I. The town in the valley
The last geraniums of the season tumble down from the hanging baskets which decorate nearly every balcony. Wood has been cut for the winter, and neat piles of oak, birch and pine are stacked with Bavarian style precision by the side of each house.
Across the way a little stream cuts through this neat suburb. Beside it the local kids play in an improvised strip of parkland with a few swings. The stream runs down into the main river which defines this seemingly unremarkable town in a valley surrounded by mountains. Away to the west, the clouds look ever more threatening and just as a dull overcast afternoon slips into evening, light rain begins to fall. That doesn't stop a handful of locals from venturing out to the cafés which line the river bank. Neat little huts serve pizza and coffee. They advertise a beer called Bavaria but today is not a day for beer. The café names throughout the small town are dreams of distant places: Tuscany, Egypt and Riviera. That early evening drizzle settles into heavy rain, so folk go to evening prayers, then turn in early. By nine the streets are deserted. Just the odd truck that pauses at the traffic signals in the main square, headlights glinting in the rain. Red shifts to green, gears crunch and with a throaty growl and a whiff of diesel, the truck moves away. It crosses the river bridge and heads south, taking oil or other provisions to some far flung spot.
Most of the townspeople are awake well before dawn. All around the square, where only yesterday the idle or inquisitive complained about their neighbours, there are now the most fearful sounds. As if of gunshots. Sharp reports from every corner, yellow flashes in the predawn dim, and soon a heavy pall of acrid smoke hangs over the concrete plaza.
The end of Ramadan (the Muslim month of fasting) always comes with a bang in Donji Vakuf, a small town in the Vrbas valley in central Bosnia. Firecrackers set the tone for a day or two of celebrations in a community that is centred on the chunky blue and white mosque in the main square. But there was a time, not so very long ago, when it was not merely firecrackers but mortars and bullets that pummelled Donji Vakuf.