dubrovnik. Just an hour ago, I was giddy with anticipation for my upcoming adventure to Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro, but that was then. Now, the ominous weather outside my window and the extreme turbulence have changed the mood in the cabin dramatically.


Just then, I hear a slight click followed by an audible crackle over the plane's loudspeaker. Our captain's confident voice breaks the tension as he informs us that we are preparing for our landing in Dubrovnik and it will be bumpy due to high winds in the airspace below. I pause to take in his words and realize I've never been warned about a rough landing before. I also realize, that I'm scared; as irrational as it is, his confident tone is irritating me.

And with that, the speaker clicks off, and we begin our descent. The wings are teetering back and forth from the turbulence, moving the aircraft like a paper bag tossed around in the wind. As the runway comes into view, any image I have ever seen of plane crashes has suddenly entered my mind, and I’m agitated that it forced its way in there.

Just as we're about to touch down on the tarmac, I hear a misplaced roar from the engine. I don't understand why the pilot is giving the plane more power when we're landing, but in a split second it becomes apparent. The plane has changed course and is pointing its nose back toward the sky. I can feel the rattle of the plane's shell as it tries to break through the turbulent wind. The commotion in the cabin from other passengers makes it difficult to convince me that everything is fine.


Our fearless captain comes on the loudspeaker once more, informing us that we will circle above the runway and attempt to land again. When I look over at my neighbour in the next seat, all I can say is, "I'm not ready for round two." It's at this moment that I notice she doesn't look well. I'm not sure what shade of green I am, but I instinctively know our faces have matching hues.

Our second attempt at landing is imminent, and I'm not sure what's worse, being violently tossed around in the clouds or seeing the approaching runway from an angle that defies all laws of physics for a safe landing. I don't have time to decide because the engine's roar, the plane's rattling, and the skyward pointed nose are repeated with almost perfect accuracy. We've headed back into the clouds once again; our second attempt to land was a failure.


Thankfully, the captain has decided that a third try at this time is futile, and we are being diverted to Zagreb, an hour away from our current location. The landing in Zagreb is smooth and fret-free; however, the crew has informed us that we will be unable to disembark from the plane; we will remain on board until we can make a third and final attempt.

So we sit and wait, and then we wait some more. It has now been eight hours on the tarmac. The passengers are not handling the situation well; they want to get to Dubrovnik. But I don't. At this point, I'm not angry, I'm not annoyed, I'm scared; I'm terrified that we are attempting another landing on that runway. I reason with myself that it's been eight hours, the winds have subsided, and the next time will be the same as it's always been. We're told a few moments later to buckle up, we are about to take off.

If only I could write of the plane dancing wistfully on the clouds as it came in for a smooth and predictable landing. Not so. Eight hours meant nothing to the gale force winds aloft the runway in the mountains of Dubrovnik airport. The winds are still so unpredictable that the captain has decided to land in the city of Split. Once there, we'll board a four-hour shuttle ride to Dubrovnik. A wave of relief washes over me; staying on the ground is my routine, and every fearful emotion I have ever had about flying was just realized on flight 731.

As I settle into my seat, I find myself staring out a window once again, this time taking in the beauty of the mountainous peaks as they perfectly frame the white-capped waters of the Adriatic. I close my eyes and take a few calming breaths. Finally, the harrowing flight is over, and I realize that exhaustion is setting in. The original flight from Toronto to Dubrovnik was eleven hours long, and it has now been thirty-two. I've not had adequate sleep, showered, or even arrived at my next destination, and my trip to Bosnia is departing in only six hours.

Without even realizing it, I drift off into a restful sleep for the entire journey to Dubrovnik. As the shuttle pulls into the lot I awake and realize that the nearly four hours of shut-eye seems to have worked wonders for me. After the events of the previous day, I am as refreshed as one can be, and I eagerly join my tour heading to Mostar, Bosnia.


Part Two - The Lesson


When we arrive in Mostar, we meet our guide, Selmir. He is tall, muscular, bald, and incredibly handsome. Yet, for such a strong physique, his voice seems strained as he speaks. I realize that it's probably not in his nature to talk softly, but the content of his words is powerful, and the context is difficult to discuss.


This is Selmir's first year leading tours. It's been eighteen years since the war ended, and he's been unable to speak of what he saw, felt or heard. His voice cracks as he tells us about the sound of gunfire piercing the concrete on the facade of his family home. He sits in fear as bullet after bullet eats away at the walls outside. He experiences this fear for over three years—unrelenting bombs and gunfire rain down on this once pristine town.


In the second year, his grandfather, who has succumbed to the effects of dementia, can no longer stand to be isolated in the house. Without warning, he steps into the yard and is executed on the spot by an active sniper. Selmir's eyes become heavy as he discusses his feelings of guilt. It wasn't his guilt at being a survivor. It was guilt that he didn't save his grandfather. It was guilt that he didn't consider his neighbour's safety when they were under attack. He was a teenager at the time. I imagine what kind of person it takes to feel guilty while fearing for your own life at such a young age. I know right then that this soft-spoken stranger in front of me is a remarkable human being.

We've moved into a small theatre and are watching a film about the devastation this tiny town has endured. You can hear a pin drop, and when the lights come up, and Selmir continues to narrate his ordeal, I notice there isn't a dry eye around me. Both men and women in our group appear to be moved by his sincerity and description of the horrors they endured during the war.

Selmir describes his personal experience of living through the conflict. For three years, Mostar was without running water or electricity. Food was in short supply. Most of the time, the men of the household would go into the woods after dark to hunt for food. Going under the cover of darkness was the only way to avoid being seen by the snipers stationed in nearby buildings.

When we return outside, Selmir takes us to areas of town that have yet to be restored. It’s devastating. Eighteen years on, and the city still bears the scars of war. Pitting can be seen in the facades of many buildings where heavy gunfire has macerated chunks of concrete. As we walk through the streets, Selmir shows us photos of Mostar from the height of the conflict eighteen years ago. By the end of the war in 1995, ninety percent of Mostar had been destroyed. The devastation is unimaginable. While standing in silence, I take in the image of piles of rubble with only a few discernible buildings in the distance.


As we follow on the heels of Selmir, we pause in front of a tiny wooden sign. It's propped up against the wall and resting in a few blades of grass. Its words are simple, but they are powerful. It reads, 'DON'T FORGET.' I push back the lump forming in my throat, and we continue on our way.


To my left, I'm stopped in my tracks by the ruins of a family home. This is a house that has yet to be restored. The roof has been decimated, the walls are crumbling, and the basement, full of rubble, is a harrowing sight from its exposure to the elements. In the midst of the rubble sits a tattered stuffed animal, weathered by both the conflict and the years. It's difficult to look at, yet it's difficult to look away. At my age, I have never experienced war; I have never seen this level of destruction.


Now it is my turn to feel a sense of guilt. Guilt that I even considered not showing up today to meet Selmir and hear his story. I was irrationally annoyed with the captain's voice. I was annoyed that I didn't have a shower. I was annoyed that an eleven-hour flight became thirty-two. Here was my lesson; my lesson in courage was standing in front of me in the form of a muscular, six-foot-tall man. A man brought to tears by the description of his own experience, but brave enough to share his story.

My travels have taught me many things, including how to be stronger, more independent, and more resourceful, but the lesson in humility has become my most valuable. Putting yourself in the situation that others have endured makes you realize that minor annoyances you experience are far removed from what your life could have been. It's only a matter of geography. I could have been in Selmir's shoes or anyone else that has to endure a travesty of this magnitude. But I'm not. I don't have that experience. I only have his words and the aftermath of what I've seen, and that is what I take with me from my trip to Mostar. I take away a lesson in humility, a lesson in patience, and a lesson in courage.

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