The abysses behind the façades of eastern Bosnia
Author: Martin Woker, Visegrad
Uploaded: Monday, 21 July, 2008
A moving report translated from 'Neue Zürcher Zeitung' (Zurich) outlines the problems faced by those who would like to market the Bridge over the Drina in the small town of Visegrad in eastern Bosnia. The Visegrad authorities are hoping for a boost from the fact that the bridge has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But the town is a place still burdened by the terrible crimes committed there in the recent war.
Sometimes a paint-job renovation can really work wonders. Thus, for instance, in the shady garden of the Hotel Visegrad in the small town of the same name in eastern Bosnia. The furniture has been freshly painted and the façade of the inn also glows in new colours. The tables are well occupied at lunchtime today, mainly by locals, as one can tell from the licence plates of the cars in the parking lot. Five years ago the place still looked completely run-down and was hardly frequented by visitors. Its garden restaurant is located next to the eastern end of the stone bridge, which was built 420 years ago to make a difficult and dangerous river-crossing easier on the highway leading from Sarajevo to Istanbul. This spring, UNESCO's secretary-general, Koichiro Matsuura, visited and bestowed a certificate on the bridge, which had been inscribed on the World Heritage List the previous year. Since that time, Bosnia-Herzegovina is now represented by two sites on UNESCO's list: the bridge over the Neretva in Mostar, and the one over the Drina in Visegrad.
A stage for three and a half centuries
Unlike the bridge in Mostar, which was completely destroyed in the recent war and became a much-photographed object once again only after being rebuilt four years ago, the Bridge of Mehmed Pasha Sokolovic in Visegrad is at least in part an original structure that bears witness to ‘the cultural exchanges between the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire and the Mediterranean world, between Christianity and Islam, through the long course of history,’ in UNESCO's formulation. What is understood by such cultural exchanges was described by the author (and
diplomat) Ivo Andric, who grew up in Visegrad living with his aunt and died in 1975, in his most famous work, The Bridge on the Drina. The novel was part of his Bosnian trilogy, which earned him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1961. Andric's works were required reading in the schools of the former Yugoslavia.
‘The bridge is about two hundred and fifty paces long and about ten paces wide save in the middle where it widens out into two completely equal terraces placed symmetrically on either side of the roadway and making it twice its normal width. This was the part of the bridge known as the kapija, the gate. Two buttresses had been built there on each side of the central pier which had been splayed out towards the top, so that to right and left of the roadway there were two terraces daringly and harmoniously projecting outwards from the straight line of the bridge over the noisy green waters far below. ... That on the right as one came from the town was called the sofa. It was raised by two steps and bordered by benches for which the parapet served as a back steps, benches and parapet were all made of the same shining stone. That on the left, opposite the sofa, was similar but without benches. ... On this part of the terrace a coffee-maker had installed himself with his copper vessels and Turkish cups and ever-lighted charcoal brazier, and an apprentice who took the coffee over the way to the guests on the sofa. Such was the kapija.’
In the 400 pages that follow, the kapija to a certain extent forms the stage for a lively tableau, extending over three and a half centuries, of life in Andric's home town and of its Muslim, Christian and Jewish inhabitants. For a long time the bridge freed Visegrad from its geographically marginal position and brought travellers from all the world to the little town. The aim of the present local authorities is to find a way to latch on to this tradition. Opposite the hotel stands a new pavilion, recently built and still closed and empty but already marked as a tourist information centre. Right around the corner, built in a daring Yugo-modernist style, is the tall Robna kuca. That is what almost all department stores were called in the former Yugoslavia. In Visegrad, where the sparse traffic makes pedestrian zones unnecessary, this relic of a vanished era has not only survived but, it appears, it has even gotten a new paint job. Nevertheless, this Visegrad is hardly a boom town, but thanks to the bridge that is supposed to change soon.
At least that's how the future looks to Milan Milicevic, the town's current mayor and a member of the Serbian Democratic Party, founded by Radovan Karadzic. The chain-smoking town father first presents the visitor with an English edition of Andric's novel, autographed by the mayor himself. Then he lays out his bold plans, which are to culminate in a close partnership with the
city of Mostar and are to include a project to rebuild a narrow-gauge railroad that was abandoned in the 1970s. All that is to be for the enjoyment of future hordes of tourists, who can come here to admire a newly re-established Orthodox monastery and, of course, the bridge, which is to be artfully restored in the near future by a Turkish firm, at a cost of 3 million euros.
At present, says Milicevic, most of the visitors come from Serbia or from the Republika Srpska, as the entity created during the recent war calls itself. But the first Japanese and Germans have already been sighted. An upswing in tourism is expected, he says. But where in Visegrad are all these foreign visitors supposed to stay overnight? Those coming from the Dalmatian coast could not possibly do the excursion as a day-trip. No problem, says the mayor. In the town and its vicinity there are three hotels with more than 400 beds.
One of these stands in a lonesome, wooded side-valley a bit further downstream and is part of a spa resort called Vilina Vlas. On the steps leading into the barely 30-year-old building (also built in the unmistakable Yugo-style) two cigarette-smoking gentlemen are standing, one of them with crutches. They are here to take the cure in the healing waters of the hot springs, which contain radioactive elements. The hotel is still awaiting privatization. The city administration, its present owner, has had some of the walls freshly painted, which however has not really improved matters. Seven cars and a tour bus (with Serbian licence plates) stand in the parking lot. Most of the 160 beds are not taken, despite the moderate price charged for room and board. Unthinking visitors from rich Europe might possibly appreciate the down-at-the-heels exoticism of the place. Unless they thought first to enter its name into an internet search engine.
Whoever does that will encounter abysses of human perversion that would shake even the most blunted sensibilities. Those who come across the research of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network [BIRN] concerning the events of April 1992 in Vilina Vlas will find themselves transported into a wartime reality that could not be more terrible or more repulsive. The hotel served as the headquarters for the Serb militia in Visegrad during that period, while they were carrying out the so-called ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the area. At the same time it also served as a provisional prison for abducted Muslim civilians, mainly women and girls who were systematically raped in the hotel rooms. There are credible witness testimonies of the most severely abused female captives, who saved themselves from their tormentors by leaping across the balcony railings and committing suicide. The principal perpetrator and leader of the militia was a man born in the region, 25 years old at the time, by the name of Milan Lukic, who in the early spring of 1992, when fighting first broke out in the Drina valley, left his place of residence in Zurich in order to turn the idea of a Greater Serbia, promoted by figures such as Vojislav Seselj and other war criminals, into a reality in his homeland.
What was required to achieve this aim was the expulsion of all non-Serbs from Visegrad and its surroundings. In the 1991 census, 62 percent of the slightly more than 21,000 inhabitants had identified themselves as Bosniaks (Muslims), while only half as many were Serbs. Thus, just as in other regions of Bosnia affected by ‘ethnic cleansing,’ terror was employed as the principal method of driving out the Muslim majority population in Visegrad. The indictment issued against Milan Lukic by the UN tribunal in The Hague lists a series of executions and murders of Muslim civilians. Women, men, old people and children died locked inside houses which were set on fire by Lukic's militiamen. Rapes, however, are not mentioned in the indictment.
Bakira Hasecic, president of the association ‘Women Victims of War in Bosnia and Herzegovina,’ has bitter things to say about this fact. She herself comes from Visegrad, a survivor of rapes and other abuse along with her two underage daughters, and she is sure that she would always recognize Milan Lukic again, since he is missing an index finger. The event that prompted the founding of the association was a one-day organized return of Muslim women to Visegrad to visit their destroyed homes. What caused most indignation during the visit, says Hasecic, was that she and the other women recognized three of their former tormentors, although the men were now wearing the uniforms of the regular police of the Republika Srpska. The three later may well have been brought before a court. But the shock the women suffered finally prompted them to establish the association. Prior to that, the subject of rapes had been treated as strictly taboo in Bosnia. ‘It was very difficult for us to admit it publicly,’ says Hasecic, ‘we had to lay bare our souls to do it.’
That conversation took place two years ago, on the occasion of a showing of the award-winning Bosnian film Grbavica, which is based on the theme of a girl born as a result of a wartime rape and her relationship with her mother. At the time, Hasecic and other women victims from Visegrad could not understand why Milan Lukic, who was arrested in Argentina in the summer of 2005, was not charged also with rape, even though there was more than enough judicially relevant evidence for it. According to a report by BIRN, the prosecutors in The Hague have recently asked the court to expand Lukic's indictment to include charges of rape, torture and abuse of prisoners. The acceptance of this request by the court would mean a partial success for the association of women victims: a result of their tirelessly maintained public pressure.
Function as a meeting place lost
Their insistence on reminding the public of the countless atrocities which took place only 16 years ago, and which for the most part have not led to prosecutions of those responsible, necessarily brought Hasecic and other victims of the war into the foreground of UNESCO's festive certification of the bridge. On the bridge they placed a memorial tablet (which has long since been removed again), and they read out a list of the names of all the victims of the war from the Visegrad region: 3,000 according to their count, while other sources speak of between 1,200 and 1,500 dead. In any case, Visegrad is no longer the town described by Andric. Only a very small number of the expelled Bosniaks have returned to their rebuilt houses. Their exact number is unknown. The ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the region has been accomplished; what remains is a town robbed of its Balkan multiculturalism and thereby deprived of its richness.
On the day after the murder of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Franz Ferdinand, on 28 June 1914, writes Andric, an official announcement was posted on the kapija: ‘... printed in fat letters and framed with a broad black border. It announced to the people the news of the assassination of the crown prince in Sarajevo, and expressed outrage over this misdeed. But not one among those who passed in front of the announcement stopped to read it, but all passed by the poster and by the guard posted there with their heads lowered, walking as fast as they could.’
As of three months ago, a plaque placed at the end of the bridge announces its world-wide significance as a heritage site. The inscription arouses the interest of very few tourists who have come to visit the bridge on this early summer day. The locals who would pass it with their heads bowed are not to be seen. The historic structure has lost its function as a meeting place. The last time that the kapija served as a stage, for the time being, was during the summer of 1992. It was a stage for the murder of innocents, whose bodies disappeared into the Drina. But there is neither a novel nor an inscription to bear witness to that. And it is also not mentioned in the new tourist guidebooks that are gradually starting to appear again in Bosnia. Could it be that the paint-job renovation has achieved the effect it aimed for? Let us hope not.
Translated by András Riedlmayer from Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 11 July 2008. Martin Voker is the newspaper’s South-East Europe correspondent