“My survival alone was a miracle.”
Diagnosed in 2002 with a life threatening head and neck cancer, Liam Ryan’s doctors told him he should have never survived. Beating all the odds, today Liam wears an eye-patch as his only reminder.
According to Liam, his book was written by somebody ordinary, to encourage and inspire every cancer patient who will come after him. This is the sixth of nine articles in a series that covers his final chapter, Closure.
The Balkans must be the biggest bottleneck in the history of the world. Just about every civilisation since time began has passed through here at some stage. The Goths and the Huns, the Greeks, the Romans, the Turks, the Arabs, the Germans, the Allies and the Russians have all stamped their footprint on this part of the planet. The modern day uncomfortable bedfellows are the Christians and Muslims. Having escaped beyond the sheltered boundaries of Medjugorje we were now receiving a virtual history lesson. And it was right on our doorstep. We had steered our train out of a sleepy siding, only to discover the biggest train station in the history of the world was just down the line.
The legacy of all of those uninvited occupiers was that the country formerly known as Yugoslavia, that Tito had managed to gag with an iron fist for so long, had now shattered into seven distinctive regions. What used to be Yugoslavia is now Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Herzegovina and Montenegro. The differentials however don’t even stop there. Further cross pollenization between the various sub-divisions has given us Bosnian Serbs, Serb Croats and Bosnian Croats. This is an impossible part of the world to get a handle on!
Mostar, both during and after the war, became an internationally recognised symbol of the two extremes of Balkan diversification. Geographically the town has always been split by the beautiful 16th century Stari Most bridge. It spanned the river Neretva in the very centre of the town. The bridge was destroyed in 1993 as a clear message by the Croats that nothing was sacred in the bitter war between the two religious divides. The river, once a vein through the heart of the town suddenly became a chasm. It transformed into the breach across which the Christians, on the west bank, were pitted against the Muslims, on the east. When the war eventually ended the bridge was rebuilt in 2004. It was beautifully re-constructed as an exact replica of the original and became a worldwide symbol of how unification can prevail, no matter how bitter the division..
The new future of Mostar would start with a return to the past. It would begin with the rebuilding of a bridge that was five hundred years old. That bridge would restore a Mostar where Christians and Muslims where able to live and work again, side by side. To secure its future Mostar first had to reinstate the beautiful market town that it was in the past. Only then would it once again be famed for its graceful bridge and lively, narrow streets rather than bombs, bullets and butchery.
This unexpected visit had now become a inherent part of our pilgrimage. Our detour to Mostar showed us that religion in this world can cause as many problems as it may solve. Our visit to this once desecrated town, just down the road, taught us that when you are sitting in the sun it is always raining somewhere not far away.
Mostar, in its own way, was more inspirational than Medjugorje. It was teaching us that no matter how long it rains, the sun will always be there to shine. On that day, in the middle of one of the most memorable weeks of my life, I had a humbling awareness of how delicate this world can be. We are never far from either devastation or exhilaration. The lines are very fine.
The outskirts of Mostar have remained largely unchanged since the war. We drove through eerie streets of abandoned high rise, skeletal buildings. They have stood still in time since the day the shells stopped raining down. These buildings, by their stark presence on a barren urban landscape, have become monuments to the horror of what war is. They have become symbols of the destruction that one man can do to another when he chooses to. We all drove by in silence. We just stared at the bullet ridden concrete and shattered glass. It was as if we were put under some kind of macabre spell by these deathly still structures. Your introduction to Mostar starts with the past. A past that no civilisation could be proud of.
We eventually emerged from the desolation to find the new Mostar. We had reached the vibrant, narrow streets that led to the Stari Most. All of these were filled with locals and tourists alike, all busy doing nothing of importance. Some were buying trinkets, others merely browsing from stall to stall. Every restaurant balcony was filled with smiling, happy customers. As we looked along the street they all looked like colourful human window boxes. Everybody was talking, drinking coffee, enjoying this moment of their lives. Everybody seemed happy.
Inspiration surrounds us everywhere. Mostar is the proof of that. It demonstrates that this world is for everyone and there is very little difference between us all. When we get it right, there is no better place to be.
We all walked across the bridge together. It was beautiful. It had been rebuilt in precise detail and restored to its former glory. It was a special moment. Medjugorje had been inspirational but this simple structure was a monumental symbol that hope is never lost.
Stay tuned as we continue Liam’s story …
Reprinted with permission of the author.