Bridge Over Troubled Water, and My “Brexit” after Brexit

Sometime in late September 2015, I was in Mostar, the capital of Herzegovina, as in Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the countries gaining independence from the breakup of Yugoslavia. I had been in Osijek, North East Croatia and Sarajevo, Capital of BiH in my 3-week travelling across the Balkans, and was working my way gradually towards the coast, keen on exploring the lesser-known corners of the region.

Mostar Old Town was compact and easily navigable, as long as it’s not a wet, rainy day, which is seldom the case in the part of Herzegovina with the highest annual mean temperatures in the country. Trinkets and tourists line the narrow and cobbled, vertically-staggered streets, while the Muslim quarters displayed strong ties with its Ottoman Turkish architecture of Oriental arches and columns that wouldn’t look out of place in the Islamic sphere.

Immediately recognisable is Stari Most, the Old Bridge of Mostar, spanning the Neretva River, connecting the Muslim quarters with the Old Town itself. Built in the mid-16th century, it was then the widest stone arch in the world. It was, however, fresh in the living memory of many locals and foreigners alike for reasons much more poignant.

Stari Most and the Old Town

The Old Bridge has been central to Mostar during the Croat-Bosniak War that plagued the country in the early 90s, part of a much wider conflict known as the Bosnian War, between the Croatians, Serbians, and Bosniak Muslims, and which devastated not just Mostar but the entire nation — I’d already had a flavour of the destruction and misery it brought, through the streets in Sarajevo (more about it later); it’s easy to understand but not so much as to comprehend.

It also spelt the total collapse of the original bridge, as shown in the following footage:

Needless to say, it’s a horror to see on screen, and the worst form of sacrilege against civilisation and humanity.

Obviously the bridge, the Old Town, and the Muslim Quarters were all meticulously rebuilt after the War, the original stone lifted from the riverbed and reused as much as possible — the joint EU-World Bank effort to the restoration and recreation of the associated Old Town complex, and the designation of the overall area as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, certainly contributed to the rejuvenation of the area as a tourist attraction, and a point of historic and architectural significance; however, the scars remain in the hearts of the people and the soil of the nation, and for those who are fortunate enough to survive the turmoil it will never be erased.

Quite why the bridge was destroyed is still open to debate, theories range from military tactics to cut off supplies, to a faked terrorist attempt to sway the international stance. Everyone loves a conspiracy, though that’s probably missing the point.

The reasons that led to such crimes against humanity were manifold, yet the true devil lies in the ideology of intolerance, of extremism, and of prejudice and discrimination; stemming from the innate biological and psychological construct of man. The survival instinct in humans means that there is always a tendency to create in-groups among individuals, to identify the out-group and see it as the enemy, and to fight over the often scarce resources such as food and water, all for the sake of basic survival. As such, the categorisation is arbitrary and could change according to the fluctuations in resources, population dynamics, and other external pressures, the criteria to distinguish between the in- and out-groups are never set in stone — from colour to religion to locality, the line in the sand could be, and might be, redrawn at whim.

Ethnic composition of BiH before the Bosnian War. The ethnic / religious groups are all interwoven, with no clear dominant category. Such is due to the complex history of the region, where the area is first divided (very generally) between Roman Catholic (West) and Greek Orthodox (East), then due to the rise of the Ottoman Turks further divided into Bosniak Muslims in the mountains, and other minority groups. Of course this is extremely coarse and many areas actually have significant overlapping.

This is hard-wired in the unconscious of every human being, and one must adapt to managing these powers that are against the core values, the well-being of the wider human race, should we expect to live as world citizens, as part of a wider global civilization in this postmodern era.

Observing the Brexit situation unfolding during my last days as a “migrant worker” in UK, it was not difficult to see an eerily similar pattern in the midst of all the social, economic, and even personal issues that many in society are facing — to blindly label and apportion the blame on a particular group in society, be it Bosniaks in the CB War, new immigrants during the Brexit campaign, or Black Africans in US, simply based on the default attributes of race, ethnicity, nationality, skin colour among others. Such is devoid of any logic, incomprehensible to the sound mind — individual behavior could not be directly generalised to represent the whole group, and abused as a filtering system. It’s just plain common sense.

The whole narrative of threats posed by new immigrants in UK are not just overblown, but are carefully concocted by the Leave campaigners to distort and misrepresent the hard facts and figures. The UK contribution in terms of funding to the EU has been posted as an independent and isolated entity, but has it been comprehensively compared with that of education, healthcare, and military expenditure? The welfare system is under too much strain and should be reviewed to exclude newcomers and internationals, but are we to say that in all fairness we should allow only locals to benefit from the safety net? Immigrants might pose a significant threat to national security, but aren’t the late terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels mostly by locals who happened to support extremist views and movements?

Those who voted leave are merely seeking the most convenient scapegoat to vent their anger and frustration on; it’s a selfish display of protectionism disguised as a noble, valiant expression of nationalism, a complete rejection of multiculturalism, diversity, and the universal values that the human race hold dear; it is, in essence, saying no to the greatest legacy of civilisation.

The reconstructed Old Bridge, officially opened by Prince Charles in 2004, remains a stark, but certainly not the only, reminder of the calamities when man fails to address and respond appropriately for the greater good, in respect of these universal values that clearly define civilisation, society, and mankind.