One hundred years ago, in the penultimate year of the First World War, a train journey was undertaken that would change the course of history. Negotiated with the Germans, Lenin took the long way round to Russia from Switzerland, on a sealed carriage with 32 compatriots and family, to foment the Bolshevik revolution. A century later, two recent journeys reflect the state of world affairs. The first was a freight train’s 12,000 kilometre from Beijing to London that follows the old Silk Road route and offers a third option for export besides sea and air. The second, a more troubling symbolic journey, took place in the Balkans. A Serbian train, attempted to enter Kosovo, a country it (and Russia) does not recognise. It was daubed with the message, ‘Kosovo is Serbia’, adorned with the colours of the Serbian flag and Orthodox Christian symbols – the majority of Kosovans are Muslim but the country has no official religion. The train was turned back at the border.
Such a journey shows the continued fragility of the situation in the Balkans since its protracted war in the 1990s. In Katie Griffiths’ poem, A Lack of Minarets, she takes a journalistic eye to describe a particularly iconic moment in the war, that of Mostar and the destruction of its historic bridge. “From a distance something is wrong,/a skyline tampered with, hard edited./As the bus coils down the mountainside/into the basin of Mostar.” The city was a main route for refugees on their way to Split from Sarajevo. “This is the home of the dispossessed,/shunted like marbles from zone/to zone, who pick their way/past commandeered cars/and makeshift kiosks sprouting/at odd corners to replace/shops that once packed the town.” The city has since been rebuilt, which included restoration of the bridge to its original design. It took nearly ten years. Still, as with many wars, the return and rehabilitation of its citizens will take many more years.
What the aborted train journey from Serbia shows, as does the situation in Ukraine, the recent deployment of US troops in Poland, and the uncertain future of NATO with the advent of President Agent Orange of America, is that the Cold War is still alive and kicking harder than it has for almost thirty years.
The daughter of Northern Irish parents, Katie Griffiths grew up in Ottawa, Canada. She returned to the UK for university and later worked at Radio Times, as volunteers’ co-ordinator for refugees of the war in the former Yugoslavia, and as teacher at a further education college. Her collection My Shrink is Pregnant was joint runner-up in the 2014 Poetry School/Pighog Poetry Pamphlet Competition. In 2016 she was chosen with three other poets to be in the first edition of Primers, published by Nine Arches Press. A novel, The Hand-Me-Down Madonna, about the war in the former Yugoslavia, was longlisted in both Mslexia and Cinnamon Press competitions. She’s a member of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen, and of Red Door Poets, and is also singer-songwriter in the band A Woman in Goggles https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCkDU42yNJQVesgAx7r9sxQw under which name she also blogs www.katiegriffiths.com
A Lack of Minarets
From a distance something is wrong,
a skyline tampered with, hard edited.
As the bus drives down the mountainside
into the basin of Mostar,
a dampening of voices gives time
to ponder that what’s awry
is the city’s heart,
charred, glassless and emptied out.
This is the home of the dispossessed,
shunted like marbles from zone
to zone, who pick their way
past commandeered cars
and makeshift kiosks sprouting
at odd corners to replace
shops that once packed the town.
Spring sidles in tentative, unremarked.
Inside my borrowed flat I trip
on the owners’ void, their pictures
and mementoes a dead weight.
Impossible to see through grubby
UNHCR plastic, stretched
to soften the windows’ absence,
whether Serbs lie in wait
up on Mount Hum, lost in snow.
Past curfew, with the moon
a weak salve on dark buildings,
their amputations, their spilling stones,
I walk the former front line
to a rowdy cavern restaurant,
where glasses clink toward the photo
of the now-dead owner diving
close by, off the ancient Stari Most.
I step outside. The old bridge
has been blown to pieces, I know –
in blackness the Neretva snags
on rubble heaped in its way.
But the night is sly, for I’d swear
the arch is still high above me,
a cupped hand about to swipe,
and all the air teetering.
(the poem was originally featured in Primers Volume One, a collaboration between Nine Arches Press and the Poetry School).