Return to Mostar: Healing the wounds of war with music

Julie Etchingham returns to Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina 20 years on. Credit: ITV On Assignment

When confronted by news of war and tragedy, the images which often have the most impact are those of the children. A young boy fleeing Aleppo; a starving girl in Somaliland - the baby a mother is trying to save in Yemen.

But after the cameras leave, if these children are fortunate to survive - it’s rare to get a glimpse into how life eventually unfolds for them - or to find out how the trauma shaped them.

This time 20 years ago, working on the BBC’s Newsround programme, I was filming in the Bosnian city of Mostar, where the dust was settling on the bloodiest conflict since the end of the Second World War.

As we often did - we were telling a challenging story though the eyes of children - reporting on a unique project to help those traumatised by the conflict and to help heal the ethnic divisions: a music centre, established by the British charity War Child and backed by Luciano Pavarotti.

Thousands were killed and hundreds were displaced in routs of ethnic cleansing. Credit: ITV On Assignment

On our first trip there, Mostar was barely getting back to its feet. Its world-famous bridge across the Neretva which has stood since the 16th Century had been blasted away in the fighting. Thousands had been killed: hundreds displaced in vicious routs of ethnic cleansing.

We found children playing in the rubble of bombed out homes, bravely trying to carve out a few moments of joy. They recounted terrible tales of what they’d been through: fleeing their homes in darkness and under fire; living in basements to escape the shelling - and in the freezing rain, one girl showed us the crater left by the mortar which had killed her father.

The Music Centre gave them a safe space to make noise, to re-discover joy - and for the most traumatised, a place to begin to articulate their feelings.

Now - 20 years on, as the Pavarotti Music Centre gets ready to celebrate its anniversary - I got the chance to meet these children again. Astonishingly, the centre tracked down nearly all those we’d filmed with all those years ago.

In our original film there is an endearing image of two little girls sharing a piano stool. Now grown women - Nina and Mirna are teachers at the music centre themselves; a lifelong friendship forged through music in the embers of war. But speak of the war itself, and of those they lost - and the tears come quickly, the memories still raw.

Amir - who’d also joined classes at the centre - became an artist - as he sits sketching in the countryside, he speaks hauntingly of the loss of his father; and the strength he has found through art to cope. And Jasmina - who invites us to her wedding - tells us the music centre gave Mostar’s young people a chance to argue about ordinary things - tastes in pop, fashion, a “big happy creative family” she calls it.

Returning to Mostar brought back many memories for Julie. Credit: ITV On Assignment

It was a moving experience to return, not least as I now have children around the same age as those we filmed with all those years ago. It brought back many memories too, of working for BBC Newsround.

In a tradition it upholds to this day - it never shied away from difficult or distressing stories. In my time there we covered not only the aftermath of the Bosnian War, but the final and sometimes bloody years of the Northern Ireland peace process; the death of Diana - and perhaps the biggest challenge of all - the Dunblane school massacre. But they were stories covered with enormous care and responsibility; providing the facts, but also reassurance.

Julie and Merset recreate their first meeting 20 years ago. Credit: Julie Etchingham

Visit the programme’s website now and it has a dedicated section giving support and advice for young people upset by the news. Along with publications like "First News" also aimed at children, it provides, in my view, an absolutely vital service in helping parents and children navigate and explain an increasingly turbulent world - and is a jewel in the BBC crown.

In Mostar it was wonderful to see how the music centre had shaped lives for the better. But beyond its walls lies a different story. Mostar is still a deeply divided city with an uneasy peace between the Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats: two water companies, two telecoms companies - the new generation of children attend the same schools, but in different shifts. Its ancient bridge may have been re-built, but its symbolism masks some difficult truths on the ground.

The Music Centre continues to stand proud as a practical, joyous solution to the problems the politicians have failed to tackle. And as for the generation who’ve passed through its corridors carrying the collective memory of war - they are, quite simply, Mostar’s best and brightest beacons of hope.