Finding solace in apiaries since Bosnia’s war and the troubled peace.
Note: This is the first of a two-part publication about beekeeping, conflict, and the environment. The second part can be read here.
Is there a cure for violent memories? Is there a remedy for genocidal warmongering? It turns out there is. And it is sweet.
Since the war of the 1990s, Bosnian Muslims have turned to honeybees, broadening the traditional Islamic meaning of honey as a revered medicine.
“I used to wake up in the middle of the night and brood over it into the dawn,” Ahmed, a lean man in his late 40s with a sly sense of humour, tells me. The wind-polished stone that kilts together the ancient town of Stolac is aglow with the Mediterranean sun, but the cypress shadows are growing longer. The scent of sage and fig leaves, deep with raspy notes, saturates the afternoon. It is the summer of 2017, our first meeting.
“Nowadays, if I wake up at night at all,” Ahmed carries on with a wink to the anthropologist, “I think of bees.”
What kept Ahmed awake was the memory of the days spent in detention in a nearby clinic, which HVO, the Bosnian Croat Army, converted into a concentration camp for the resident Muslims in 1992.
The garish facility still stands tall and padlocked at the old town’s edge. Genocidal denial, which props up the post-war politics and staffs the local government with war criminals, has kept the “Koštana clinic” as a spectral remnant. Neither a ruin nor a proper war monument, it teaches what a history of silence on war crimes forebodes for the future of a multiethnic peace: a haunting, or worse.
When Ahmed, young and full of wanderlust, announced his plans to keep honeybees at a festive event that gathered his extended family together in the early 90s, his cousin’s wife blurted out: “For God’s sake, don’t let him do it! He’ll spend all your money on bees!” This wife of a beekeeper spoke her mind, but Ahmed was undeterred. Then the war broke out.
Only years later did Ahmed pick up the honeybees. Detention and combat experience behind him, he returned to his home town of Stolac, its Ottoman cultural history ravaged. The local economy was worse off still. Beekeeping, a cherished practice in Bosnian culture, grew in appeal as a way to start afresh in an unpromising place.
The beginnings of Ahmed’s beekeeping tell a common story across Bosnia. Many drew close to the bees during or just after the war. The beekeepers’ womenfolk admit that starting apiaries in the war or in post-war economies, with the last of families’ savings, struck them as reckless.
But on their break from frontlines, tight-lipped, heavily smoking, emaciated men busied themselves building bee boxes, expanding honeybee societies, or quietly watching the hives immersed in life-making. Their military uniforms drying on clotheslines, the novice beekeepers seemed happy. The wives, mothers, and girlfriends did their best not to complain. In expectation of their dears’ homecoming, they donned upcycled 80s fashion, made up tasty meals from virtually nothing, and were poised, ready to compete with bees for their fellows’ attention.
Besides, secretly, the apiarists’ womenfolk fell for the bees. Tending to the hives while men were away, they laid in wait for the swarms and chased after the runaways. They learned to decipher the hives’ sounds, track the foragers to the blooming plants, and catch that special, mid-day shimmer at the hive entrances, when bees’ wings beat vigorously to send in currents of air.
What comes out from the nocturnal depths of the comb are whiffs of fresh honey being ventilated. The war blasted all firm future plans, but the wartime apiaries anchored a lively sense of near promises. Each season boldly foretold the next. The bees’ droning primed anxious minds for more peaceful meditations. The men will come home again. Inshallah. Honey may flow. In those war years, people remember, honey flowed like never before.
Honey has long been praised as medicine in Bosnia. Beekeepers cite the Quranic verses that describe bees as divinely inspired and the substance that comes from their bellies as “healing for humankind” as well as a sign for those “who reflect.” They retell a ḥadīth attributed to the Prophet of Islam: “Your remedies are two, honey and the Quran.”
Internationally, much effort has gone into grounding traditional claims about honey into scientific evidence. At ground level, however, the efficacy that counts is confirmed by experience.
Honey dressed war wounds and eased stomach pains, not least caused by bacterial infections contracted from untreated water and unrefrigerated food. In field hospitals, honey donated by beekeepers was the choice fluid for intravenous feeding. At home, honey supplemented meagre diets.
But the remedial qualities of honey that the local beekeeping suggests, go far beyond health and diet.
Ahmed introduced me to other Stolac beekeepers, warmly recommending two cousins who are Bosnian Orthodox Serbs. The older, Srećko, was, at the time, the president of the apicultural association, which seemed about the only place in town to foster spontaneous multiethnic interactions. The association offered beekeeping lessons, free of charge. Initially, I am told, honey is the draw but, Srećko laughs knowingly: “Before they know it, they are hooked on bees.”
If honey draws people in, the bees take them into wider environments. The breathtaking red clay valley outside Stolac nurtures blooming flora. The war left landmines, spent bullet cases, devastated villages, and everywhere, signs of human abandonment.
What seems like a wasteland is the beekeepers’ heaven. Rose-lipped sage flowers offer nectar with deep herbal notes. Yellow florets of Jerusalem thorn yield brisk tasting honey. The native shrubbery and evergreens are known to flow with the grainy texture of “honeydew.”
Bees also broaden a perspective. Like many beekeepers, Ahmed travels cross-country with his bees in search of forage, across places similarly war-torn and rewilding. “Honey’s on the wheels,” the apiarists tell me.
Or so it used to be. The changing climate is rapidly altering local ecologies. The emergent ecological disaster is invisible to most and entirely sidelined by the quotidian politics brewing ethno-national conflict. The beekeepers, however, are baffled and worried. “This is worse than war,” some have told me.
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